Cinematography : How Producers Look @ Cinematography Reels When Considering DPs by Royce Allen Dudley

Royce Allen Dudley

How Producers Look @ Cinematography Reels When Considering DPs

This is aimed at those who are starting to produce their first films, but may be worthwhile for newer shooters too. I have had DP reels of my own for 20 years, and viewed those of others for longer. Having discussed this with agents, producers and other DPs at length, here are some thoughts about narrative reels; commercial reels and music video reels will be quite different. When seeking a DP and looking at reels : 1) Turn the sound off. Really. You are hiring a DP, and the music people use to sexy -up their reels or evoke emotion detract at best, and at worst, enhance. Great for a movie- not for screening DPs. 2) Watch for coverage. Many reels have a montage of beautiful shots, but virtually none from the same scene. You will want to see complete scenes and how they are covered and cut. Yes, some of this can be the editor's hand, but someone shot it first. 5 minutes of pretty but disjoint shots tells you little about the DP's ability to deliver footage that works in toto. 3) Watch for style. A big mistake people make when hiring DPs ( not just indies- it happens at all levels) is to look for the exact scenes in your head to appear on a reel. That won't happen. What may serve you better is if the lighting and camera styles favored in the reel are remotely similar in sensibility to something you like, then further discuss your ideas with that DP and see if they can come up with some ideas in support of your vision. Whatever movie you make, you will build it together anyway. You cannot order cinematography off a menu. That said, there are people who do a couple looks well, and they don't deviate. So you need to know if there is flexibility outside the reel. 4) Ask about impressive scenes. Were they shot for the reel specifically ? From a movie? Did the DP also direct ? How long did it take ? We live in age when people can make all kinds of great imagery with lots of resources of time money and manpower, and also with very little. It's hard to tell how people got the results they got. You want to get an idea that the work that so impresses you comes from a person and a process that fits what you are doing, with the resources you have. 5) Ask to see the whole movie, if you like the reel scenes. But don't judge the cinematography by the acting or the score.. good or bad. Excuses or about how it's not available may or may not mean something worth investigating further. ( I had a filmmaker ask about a horrible movie I shot that wasn't on my reel; he found it at WalMart in the $5 bin. He was ready to hire me but his wife insisted they find a random film of mine and watch it. Without leading, he asked me about it. I said " My kid needed to eat". He laughed, and said if I had defended it or squirmed, he would not have hired me. But I digress... 6) Be clear on what the DP actually did in the reel. This used to be a given, but times are muddied a bit. If you seek a DP who operates all their own footage, be sure that ghostly handheld was them and not their operator. If you want someone who follows your Director, make sure the DP has worked as a DP- there are many DP/ Director/Editor types who do nice work on their own but may or may not fit taking the lead of another. And since camera operation is only a part of the job, who lit the scenes ? Was the DP a hands-on gaffer too, does he lean on his gaffer, can he light at all ? These are questions generated by some reels; the answers are important but may be hard to get and have to be asked tactfully or round-about. 7) A reel seldom tells you who to hire. It usually tells you who NOT to hire, right away. When you start at 100 and come back to 3 or 4, then you have to sit down and figure out if you can go to war with one of those DPs joined at your hip.

Patrick Jesseman

Fantastic insight, sound advice! Thanks Royce! Can I inquire as to what movie it was ?

Dave McCrea

Awesome Royce, this helps a lot, I'm going to copy and paste it onto my computer

Andrew Sobkovich

Have to disagree with the first point, that of turning the sound off. If someone went to all of the trouble to choose music and to cut to that music, then the music is an inherent part of the experience of watching the reel. Turning the sound off is really rather rude. The emotion of the pictures with the music is called story-telling, which, I believe, has some merit. The last point, that reels are not used to hire people but only to not hire them , should actually be the first point. It is the overriding reality of sending reels. Think about the implications of this in job searches. and ask yourself if it is worth it. Instead of watching reels, I find it much more informative to actually talk to someone, and preferably face to face. 5 minutes is usually enough, 10 is great and 20 minutes confirm what you need to know about the person, their skills and how they will work. All of the rest of the points are clearly made, well thought out and certainly thought provoking.

Franz Salvatierra

Good tips! thanks for sharing.

Brad Carter

Very helpful.

Angelo Re

I agree with Andrew. It shows that even though all of the footage in the reel is from different projects it is still able to be cut together and form a story not from narrative, but through images. The music is a large part. Watch it with sound first then watch it without sound ; )

Dave McCrea

Andrew, turning the sound off is "rude"? We're trying to find out who is good and who's not. And as someone who is producing a couple of projects, it's very hard to tell what DP is good and who just has a bunch of fancy editing tricks.

Andrew Sobkovich

Music in reels helps to very quickly establish a mood. Reels are short. Very short. They will not be watched for a long enough time to be able to build a mood. The editing will be paced by the music with the shots working together with the music to help tell what we are trying to get across to the unknown audience watching. People watching our reels are seeing a small bit of art and who we are and the music choice is part of the information about us within the art. To take away part of that art is to deface it. Wanting people to watch the reel as created is not pretentious, but blithely removing part of it, that is rude. As an actor you undoubtedly have a reel of some wonderful moving speeches from great scenes that you send to people to watch. What if the viewers turn the sound off because they aren’t hiring a screenwriter so the words don’t matter. The effect would be?? Or perhaps it is a physical terrifying chase scene with few lines but fear and terror and rage written all over your face and body and someone turns off the video because they were told just the sound tells them how good the actor is. Art is meant to be presented in the complete form as envisioned, not merely an expurgated version of itself that is lacking the totality of the intended experience. Not being able to discern creative cinematography from editing tricks may not be indicative of an issue with the reel. Dave I’m sure we can agree that we will probably not work together. Oh golly shucks. However this does underscore Royce’s point number 7. In this case just talking about reels ended any possibility of working together. Nice illustration of the point, thanks for that.

E. Gustavo Petersen

Excellent points, especially number 7.

Royce Allen Dudley

Patrick, the bargain-bin stinker that almost cost me a gig was the 20th Century Fox direct to video release SNITCH'D ... 2003 I think. It was Eva Longoria's first feature; we shot it in the late 90's and when she blew up, it got released. It gets no less stinky with time.. if they had MST 3000 for gangster flicks, it would be on there ;)

Royce Allen Dudley

Andrew, we will have to agree to disagree. Some of the points you make actually confirm my points. The mere cutting of a DP reel deviates the footage from the filmmaker's original intention. While there are plenty of do-it-all filmmakers, you will not find most of them cutting DP reels, and I am talking about DP reels here , NOT editing reels. NOT directing reels, NOT acting reels. Rhythmic editing, emotional music mix... tell me nothing about a DP other than he can hire a good editor. Multi camera, live concert footage - maybe. Not for narrative. And as I stated, commercials and music video reels are NOT what I am talking about. If you think it's rude to turn the sound off I can only chuckle and shake my head... how often do people sit and look at footage and discuss it with the sound off or inaudible ? it's idealistic and naive to think " all due respect" is afforded an artist's samples. Actor, musician, DP...get real. I would bet most reels are first viewed on smartphones in 2014. That's how I view them.

Brent Reynolds

Good advice. I am guilty of cutting to music and only putting in snippets of the best shots, (though I do strive to put in a variety) which has actually gotten me the criticism that my reel looks like a series of Cosmo layouts. I do, however, direct potential clients to my website where I have links to films that they can watch in their entirety. I will recut it along the lines of your advice and see what happens.

Andrew Sobkovich

Royce, these are opinions, as such it is easy for there to be many approaches. If there was one “right” way, it would be very easy. I’m curious, given your opinion, do you have music on your reels? While I understand if the audio is there the viewer can turn it off, but if the reel is better viewed with the audio off why offer a lesser method of viewing? The rest of it sounds like a good discussion to have over a beer sometime.

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