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How specific should a DP be?


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#1 Thom Stitt

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Posted 10 August 2006 - 03:06 PM

I haven't D.P.'ed myself much yet, though I do love it. A few 16/Super 16 projects, and many DVCAM, no features. Just to give people an idea right off the bat as to where I'm at - relative newcomer.

Now, my shoots have all been pretty small. So I end up putting up a lot of the light fixtures myself, and the few grips/electrics I had helped me out. I'm pretty hands-on with the lights because of that, but regardless, it requires a good knowledge of every piece of gear you have, and exactly what it's doing, where, and why. We did our homework on the shoot, and I go in with a set plan of where my lights are going - I only change them when the diagram in my brains doesn't work out on set.
I once heard about Conrad Hall that he was so experienced that when they were preparing to light, he could draw a lighting diagram that got as detailed as to include notes on exactly how much to cut the light with scrims. I have such a ridiculously deep respect for that.

I'm bringing this up because I've spent countless hours as an Electric (non-union, cash jobs and volunteer - music videos, TV, short films, and features), and I've just seen some fairly upsetting approaches to working as a D.P.

Imagine you and the other electrics are about ready to do the first major setup of the day. No lights are up yet. The D.P. comes up to you. "Okay. Make it look... subdued." *walks back to camera*
WHAT??? MAKE IT LOOK SUBDUED?? It honestly feels at that point that the Electrics are co-DPing, not the cinematographer.

Many moons ago, when I had my first experience with an HMI on set. I was changing out the lens on a 1.2, and, well, I'd never done that. I was just having some trouble finding the latch - you know the one, it doesn't look like a latch and it moves laterally. So when the DP passed by, I ask her where it is.
"Oh I don't know, I've never even touched a light before."
*cue the spit-take*

Several other times, the DP was also cam-opping (different DP from above). She never left the area around the camera, and essentially let the gaffer do EVERYTHING. Eventually I saw how it worked - they had discussed the approach generally beforehand. The gaffer goes in and lights everything, and then, basically, the DP "critiques" it onset. "Nah, nah, this isn't working for me. Can you make it more toppy? And that light needs to come down." I dont think she ever specified details in planning, and she doesn't until everything's already set up on the day. Or she sees US setting something up that she doesn't think she'll want.

Honestly there was a LOT of wasted work, simply because her styles clashed with the gaffer, and he was essentially running wild. It would have saved a lot of time - that "light that needs to come down", that was a huge rigging job.

So the purpose of this thread is basically - how specific should a DP be? Do you let your gaffer handle many of the specifics, and stick to relative, mood-descriptive terms yourself?

I understand that everyone has their own style, their own approach. But it just seems to me that what I saw at times must have crossed some line into "WRONG" territory... Has anyone else seen what I've seen, or was I just on the WRONG shows?
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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 10 August 2006 - 03:15 PM

I hear stories like that too -- I don't really get it because what's the FUN in being a DP if you leave major lighting decisions up to other people? If I didn't want to light scenes, I wouldn't have become a DP, would I?

Just for efficiency's sake, you need to have a solid idea of what you want.

As for knowing how to change an HMI globe, I've never had to do that either so I don't know if that matters. By the time I was shooting things with enough of a budget for HMI's, there was a budget for an electrician. I've changed plenty of tungsten globes in film school though.

There's a difference in knowing how to light a set, what unit to use, etc. and knowing everything that a gaffer knows about electricity. I mean, there might occasionally be a use for that level of knowledge, but generally when you are working on shows big enough to use a lot of complex lighting, you have a gaffer and electric crew, so it's not like I'm going to tell them what type of distro box to use or how to balance a load on the generator (and I'm definitely not qualified to fix a generator or do a tie-in). In some ways, I'm more grip saavy than electricity saavy, as my Key Grip can tell you (he jokes that I'm part of his grip crew.)

But when it comes to lighting, I'm extremely specific, sometimes too much, but I will always listen to the gaffer if he suggests something different.
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#3 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 10 August 2006 - 04:24 PM

Lighting is taking in all of the below:

1. Budget.
2. Time.
3. Available light.
4. Set and design.
5. What you and the director talked about beforehand - influences, mood etc.
6. Many times there is no battle plan from director and no influences - the simple fact is
that sometimes you just don't know how to approach a scene lighting-wise when there's nothing
to go by.
7. You have likes and dislikes when it comes to lighting, but that doesn't mean that something you dislike is bad - i.e. going against your own predisposition is sometimes a good thing to do.

Etc, etc.

What I'm trying to say is that it's not always right to know exactly what you want. Sometimes allowing
yourself to be spontaneous, shooting from the hip or letting a mood, a feeling or someone else influence the lighting is a good thing. That's why I work best with gaffers who offer suggestions - I can always overrule them.

Having a point of view is important for all people. I often give my opinion on performance of a scene or actor to the director. I've been told I shouldn't do this since it's not my job, but only by poeple who are not directors.

You get hired for your point of view and you get hired for your input - directors want that too. And those who don't, I don't care too much to work for anyway. Same goes for me - me dream director is the one who offers suggestions on where to put the camera and isn't afraid to tell me that he doesn't think my lighting is as good in this scene as in the one before.
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#4 Thom Stitt

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Posted 10 August 2006 - 05:44 PM

David, just to clarify in regards to the HMI lens - It wasn't the globe I was referring to, but the lens assembly (Narrow spot, narrow flood, medium flood, etc.). In most instances when I've worked with HMIs the DP (or gaffer on larger shoots) would always specify which lens, which is a much simpler affair than changing the globe out.

It is a very good point that the DP doesn't need to have the technical expertise of the gaffer, particularly in regards to distribution. Which raises what I've always thought was an interesting question.

It's sort of "the norm" for a DP to reach his or her position via the camera ladder. It seems to go for many people: 2nd AC, 1st AC, Camera Operator, Director of Photography.

Now, that last jump seems to me to be a huge one - much bigger than Electric, Best Boy, Gaffer, Director of Photography, which you see much much less of. In fact, I can't really think of any examples of this - I've certainly never met a DP who climbed the lighting ladder. It's certainly two different sides to cinematography - the on-set lighting being one, and the camera itself being the other.

Now, anyone you ask will confirm camera department is about a thousand times more fun than electric work. I'm a small guy, man. I have a skinny ass frame. I am simply not built to hoist a 4K on 3 risers on my own. On radio:
"Could I get some help out by the window?"
"What? Why, Thom, it's one light?"
"I'm a weakling, I'm sorr-OH GOD MY HANDS!!"

So there's that little pull factor. But at the same time, the lighting crew has at least as much to do with cinematography as camera. On camera you surely work more with the frame and director, which is important. Much less manual labor, and a more intellectual job. Seeing and being able to form and critique the frame itself at all times, and see the lighting work within it is invaluable.

But a DP is still nothing if not light-savvy.
two cents.
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#5 Douglas Hunter

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Posted 10 August 2006 - 05:51 PM

Being specific and planning well are essential, there are many reasons that a DP should be very specific, from the fact that planning in great detail before hand saves time and money on set, to the fact that everyone is a back seat DP when the dailies go out. Its pure hell when the suits start questioning the DP and how he is doing his job. The DP is accountable for his work so he better be getting exactly what he wants.

I have a friend who I love gaffing for, he is very easy going on set, his expectations are well articulated and he is willing to listen to any suggestion I have. I think we work well together since he is global in his approach and I am very detailed oriented when lighting, so I feel like I am making a good controbution to an already good plan.

As an asside when I was a TA at USC a student told William Fraker that they would like to see him working on set with his crew. Bill replied that there would not be much to see because all the decisions are already made before they get to set.
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#6 Thom Stitt

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Posted 10 August 2006 - 05:58 PM

...it's not always right to know exactly what you want. Sometimes allowing
yourself to be spontaneous, shooting from the hip or letting a mood, a feeling or someone else influence the lighting is a good thing.


Very true. My first experience DPing a 16mm film was essentially a head-on collision with that lesson. The diagrams in my brain, the plan, the lights - it wasn't working. The frame was always flat - It was a tough tough scenario to be sure, dealing with bare white walls, one of which is an enormous window during a sunny day, cramped space, and 4 people at a circular table in the middle, and to compound it all, we're shooting 1.33... But we set out to make it look interesting, and I just wasn't experienced enough to handle that situation. I wanted to just WILL the light meter to give me the readings I wanted - I couldn't achieve good separation.
About 3 days into the shoot I had completely stopped going with my original plans, and started ad-libbing with the problem solving. Consequently, the last few days look a hell of a lot better than the first ones.

But I think ESPECIALLY within that work environment, the DP's got to be very very savvy with his gear and exactly what it's going to do. It's okay I think if a DP only goes in with a general scheme, with plans to sort of dance with the production design and actors in lighting the scene... But I fear for any cinematographer who says "Make it subdued", and then pimps on out.

As an asside when I was a TA at USC a student told William Fraker that they would like to see him working on set with his crew. Bill replied that there would not be much to see because all the decisions are already made before they get to set.


That's what I love to see. At this very early point in my career, I'm still not experienced enough to trust those pre-made decisions. Which is good in that it trains me to think on my feet and adapt. But it's definitely a goal of mine to do an entire shoot, pre-planned down to the scrim.
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#7 Tom Bays

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Posted 10 August 2006 - 06:17 PM

Delegate and supervise.
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#8 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 10 August 2006 - 06:30 PM

Very true. My first experience DPing a 16mm film was essentially a head-on collision with that lesson. The diagrams in my brain, the plan, the lights - it wasn't working. The frame was always flat - It was a tough tough scenario to be sure, dealing with bare white walls, one of which is an enormous window during a sunny day, cramped space, and 4 people at a circular table in the middle, and to compound it all, we're shooting 1.33... But we set out to make it look interesting, and I just wasn't experienced enough to handle that situation. I wanted to just WILL the light meter to give me the readings I wanted - I couldn't achieve good separation.
About 3 days into the shoot I had completely stopped going with my original plans, and started ad-libbing with the problem solving. Consequently, the last few days look a hell of a lot better than the first ones.


That's exactly why I abhor making lighting diagrams and planning stuff out to the ninth degree. Sometimes I'm forced to, but it's only a semi-pointless battle plan - whenever we get there one has to start from scratch with what that location/set has to offer anyway. It's also specifically for this reason that I insist on seeing the sets/location before I make any decision regarding lights - the location dictates it's own style 9 times out of 10. Planning is the enemy of creativity, many times.

I sometimes feel guilty because I'm not a machine that can spit out a perfect lighting diagram at the script stage and attack it in a Patton-esque manner unseen, but then I comfort myself with the fact that neither could Conrad L. Hall, ASC (no other comparisons made, of course), and he seemed to do just fine.
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#9 Kevin Zanit

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Posted 10 August 2006 - 07:02 PM

I have never heard that story about Conie Hall, but the time I did spend with him, I got quite the opposite impression.

He always stressed how important it is to trust your instincts, and not just execute a plan, but to look through the viewfinder and watch what is happening with the light, to let things happen "organically".

The problem is, he was on some of the biggest budget projects, with the best crews you can get and every variety of light you can think of. So he had the luxury of not planning too much of what he was going to do ahead of time.

For me (and most people on these lower budget projects) I don't have the luxury of not coming up with a more specific plan. An example was the commercial I wrote on here some about. To light this giant space my gaffer and I had to come up with a very detailed plan on how the light the room. But during that, I never really planed how I was going to light the actress, or little details. In other words, I plan the big picture so the crew knows how much cable to order, and can figure out how many people we will need, how much time, etc.

As far as DPs knowing gear, I would say it is very common for the DP to have little knowledge of the specifics of the gear. It really is not important, as it is not their job to change the lens in a HMI par, etc. It does help the crew out when the DP does have some good general knowledge on the gear because then he can relate to how difficult something is to accomplish/ make better choices about what to use.

I spent a lot of time gaffing before taking only shooting work, and for me it was hard to not step on my gaffers toes. It is more about telling them what you want, but not how to do it.


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#10 John Hall

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Posted 10 August 2006 - 08:44 PM

Now, anyone you ask will confirm camera department is about a thousand times more fun than electric work.


Well, that really depends on the individual, doesn't it? If you're not built to crawl under a package truck with frozen seeway between your teeth, then no, you probably won't find work as an electric or grip much fun.

But I wouldn't make a blanket statement such as 'ask anyone'.

Great crew members love what they do. I don't think make-up is looking at wardrobe and thinking 'wow, I wish I had that job, it's so much more fun'.

I love lighting, and wouldn't want to do anything else. I think most AD's, Camera people, Props etc feel the same way about what they do.
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#11 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 10 August 2006 - 10:03 PM

I agree with you Adam that flexibility and the ability to be spontaneous are as important skills as pre-visualization / pre-planning. You have to be able to do both to be a successful DP because nothing ever goes exactly to plan, even on a big budget shoot, and you have to be able to take advantage of happy accidents, acts of God, divine inspiration, dumb luck, whatever. You have to keep an open mind.

What I object to is just letting the gaffer light the scene for you and taking credit for it, which is just lazy. You're just letting him figure it out for you, which is different than having a discussion with him to solicit his ideas and advice.
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#12 Tom Bays

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Posted 10 August 2006 - 10:39 PM

I will say that if someone gives me a suggestion or does something I don't want...when possible I try to give them a reason why.

But then my biggest decision since my shoots done generally last more than 3 hours and a fair amount of moving around consists of do I have time to light or am I going to Illuminate. The goal is still to make things look nice and not unmotivated...but you make more decisions with lights from 125 to 1k.
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#13 Kevin Zanit

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Posted 10 August 2006 - 10:42 PM

"Now, anyone you ask will confirm camera department is about a thousand times more fun than electric work"

Ha, no way. I spent much time in both departments (I started working at Panavision when I was really young, and then starting doing work in camera department).

I latter ended up on the electric side, and spent the most time there. The difficult thing with being in camera is that you are always "on". You are ether servicing the camera or working while the scene is shot. As an electric you clear out while the take is happening. That down time is a nice break, and depending on the guys, can be a lot of fun. Of course you end up trying to get work done for the next setup, but it?s at a much slower pace. (But it all comes down to personal opinion anyway, some may hate g/e work, while other would camera)

That said, I love my crew. My gaffer and best boy are extremely fun to work with, while being really hardcore. My operator and 1st (and depending on the show, DIT) are great to joke around with and quietly make jokes while they are on the side of the camera.

What is important to me is that this work is never taken too seriously. We make movies, there is no reason it can't be fun. So when I look for crew, its important to me that we can have fun while getting work done. I have heard guys who don't normally work with us make comments on how laid back, yet fast we are. And, next to the quality of the work, that is really important to me.

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#14 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 10 August 2006 - 11:02 PM

On a schedule where you have to shoot five pages of script or more (typical on a low to medium budget feature) per day and are expected to get in around thirty set-ups, and try and keep to a 12-hour day, honestly, there is naturally a limitation on the amount of time you will be allotted to figure things out on the set. And the more time you take, the less time you will have later in the day, so it behooves you to get the ball rolling quickly on the set.

To do that, you have to be prepared and have a plan for the day, you have to have some key elements in place so you can start being creative faster and be ready to shoot earlier.

So you don't really have the luxury of being indecisive -- if you don't decide, someone will decide for you.

But that doesn't mean you have to lock things down that don't need locking down. You have to have a flexible plan, not just because things change or go wrong, but because you may discover a better idea on the set, in the moment.

But (learning this from Gordon Willis) it's useful to have a visual game plan for the movie so that you have some basis to judge a spontaneous idea, so that the final film doesn't just look like a series of randomly strung-together images but has some sort of structure. But I try and keep that visual concept a little vague and generalized, not rigid, so it can incorporate odd ideas now and then. It may be as simple as "this movie is a journey from darkness into light" or "this character lives on the edge of light, never in it" or "this movie is emotionally cold and distancing."
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#15 Chris Keth

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Posted 10 August 2006 - 11:46 PM

Kevin, you sound like the kind of boss I want, and want to be someday. B)
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#16 Thom Stitt

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Posted 11 August 2006 - 12:42 AM

Well, that really depends on the individual, doesn't it? If you're not built to crawl under a package truck with frozen seeway between your teeth, then no, you probably won't find work as an electric or grip much fun.


Ha, no way. I spent much time in both departments (I started working at Panavision when I was really young, and then starting doing work in camera department).


Indeed - I should have expected to be called out on the generalization. You're both right, and I should know - I have a friend who I spent a bit of time with on set. He was the first person I've ever met - possibly only in fact - who I can genuinely see as just "being a grip." Doing that work and being fulfilled by it, loving every minute of it. He was an absolute machine, I've never seen anyone tackle a job with the kind of gusto he had. Not a lot of time for joking around, he was so intensely into his work. If he was on a show, you could probably subtract the amount of grips by half and he'd happily take up the slack - and this is on major productions. The last few months he's been busting his ass on the new Coen Bros movie for Roger Deakins (or is that the other way around?). He relayed that they used two 100K softsuns at one point, and ran miles of cable to 18 or 20Ks that were positioned at practically every street corner in a town the production took over. I mention this because when I just hear that information, I think, "Man, that's like Phil's ultimate fantasy."
Me, it's my ultimate nightmare.

Anyway, the point is he'd be bored to death by camera dept. If he doesn't have 200 pounds of gear strapped to him in the trenches, he's going to be miserable.

I think a few guys here have it right - it's about planning and executing a flexible plan and being adaptable. A highly experienced DP will know exactly how to shoot a scene - where to put the lights, how to shape them, etc. But a really GOOD DP will look at the shot when the plan is finished and know just what needs to be finessed, or be able to admit that the whole thing is failing and to conceive an alternative with his lighting and grip team on the day, efficiently, and have it WORK.

Time is everything on set, so I think having a plan is invaluable.

And that's not to mention the freakin' butterflies. I always get the nerves before a production starts up. It really really helps to have a game plan so you can deliver fast once things start moving. I'd honestly be too damned scared otherwise. Speaking of which...

The problem is, he was on some of the biggest budget projects, with the best crews you can get and every variety of light you can think of. So he had the luxury of not planning too much of what he was going to do ahead of time.


I'd have to have a comfort level with DPing that I'm not sure I'll EVER achieve in order to take an approach like that. To me, the bigger the show, the more lights, the higher the budget, the more terrified I'd be. Therefore, the more testing I'd do, the more discussion with other DPs for advice, the more diagrams, the more preplanning with the gaffer. Of course, I say this easily because I've never DONE a big production - but it's not something I see myself being terribly comfortable with.
Hell, I'm a fan of pre-lighting and pre-rigging, I've done it on the occasions where we shot in-studio, and I'd do it anytime the schedule and logistics allowed for it.

It can be a tough balance sometimes- I know I've spent way way too much time trying to get a shot just perfect, and it cost the production. In the end, that one shot wasn't worth it.

Edited by Thom S, 11 August 2006 - 12:45 AM.

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#17 Michael Rizzi

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Posted 11 August 2006 - 01:57 AM

I've actually heard of most DP's coming from gaffing, not camera. Every time they pull the 'c' body off the truck and add another camera at the last minute, the gaffer get the bump to camera operator, not the 1st AC, so imagine how hard the jump must be from assisting to DPing (I know... I'm in the process myself).

As far as DP's becoming too involved, in my experience the more a DP knows about all aspects of filmmaking (not just on set jobs, but editing, production design, make-up, wardrobe, etc.), the better DP they will be.

This includes simple things like knowing how to load magazines, use a C-stand, and strike a light. Even the most basic knowledge is better than not knowing how to do ANYTHING within that department. I think this will make you more of an asset on set because when you see someone struggling or needs help, you can step in and show them how it's done...after all, you are the DP...the boss.

Although, I'm not suggesting you should be looking over everyone's shoulders to make sure they are doing everything right, and doing it "your way". That's just plain annoying, and bad work ethics.

Anyway...my 2 cents.

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#18 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 11 August 2006 - 12:49 PM

I have never heard that story about Conie Hall, but the time I did spend with him, I got quite the opposite impression.

He always stressed how important it is to trust your instincts, and not just execute a plan, but to look through the viewfinder and watch what is happening with the light, to let things happen "organically".


That's what I meant, Kevin. Naturally, I'm not suggesting he was in any way disorganized, just that he played it by ear a bit. I recall the article in AC where he lit a big sequence in Jennifer 8 (beautiful movie) with only a flashlight and some foam core. That wasn't planned at all - it was an accident on set that got him onto it.
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#19 Kevin Zanit

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Posted 11 August 2006 - 01:28 PM

I should have been clear in my first post, me saying "I have never heard that story about Conie Hall, but the time I did spend with him, I got quite the opposite impression." was for the original poster, not you Adam. My main point was he was never one to draw big diagrams that were super specific.


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#20 timHealy

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Posted 11 August 2006 - 03:13 PM

I have been an electrician since 1988 and I can assure the gentlemen who thinks it is easier to transition from electric to DP than camera to DP is very wrong and is suffering form a case of the grass is greener. It always depends on the situation and the people you may have around giving you a helping hand. It also depends on if the person is shooting whatever they can on the side. There also may be people so good at their job whether it is an operator or a gaffer, that a producer or director may recognize that talent and may open some doors for them. But generally it is diffcult to become a DP any way, there is generally no easy way to do it.

As far as the original question there are some DP's who can appear to be idiots and not know a thing about lights or lighting and then there are very knowledgable DP's who can ask for the exact unit for the job everytime. Then there are DP's that can be any level in between. As an electrician I will generally have more respect for the DP that can ask for a light, place it, and it doesn't move until the shot is done. Conversely it is harder to repsect a DP who changes lights and his mind consistantly during one particular setup.

But basically if a DP comes from the camera side and is weak on the technical aspects of lights or is from the electric side and weak on some technical details of cameras, a DP has camera assitants or a gaffer (and a key grip) who fill in the blanks for them. That is what they are being paid for. If a DP doesn't know how to change a lens on an HMI, big deal. That is your job as an electrician not the DP's.

Best

Tim
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