Well, it’s all very real now. For six weeks I’ve been documenting my non-continuous prep period on a feature film adaptation of a well-known Shakespeare play. It won’t be announced to the press until it is close to release, so I still can’t share the title or any other identifying details. I’ll go so far as to say that it’s being shot in a theatre (though not all on stage), and the director is from a theatre background
On Monday I checked into the hotel and began the first of two full-time prep weeks. Unusually, these two weeks are filled with rehearsals. I may, once or twice, have worked on a film that had perhaps a single day of rehearsals. Two weeks is unheard of, but of course it’s perfectly normal in theatre.
The strange thing for me is that just when a scene is taking shape – the point where I’d normally get involved, when the blocking is nearly final and it’s time to think about shots – we move on to the next one. The last bit of the rehearsals will be done, as normal, on the day of shooting.
As the actors explore the spaces, I do too. Some of them have changed quite dramatically, thanks to the efforts of the art department, since I last reccied them. It’s an unprecented opportunity for me to check many potential camera angles. Before we move on from a scene, I run around frantically with Artemis, trying to take enough shots to make a storyboard. A large part of today (it’s Saturday as I write this) has been taken up with selecting the best shots, scribbling annotations on them and outputting them as PDFs into a Google Drive folder where the director, 1st AD, 1st AC, production designer and others can see them.
During quieter moments, I’ve slipped off to discuss things with the production designer or the stage lighting designer, or just to sit in one of the spaces by myself and think through shots and lighting.
On Friday afternoon a tech recce took place, which I led because the director was still busy rehearsing. This was followed by a Zoom meeting to discuss issues arising.
Less fun but equally important things last week were completing a camera department risk assessment, and taking Covid tests, which leave you feeling like you jumped into a swimming pool without pinching your nose.
Prep for the yet-to-be-announced Shakespearian feature continued last week. Tuesday and Wednesday saw me on Zoom calls with the producers – discussing camera kit quotes – and the costume designer. “Will we see enough of his face through this headgear?” was a question for the latter. She in turn asked how white a white coat should be, and how dark surrounding characters should be to make one person in black stand out. Difficult things to quantify, but important.
The week’s main event was another two-day recce with the director and production designer. The designer had produced beautiful and detailed mood-boards for every room, and had even started to bring in the right furniture and test paint colours. The main aim of the recce was to discuss and sign off on his decisions so that decoration and dressing could step up to full steam.
As we moved from room to room, trying to keep in story order whenever possible, the director revealed lots of his thoughts about the tone and key beats of each scene. I was pleased to find that these were largely in a similar vein to notes I had amassed on my own spreadsheet. And when they weren’t in sync, that was very useful to know at this stage! For most scenes I showed him a reference image or two, again from my spreadsheet, to double-check that we were on the same page.
We were visited during the recce by a grip who had come to see whether a crane would fit into our main location, and if so what kind of crane and whether it could achieve the shots we wanted. I had envisaged using a Giraffe like the one we had on The Little Mermaid, but the grip suggested we would be much better off with a 23ft Technocrane and a basic remote head, as this can telescope and retract rather than only sweeping around in an arc. We measured the distances to see where the camera could end up, and then I used Artemis Pro – a director’s viewfinder app – to see what framing that would translate to with various lenses. One of our most important shots should just be possible at the full extent of the arm, combined with the full range of a 25-250mm zoom.
Whether the budget can afford the crane, however, is yet to be confirmed. This week I am due to conduct camera and lens tests, and once I’ve made a decision on those then we will know what is left for fancy grip equipment!
The only other thing to happen last week was the hiring of a data wrangler. Since I lined up the 1st and 2nd ACs quite soon after my own hiring, the camera department is now complete.
On Monday I went back to the location with the gaffer, someone I’ve worked with several times before, and looked at all the spaces we will be using. It is too early to start any lighting plans, but we talked in general terms about what sort of instruments we might want to use and roughly where. The gaffer had already seen my lighting mood board (above) and we had discussed the overall look on the journey to location, so we were already on the same page about what we are trying to achieve. He had some technical conversations with staff at the location about the existing lighting and power sources, and we finished the day by checking out one of the film’s few exteriors as it was getting dark, in order to see what existing sources there are for the night scene we will be shooting there.
I spent a significant chunk of Wednesday on a Zoom call with the production designer, and a couple of other crew, going through each of the spaces again and finding out what changes the art department are planning to make to them. It was great to see the designer’s reference images and to show him some new ones of my own so that we can bounce off each others’ ideas and keep the film on a coherent track. This is especially important as we intend to rely heavily on practical lights for many of the rooms. The location has some already in place, but we will be adding lots more.
The designer mentioned The Shining as a useful reference for the project. To my shame, I had never seen it, a mistake I swiftly corrected. I immediately saw that the designer was right, as the film’s setting of a single, large, empty location lit almost entirely by tungsten practicals in the public areas and fluorescents in the service areas has a lot in common with our intended look for this project.
I lost no time in passing the reference on to the gaffer, and to the director, who I spoke with on Friday. We discussed a number of general topics – approaches I think is the best word – and he updated me on some changes to the script.
I’ve been developing a large spreadsheet breaking the script down scene by scene, with basic info like location, time of day and a brief summary of the action, as well as notes on character, camera and lighting, and a couple of the most relevant reference images. This will get more detailed and specific as prep progresses.
Watching reference material is a big part of the process at the moment. As well as The Shining, I’ve recently checked out Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant, Ingmar Berman’s Fanny and Alexander, and I have Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy on my list too. Shoot for the moon and you might land on the roof, right?
Finally, with the help of my 1st AC, I put a very rough camera list together. My hope is that soon I can conduct tests to make a final decision on camera and lenses.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
Production designer Amy Nicholson is no stranger to period settings and low budgets. I spent all of last September in France lighting her impressive work, so when I came to crew up Amelia’s Letter, she was the only person I considered to create the script’s four distinct periods. I’ve asked her to share her experiences of the design process on this demanding short film.
I met Neil as a DOP on The First Musketeer, a rather intense but wonderful project. He instantly won my respect and acclaim with consistently superb lighting, a real appreciation for prop details and generally being a nice guy to work with. [Neil quietly slips Amy a tenner.] So when he approached me about designing Amelia’s Letter which he would be directing, I couldn’t help but say yes, despite a recent promise to myself not to take on any more freebies.
The script filled me with a mix of excitement and dread. On the one hand it was my dream job with four different time periods (including my favourite, 1930s) and a gothic style, but on the other hand the level of art required to do this project was massive.
The original budget set by the production wouldn’t cover the acquisition of the named props let alone any effective dressing. Luckily for me they listened to my cause and agreed to increase the figure to a point my most optimistic budget might stretch to. This was fantastic but of course still set me up on my biggest challenge ever!
I was part of early conversations and visits to locations, and with Neil agreed what could work best. This collaboration between a director and production designer is fantastic and really builds the strength and vision of a piece. The chosen location was a little semi derelict cottage at Newstead Abbey. The architecture was stunning and although the worn state and small size of the building would present big challenges, the opportunity to do whatever we wanted and really transform the main room for each time period was incredible.
The main focus of the design and plot revolved around a period desk. Therefore it was important to get this piece right and plan all other design factors around this key item. I spent days searching for the right one, regularly sending images back and forth to Neil for an opinion. I wouldn’t normally bug a director in this way but the desk really had to support the action and shots effectively, so was crucial. I was pleased to learn that Neil was of the opinion that in this case the look of something was more important than the true accuracy of period, so this gave me a little flexibility. I eventually found the perfect piece, a 1909 roll top desk. The age and style was ever so slightly too modern but the detail and quality of wood far outweighed the five years of inaccuracy. Unfortunately the desk was 150 miles away and featured quite a bit of damage. So a road trip to collect the desk and some renovations by my dad ensued. Dad also constructed a bespoke locking drawer needed for the action. This proved a great deal of effort but worth it to get the right piece.
There were a few other items I had to buy, including a 1930s radio, but on the whole I was able to source everything else from my personal prop store and generally doing a bit of beg, steal and borrow from friends, family and the crew. I also befriended a local antique shop and was able to hire many dressing items really cheaply. Having many sources in this way really makes a budget stretch but always involves a lot of time spent collecting, sorting and returning.
Choosing paint colours should have been quite easy but the best colours are always the most expensive and with four colours required in just three days it took careful consideration. Neil and I agreed a pallet of colours which would look good on camera and distinguish each period. He requested that the colours get bolder throughout to suit the narrative, but on a practical front this also ensured only a single coat was needed on the walls, saving time and money. I bought patterned rollers to achieve an easy wallpaper effect for both 1903 and 1969. This was a new toy for me and proved a fantastic effect that I will certainly be using again.
On set I had a superb team to support with all the redressing. It was like 60-minute makeover each time we transformed to a new period and I was so impressed and grateful that all the crew got involved at some point to help us out. Once each transformation was complete the cast and crew consistently let out a genuine ‘wow’ making the art team feel very proud.
I was truly pleased with each of the sets and it was really special seeing them combined with some effective costume design by Sophie Black, impressive lighting by Alex Nevill and intense actor performances. I can’t wait to see the finished film, as I’m confident it will be something of beauty!
Here is a visual progress report on my Virgin Media Shorts entry for this year, The One That Got Away. Katie has been doing some great work, and thank you to Jo Henshaw and Emily Currie for helping out too.