The Importance of the Director/Cinematographer Relationship

Every professional relationship is magnified tenfold on the set of an indie film. It is simple math. Instead of a team of producers, you may have only a couple (or one—not counting yourself, of course). And having a reliable crew can mean the difference between an on-time, under budget production, or a film that languishes in celluloid purgatory.

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So with that in mind, some professional collaborations do take front and center during an indie shoot. From a strictly filmmaking standpoint, how a director interacts with their director of photography is crucial in how a film turns out. There have been a myriad of changes in the film industry as of late as the indie realm continues to expand and evolve. A director has to deal with several challenges, not least of which include a tanking economy that makes it difficult to even get a film made, and the new technologies that are changing the rules in everything from the first shot to distribution.

Establishing a good working partnership with your cinematographer can go a long way in making sure the shooting experience is successful. Having all of the sophisticated editing equipment in the world won’t save you if the image is not there in the first place.

If you are a first time writer/director with no practical experience or background in filmmaking (becoming more and more common—many more people speak the language of film these days, even if they don’t have any formal training), then having an experienced DP will serve you well as you try to unlock whatever is in your brain. What is on the page may be scintillating—but you’ve got to find a way to engage people with the image as well—taking into account the fact that they are being bombarded by more imagery than ever.

So how do you make it all work? This is no small task for experienced filmmakers, let alone novices. There are so many variables when it comes to hiring and working with a good cinematographer. Pre-production is essential. Things will change during principle photography—that is a given. But everybody should understand their role on a film set—and movie history is littered with bloated epics and curiously shot, personal films that suffered because egos got in the way. So whether you’ve blown your entire budget on camera rental, or you’re being bankrolled for that $200 million “Punky Brewster” reboot, take heed and learn to listen your DP.

Experienced cinematographers like Xavier Grobet, whose work can be seen in the recent big screen adaptation of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” come in with a good idea of what is needed from them. Grobet and Kirk Jones, director of “What to Expect,” discussed their plan beforehand; it is Grobet’s job to make sure the director is able to tell the best story he can, while offering his own insights.   

“I believe in the director’s vision and I think we all work in a movie to help him or her accomplish that vision,” Grobet said. “My point of view will be my interpretation of this vision, which will be what I bring to the project. I always bring in suggestions – I like to talk about our options and come up with the best way to tell the story. At the end it doesn’t matter whose idea it is; as long as we are all in accordance we’re heading in the right direction.”

For Adam Beckman, who served as DP on comedian Mike Birbiglia’s directorial debut, the acclaimed “Sleepwalk with Me,” there were different challenges to deal with. “Sleepwalk with Me” had a minimal budget, and as opposed to a studio film where the shooting script does not change a whole lot (and if it does, that usually spells trouble for a Hollywood blockbuster), indies are organic and can often stray from the original vision. But while the shooting script may have changed, the prep time spent deciding what the film would look like and how to best get across Birbiglia’s vision was important in realizing their final goal.

“This is Mike’s first film, so we spent many prep days on location with my DSLR, walking through hypothetical coverage and photographing the setups, then I printed them out with a storyboarding program,” Beckman said. “We often ditched these because of choices actors made during rehearsal, but the boards were useful helping us define, in visual terms, what the scenes were about and what we needed to show the audience.”

And as with many projects of this size, the time and emotional capital spent changes the way a cinematographer may look at a film.

“I sometimes think of my role as similar to that of a midwife. I try to get as invested in the project as I can, all the while trying to remember it’s not my baby,” Beckman said.

So there are many things that the director and the cinematographer have to consider before collaborating on a film. First of all, will it be a good fit for both? You have to work with this person for months at a time. Can you both serve the story? As a director, are you willing to take suggestions, even if you think your vision is set in stone? As the DP, are you willing to put your own opinions aside for the greater good of the film?

In light of all these questions, writer/director Paul Tanter, who recently completed “The Rise & Fall of a White Collar Hooligan,” describes the way he and cinematographer Haider Zafar came to work together; and what it took to get his latest film made under the usual indie constraints.

“The producer, Simon [Phillips], was aware of Haider through a few short films he had DP’d,” said Tanter. “He showed them to me and we were really impressed with what the guy could do–especially on a 5D and using available lights at night. He can make things look good in a way most DPs twice his age can’t, and we were keen and excited to work with him. We met up and talked about the film and the style and the look I wanted and we all seemed to gel very well. I’m pleased that we’ve used him consistently on every film we’ve done since and he continues to impress us even now. Our pre-production process was, as it often is for us, quick and frenzied, as we want to get things done and keep things moving.”

In figuring out his place on a film set, Grobet seems to be speaking for most cinematographers when he put into words the balancing act that comes with shooting movies. Ultimately what it comes down to is doing what is best—and this goes for directors and cinematographers alike—to serve the story.

“My job is to help translate words into images – find a way to tell the story. Placing the camera on the right spot is like using the right word in a sentence. There are many words to describe the same emotion, but the meaning depends on which one you choose. A lot of times it comes down to solving problems on the go: how to be efficient, how to finish on time and how not to sacrifice your images and say what you want to say.”

So whether you are Wes Anderson working with Robert Yeoman for the umpteenth time, or a first time filmmaker who has managed to scrape up enough money for a good camera and somebody to operate it, take the time to formulate a plan, and when that plan changes (and it will change), make sure everybody is on the same page.

Special thanks to FilmSlate Magazine for this one.

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