Cinematography: My Process

Consulting director Sophie Black's storyboards on Night Owls. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou
Consulting director Sophie Black’s storyboards on Night Owls. Photo: Dimitri Yiallourou

I thought it might be of interest to describe my typical working process as a director of photography on a shooting day. Different directors and ADs will run their sets different ways, so this is a generalisation.

I like to start the day by reading some of Stephen Murphy’s DOP Documents over breakfast. These elegantly-laid-out collections of screen grabs from top cinematographers are fantastic inspiration.

On some productions I’ve had long talks with the director, I’ve seen storyboards or shotlists and I’ve been on the location scouts or walked the sets already. On others I’m a last minute hire and I know nothing beyond what it says in the script. (And this should go without saying, but you need to read the script. Apparently some DPs don’t. WTF?)

Whenever I see the set for the first time, be that in preproduction or on the day, I start to think about light sources. If it’s outdoors, what is the sun orientation? If it’s indoors, where are the windows? If it’s night, what practical sources are there and do I need to add or remove some?

Ideally the next thing that happens is that the actors arrive, still in their street clothes, and the director blocks the scene with them. If I see anything that can be tweaked to orientate the talent better towards the light sources, or to provide more interesting framing, I’ll suggest it.

During the blocking I’ll wander around with Artemis (a virtual director’s viewfinder app on my iPad). If there’s a shotlist or storyboard, I’ll find the angles described and check they work. If not, I’ll find the angles I think will work well. I’ll screen-grab all of these and show them to the director when they’re done blocking. There may then be some give-and-take, perhaps adjusting the actors in situ through the viewfinder, until the director is happy.

Before the actors depart to get into costume and make-up, I’ll have my assistant put down marks for their key positions. Then the cast can leave and I can get down to the business of lighting the scene. Here’s broadly what I’m thinking about, in roughly the order I tend to think about it:

  1. Realistically, where would light be coming from?
  2. How should the scene be lit to create an appropriate mood?
  3. How should the cast be lit to look their best and enhance their characters?
  4. Aesthetically, what lighting will look the most pleasing?
  5. Practically, where can I put lights with the grip equipment I have, without any of it coming into shot?
Lensing Three Blind Mice
Lensing Three Blind Mice

Once I’ve taken a few minutes to figure that out, I’ll start issuing instructions to my gaffer. I might walk around planting lamps, or just stands, and let the gaffer finish the job by cabling them, or I may let him set some lamps up while I puzzle over whether I’ll need other lamps elsewhere. Meanwhile the camera is being set up with my chosen lens on, either by an assistant or me, if we’re short on crew. (Most directors leave lens choices to me.)

When most of the lamps are set, I’ll fire everything up and draft in whoever’s around to stand in for the actors so I can see if it’s working as planned. I don’t use a light meter, so everything is judged by eye on the monitor, perhaps with the aid of a histogram. Some tweaking usually ensues.

By this point hopefully the cast are back on set and we can start camera rehearsals. Although these are useful to the cast and director, they’re invaluable for me so that I can practice the camera move and see how the light works on the actual actors and costumes. Usually there’ll be a little more tweaking of lights before we shoot. With any luck this doesn’t hold up the director because they’re busy giving last minute direction to the cast.

After we shoot I’ll tell the director whether the take was any good from a camera and lighting standpoint. I generally don’t request retakes unless I’ve screwed something up pretty badly. Long experience has taught me that the editor will always choose the best take for performance, regardless of any minor camera wobbles or dodgy lighting, so I’m not going to waste time insisting on another take which won’t get used. The important thing is for the director to get the performance they want. Having said that, it’s my job to flag up any cinematography fluffs so that it’s the director’s decision whether to go again or not.

Once the first shot is in the can, lighting for the coverage should be fairly straightforward. I’ll have my assistant change the lens, then I’ll move the camera to the new position myself and see how the existing lighting works. Then I can tweak things accordingly.

And so it goes on until the scene is wrapped.

OK, enough from me for a minute. Want to see a legendary cinematographer’s process as he lights a scene? Check out this unique and fascinating video.

I’ll leave you with the latest Ren production diary, which asks (and fails to answer) the question: “What is a DoP anyway?”

Cinematography: My Process