Sunday, March 27, 2011

How To Choose A Cinematographer for Your Indie Film Project

Choosing a Cinematographer or Director of Photography for your film is like choosing an eye.
Recently, I have been interviewing DPs and have met some interesting guys. Some were late, some never called back, and some were amazing. I'll talk about the amazing ones, and how you can choose someone that will make your vision come to life.

When I met with aDP last week we sat and discussed details about my film from color to tone to lighting. I was impressed with his CV and long list of feature films he'd shot,  from beautifully lighted and shot interiors, to shots where he was literally hanging off a cliff. The guy had done it all. His demeanor was gentle. His smile was sincere. I got a good vibe from him, and he seemed to be someone who might be considerate to a first-time director.

Interviewing someone I consider to be a peer was challenging. Yes. I am the director, and yes, it is my vision, but being generous of spirit and even more generous creatively will ensure I get the best film made. I'm not the kind of Director who will spend time in "Video Village." So, I want a person I can work with side-by-side.

• Choose a person you feel like you can laugh with, watch a movie with and break bread with. If you don't feel at least two of those, you're in trouble! Go with your gut!

• Be generous in the creative process. If you don't like something be sure to say why. If you do like something give praise, if you have a better idea be careful about how you present it. As a Director it is your vision, but the DP expertise is to make your vision happen. Respect goes a long way.

In Filmmaking you either check your ego at the door and be respected, or you can be virtually blacklisted. Since making a movie is like giving birth, the pain can be intense and the process ripe with volatility, nerves and pressure. So choosing the person is (no pun inteded) "paramount" in making your film a successful and pleasant experience.

When interviewing a prospective DP for you film, do the following:

• Be prepared. Come to the meeting with a general outline about your film, but don't be overwhelming and go too deep yet. Remember, the DP not only shoots the film, but he's also involved in location tech, pre-production, storyboarding and even scouting locations. There will be time for all the details later.

• Show artwork, a few ideas, and pass along a treatment or script if you have it complete.
If they're perceptive, even a rough draft is good to wet their appetites.

• Nothing will get a DP on your project more than a good story!

• Explain your situation clearly and truthfully. If you're a first-time Director, say it!
Putting on a BS air about who you are and what you've done is starting off on the wrong foot.

• Ask questions about how they work. Every DP is different. Some like to be involved in everything, some don't. If you have a very low budget some DPs may want to work with you in a different way than they're usually used to. They may whittle down their team if they think they can make due with a smaller crew.

• Don't be afraid to discuss budget. Look, you've got nothing to hide. Chances are you don't have a 3 million dollar budget. If you did, you would have your pick of DPs and you'd be able to choose the people on your team a little more freely. Being honest up front creates good Karma all around.

• Take copious mental notes and listen. Even if you don't use that person, you can learn a lot. What you don't like makes it easier to weed through the things you do like.

Another DP I interviewed just last week was great. He had a great attitude, listened and seemed generally psyched about my story. I think he also loved the fact that I offered to discuss the possibility of cutting him on the profits of the film should it get picked up. Yes, this is a risk for both of us. But I wouldn't be any happier if I couldn't enrich a fellow artist's life. So I believe in giving back and completing the circle. We discussed all types of benefits like his proximity to the shoot, his access to a RED one, which he's been using for years, and a general love of the vicinity we both live in.

• If you love the DP you've interviewed, think about a mutually beneficial payment plan. Something like a deferred payment would work for some people. Or, for instance, if the movie makes a certain amount he/she'll get paid a percentage.

• Offer perks like a percentage of the Gross. This never happens in Hollywood and DPs are keen to this. They know a "Net" profit means no money. So be fair, and come out of the gate with honesty and truth about what you'll offer. This will get them excited about your project. In many cases, if they're used to working on larger budget films, they may never get offered a percentage of a film. It's not common. But in today's world of digital technology and with the advent of cheaper cameras, more and more people are living out their dreams of being a cinematographer and getting into the film industry. Some are good, some are not.

This lead me to my final section: Choice.

How do you know who to use? Who will represent your story the best way possible?
What if you choose the wrong person?

When setting up interviews I trust and hope you have the understanding that doing your homework is key. It is important to understand the DPs style role and camera package, if they even own one. Some DPs like to cast a wide stylistic net, so they own nothing on purpose. As a Director it's your job to know that how the DP is handling the camera is what's most important. Color, tone, 2k, 4k, that comes later.

• In determining which DP is right, you'll have to ask yourself if you love the way the DP moves you through a film or how their reel paints them as an artist. Are you impressed by the sleek movements, the subtle pushes and pulls, or do you like a flashy track-ridin, crane-lovin hotshot?
 For some applications like commercials a lot of intentional movements may be appropriate, for a subtle character-driven story, the camera work may need to be disciplined, controlled and as unobtrusive as possible. Your story can lead you to that decision early.

• The wider the style a DP has the better they are. If you see one style, one look, one camera package, you may get stuck looking like everything else that person has shot. They may work in one or two instances, but overall, the more diverse reels are most attractive to me.

• Go with your intuition. You're going to be spending weeks and months with this person. If something is off, chances are you're keying in on something that you don't like. You may like that he's cheap so you can be easily swayed to making an excuse for that negative feeling. Don't so it! Go with your gut.

When it comes down to it, you'll be going through at least 5 or 10 people before you settle on the one you like, and even then, there's no guarantee they're free when you're shooting your film, or willing to shoot it at your price. Choosing a DP is a difficult and lengthy process. If you're shooting your film in 6-8 months, start talking to them now.

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Good luck with your film!

Written by Paul Brighton
Director/Producer /Writer
"Brilliant Mistakes"

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