Tag Archives: DP

Learning to be a film maker? Don’t shoot short pretty videos – shoot documentaries.

Over the years I’ve met many well known high end cinematographers. Most of them are really no different to you or I. Most of them are passionate about their craft and almost always willing to chat about ideas or techniques. But one thing that at first surprised me  was how many of these high end movie makers cut their teeth shooting documentaries. I guess I had imagined them to have all been film school graduates that shot nothing but drama, but no, a very large percentage started out in the world of documentary production.
Documentary production is full of challenges. Location shooting, interviews, beauty shots, challenging lighting etc. But one of the big things with documentary production is that you very often don’t have a choice about what, where or when you shoot. You are faced with a scene or location needed for the story and you have to make it look good. So you have to think about how best to approach it, how to frame it, light it or how to use the available light in the best way.
A lot of todays aspiring film makers like to hone their skills by shooting beautiful people in beautiful locations when the light is at it’s best. These short beauty films very often do come out looking very nice. But, if you have a pretty girl, a pretty scene, and good light then really there is no excuse for it not to look good and the problem is you don’t learn much through doing this.
When you are shooting a typical TV documentary you will be faced with all kinds of locations, all kinds of people and the challenge is to make it all look good, no matter what your presented with. Having to take sometimes ugly scenes and make them look good you learn how to be creative. You have to think about camera angles, perhaps to hide something or to emphasise something important to the story the programme tells. And, like a feature film it is normally also story telling, most documentaries have a story with a beginning middle and end.
If you can master the art of documentary production it will give you a great set of skills that will serve you well elsewhere. If you move on from documentaries to drama, then when the director asks you to shoot a scene that takes place in a specific location you may well have already done something similar in a documentary so you may already have some ideas about how to light it, what focal lengths to use. Plus now you will probably have a more time to light and a much more control over the scene, so it should actually be easier.
In an ideal world I guess the best way to learn how to shoot movies is…. to shoot movies. But very often it’s hard to get the people, locations and good script that you need. So very often aspiring film makers will fall back on shooting 90 second vignettes of pretty people in pretty places as it’s easy and simple to do.
But instead I would suggest that you would be much better off shooting a documentary. Perhaps about something that happened near where you live or an issue you are interested in.
Go out and shoot  documentaries in less than perfect locations with all the challenges they present. I bet the resulting videos won’t look nearly as perfectly pretty as all those slow-mo pretty girl on a beach/forest/field of flowers videos. But it will teach you how to deal with different types locations, people, lighting, weather and many of the other things that can be challenges when shooting features. It will make you a better camera operator. Making something that’s already pretty look pretty – that’s easy. Making what would otherwise be an un-interesting living room, factory or city street look interesting, that’s a much tougher challenge that will help bring out the creativity in you.

When is a DP not a DP?

A post came up in my Facebook feed the other day. It started out with something along the lines of:

“As a brand new DP, what equipment should I buy, then how do I find clients and gain experience”?

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen these kinds of posts and I see many others from “DP’s” that are seeking help with basic skills.

Here’s the thing – the term DP, “Director of Photography” has become totally meaningless. Anybody and everybody with a camera seems to regard themselves as a DP. Once upon a time it took years of experience to work your way up the ladder before you could call yourself a DP, but today owning a camera of some sort appears to be the only qualification required.

There’s two aspects to this.

1: Real, experienced, skilled DP’s no longer want to call themselves DP because the term no longer separates someone with real skills and experience  from someone without either. Real, time served DP’s are almost embarrassed to associate themselves with the new “I’ve got a camera so I’m a DP” DP’s with little or no real world experience.

2: Production companies and employers are somewhat sceptical of anyone that calls themselves a DP because that person could be someone with zero experience or 20 years of experience… who knows!

As a result the term “DP” has really become quite worthless and meaningless which is a great shame.

When I started working as a cameraman in the late 80’s there were several levels of camera operator. There was the basic cameraman, someone that you would normally consider to be a competent camera operator that could focus and expose properly. Compose a shot nicely and shoot a range of different shots that an editor could cut together to tell the story.

Next up was the “Lighting Cameraman”. Typically a lighting cameraman would have had at least a few of years of experience as a professional cameraman and then in addition be capable of self lighting interviews, corporate videos or smaller drama scenes in a pleasing manner using a variety of lights. A lighting cameraman would also have a deeper understanding of contrast ratios, colour balance and the use of filters and gels.

Above this was the “Cinematographer”. A cinematographer would have all of the skills of a lighting cameraman, but would generally be someone working in drama or on narrative based productions rather than factual productions. As a result a cinematographer would normally also have a good understanding of a wide range of different grip and support equipment as well as being familiar with a wider range of types of lights compared to a lighting cameraman. A cinematographer would typically work with a gaffer or electrician when lighting rather than doing it all himself as in the case of a lighting cameraman.

Then comes the Director of Photography. It’s interesting to note that Vittorio Storaro doesn’t like this term because he believes there can be only ever be one director on a shoot, never 2.

A DP or DoP used to mean an extremely skilled and experienced cinematographer that was in charge of a camera crew or camera crews for a larger production. The DP often does not actually operate the cameras, instead the DP instructs and guides the camera operators on what to do. The DP is the “director” of the camera department and as with most supervisory roles the most experienced and skilled person in the camera department.

It’s such a shame that these job titles are now largely meaningless. In my day you had to earn the right to call yourself a lighting cameraman, cinematographer or DP and that took years. It was highly unusual to find cameramen under the age of 20 as you would normally have need to have worked as an assistant first. Most lighting cameramen and cinematographers were in their 30’s because it took time to gain the skills and experience that producers expected.