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In need of some perspective from established / working DPs


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#1 Liam Howlett

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Posted 01 December 2012 - 06:30 AM

I'm an amateur DP, a student so far - but, not through film school, just through watching a plethora of films from every genre, all over the world. I've started shooting since graduating high school, got myself a ton of books on photography first and read them and practiced. And in 2010, with the advent of DSLR cinema entering the market, it now all seemed like a better possibility and chance to actually learn cinematography, so I've been mostly practicing shooting.

Recently I've met some people with whom I can collaborate on projects - I still have a ways to go, but I've gotten past the technicals phase of the cinematic vocabulary - close up, medium, etc what each does, when you use it, such and such.

I've also HEAVILY started to listen to film commentaries, to the point where when I come through a very good advice - I will go as far as taking out the best moments of a given commentary and make a compilation so I can listen to it over and over again.

And just about a day or so ago I've come across this quote by John McTiernan -

Was there any one film that ignited your interest?

No, but I remember when I decided that that's what I was going to do. I went about it like it was reverse engineering. I knew that I had to go and learn what a movie was, not just my experience of going and watching a movie. So I went and sat in Truffaut's Day for Night (1972), watched it for three days straight, eight hours at a time and memorized it shot-for-shot. I got past the story, all the original and secondary experience, so I could study what it was that I was really watching. Film is really sort of a chain that's really linear. Yet when it's all strung together, it just sort of feels like an experience. It takes quite a while to be able to deconstruct that experience to figure out what you really saw.


which pushed me over the edge, to also follow this advice and truly run a film to the ground over a couple of days so it gets ingrained in my head.

NOW, my biggest issue, not only prevents me from progressing forward as far as grasping concepts - but it makes me doubt myself too.

The issue is that no matter how many books I read on cinematography, film, or how many commentary excerpts of the best advice I listen to over and over - and while it makes a difference, because I DO learn it all - it all seems to just go in one ear and out the other, not only when I am out there on location - but when I edit for instance.

Is this normal, or am I just mentally retarded (I hope not) when it comes down to remembering. I just can't keep it all in my head all the time. Did you guys run into this issue when you were first novice DPs? How did you overcome it. Practice? or memorizing in essentially the same way McTiernan memorized and studied films?

I would like to hear from as many of you as possible, this is really an issue for me. I am at a point where I am seriously considering of just putting together a notebook of the most CRUCIAL cinematographic information and just carrying it with me. It does sound sane to do when you're a essentially a noob, at least until I start getting truly grasping the cinematic language without a need for reference. BUT, do you, or DID YOU have this issue of just completely going BLANK about how to shoot something.

The more I write, the more I think I know what I need, and it's a solid grasp on the story of the scene, or a sequence - but then I also begin to just hear this chatter in my brain that says, "you dont know how to shoot this"

More planning, more theory, more analyzing films, more FILM education? I feel like I need to be doing all of those things I listed, but maybe there's a root problem? I mean, I don't think I'm NOT talented, I've trained my eye a bit since I first picked up a camera - but I feel like I can't store so much information in my head, and maybe it's a case of being just relatively NEW to this craft, and not so much having anything to do with talent.

If anyone is doubting me about talent, then look no further than this - I think I have a good sense for compositions at least as a novice, but sometimes when I go out on a shoot - whether it's just an experimental, like practice shoot - or filming a live performance, I can just blank about how to cover, or frame something.

What's wrong with me. A case of inexperience or not enough film education, or both, or something else?

Edited by Liam Howlett, 01 December 2012 - 06:35 AM.

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#2 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 01 December 2012 - 09:05 AM

It's case of doing those 10,000 hours needed to master something. Where you do that is up to you, but you also need the contacts and network of people who will allow you to do that. If you find the right people you'll process a lot faster than if you never meet them.
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#3 Jeremy Ables

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Posted 03 December 2012 - 12:57 AM

Agree with Brian on the 10,000 hours as I am a student myself and working towards those myself. I think can relate to your situation, I like your idea of writing down the most crucial info of carrying it around with you, howerver I think that words will only get you so far. I was placed as the DP for my senior project recently and the first thing that I did was pick up the master shots for dialogue book in e-book format. I did this for a couple of reasons my script was dialogue heavy and was trying to come up with stuff other than typical coverage for each scene to give it something that looked more than average and the pictures that it gives really spawns great ideas and just as you turn the page it's the shot that you were thinking of! The last thing that helped was a shot list, yeah a storyboard is great to look at but when you are trying to get shots done on a time crunch going racking your brain for the next shot while on set was not something that was recommended. Hope this helps I am glad to see more students with similar issues that I think we all have to figure out how to face.
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#4 Guillaume Cottin

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Posted 05 December 2012 - 03:25 PM

Is this normal, or am I just mentally retarded (I hope not) when it comes down to remembering. I just can't keep it all in my head all the time. Did you guys run into this issue when you were first novice DPs? How did you overcome it. Practice? or memorizing in essentially the same way McTiernan memorized and studied films?


Knowledge is an endless pit : the more you learn, the more you discover how much there is that you don't know yet. I love watching films, but I am also very technically oriented, and I learn new stuff every single day ! Far from being frightening, this is what makes things so interesting, this is why filmmaking is so awesome. You will never get bored. Whenever you think you mastered a skill, you soon realize you can always dig deeper. It may take 10000 hours to just start at being good at something, but mastering the craft is the work of a lifetime.

Since there is no way to remember everything (unless you have eidetic memory!), at some point, I decided that I would organize my knowledge. I started a notebook where I write down useful lighting tricks and other useful stuff that I learn over time. I filed all the papers and documentation I had gathered on cameras and gear over the years. I also organized my browser's bookmarks, etc... There are also a few books I trust, so if ever there is anything I don't know, at least I know where to find what the information I need.
That being said, we're talking about knowledge here, and it is different from pure practice. You learn different stuff by experience than by reading books (or blogs). Both are necessary and complementary.

Now about going blank about how to shoot something. Just think about what you are trying to tell. Think about your story's themes. The best shot angle, the best lighting are the ones that help you express what you want to tell.
But do not worry, because from what I see in your video, you do have a very good sense of composition, and there is an atmosphere that emanates from your images.
You'll learn the rest. Step by step.

Edited by Guillaume Cottin, 05 December 2012 - 03:26 PM.

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#5 Chad Stockfleth

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Posted 08 December 2012 - 10:18 AM

I'll chime in. After a little more than a decade doing this, my advice to you is: Give yourself a break! There are so many technicalities within this profession, not to mention the artistic choices you must make. Many things you read about, but until you do it, sometimes several times, it may not click. Some principles just take a while to soak in. One day that little lightbulb in your head goes off and EUREEKA, it makes sense. You have to physically be practicing for this knowledge to develop into instincts, that is when you can stop over-analyzing the situation and feel your way through it. For me, that's when the best work happens. As someone above said, there is no end to the learning. There is always something new to challenge you. Of course, as you get good at a certain style or look, your taste may change and you'll be on to something else! One project you may eschew backlighting and create seperation by lighting the background. The next year you may be obsessed with hard backlighting with a reflected key. At a certain point, the knowledge takes on your personality (and ideally, the personality of the project).

So, that's a long way of saying keep at it and give yourself time to truly absorb the information so that you don't have to think about it, you just do it.

Cheers!

-Chad
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#6 Gregg MacPherson

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Posted 08 December 2012 - 06:07 PM

I'm an amateur DP, a student ....got myself a ton of books
.....quote by John McTiernan.....truly run a film to the ground over a couple of days so it gets ingrained in my head....
More planning, more theory, more analyzing films, more FILM education?


Liam,
You are approaching this in an extremely objective way, learning by peeling back layers from the outside. The magic ingredient for this model that commonly might make it work is contact with an experienced cinematographer who may be the Master of his own small universe. Enlivening very fine subjective values of experience just by proximity. But it sounds like you have a seriously over-objectified version of this model in play. If you damage yourself with your forced de-construction exercises you may compromise the more subtle experience that you are looking for.

When I was a young wannabe film maker and cinematographer in the 80s, all my friends were essentially artists who happened to want to make films. Films that would of course change the world, aesthetically, politically and so on, so the inner intention, the thing underpinning the ideas, was commonly intense. Same for the development of idea. Form comes easily from an intense creative core of idea. Like having a baby, but of course there can be agonizing pain etc.

So, the thought I had when I read your post a while ago was that you could intensively develop one of your own short film ideas, something really personal that you had intense feelings about. IMHO it would be more poetic than narrative, allowing more freedom in the form. Enjoy the playful flood of images that come up in the imagination. Filter that and focus on what you can usefully develop. When you come to shoot you should have a feeling of intimate connection with the material, No mental blanks at all.

Do the same kind of thing, maybe more narrative, as a collaboration. With the most creative young writer/director you can find. Raw talent is what's critical here rather than experience. Again an idea that you (both) really feel intensly for. Get as close to the idea development as possible. If you share in the intensity of idea then the form, the images, the compositions and light should come easily. Or at least nauraly, like having a baby. It may feel like chaos, but mental blanks are unlikely.

What's with the photo under your name? Looks like you were headed for a social hook up website and stumbled into here by accident (joke)

Edited by Gregg MacPherson, 08 December 2012 - 06:09 PM.

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#7 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 08 December 2012 - 08:00 PM

When you are younger, you have more tolerance for repetition -- I saw my favorite movies over and over again, and I read my favorite books over and over again, which certainly helps in retention beyond simply having a good memory. In the early 1980's, I saw my favorite movies in the theaters ten or more times while in their release year. I simply don't have that sort of time or energy now to spend revisiting the same thing over and over again.
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