How a Film’s Budget Affects the Role of the DP

A Micro Cinema Camera for a micro budget, on “Above the Clouds”, fittingly kept in place by a wallet

I recently read a document – I think it was published by the BFI – that gave some definitions of the different scales of feature film productions: low-, micro- and no-budget. While admitting that there is no universal agreement on figures for these categories, the document suggested the following:

  • No budget: up to £50,000
  • Micro budget: up to £250,000
  • Low budget: up to £1,000,000

I have shot features in all three of these categories (and at least one above them, presumably ranking as a medium-budget film) so I thought it would be interesting to look at the differences between them as experienced by the director of photography. I’m going to focus mainly on the contrast between no- and low-budget, because micro-budget is often very similar to no-budget in every respect except that the cast and crew are paid.

 

Prep

The biggest difference is in pre-production. On a low budget the DP tends to get a period of paid prep time equal to the number of shooting days, so if there are five weeks of filming, you get five weeks of prep beforehand. On a no-budget film you are likely to get a single day of location recces and nothing else.

Some of the things you’d do during your low-budget prep period will have to get done in your spare time on no budget: lining up your crew, watching any reference films the director suggests, making an equipment list. You won’t be conducting any camera tests (but you probably won’t get much of a choice about the camera anyway – see below). The chances are that you will not be reading and breaking down the script as carefully. You may cobble a few images together as references, but you will not be creating an extensive mood board. You might read through a shot list which the director sends you, but you won’t be giving a great deal of advance thought to shot ideas of your own. Inevitably a no-budget project will be less of a collaboration between director and DP than a low-budget one.

Your relationship with the gaffer will also be different. On a low budget you can expect to have at least one good recce of every location with them, maybe two, and lengthy meetings where you can really hash out how each scene will be lit. On no-budget films they might never be able to attend a recce, and all you get is a Zoom call where you screen-share your location photos and talk in general terms about the look. Lighting has to be much more improvised on the day.

 

Crew

No-budget vs. medium-budget camera dept.

This brings us onto crew. Most no-budget producers plan for a single camera assistant and a one-person lighting team, and don’t really think about who is going to back up the footage. On a low budget you can expect to get a 1st AC, 2nd AC, camera trainee, data wrangler, grip, gaffer, best boy or girl, and spark, though you may have to push the line producer for one or two of these. There is usually some allowance for spark dailies too when bigger scenes are shot.

When we wrap for the day on a low-budget film, I have no problem walking straight off set because I know there is a full and camera and lighting crew to take care of packing away the gear. I can spend what remains of my energy reviewing the dailies, meeting with the director and planning for upcoming scenes. On a micro-budget film I will help pack up because the small crew needs all the hands it can get, but then I probably won’t get to the other stuff. So I might not spot the things in the rushes that I could improve on, or be as well prepared for the next day as I could have been.

 

Equipment

Equipment, of course, is hugely budget-dependent. Many no-budget films are unable to hire anything at all, relying on gear owned by the director and/or DP, and other bits begged, borrowed or scrounged. Emphasis is often placed on having a decent camera, with everything else neglected – cheap lenses, no filters, few of the accessories that make the camera dept run smoothly, and very limited lighting.

Getting kit around is often very challenging for no-budget producers. Just hiring a van and finding someone to drive it are big deals when you have no money. Sending someone to a rental house in London to collect the gear – even if renting can be afforded – is a logistical headache which a low-budget production doesn’t think twice about. This is why gear owned by crew members is so attractive to no-budget producers, because they don’t have to worry about how it gets to set, or the insurance.

On a low-budget production you will draw up your camera list maybe a couple of weeks into prep, with the assistance of the 1st AC, and the gaffer will handle the lighting list. Usually the first drafts of these lists will prove too expensive when the line producer has got the quotes back from the rental house, and you’ll have to cut a few things, but you’ll get most of what you wanted.

How a Film’s Budget Affects the Role of the DP

What’s in a DP’s Set Bag?

I used to own a whole bunch of equipment – camera, lenses, lights – but for reasons I’ve detailed elsewhere I got rid of all that back in 2017. These days I travel pretty light (no pun intended) to set, but there are a few items I wouldn’t like to be without.

Here’s what’s in my set bag, roughly in descending order of importance.

 

1. Phone

Alright, this isn’t technically in my set bag, but it is the most used thing on a typical day on set. I use Chemical Wedding‘s Artemis Pro app all the time to find frames and select lenses, the same company’s Helios Pro to look at sun paths, and occasionally other specialist apps like Arri Photometrics (to work out if a particular light is powerful enough at a particular distance) and Flicker Finder (to check if a light will flicker on camera). I’ve also got Lux Calc installed but so far I’ve never used it.

Other common uses of my phone are looking at call sheets and other production documents if hardcopies aren’t supplied, checking my Google Sheets breakdown to remind myself of my creative intentions for the scene, and taking photos of lighting set-ups in case I need to recreate them for pick-ups.

To enable Artemis Pro to simulate wider lenses with my iPhone 7’s relatively tight built-in lens I also carry a clip-on 0.67x wide angle adaptor.

 

2. Light Meter

I’ve written before about why light meters are still important. My Sekonic L-758D gets heavy use on set, mostly in incident mode but sometimes the spot reflectance mode too; see my post on judging exposure to learn about what these modes do.

I make sure to carry spare batteries for it too.

 

3. Gaffer’s Glass

On The Little Mermaid the crew took pity on me using a broken ND filter wrapped in ND gel as a gaffer’s glass and bought me a proper one. This is like a monocle with an ND 3.6 filter in it for looking into fresnels and other directional fixtures to see if the spot of light is aimed exactly where it should be. I mostly use mine to look at the clouds and see when the sun is going to go in and come out, but you shouldn’t use one to look at the naked sun because even with all the ND it can still damage your eyes.

 

4. Power bank

With the heavy use my phone gets on set the charge doesn’t always last the whole day, so a power bank is essential to keep it running, as of course is the mains charger just in case.

 

5. Travel mug/flask

Most productions are environmentally conscious enough now to dissuade people from using disposable coffee cups and water bottes (though there are still a million half-finished water bottles on set at the end of the day). I always bring my own travel mug and metal water bottle. Keeping the mug clean(ish), especially when switching between tea and coffee consumption, is a daily struggle.

 

6. Croc clips

I always keep a couple of croc clips on my belt when shooting. Although I rarely gel lights myself on larger productions, I find them useful for adjusting curtains to admit just the right amount of daylight, or attaching a rain cover or light-blocking cloth to the camera, or clipping my jacket to something as a last-minute lighting flag.

 

7. Multi-tool

On some productions I’ve worn a multi-tool on my belt every day and only used it once or twice (usually to open wrap beers), so now it stays in my bag unless it’s specifically needed. As a head of department I theoretically shouldn’t be doing any tasks that would require a multi-tool, but it’s annoying to need one and not have one.

 

8. Tape Measure

I think my mum gave me this tiny tape measure which I keep in my set bag because it’s so small and light there’s no reason not to. I’ve used it exactly once so far: to work out if an Alexa Classic with a Cooke 10:1 zoom on would fit into certain tight locations on Hamlet.

 

9. Gel swatches

I picked up a set of Rosco filter swatches at either the BSC Expo or the Media Production Show. I don’t think I’ve ever used it.

 

10. Compass

Occasionally Helios Pro isn’t playing ball and I need to work out roughly where the sun is going to be, so out comes the traditional compass.

 

One final thing. Until very recently I carried a pair of gardening gloves for handling hot lights, but again I shouldn’t really be doing this myself and incandescent lamps aren’t too common on sets any more anyway, so when my gloves became worn out enough to need replacing I decided not to bother.

What’s in a DP’s Set Bag?

Why Are There So Few Women in Camera Departments?

In an eye-opening 2014 investigation of gender within the UK film industry, Stephen Follows showed that just 92% of DPs are men. Why is this?

“Women just aren’t interested in that techie stuff,” is a common refrain, but then how do you explain the much greater percentage of women working in stills photography (anywhere from 17% in the UK to 51% according to a US report)? I believe the difference is that, unlike photographers, cinematographers are surrounded by large crews – and the attitudes and prejudices of those crews can hugely impact how comfortable and welcoming a career it feels.

Leslie Hill, one of Hollywood's first female camera assistants
Leslie Hill, one of Hollywood’s first female camera assistants (1976)

An excellent female camera assistant I once worked with mentioned, towards the end of the shoot, that she almost turned down the job. It was because of something a male member of the production department said to her during preproduction: “Can you even carry heavy camera kit?”

I had actually had a conversation with this man earlier in prep concerning the way he spoke about women, and his defence was that he was joking, he didn’t mean it. But even if this was true, the fact remains that the project nearly lost a very competent and experienced member of the camera team (who, for the record, had absolutely no problem lifting a heavy camera package onto my shoulder day in, day out for weeks).

How many  productions, I wonder, have lost talented female crew members because of similar misogynous remarks or assumptions? And how many such remarks does it take before some women might say, “Well, I’m a great camera assistant and I’d love to be a DP some day, but I’m giving up and switching careers because I just can’t take all this sexist bullshit any more”? How many such remarks until some women might even start to believe that they really can’t do the job as well as men?

Ellen Kuras, ASC, cinematographer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind amongst others
Ellen Kuras, ASC, cinematographer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind amongst others

This is surely part of the reason for the huge gender disparity amongst cinematographers – because some women have been teased, doubted, persuaded and bullied out of the department, maybe not openly, maybe not directly, but gradually and insidiously with a bigoted remark here, a misogynous joke there, and so on. And whether it’s intentional or not, it has an effect. Even calling lamps “redheads” and “blondes” is another grain of sand on the ten mile beach of misogyny. (Instead call them 800s and 2Ks – little things like this do add up.)

The responsibility is on all of us, men especially, to make sure we are not contributing to this culture, that we are calling out this behaviour when we see it, and that our departments are comfortable places to work for both genders. Some producers and directors complain that there simply aren’t enough women applying for positions in the camera dept, but if together we can create an environment that values them, I believe we will eventually find just as many women applying as men.

I’ll leave you with a couple of articles that highlight some of the excellent female cinematographers working today:

IndieWire: Top Women Cinematographers Reveal 7 Best Tips for Career Success

And So It Begins: Why are there no Female Cinematographers?

Why Are There So Few Women in Camera Departments?