Basic Pre-Production tips for Directors & DP's
"Dramatic cinematography requires painstaking cooperation BEFORE production starts between the cinematographer, the director, the art director and preferably the writer and... producer as well. This, for various reasons, almost never happens."
-Victor Milner, ASC (1938)
From day one teaching at the film school, I've tried to get this message across.
You can't hand your completed, finalized full-color storyboards to your DP a week before shooting and say "I'm going for a Deakins' Big Lebowski feel, but, you know, a bit darker with this specific color palette, and I want to shoot on the new Vision 3 stock. The AD has the shotlist." One, the DP suddenly loses all creative input, and you've just "hired" nothing more than a disappointed camera jockey. Two, you are being a controlling and lazy director. You've just cut out an important and necessary part of your job: collaborating and including the other director on set. The person entirely responsible for what your audience will actually see on screen.
Also, you should avoid the opposite. Don't just text message your DP: "So, uh, can you do some storyboards and the shotlist and get it to me by Monday? Cuz we need them. Thanks." Because even though you never actually had a real meeting about what you want your precious baby to look like, your DP will do the prep work to the best of her understanding of the script, because her job is to make sure the film looks good. She assumes she'll get feedback once you have her ideas to build from. You look at the storyboards and notes and say to yourself, "Cool, we can figure out the details on set." Your DP assumes you want to go in the direction she suggested, because when she asks about the boards and shotlist, you tell her "These are great, thanks." Note: You did NOT tell her, "Well, these are a start, and we'll see how we feel once we're on location. I have some other ideas."
(Things I've learned as a DP, #4052: Never, ever, assume anything.)
So you get on set, and you want your shoot to be fast and efficient. Your DP will try to set up her shots that you approved, and you will say every time, "But I always imagined it more like this." Your DP is stressed because the AD wants her to move faster, and "mind-reader" has suddenly been added to her job description, and subsequent coverage has to be altered because of the changes. So while you use up valuable shoot time trying to direct the camera instead of the actors, the DP is worried about compromising the quality of her shots because she doesn't have the time she thought she'd have due to all the new changes. You gave her control of the look of the film in pre-production without any input, then took that all away from her once on set. You have left her completely unprepared, and unsure of what you want.
This will put you at (frustrated) odds with the person you should be collaborating with the most.
Either way, you are not doing your job as a director if the only time you interact with your DP is right before the cameras roll. Even if your particular style is to wait for inspiration to strike the day of the shoot, pre-production should at the very least include the following conversation:
Director: "This is how I like to direct. This is the look and feel I want. How do you usually work?"
DP: "This is how I like to work. How can we work together on this to make sure this film is made well?"
Then you figure out how to proceed in the manner best suited for the both of you.
The director/DP relationship has got to be tight... and if that's not possible, say because of personality conflict, it's at least got to exist and function smoothly.
This relationship needs to be established before you are rolling
My conversations with my film school partner Raf usually went like this when we set up a shot:
RAF: "So we're doing the close up."
ME: "From the doorway? Got it. Lower angle?"
RAF: "Yeah. Can we have some sidelight maybe coming from here?"
ME: "Yeah. Here, come check frame."
RAF: "I like it, let's do it."
We both knew what each shot was. Even when we disagreed or made a change, we trusted each other and knew each other and the film well enough to make it work. I credit Raf with a lot of why I decided I loved working behind the camera. Working with him as a director was fun and creatively challenging. I would have hated to disappoint him. I always wanted to make sure he got what he wanted, even when I was tired and grumpy.
Here are some steps I like to take in pre-production when I am DPing a film. This is not everything, as here I'm focusing on the director and DP working relationship.
Step #1 Common Vision
Discuss the story and characters. The director's vision needs to be upfront and clear. The DP's method of achieving that vision needs to be upfront and clear. You both should be dedicated to the story, and know the characters and plot backwards and forwards. (Yes, Director of Photography, you must know the script, the characters, and emotional beats as well as the director.) Watch movies together that have the different looks and tones you want to portray. Look at art and photographs.
Step #2 Choosing your tools
Together, decide on the cinematography elements that are necessary in order to make this film work. This may be shooting style, compositions, color, lighting, lenses, formats. For Raising Arizona, the Coens and DP Barry Sonnenfeld decided early on to use a lot of wide angle lenses, while they chose medium to longer lenses for Miller's Crossing. The look of these films are very distinct. You do not want to waste time discussing what look and style is best while you are on set. That is a story issue that needs to be decided early.
Step #3 Details
Together, decide on the shots you must have. Work with a storyboard artist to nail it down. Have meetings with your art director, costume designer and producer. Discuss color, lighting, textures, costuming, sets vs locations. Agree on what shots need special equipment.
Step #4 Get in the Space
Scout the locations. Both the director and DP should visit the space you're going to shoot in before principal photography. Discuss your lighting plan and your camera set ups. Where will the camera be? Discuss actor blocking— where will the actors be, and what will they be doing? Are there any special considerations that need to be taken regarding equipment, lights, or electrical power? Learn how the both of you like to set up a shot. Does the director let the actors decide their space first, then put camera in later? Or does he like to make sure camera is set and then put the actors in? How can you best utilize this space?
Step #5 Know What You Need
With locations locked, finalize your storyboards and shotlist. Know several things: What shots and angles you absolutely MUST have, and what you want but don't need. Come up with a few ideas on how to improvise on set if needed. Make sure you have all the equipment and crew you need. TEST YOUR EQUIPMENT, ANY SPECIAL LIGHTING, AND FILM STOCKS. Special make up and effects need tests as well. Show the tests to the director. Maybe he or she is imagining one thing, but the actual move or lens looks a lot different than you both thought.
Step #6 Become best friends with the Assistant Director
This should actually be step one. The AD is your best buddy. Once you're on set, all this one-on-one buddy time between the director and DP will be split up between the actors, the crew, equipment, the craft services table, and other duties on set. Directors, your AD should know your vision, the script, and the storyboards just as well as you and the DP. The AD will be there to help both of you get the day finished on time.
Include the AD in all your meetings. S/He keeps in touch with the rest of production and relays information. If you can't update the art director on a lighting change on set that might affect the looks of the set dressing, the AD will be able to take care of this and know the scene well enough to answer questions.
Step #7 Recap and keep in touch
The director and DP must always be discussing what works and what doesn't work throughout shooting. This is so you can change what is not working now, and also so future problems can be spotted and worked out before they happen. Always be communicating. Make decisions together. Meet before the shooting day begins, and after it ends to discuss the day you just had and the day ahead (with your AD of course). Go over battle plans. Watch dailies together.
Have fun, you're making a movie.