Ask Me Anything: Notes from my Reddit AMA, Part 4

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This is the final article in my “Best of” Reddit AMA series. Lots more goodness follows…

On being asked how to communicate your desire for a particular look with a DP:

Traditionally you share films and images that you like with your DP and tell them what you like about them, and they try to share what they like, and you work to come to some sort of style agreement. The images have to be pretty relevant, though–I once got some mood boards and one of the style images was a jellyfish. I still have no idea what that was about as we were shooting a short film about a dog.

I’ve mentioned this show a couple of times in this thread as I’m so impressed by it overall, but Carnivale’s style was obviously inspired by Depression-era dustbowl photography. They did it brilliantly. You always have the feel that you’re out in the middle of nowhere, even though they shot it all just north of LA.

On making the transition from one crew position to another:

There’s always a work lag from one position to another. Often you have to start over again because the people you worked with in one position have you stuck in their minds as that one thing and won’t hire you for anything else. Prepare for an income hit.

There are people who will give you chances–for example, let you pull focus on an additional camera when you’re a second assistant and see how you do–and if you perform well they will give you more chances. This is the union method where someone else decides when you’re ready to move up. This can be more reliable as their endorsement can lead to more work from people they know. I never did it this way; I always moved myself up. (I was very impatient.)

I definitely practiced before making the transition, but once you make the transition you can’t go back. For example, once I decided I was a first assistant I stopped taking most second assistant jobs. (I did take one long feature as a 2nd after making this decision because it brought in a lot of money but I was miserable.) If you continue working in your old position and people find out about it they won’t take you seriously.

On the best way to get higher-end work as a DP:

The best way to get higher-end work is to show it. When I want to move up I find a good director, pool our resources and do a spec spot that shows what we can really do.

I’d start shopping around for directors who want to step up their game and look like they have some talent. Don’t expect them to bring you with them if they become successful because that doesn’t often happen: most times they opt for the “professional” crew that costs more money as soon as they have it to spend, mostly because they are insecure shits who don’t appreciate the work others have done to get them to where they are. (I’m NOT bitter about this, not at all. :) ) I’ve worked with probably a dozen directors trying to advance my career and I’ve gotten some good spec spots out of them by working for free, but for various reasons only one has turned out to be spectacularly loyal. Some have left the business, some were able to do one or two decent spots but couldn’t manage more than that, some took advantage of me to the point where I bowed out… and there’s one who calls me for every paid and unpaid job he does and I work with him on both types because I always know I’ll get something cool to show out of it, plus he’s just a really decent guy (and now a friend).

Don’t do free jobs unless you have a good chance of walking away with footage you can use to advance your career. Otherwise you’re wasting your time and giving away your talents.

Your talents are all you have to sell, so don’t sell cheap if you don’t have to!

Someone asked (1) When did I know that I wanted to be a DP? (2) What advice can I offer to someone working with a director for the first time? (3) Which DPs have the greatest influence on my work? (4) What gear would I recommend purchasing upon graduating from University?

(1) I knew at the age of 12 that I wanted to look through cameras. I wanted to be an operator for quite a long time, but then I learned that operators were dying out in Hollywood (producers hate paying for them even though they are worth their weight in gold in features and TV). Also, in the U.S., the DP sets the shots–most of the shows that captivated me as an early teen were shot in the UK where the operator often worked directly with the director to find angles and set frames, and the coverage and camerawork tended to be really, really interesting compared to what I saw on US TV at the time.

In particular, the original series of The Prisoner had amazingly rich cinematography and editing, and I knew I wanted to make pictures that worked together like that.

(2) Find ways to get crucial information out of the director, even if they don’t know how to communicate that crucial information to you. Also, make sure you stick up for what you believe is tasteful work. You have to give and take in a relationship with a director, but if you’re not happy with what they’re having you do you need to speak up, shut up, or leave. Too many directors think they are the only voice that matters on a set, and if they knew your job as well as you did and had nothing else to do then maybe that would be the case… but as director they have lots of more important things to do than micromanage you. They need to tell you what look they want, guide you in the right direction, but also let you do what you do best that you can do better than they can.

(3) It’s a long list. Brendan Stafford shot The Prisoner with Jack Lowin operating, so those guys are probably my earliest influences. (They also shot most all of the Secret Agent/Danger Man series, I found out later.) Gerry Fisher also had a very, very, very distinctive style that I couldn’t help noticing. My early influences were mostly British DPs because their style was so different from what I saw in the US that I really noticed it. The US styles were a bit less stylized, at least compositionally, so it took me longer to warm to them.

I had a long list of DPs that I watched as a teen and in my 20s, and I can’t remember them all now. I do know that I used to be able to spot a specific DP’s work and name them within about a minute of watching their work. I could flip around the TV and name the DPs of just about every movie that was running at the time. (There were many fewer channels then.) I could also identify nationalities: British, Australian, French, German, etc. all based on compositional and lighting styles. Most of those styles have blended now to the point where I have a harder time spotting nationalities as easily now. The exception tends to be northern Europe; a lot of Danish and Dutch DPs seem to be coming to the US and they have a very distinctive soft, low contrast yet striking style that I really, really like. (A great example of this is the first 11 episodes of House of Cards. An American DP took over the last few episodes and the subtlety of this look was largely lost, which was interesting.)

Some other older DPs who influenced me were Conrad Hall, Geoffrey Unsworth, Dean Cundey and Peter Suschitzky. (That’s a pretty diverse list!)

(4) Not sure what gear you’d buy… depends on what you want to do. I’m not used to thinking that way as I’ve never owned gear other than meters and filters. Not sure I’d buy a camera now as they change so fast it’s hard to make your money back before the next thing comes along. Also I’m a big advocate of working with others when you first start out–no need to re-invent the wheel when you can learn so much from someone else’s wheel before designing yours.

On being asked for words of wisdom for aspiring filmmakers:

Understand that it’s a group effort, and take advantage of that. Hire people who know how to do their jobs way better than you know how to do their jobs, tell them exactly what you want, give them permission to make it even better, and turn them loose. You’ll all be happy.

The director doesn’t have to have all the ideas. They just have to select the right ones from all the amazing ideas that come their way.

On being asked what a gaffer or grip can do to make my job easier:

Work with me and not against me. :) I’ve seen gaffers with their own ideas about how to light shots listen to what I want and then do it their way. Not good.

At the same time I do appreciate input. I came up through camera, so although I have a really good eye for lighting I don’t know all the intricacies of what lights are best for what. I’ll often tell my gaffer, “Here’s what I want and here’s how I think it’ll work.” They’ll say, “Yeah, that’s a good idea” or “Here’s another way I can do it that will give you more control and it’ll take half the time.” I love that. Plus it keeps you guys engaged: if I tell you how to do everything then you just become trained monkeys. I’d rather tell you what I want and have you implement it faster and better than I thought it could be done.

I want a director to leave me a fair amount of creativity in how I perform my craft, and it seems like a good idea to pass that down to those that work for me.

The best thing is to learn what I like and come to see those details so I can tell you what I want and you can get it 90% or more toward what I want while I deal with other stuff. Also, don’t go to the director or anyone else with lighting ideas, only come to me. It’s bad when people suggest shots or lighting schemes to the director and they like it while I hate it. If I lose control of the look then my job becomes pointless.

I especially like gaffers and key grips that are detail oriented and proactive so that I don’t have to point out that I need a flag for a lens flare, or black wrap for the side of the light that is leaking hard light across the set–they just appear.

Also, I don’t need my grip/electric crews to wear slacks and polos everyday (my regular crews usually wear awesome yet tasteful T-shirts and shorts–always, always shorts for some reason) but I do need them to be presentable. There’s one gaffer I know who does reasonable work but always looks like he slept in his clothes and hasn’t shaved all week, and that doesn’t go over well with the bosses.

A senior in high school asks what they can do to prepare for work in the film industry:

Two words: informational interviews. Find high rollers in the industry in your area and take them out for coffee to ask them questions about the industry. You aren’t looking for work because you’re in high school, so they’re much more likely to spend time with you than they are someone who’s just trying to get onto their crews.

Unions won’t help you unless you get into a training program, and often those are very hard to get into and they don’t run very often. Student shoots aren’t really the way either.

Meeting people is the best way. Even better is meeting them on a shoot. That’s why it’s typically best to do freebies when you first start out, but try to do them on shoots that have some professional crew on them. No one will hire you until they can see you’re trainable and easy to work with, and working for free is a great way to do that. Just recognize when you know enough to stop working for free. :)

One person asked about lighting tips/tricks I wished I’d known when I just started out, as well as how useful it is to use a light meter:

Meters are good. :) Start with an incident meter. That helps you maintain consistent key and fill levels… although you don’t always want that. I typically let key levels fluctuate a bit and focus more on consistent fill levels, but just use that as a starting point. It helps to have formulas when you start out lighting but as you go along you’ll learn how and when to break the rules, and that’s when real artistry happens. It takes a little while to get to that point, though.

The coolest thing I learned was filling from the key side. Instead of putting the fill on the side opposite the key put it on the same side of the camera, typically near the lens axis. That has the effect of “wrapping” the key around the subject. It’s a great way to smooth out a key that’s in the wrong place at the wrong time but that you don’t have time to move. (I move the fill light around a lot more than I do the keys.)

Also pay attention to how soft light works in a set. I bounce and diffuse almost every light as part of my style because I think it looks natural and nice, but I also like a lot of contrast. The harder a light is the harder it is to put it in the right place, especially when lighting people. The softer it is the more natural it can look and the easier it can be to place. I’d especially recommend looking at soft light bounced off cards below the lens or off the floor: for some reason soft light from below looks like natural ambient light instead of an obviously-placed movie light, possibly because it looks like sunlight bouncing off a floor near a window, and it’s one of my fallbacks when I’m trying to light a scene fast and don’t want it to look fakey.

A lot of people don’t get that, though. I did that yesterday for a shot of a guy riding in a limo past camera. We put an HMI in the front of the limo and aimed it toward the back through a curtain of grid cloth that we hung across the full width of the limo just out of frame. It looked great but it felt a little like it was coming from below and my gaffer brought my attention to it, offering to raise the light. I stopped him: I loved it! It felt as if sunlight was coming through the windows, bouncing off the seats and the interior and coming back to light the actor.

That’s about it. There’s a little more on Reddit if you’re interested in some of my shorter answers.

Art Adams, Director of Photography

Twitter: @artadams


About The Author

Director of photography Art Adams knew he wanted to look through cameras for a living at the age of 12. After ten years in Hollywood working on feature films, TV series, commercials, music videos, visual effects and docs he returned to his native San Francisco Bay Area, where he currently shoots commercials and high-end corporate marketing and branding projects.   When Art isn’t shooting he consults on product design and marketing for a number of motion picture equipment manufacturers. His clients have included Sony, Arri, Canon, Tiffen, Schneider Optics, PRG, Cineo Lighting, Element Labs, Sound Devices and DSC Labs.   His writing has appeared in HD Video Pro, American Cinematographer, Australian Cinematographer, Camera Operator Magazine and ProVideo Coalition. He is a current member of the International Cinematographers Guild, and a past active member of the SOC and SMPTE.

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