Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Key crew - The DP

A friend of mine once said you really only need 3 people to make a movie.  A writer, a camera operator and an actor. And he's right. Those are the ones who really make the movie, everyone else is just helping out.  You can make a movie without a grip, or a production designer or just about anyone. But you need a story, a camera and an actor.  But then what would those other 40 - 200 people do?

And that guy to my left filming on the mean streets of Detroit looks awfully familiar.  Was I ever that young?

After choosing the director, the next choice is the Director of Photography, or DP as they're called.  The director may have their preference, or the producer may have theirs, either way it's the producer who does the hiring, as they do for every position on the film.  

When asked how I hire people for a film, I say that first, I hire the the most talented person I can afford, secondly the most talented friend I have. That's how it works. I have two favorite DPs, John Holbrook is undeniably one of the best cameramen around and John Bartley equally good, he was responsible for the look of X-Files.  They have been friends of mine for over 30 years and you will find that most producers and directors tend to work with the same people when they can. 

A good DP is gold, because they will not only shoot a great-looking film, but they will also save your butt when it needs saving. There are times when I didn't know how the hell to block a complicated scene, and John H. stepped up,  made his suggestions, and we shot it.

That's what a good DP can be.  

A bad DP, and there are a lot of those, are the arrogant ones, the ones who think you really don't deserve to be the director, that really, they are the ones who should be directing the film.  I've worked with DP's who would just stand there and look at you and ask "so what's the next shot".  One cameraman who also covered hockey games and I really got into it after I suggested we put a hockey puck on the actor's forehead so he'd stay in focus.

You know it's gonna be a long day.  

A good DP will collaborate with the director,  a bad one will argue every little thing.  And it happens more frequently than you know. For this post, I'm going to talk about my own experiences with DPs and in the coming days, Shirley will post her ideas on her ideal DP.

My background was in film and I worked on a TV news crew covering Windsor and Detroit.  At one point I was involved in a shooting at a UAW union hall and we actually had the shooting on 16mm film.  One frame was blown up on the cover of the New York times in 1973 I think, very grainy but still quite moving. The victim recovered. 

After that I worked in Toronto as a news cameraman, and finally to Vancouver, where I filmed and co-produced a short with Phil Borsos, a director who I had met in my brief film school career, both Phil and I failed and the instructor told us to give up film.  Needless to say, we were the only ones who had a career in film.  At one point, our company was so poor we had both of our names on business cards.

Phil passed away at the age of 41 and was considered one of the best Canadian directors in both Canada and the U.S.  And our short film, Cooperage, about a barrel factory won awards at Chicago, Venice and even being a finalist in the 1976 Academy awards, not to mention earning well over $29,000 back in 1976.  We did two other shorts that won awards as well.  His son has come to visit me ever since Phil died and at age 12, I showed him how to shoot video.  He is now an accomplished filmmaker in his own right.

So I know of what I speak when it comes to camerawork. 

And you can see why Shirley impressed me so much right off the top, she could shoot as good as anyone else and better than a lot.  And like me, she has good knowledge of the entire process, not just camera or directing.  I have worked as a soundman, cameraman, editor, location manager, co-producer, producer and director and that separates me from most writers.  It also makes me a little more hard to get along with when it comes to discussing film.

What makes a DP good? Talent of course, but also a sense of visuals and a willingness to try out different things, to find the right look for a film. Does it matter to an audience?  Not on the surface, most audiences think that good shooting consists of pretty shots of mountains or sunsets but those are easy. 

What a good DP brings to the table is reality enhanced. 

They will light a set, say an interior of a house, to suit the mood of the scene, something the audience will not really notice, but they will respond emotionally to it.  Such is the power of color. Most of us are smiling on a sunny day, but we also are more subdued on a grey cool day.  Different colors mean different things, colors like red and yellow suggest warmth, you know like cabin interiors or a romantic sunset or that ever popular nostalgic look. 

Colors like blue and green are cooler, they suggest a different mood in stories, suspense or drama.  Think CSI and Law and Order. No warm fuzzy colors there. These colors can be in the sets and locations and they can also be in the clothes actors wear.  Warm clothes against a cold background for instance.  This is all planned ahead of time, before the movie even has started shooting.

Interestingly the only rules for colors are that there are no rules. Someone is always breaking a rule, others stick with them, although if you want to break the rules you have to know them first.  And any oldtimer will tell you there hasn't been a shot done that hasn't been done before.  I watch a lot of silent films and am constantly surprised at the sophistication in those files that are equal to anything we can do today.  Even with CGI.

Another aspect of DP work is the framing of the shot. It's argued that the director chooses the angle and the lens, but I find again, that a collaborative effort is best. I don't know everything and I follow my golden rule of wanting to work with the best, because they make me better.  Any director who tells you they know exactly what they're doing is someone I avoid.

A DP can make you or break you and so we look forward to getting the best one we can.

Here's me shooting CADILLAC, I'm on the dolly, Phil's crouched down in front.  Cadillac won several awards as well.

(Next: The other creative keys)

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