Cinematography is probably the most important element in bringing a film to life. On occasion, I’ve heard said in the field some naïve comments such as this by an aspiring director, “ You can get the same picture with an iPhone”. That’s when my heart sinks in dismay.
A film director who doesn’t have the passion or a good grasp of how images are captured may simply not get “it”. I’ve said it before, the mark of good directors, is partly how well they know the ins-and-outs of production.
5 Cinematography tips to consider for your next film.
A Cinematographer or Director of Photography (DP) leads the camera and lighting crew in a film production. They work closely with the director to dissect the script and bring out the relevant camera techniques that will fit the subject matter. A DP does everything from creating shot lists to drawing lighting diagrams. They are responsible for making decisions about aspect ratios, frame rate, image contrast, camera movement and more. Cinematography is essential to creating the feel, if you will, of a movie, so we must study it.
Tip # 1 – Be creative with your shot list.
When Stanley Kubrick and his long time cinematographer wanted to break new ground while filming “Barry Lyndon” an idea came about to shoot everything by candlelight. This was something that wouldn’t have been feasible with the camera technology of the time. To accomplish this, they decided to borrow a special lens from NASA. The result was a beautifully, painterly image.
In order to find the best camera technique, a DP needs to devise creative solutions to achieve a visual goal. It requires detailed strategies to help the crew build the shots needed. For a DP, the shot list is the guiding blueprint that will bring the film together. In the shot list, you can design in detail each element of the shot and map out how various ideas can come together.
Tip# 2 – Make sure your shots agree with the story you’re trying to tell.
I see it often these days, in the work of fledgling camera people. Sometimes they work so hard to get a really cool shot that has fun movement or an interesting angle, provocative lighting and all sorts of attention-grabbing bits that don’t quite fit in with the concept behind the film. It’s important that as a DP you don’t let the story get away from you in favor of flashy camera tricks. A shot that calls too much attention to how it was done takes the spotlight away from the story. By all means, be creative but be cohesive and mindful.
Tip # 3 – Become a master of time management.
A DP manages the largest departments on a film set, camera and lighting. Having to work with all that crew means that your job as a DP needs to always be on point. Having a good plan and executing it, is essential. That’s why you need your storyboard and shot list, set and composed, because as a DP you will always be in a time crunch. There will always be an AD waiting for the DP to tell them that picture is up, they must hustle.
It’s important to be prepared with the tools needed. It’s even more important to learn how to set up all equipment quickly. As a DP you must always be ready for unexpected circumstances, so put together a kit, and make sure you work out your shooting plan well prior to shooting. This will save you time, which in the production world, is literally money.
Tip # 4 – Don’t say “Just Fix it in Post”.
I feel like professors try to cram this “in” phrase in your head in film school, then you’re out in the real world and you hear the exact opposite. Fixing mistakes in post is almost always costly. Fixing mistakes in post is often ineffective. Don’t rely on post-production software like DaVinci Resolve, figure it out on the spot. There you can control the lighting, color and the action. Give yourself time to work things out, so you get it right the first time.
The other day I cringed when I heard an actor from a famous superhero franchise talk about how they decided to remove his ears in post, rather than with makeup. The poor VFX editors never had a chance.
Tip # 5 – Be a jack of all trades.
This is something I recommend for anyone interested in being an independent filmmaker. Learn how to do it all. On a lot of jobs the DP would have to serve as a gaffer, grip and art director, without question. A good DP should have a working knowledge of all roles on set. In case they need to fill in the gaps in the crew. An efficient film set needs to flow, so it’s important for the DP to be in sync with the rest of the crew.
These have been just five tips, barely scratching the surface of the cinematographer’s role on set. In these five tips are the basic principles for a good DP. Studying the craft is essential for success, so I hope that you do go on reading more about Cinematography.
Watch this video for more cinematography tips.
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