Cinematography : Communication is half the battle. Any tips for a Director working with Cinematographers? by Rustin L. Odom

Rustin L. Odom

Communication is half the battle. Any tips for a Director working with Cinematographers?

I'm not really looking for anything I can find on Google. I'm a bit past the "Top Ten ways to make a film" stage as a Director, but I'm ever increasingly interested in understanding better forms of communication with everyone on the set. My latest self-improvement run was learning better communication with Actors and I found there were a lot of "I don't know, what I don't know's" and already it's paid off for both myself and more-so the actors. So I want to run the full gamut and hear from the Cinematographers themselves. A few questions I have on the top of my mind (but please don't limit yourselves to these questions) are: In your own process, how much influence would you prefer the Director to have? How soon in the entire filmmaking process do you want to be working with the Director? When do you know if you can trust your Director or not? I'd love to see some personal experiences but any nuggets of insight from your mind would be absolutely invaluable. Thanks, guys! Love this site!

Andrew Sobkovich

More than influence, the Director has complete control over the picture including what is shot. My preference is what ever the Director is happy with, in a process of trying to see the finished picture through the director’s eyes. I am not making my movie, I’m shooting the movie the Director is making for the Producer. I see the world my way all the time, so it is very creatively stimulating to create using someone else’s image ideas. I like to come into the process as early as possible. Time to fully absorb what the writer has put onto the page. Then start making notes on visual feel and specific images as they come, scene by scene or even shot by shot allowing me to bring thoughts and ideas to the table when meeting with the director. Words can be a problem when discussing the look of a picture, even if you speak the same native language, the words can mean different things to different people. The discussion will range from the dramatic themes in the script to individual storytelling points and how to not only interpret them visually but to enhance the impact and viewing experience. What will be the arc of the feel and mood of the picture, what about the arc of the look as it changes and evolves through the project. Lighting, colour, contrast, framing, movement, style all are included in the initial discussions. Trust the director? Ahhh.. to do or not do what? I’m shooting the Director’s picture, so if they want something a certain way, that is what they get. While options and alternatives can be suggested, the director’s wishes are final as we do not have time to shoot another version of a scene. I suppose the overly simplistic version of a sure point when can I trust the director is when they publicly take the responsibility for an error. The reality is that every director is different. They want to work in different ways using their individual levels of knowledge and experience to create their own piece of work. It is up to us to adapt and to compensate for their weaknesses while enjoying the director’s strengths. The discussion of how you wish to work needs to happen very early. If there is something that can’t be agreed to, then do not work together since that contentious issue will come up again and again. It just isn’t worth whatever you will be paid unless you really need the money. Biting your tongue throughout a production is very difficult. Creating a picture is exhilarating. The closeness of the team aspect of doing so is often a pretty big reward in its own right. A new working relationship can be great fun with surprising rewards in telling stories in new ways. Whatever works the best for the project is what everyone wants.

Pup Che

Just let him do his job and stay away from it. If you got good DP, you have nothing to worry about.

Royce Allen Dudley

Great question Rustin. I am a DP. I have worked for literally hundreds of directors across all types of work. If we are narrowing the discussion to scripted narrative, first of all, I cannot be involved too early in the process, but budget usually limits that , sometimes severely. Many directors have stylistic references of what they want... and what they don't. Finding a common language for lens, movement and lighting is huge; the time to refine and redefine to fit a schedule and resources is of even larger importance. Funny thing is, even on indies with some decent budget and planning, pre production is often so overwhelming to directors that they simply are not involved as much as would be welcome. Trust goes back to influence. There are directors who are dictatorial and set and merely want a DP to execute. There are others who show up on the day and ask " where should the actors stand, how should we shoot?" Most directors fall between these extremes, but whatever the understanding is, it's the director's film* and the DP is there to light and shoot it. It's a journey joined at the hip and can be rewarding when mutual trust and abilities are respected in collaboration. I have also known directors who had thrown the DP under the bus to save face with production. If a DP is respected, given credit for his appropriate contributions and allowed to do things his way( this is huge ) a director will get the DP's best result. If however the DP is questioned or told how to do his job, that is a major misstep. There are many ways to get a shot or a look; directors are smart to trust the DP to do his thing his way as long as the end result is what was planned . And the DP often has many more years on a set than a director; his bag of tricks to workaround and solve should be considered in times of trouble. Which brings me to: * It's the producer's film actually. Sometimes DPs are actually Ghost Directors, told to take over and deliver by the Producer who signs their check. This can happen to keep actor's trust but overcome a green director, or for a number of reasons, but the crew knows what's up, if not always the director... It's a bad scenario. I have seen it too many times, and it can be quite a mess. Shenanigans suck and there is so much politic on most sets that if the DP can simply get a competent prepared and respectful Director, he will follow the lead gladly. The other experiences lead DPs to want to go off and direct their own projects ;)

Rustin L. Odom

Thanks Royce, that was a great answer and exactly what I was looking for. I've worked on a good number of projects but only worked with a handful of DPs. Some experienced, some not so much. I think you hit the nail on the head and I'm glad you also mentioned bringing in the DP ASAP because that's been my approach. More than anything, it's about setting the mood for the film, which IMO, is the love child of the Director and DP :P Thanks again, great insight!

Rustin L. Odom

Thanks Andrew! I love what you had to share. You're absolutely right. We can be speaking the same language but every word of it can be interpreted differently. I wonder there are any tips or tricks with getting on the same page artistically as quick and easily as possible. I suppose that's where being decent at quick sketches on a cocktail napkin come into play!

Victor Sunstar

excellent comments. Rustin - Always and all ways be nice and respectfull to others and keep yer temper !

Simon © Simon

Russ, Good to see you at the meetup. BTW. See you at the next one. Funny right I have no pic, you come in and sit right behind me...

Karl Heyliger

I think it helps to trust the cinematographer. If you have one that has good ideas. If not try to speak it plain and describe what you want to see.

Rustin L. Odom

Hey Simon, yes that was insane! what a world but definitely glad to connect!

Andrew Sobkovich

The quickest way I have found to get on the same page as the director about the look is to use stills that have the feel you wish to express. It is much easier to point at an exact portion of a still and talk about why it helps the feel and what part of the script it relates to. The back and forth fairly quickly narrows down what each person means by the words they are saying and builds to a common set of terms. The reference pictures can be classic paintings, current magazines, photography books, or even stills from the internet. Since the idea is to talk about the feel from images, having images as examples works very well. Shot sizes are easy, you use your hands to mark off the top and bottom edges of the frame. When scouting always have a directors finder, or some simulation and always have people in the approximate places in location pictures as well as clean picture to look at later. My sketches are stick figures. Seriously. Used just to represent some ideas on composition and movement but really are useful in creating the shots. Those stick figures and location shots with people evolve into the storyboard. I guess that comes from making stick figure flip movies on the corners of text books in school :-)

Rustin L. Odom

Common set of terms is really what it comes down to, isn't it. The stills idea is great. I've even wanted to better improve my sketching skills to better convey themes and image. Thanks, Andrew!

Gare Cline

I strongly recommend you talk with a board man (storyboard artist), before you hunt around for a DP. And 3D board man.

Andrew Sobkovich

Why would anyone talk to a storyboard artist before discussing and deciding how to shoot the picture with the people who will actually be shooting the picture. In motion picture industries, the look is mainly created by the Director, Production Designer and DP. A storyboard done without that combined input of the people making the picture would be irrelevant. Once the ideas for the images for the picture are complete then a storyboard artist might be contacted. If someone feels they are needed at all. Storyboards are very common in commercials, common in complex VFX sequences, and fairly rare to almost non-existent in many forms of production.

M L.

I know right away when to trust the director or not by whether there is a (experienced with IMDB credits) 1st A.D. on board the film. If not, then I ask why and if it seems like I'm presenting a brand new concept to the director, I will back away from the whole project.

Gare Cline

Andrew, How is the director going communicate to you as to what to shoot and how to shoot it without storyboards?

Andrew Sobkovich

This whole topic is about how a Director and DP communicate. Talking, looking at stills, paintings, and movies is all part of refining both the artistic approach to the imaging of a picture and to arriving at definition of a common set of terms. The discussion between the Director and DP is based in how the picture will look and how it will be shot between the people who will be making the actual motion picture. This would be exactly the same discussion that a director would have to have with a storyboard artist. Why insert a middle man? Storyboards can come after the look of the picture and the shooting method is decided by those making the picture, not before.

Gare Cline

Andrew, Storyboarding comes after the shooting method has been decided? And who decides? You, the DP? And you call me the middleman!

Andrew Sobkovich

Wow. The Director of Photography is a middleman in creating the images? Who knew? Gotta say, this is a new one on me. As it is the result of a century long tradition, what is shot is a result of the discussion and decisions between the Director and the DP. You know, the people who are actually responsible for shooting the actual motion picture. Based upon their knowledge, artistry, skill and experience the DP works with the Director to bring the Director’s vision to the screen. This process produces the visuals of the movie.

Gare Cline

I had no idea you were an historical revisionist. A hundred years ago, cinematographers, artistically, were none existent. Directors and producers did not recognize them as having any sort of artistic contribution to moviemaking. That is why frustrated cameramen formed the American Cinematography Club, which eventually became the ASC; an organization designed to further the artistry of cinematography. Today, most DPs are hired very late in pre-production, because they are very expensive. Therefore, they do not have the privilege, that you seem to enjoy, of contributing to the creative look of the film unabated by peaky storyboard artists. Look. Like you, I have worked on a number shows and commercials. There have been very few shows that I have worked on that I did not come on well before the cinematographer. Sometimes, I had the pleasure of working with the DP, but many times I didn't.

Andrew Sobkovich

The historical dramatization “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots” was shot by cinematographer Alfred Clark. In one shot we see Mary walk in, kneel and the axe falls sending her head rolling free. Great footage that shocked the contemporary viewers. Important because it is quite possibly the first VFX picture. That was in 1895. I'm sorry but I must wonder who the storyboard artist was? Nobody remembers probably because there was no need and yet here was a movie with VFX. “The Great Train Robbery” is the narrative picture that introduced moving cameras, was shot for editing to enhance the finished picture and used techniques like matte shots and was shot by Edwin Porter and Blair Smith in 1903. It was a cinema breakthrough, who was the storyboard artist? Anyone, anyone, Bueller, Bueller? So, I’m sorry, but accurate is not revisionist. As for your thought that DP’s “ do not have the privilege … of contributing to the creative look of the film”, I’m sure everyone reading this will understand your motivation quite clearly. Good luck with that. I look forward to seeing your movies. Oh, I’m sorry yet again, you actually don’t make movies.

Royce Allen Dudley

Gare, I once was at a dinner in the mid-90's where Gene Allen produced a manila folder. Out of it came a piece of paper with a pencil drawn wavy squiggle across it . He asked if anyone knew what it was. It was in fact a storyboard frame made by the master of pre-production perfection, Alfred Hitchcock... a frame drawn to denote "explosion" per the script. Draw from this what you will... no pun intended.

LB McGill

This conversation was great! I'm working with a DP that thinks like Andrew, we communicate great, we're on the same page, we scouted all the locations together- he's like the brother I never had... yet still, in the moment, I'm afraid of the live shoot because I have very specific shots that I will want to convey emotion and that's when I agree with Gare. I'm scared I'll be focused on directing my actors and my DP with all the great intentions in the world will miss some of those moments.

Gare Cline

Andrew, Don't you have a job? How are you able to spend so much time writing on these forums? Look, your analogies are ridiculous. Of course, there weren't storyboards at the turn of the the last century. There wasn't sync sound, either. (However, there were concept artists; the precursor to the storyboard artist). Nor were there cinematographers. There were just cameramen. Camera operators for that matter. And from what I understand, Porter was the director of The Great Train Robbery, not the cameraman. The art of cinema is all about technological change. Digital cinema is the latest. And the change, is hopefully to help make better movies. Storyboards, pre-visualization storyboards, for that matter, are just the latest technological tool to help the director understand all his or her options on how to shoot a picture before getting to set. If you are on set trying to figure this out, you are in big trouble. Readers, If you can afford to hire a DP during development, by all means do so. The very few times I've worked with a DP, it has worked out fine. Well, a couple of times it didn't. But for the most part it works out fine. Royce, Indeed, Hitchcock drew the initial boards for many of his pictures. However, he usually turned the finals over to board men, like Saul Bass. And much of the time, he hired the storyboard artist before he hired the cameraman, because he couldn't afford to pay the DP for too much prep time. I can't afford to contribute anymore to this because I got gig to get done.

Victor Sunstar

Gare... Your comments to Andrew are, in my opinion, very disrespectfull sir ! But in such you are certainly showing us your true self centered colors !

Royce Allen Dudley

Gare- I think we can agree that storyboards are valuable used as a communication tool and conceptual art has an equally important role in pre production. I think where I differ is that I don't find storyboards very useful most of the time- they are not, even if available, a tool that helps the way this working cinematographer builds a shot list with a director. They can have value to me in complex scenes that require detailed cross departmental pre-thought, but a) they are mostly useless on "coverage" films ( which I hate, but many people shoot coverage, so you grit your teeth and do the cookie cutter thing) and they also don't fit fast schedules ( today's reality) as well as merely being on the same page with the director as far as color, contrast, framing and movement styles. Other than commercials, boards get in my way if someone wants to tie me to them. But what do I know ? I don't like them asa DP, a director or a producer. It's also a fact that simple look books clipped from Google Images are used in advertising and music videos and often little or no illustrative work past these is created- in fact, this very method is also being taught today in film schools as a tool for creating storyboards. It's also a fact many directors or cinematographers shoot stills and manipulate them themselves on computer to create boards or conceptual art. With a push towards a DIY filmmaking mentality at all but the highest level productions, it's no wonder storyboards beyond stick figures are becoming a lost art, like matte painting and other techniques once common in cinema. Also, can you please quote the source that states Hitchcock didn't have the money to hire a DP to develop storyboards on his films ? This sort of statement is interesting, but also sounds merely like a reaction to my personal anecdote.

Niav Conty

Royce's comments seem very pertinent. Bring in your DP as early as possible. Stills from other films are helpfull to discuss TONE, which is really important that you both are on the same page. I like to discuss the shotlist with the director before a shoot (if there's time). It's hugely helpful, you can go into a shoot knowing that time won't be wasted and that a solid plan is in place. I always know whether I can trust a director or not following these shotlist discussions (re. their capacity of clear communication, and artistic ideas) . Also, if a director knows the basic lingo of shots and movements it's greatly helpful. If you you have to move around and use long paragraphs to describe something that could be as simple as MedWide push in to CU, you will lose all credibility (this is MUCH more common than one would think!). Be specific beforehand, then let them do their thing during the shoot. And lastly, choose wisely, and then trust your DP. They have the power to greatly elevate the quality of your film.

Royce Allen Dudley

"Trust your DP".. now THERE is a lost art ;)

Scott Mohrman

Rustin, For me I want directors to be very involved in the beginning. During development/pre pro, I want to really get to know the story from the directors point of view. After all it is the directors movie in the end. I want to have the director talk to me about the story as he/she sees it in there head down to the littlest details. Having this discussion before pre production starts is ideal. Once pre production location scouting start, it is nice to a director that trusts you enough to let you make the decisions that need to be made from that point on. Not to says the collaboration stops there. Like what Niav said, the earlier the better. The more time to plan and prepare before production starts the smoother the production will go.

Gare Cline

Victor, I was disrespectful towards Andrew?! Really?! Victor, what planet are you from?

Michael NJ Wright

Block- Compose- Expose. Follow a uniform process and respect the Off Camera space necessary for the rigging that facilitates the shot. If I have a prominent frustration with any Director it is when vision and photography are conflated in their imagination. A good DP can create any illusion appropriate to the drama-however Director micro-managing exposure controls compromises continuity fidelity. Hope this helps.

Royce Allen Dudley

Gare, if you want to insult me I encourage you to try harder. I have taken it from the best but I respect your effort. As for my being all over the place- I clearly combined both anecdotal and personal habits and beliefs about storyboards, as well as respect for the art in acknowledging it was becoming a lost art- that does not mean it's going away. It means it is used less. Just like clip art- it's a non-thing now; people just use Google Image. As for tent pole and commercials being an exception- that is exactly what I inferred. Go re-read. If you think I don't know where the line is from a shot list you are correct. I ESTABLISH THE LINE with the director on the location scout or after based on the shot list that I create. There is also opportunity for scriptie to get involved or at least director and I establish screen direction continuity chart scene to scene. I may have overheads for crew or a scriptie consult. I know screen left and right and eyelines and don't need a stickman or a Rembrandt or an animatic to tell me that. Cheers !

Gare Cline

Royce, I don't think its the storyboard artist's place to tell the cinematographer how to do his or her job. I expect you are good at what you do. You and I are merely there to help the director. Nonetheless, it is only a foolish cameramen who ignores the board man.

David Landau

The relationship between the DP and the director is the most concentrated on any set. The DP creates the images – based on the conversations with the director and the script itself. DPs will make a shot list for each days shooting with the director that will become the guide for scheduling. Vary from it and you will throw off the schedule and the budget. Directors need to understand that lighting takes time, getting focus marks take time, rehearsing camera moves take time. When a director gives the DP this time, the shoot moves faster and on schedule and the footage looks great. When a director, producer or AD changes those times, comes up with new totally different ideas or wants to rush things to accommodate an actor wanting to leave or some other reason – the day will actually take much longer and have less usable footage shot. Location scouts with the DP and gaffer and key grip with the director and AD are a must. Including the DP in the scheduling of the days weeks before cameras roll will avoid many potential problems and set-backs. Directors should also not rely on the DP to think about how the entire film will be edited. That is the director’s job. The director needs to know what is the base minimum he/she needs to tell the story. The DP will come up with additional or sometimes more creative visual ways to do it, but the director is the starting point. Directors don’t have to pick the lenses, filters or know anything about lighting. They do need to understand shots and coverage and they need to be able to make a fast and firm commitment on whether what they see works for them or not – and if not, explain clearly why not.

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