One of the things which I believe separates a good director of photography from a bad one is preparation. On a big production you may have weeks of paid, full-time prep, but on a micro-budget movie you may be lucky to have a single meeting before the shoot. In the latter case you’ll have to use your initiative, put in the time for free, and use Skype a lot, but either way the quality of the prep can make or break the production.
Here are ten things a DP should do to set themselves up for success before the camera rolls. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, rather it’s a run-down of the things which I have found to bear most fruit later on in the production.
1. Get inside the director’s head.
Some directors will come to you with a beautiful set of storyboards, concept art and reference images, but many won’t. Many will simply have an idea in their head of how they want it to look, and it’s your job to find out what that vision is. Often this will happen before full-time prep begins. It will consist of watching movies together, pouring over books of photos, sharing Pinterest boards or Dropboxes full of images, all the while discussing what they do and don’t like. The aim is to get such a clear idea of their vision that when you set up a shot you’ll deliver the mood they’re looking for first time.
2. Work with the art department.
The next person to get in sync with is the production designer. This is an incredibly important and symbiotic relationship; you have the power to completely destroy each others’ work, or to make each other look like geniuses! Two things you should talk about early on with the designer are the colour palette of the film (and any palettes specific to certain locations, plot threads or characters) and the aspect ratio: does the shape of the sets being designed fit the shape of the frame you’re planning to compose? Next you’ll want to discuss each set and the position of windows and practicals within it, to ensure that you’ll be able to get the lighting angles you need. For their part, the designer will want to quiz you on where the key camera positions will be, and the rough lens lengths you’ll be using, so they know where to put in the most detail and the important bits of dressing.
3. Get to know the needs of the other H.o.D.s.
Although the production designer is the most important head of department for a DP to work with, they are by no means the only one. The visual effects supervisor is increasingly a key collaborator; you should discuss the look you’re going for and how that will integrate with the VFX, and whether plates need to be shot at a higher resolution, in RAW, or any other technical requirements. You should familiarise yourself with the costume designs and discuss how those will integrate with the overall look. Similarly the make-up department will want to talk about about lens filtration, coloured lighting and anything else that may affect how their work looks. The line producer is a crucial person to get on the good side of. Sooner or later you’ll have to ask them for something expensive and unexpected, and they’re much more likely to say yes if you have tried to help them earlier on, by reducing your equipment list for example, or by hiring local camera assistants to save on accommodation costs.
Read my article on collaborating with other departments for more on this topic.
4. Check sun paths at locations.
When you start to scout the locations, you’ll want to pay careful attention to the direction of the sun. Which windows will it come through as it moves around over the course of the day? Are those trees or buildings likely to shadow that park bench where the characters will be sitting? With a bit of experience – and a compass, if it’s cloudy – you can estimate this, or use apps like Sun Tracker and Helios which are designed for exactly this purpose. For interiors, windows that never get direct sunlight are most convenient, allowing you to light them artificially, and thus constantly, without having to flag the real sun. For exteriors, shooting into the sun is generally most desirable, for the beauty of the backlight and the softness of the reflected fill. Of course, there will always be compromises with the other demands of the production.
See my article on sun paths for more on this.
5. Develop the shot list with the director.
Each director has a different process, but often they will draft a shot list on their own before passing it to you for feedback. There are many things for a DP to consider when going through this list. Do the shots reflect the style and visual grammar you both discussed earlier? (If not, has the director had a change of heart, or have they simply forgotten? Directors have a lot to think about!) Do the shots provide enough coverage for the editor? Are there too many shots to realistically accomplish on schedule? (Very often there are!) What grip equipment will the camera movements require? Are any special lenses or filters required, e.g. a macro lens for an extreme close-up of an eye?
6. Shoot tests.
Testing is a crucial part of the prep for both technical and creative reasons. Usually you will want to test a few different cameras and lens sets, to see which best serve the story. For example, a period film lit with a lot of genuine candlelight may work best on a sensitive camera like the Panasonic Varicam combined with soft fall-off lenses like Cooke S4s, while a sci-fi thriller might be suited to a Red or Alexa and a set of anamorphics for those classic flares. Until you’ve tested them and compared the images side by side though, you can’t be sure, and neither can the director and producers. Often costume and make-up tests will be requested, which may be combined with the camera tests to see how the different sensors render them, or maybe done separately once the camera kit is locked down. These tests are also a great opportunity for the DP to demonstrate for the director the type of lighting you plan to use to, and to make sure you really are on the same page. Ideally a DIT (digital imaging technician) will be available to grade the test footage, developing LUTs (look-up tables) if required, and providing proof of concept for the finished look of the movie.
Check out my tests of Alexa ISO settings, spherical lenses and anamorphic lenses.
7. Discuss the schedule.
Once the 1st AD has drafted the shooting schedule, they will show it to the DP for feedback. When determining how much can be done in a day, the 1st AD is thinking of the script page count, and they may not have seen a shot list at this point. Along with the director, the DP must bring any concerns they have about the schedule to the 1st AD in prep, or forever hold your peace! Is there enough time to get those tricky camera moves you’ve planned? Has the re-light time for the reverse been factored in? Have things been arranged in a logical order for lighting, or will things have to be torn down and put back up again later? Does the schedule permit things to be shot at the best time of day for light? Are the night scenes actually scheduled at night or will the windows have to be blacked out? Are there critical close-ups towards the end of the schedule, when the cast will be tired and no longer look their best?
For more detail on this, check out my article about things to look for in a schedule.
8. Get to know the faces of your cast.
However good-looking the talent may be, they will always look better under certain types of lighting than others. Often you will figure out what suits each actor after a week or so of shooting, but ideally you want to find out before principal photography begins. You can do this during testing, if the cast are available and you have enough time – trying out different key angles, fill levels, backlight and lenses to see what works best for their individual faces. Apart from anything else, this is a great way to establish trust with the cast right from the start, assuring them that they are in safe hands. If testing isn’t possible, watch some of their previous work, looking carefully at how they have been photographed.
9. Mark up your script.
There’s no point in having lots of great ideas in preproduction if you forget them when you’re on set. Everyone has a different system, but you may wish to mark up your script and/or shot list. This could include using coloured highlighters to differentiate day and night scenes at a glance, underlining any references to mood or camera angles in the stage directions, or indicating beats in the development of the story or characters which need to be reflected in how things are lit or shot.
10. Plan your lighting.
Everyone likes to get rolling as soon as possible after call time, and a big factor in achieving this is how quickly you can light. Ideally you will have planned the broad strokes of the lighting in preproduction, and communicated that plan to the gaffer. Budget permitting, the lighting crew can even pre-rig the set so that only tweaking is required when the whole unit arrives. In this case you’ll need to have been very clear and specific about what you want set up and where, drawing diagrams or approving those which the gaffer has drawn up. Often you’ll need to know the rough blocking of the scene before you can plan the lighting, so you should make sure the director indicates their intentions for this during scouts.
Every film is different, but follow the steps above and you’ll be well on your way to an efficient and productive shoot in 2018. Happy new year!