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How much a director should know about cinematography?


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#1 Navinder Singh

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Posted 23 December 2010 - 12:10 PM

Hi all,

I went on a shoot last week as a PA, and there I saw that the DoP was controlling everything and the director was agreeing to whatever the DoP told him. It was clear that the director didn't have any knowledge about cinematography. The DoP was doing his job perfectly, but the director was not. He was just saying Action and Cut. That's it! In my opinion, he was not a director.

So I've this question for the DoPs here, how much, according to you, a director should know about cinematography? Do you prefer a director who knows the stuff and participates in the process or do you prefer a director who lets you do your own thing?

Thanks!
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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 23 December 2010 - 12:31 PM

Alexander Mackendrick, perhaps being a bit paranoid, once said that a director should know enough technology to know when the technicians were lying to him. There is some truth in that, he has to know when to call "bullshit" when someone tells him that this shot can't be lit or the sound can't be mic'd, etc.

It all comes to story and performance, that's the director's chief responsibility on a set. So how he interacts with the cinematographer will mainly be in relationship to that, it's not a question of whether the DP uses a 10K or a 5K, for example, it's a question of whether it sets the right mood for the scene. It's not a question of whether the DP uses a 25mm or a 35mm lens, it's a question of which creates the right effect and has the correct view for the story point being made. So a director has to involve himself in all of these decisions, he just doesn't have to be technical about it, he doesn't have to micromanage.

But I certainly think it's a director's responsibility to describe what he wants and work with the DP to design the set-up, including the lens used and the type of camera movement, and to set the composition. Now on a shot-to-shot basis, a director may have to be more involved at some times than other times, not every shot needs the same degree of management and control.

But ultimately it's the director's main job on the set to deal with the actors, to monitor and direct their performances, which involves a lot more than yelling "action" and "cut".

Now when I work with a director as a DP, we'll watch a private rehearsal with the actors (just us, plus the script supervisor, AD, and props person if needed), we'll discuss the coverage, and then I'll work on the first set-up with the stand-ins, showing the director what I have in mind with a lens on a lens finder, discuss the look of the lighting, all to get his approval, I don't proceed without that... I don't want him to walk off the set after the rehearsal, come back after the set-up is done, lighting, dolly track, etc.... and then say that it wasn't what he wanted.

Now of course on a feature there is also prep work done together, perhaps a shot list or storyboard was generated. Then on the set, there is less discussion so to an outsider it may look like the DP has taken charge when he is actually just executing the plan developed by him and the director before the shooting day. They've already discussed the lens, the camera move, the lighting effect, before they arrived on set.

Sometimes on my sets, the problem can be that I look like I'm taking charge simply because I think fast and I have a good memory, so I'll recall all the things the director said he wanted before he can remember them, so crew people start asking me what all the shots will be for the scene. But I'll always try to phrase the answer something like: "well, the director told me that we'll have this master, plus a medium punch-in, then get a close-up and then turnaround but only for this line of hers, the rest will play in the wider shots..."

People visiting a set often are surprised to see how much the DP has to do in terms of getting shots set-up, they assume that the director does all of that -- most of the work on the set involves lighting, plus grip work, so once the director tells the DP what he wants, most of the time, effort, and noise all surround what the DP is doing to accomplish that, which gives the false impression that the DP is running things. When I was in Texas, I had so many small town folks tell me "I had no idea a DP had so much to do on a set!" What we do tends to be show-offy and we take most of the time of the day except for times when the camera is rolling.
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#3 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 23 December 2010 - 12:49 PM

[excerpt from "What I Really Want to Do: On Set in Hollywood"]


What do I really need to know?

You are like the conductor of an orchestra, where the cast and crew are the musicians who express their own creativity by being adept at specific technical crafts. It is your job to bring together those individuals who can complement your own understanding of the project so that everyone is working toward the same goal.

Perhaps one of the most important character traits a Director can have is the ability to recognize what you don’t know. You may feel you are the most creative person on set, but having the capacity to ask for help when you need it, both technically and creatively, will help everyone in bringing the project to its full potential.

Having some experience with all of the jobs on a set, whether through observation or by actually getting your hands dirty doing them, can help you be more efficient in communicating your ideas and wishes on a shot-by-shot basis when you do get to sit in the Director’s chair. The tangible benefit of doing this is that what actually ends up on film more closely matches the ideas in your head. Each shot looks the way you envision, and, with communication with the cast and crew that is collaborative, efficient, and understanding, you can get more done each day and have a better daily experience doing it.


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#4 Tom Jensen

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Posted 23 December 2010 - 06:50 PM

A friend of mine was working in Paris with Roman Polanski and when the crew had their initial production meeting, the first thing Roman said was the he could do all of their jobs better than them. A few people were put off by that remark and within a week, he made a believer of all of them. Directors vary from neophyte to seasoned vet but you have to remember it is not your concern at how inept or how experienced the director is. Just remember that they are the director and you have to respect that. Often, the less experience directors are smart enough to know that the crew is their friend and you get the chance to spread your wings a little. If they are a tyrant, just do your job. I remember working with a director and I was second guessing this guy from day 1. I was younger and I thought I knew more and I couldn't believe some of the crap he was shooting. Then I saw the final cut and was blown away. The director had a vision and I could not see it. So you just never know.
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#5 Stephen Floyd

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Posted 04 January 2011 - 11:18 PM

But ultimately it's the director's main job on the set to deal with the actors, to monitor and direct their performances, which involves a lot more than yelling "action" and "cut".


Very true, Mr. Mullen.

I had a similar experience to Navinder's my first time as a PA. Our director was unsure how much he should be involved in planning shots vs. directing actors, and the 1st AD actually did a lot of directing as a result. But the DP was laid back, so he did not mind the input. I think our director tried to manage too many things at once and kept many expectations to himself, so there were times when we waited hours for someone to tell us what to do.
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#6 Luke Lenoir

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Posted 07 November 2011 - 11:27 AM

Personally I think the Director should know MORE than the DP going into the project. The director should oversee the finished script, the storyboards, the casting, the set construction, the lighting, and everything else. Considering that the telling of the story is heavily dependent on the director's prowess behind the camera; what he/she knows and what he/she wants the audience to know. The DP lights and shoots. The director controls the amount of information being presented at a given time. Some stories are more visual than others. Some stories are better told through dynamic camera technique, and some aren't. If the director doesn't understand shot theory he/she should not be directing. Most in this day and age probably don't.

And generally, the director and DP will walk the grounds/set and talk and plan what shots are needed so that the majority of that work is done when the actors and crew arrive.


PT Anderson's films. Read the scripts and observe how much screen-direction is on the paper. This is often a big no-no unless you plan to direct. PT Anderson's screen direction is really excellent in most of his films. Good screen direction helps the story flow and gets the actors/audience involved. It also makes you look like a pro at your craft.

Edited by Luke Lenoir, 07 November 2011 - 11:31 AM.

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#7 Ferrari Francis

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Posted 29 December 2011 - 04:15 PM

Awesome info! thanks guys!
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#8 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 29 December 2011 - 04:25 PM

Personally I think the Director should know MORE than the DP going into the project. The director should oversee the finished script, the storyboards, the casting, the set construction, the lighting, and everything else. Considering that the telling of the story is heavily dependent on the director's prowess behind the camera; what he/she knows and what he/she wants the audience to know. The DP lights and shoots. The director controls the amount of information being presented at a given time. Some stories are more visual than others. Some stories are better told through dynamic camera technique, and some aren't. If the director doesn't understand shot theory he/she should not be directing. Most in this day and age probably don't.

And generally, the director and DP will walk the grounds/set and talk and plan what shots are needed so that the majority of that work is done when the actors and crew arrive.


PT Anderson's films. Read the scripts and observe how much screen-direction is on the paper. This is often a big no-no unless you plan to direct. PT Anderson's screen direction is really excellent in most of his films. Good screen direction helps the story flow and gets the actors/audience involved. It also makes you look like a pro at your craft.


Well, you can't get away with being so expansive with what a director has to know, i.e. everything, and then be so reductive as to say that all a cinematographer does is light and shoot -- there's more to cinematography than that.

Sure, a director has to be involved in so many more aspects of a movie's creation, but that's not saying that they have to know more than the cinematographer about cinematography. I mean, you don't expect a director to know more about electricity than the electricians -- there's a reason why in life you hire experts to work for you, because those people have devoted their professional lives to becoming good in a particular area. A director doesn't have to be more of an expert than all the experts he hires to work for him. He doesn't need to know more about orchestral arrangement than the person doing the orchestral arrangements. He doesn't hire actors who not as good at acting than he is. A good director isn't afraid of hiring people who are really good at what they do.
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#9 Chris Millar

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Posted 29 December 2011 - 10:21 PM

He was just saying Action and Cut. That's it! In my opinion, he was not a director.


Possible, at least with 'action' that he was the first AD ?

i.e. not a director

I've seen some very quiet directors on commercial sets, it would be very easy to confuse the DoP or first AD with the director in those cases...
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#10 Daniel Larry

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Posted 30 December 2011 - 10:05 AM

Hi all,

I went on a shoot last week as a PA, and there I saw that the DoP was controlling everything and the director was agreeing to whatever the DoP told him. It was clear that the director didn't have any knowledge about cinematography. The DoP was doing his job perfectly, but the director was not. He was just saying Action and Cut. That's it! In my opinion, he was not a director.

So I've this question for the DoPs here, how much, according to you, a director should know about cinematography? Do you prefer a director who knows the stuff and participates in the process or do you prefer a director who lets you do your own thing?

Thanks!


Helps to know ALOT. But not everything. Which is why others are employed.
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#11 Umar Syed

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Posted 11 July 2012 - 03:39 AM

.....Directors vary from neophyte to seasoned vet but you have to remember it is not your concern at how inept or how experienced the director is. Just remember that they are the director and you have to respect that. Often, the less experience directors are smart enough to know that the crew is their friend and you get the chance to spread your wings a little. If they are a tyrant, just do your job. I remember working with a director and I was second guessing this guy from day 1. I was younger and I thought I knew more and I couldn't believe some of the crap he was shooting. Then I saw the final cut and was blown away. The director had a vision and I could not see it. So you just never know.


I agree with you sir...

Edited by Umar Syed, 11 July 2012 - 03:39 AM.

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