I am DPing my first feature film, it starts production in about a week. I am looking for advice or tips from DPs that have shot a feature before. This is a dialogue heavy film with lots of conflict between main characters. I am looking for any kind of advice on shooting dialogue scenes, communicating with your crew on set to be more efficient, clues on making sure you have coverage or just anything you wish you would have know going into your first feature.
I know it's broad, but if you have something I would love to hear it.
As protagonist, Anna, cleans out her childhood home to help sell it, she stumbles upon a tiny mailbox full of letters from a mysterious childhood pen-pal. Anna originally discovered the mailbox growing in her garden with a letter addressed to her when she was 10. Heartbroken and angry about her parent’s impending divorce, Anna found catharsis and comfort in reading and writing letters to her new friend. 25 years later and similarly broken, Anna once again finds solace in the letters and embarks on a journey to find the true identity of her mystery pen-pal. But what Anna discovers is the last thing she expected to find.
My only good advice would be know what the story is about-- and I don't mean the synopsis, i mean the core "point" behind it, and figure out what the point of view of the story is. Work with your director on how they see the film-- the coverage is often pretty apparent and usually pretty unnecessary but most directors like to have it for a safety net.
This is probably not that helpful since you're so close to production, but make sure you've done your due diligence in prep. That means:
Do you know the script front to back?
Do you have your own breakdown documents of locations, looks, shooting plans?
Have you shot all the camera tests you need to be confident in your approach?
Have you thoroughly scouted all the key locations, hopefully with your key dept heads?
Have you got all your key dept heads locked, and have you communicated what you're trying to achieve?
Have you guys mapped out a plan for how you're going to turn around any complicated setups as efficiently as possible?
Have you put in orders for special equipment on certain days, if needed?
Have you checked the first week's shooting schedule with the 1st AD to make sure it's reasonable?
Have you gone to rehearsals to see if the actors know their characters yet?
If you've done all that, then you're in pretty good shape. Beyond that, I would recommend printing out a 1/4 size copy of the script for yourself to make notes on and reference. Kinkos can do it for you. Print out stills from your look book and attach them to the opposite script page, so you always have your reference material with you.
This is moving into directing a bit, but try to keep an eye on the big picture and beware of pacing issues while shooting. Usually, the pacing ends up being too slow, so try to always inject some energy into your camera work. Don't neglect cutaways and transitions. When in doubt, shoot more material rather than less. Don't shoot it if it's crap. Don't move on if you don't feel you got it. Move on as soon as you got it. Always be planning two setups ahead.
The key is to break things down into manageable chunks so it looks less overwhelming. Talk through scenes and then specific shots with the director, always using the story and its emotional and intellectual beats as a guide to discussion, and a structure will start to emerge, and then go back and try to get things to work within that structure.
Keep your visual concepts SIMPLE, the process of actual shooting will end up making the concept more subtle because you won't be able to control everything to make it fit the design. For example, you could decide that the movie should be as monochromatic as possible, or only be in warm tones, and yet once you shoot, some other colors will naturally creep in, thus making your visual design less obvious, perhaps even a bit more organic, as long as you don't over-compromise to the point that the concept is lost.
I find it useful to thing in terms of visual arcs or visual counterpoints -- i.e. is this a story that moves from mood A to mood B or is it a story that contrasts the world of A versus the world of B? Or is it all of one mood, one look that never changes? For example, you find that with most contemporary thrillers and horror films (as opposed to period fantasies), the story moves from a realistic setting and mood to a more abstract, psychological world that is less realistic, more expressionistic. So the visual arc often moves from naturalism to expressionism. That can be expressed in terms of lens choice, color design, composition, movement, lighting contrast, etc.
Sidney Pollack used to break down his movies into a simple theme that each scene had to support in some way -- in "Out of Africa", it was something like "freedom versus possession", which was also the central conflict between the two main characters. Visually, this theme was more expressed through production design and location (exterior versus interior) but the camera had to capture these various settings in a way that supported this idea.
Your story is sort of a classic "past versus present" structure so your visual design will be based on what you are trying to convey about the past and the present. And if the past scenes are a memory / flashback as opposed to just being the first part of the film, then there is that to factor in, that these moments are being remembered.
The director and I are really focused on what emotion is being conveyed in each scene along with who is in control of the scene. That has made me come to choose if we are on sticks with locked off shots, dolly, handheld or for the flashback scenes Movi. Trying to give a real personality to the camera in each of these different scenes and how they are meant to feel for the audience.
I really appreciate your guy's thoughts and feedback. I teach basic cinematography at my college and I love giving back to the younger generation of filmmakers and sites like this help pay it forward!
Work closely and pay special attention to the sound department, I know this is cinematography forum but it's vital for a cinematographer to know the workflow of sound recording, so you get the best picture and best sound at the same time.
Take this for what it is worth, as I've only shot one feature.
When you have a lot of dialogue, the coverage can easily become very predictable and boring. I find that it is the mark of good directors and filmmakers (this includes the DP) to be able to play with the conventions and the art form of cinema. One of the best contemporaries of this today is David Fincher. Take a look at this classic roundtable setup from Zodiac:
Notice how masterfully Fincher changes from "normal" coverage into tighter eyelines (more over the shoulder) as the tension rises. Finally, he switches from eyelines off camera to in camera just after 1:00 in the clip to really hit high tension. This is very ballsy move from him, yet it works perfectly and you don't question it at all. Don't see that very often, and it's a mark of someone who is masterfully accomplished in his craft. Most directors won't want to do this and will resist such a thing.
Things like that, or switching the lines cleverly (by tracking, or bringing it with you in some other way) will elevate your art. If you can convince the director to plan a few of these and breathe some clever life into a couple of dialogue sequences, you will make it more interesting. But it demands discipline and trust in the solution. If you switch the eyelines but then omit the shot that brings the line with you (perhaps for time reasons) you risk looking amateurish. So everybody needs to be on the same page - you, the director and the editor.
Lastly, another good advice from Fincher: don't forget to cover the one listening to the dialogue. It's just as important and a good editor will know not to cut to the one talking all the time. And dialogue doesn't need to be covered 8 ways to Sunday - sometimes let it just play in a wide. A CU is a statement, keep them for when they're really needed. Talking heads in closeups a la cheap TV shows get boring real quick.
Something I learned from actors is to create a playlist of music that puts you in the 'headspace' of the script emotionally. As a DP it helps especially when I'm operating my own camera. I'll have headphones and it helps to keep me in the scene emotionally whilst the chaos of the set goes on around me. Music puts you where you need to be when the actors themselves or the "writing" or the insanity of production can sometimes throw you out.
I had a director/DP client a few years ago who would listen to his own music while operating. He would shout direction at cast and crew from behind the camera which annoyed everyone until we realized that he wasn't angry - he just had his headphone volume tuned up to 11. He was and is one of the oddest people I've ever met.
One of my current roommates is a sound guy. When we're shooting MOS, he'll sometimes feed movie soundtrack music to the camera from his iPhone instead of his usual scratch mix. Kinda fun to have a Hans Zimmer temp track for your yogurt commercial.
David Mullen has given you fantastic advice, as always. It's very easy to be intimidated by the amount of material in a feature, and, in that case, it's best to evaluate the script in small chunks and let a pattern emerge. When I can, I like to create a spreadsheet that breaksdown the technical and creative details of each scene. Once I receive the schedule, I can easily "sort" the spreadsheet to match the shooting schedule and organize my notes day by day. It's really just a version of Paul Wheeler's cinematography prep forms from his book "Practial Cinematography."
I'd love to offer advice about working with your crew. Do you know your crew? Were they hired by you or the line producer? Every crew has a different dynamic, but ultimately your job must include motivating them to success and that means identifying and understanding your unique "crew dynamic." A lot of diplomacy is involved in the DP's job, both above and below the line.
With more details, the thread might be able to offer practial advice about working with and leading your crew, even as you are on set shooting this month... Feel free to PM as well.
Just wanted to say it's always nice to get a window into a confident workflow.... I cut a pasted David and Satsuki's points into my own notes. Sometimes you do things and it seems like overkill. And if the people you are working with do not have set experience [mine rarely do] they can apply a subconscious pressure to you to oversimplify. Then you never have enough to work with on or off the set after the shoot. I have never properly prepared and kept my composure and not rcvd a compliment about the level of professionalism. But yet everytime that pressure to skip steps and over simply still exists.