The next in my series of blogs about my life as a DoP brings DoP Life: On the Shoot.
This is my favourite part of the filmmaking process, actually doing the filming itself!
Now unlike in Pre-Production, my on set work across documentary and corporate is quite different to that of drama and scripted content, so I shall split this post into two sections.
DOCUMENTARY & CORPORATE WORK
On the whole, I usually operate as a single or two man crew depending on the level of production. Sometimes I work with a Camera Assistant or a Sound Recordist – and if I’m lucky both!
With documentary and corporate work I very rarely get to do a location recce, so most of the time I am relying on the Director or Producer to know where we are planning on shooting and the best access to get equipment into location etc. Sometimes I may do a quick location recce on the day of the shoot to determine what equipment I feel I may need and to look at a few potential locations before we pick one to shoot in.
Usually the motto of this type of work is ‘quick and easy’. Keeping lighting and camera setups to a minimum but getting the best out of the location is key. For instance, if you have beautiful natural light then use it, as usually you are only shooting in one location for an hour or so, so consistency is easier to keep over a short period. If the background is a bit messy make use of shallow depth of field work to blur it out! Make the location work for you, rather than trying to fit the location to your idea. Thinking on the spot is key, and working with what you have got is important.
A lot of this type of work is lit interviews: getting good at shooting a lit interview and setting up quickly is everything. Personally, I really like using tungsten lighting for interviews as I feel the skin tones render better under this type of lighting. That said, if you are moving from one location to another with very little time then the benefits of using LED lighting become apparent, such as not having to wait for the lights to cool down before packing them away and being able to run them off small batteries and not having to run power cables etc.
Most of the time, I get presented a small white room and get asked to turn it into a cinematic masterpiece. Making use of light and shade is vital to giving the room some depth and character.
In addition to the interview with the Contributor, we usually require some GVs (general views) too. These are shots that help set the scene, they may be exterior shots of the location or shots of the person we have interviewed doing their general day to day tasks. Usually I suggest we set up little scenes with the Contributor and I get a variety of shots to help cut in over the interview. Usually these shots will tie into what the Contributor said in the interview so listening to the interview as you film it is key to ensuring you get the correct content.
On this type of work teamwork is critical, working with such a small crew requires that, on occasion, you have to help each other out and also keep each other’s backs too! It can become very physically and mentally demanding, as much of the physical work of setting up the camera and lights is done by you and your having to think on your feet about how to make best use of the location and coverage of any GVs.
DRAMA & SCRIPTED CONTENT
Working on a drama or scripted content, such as a music promo or commercials, is quite different to documentary and corporate productions, although many of the skills are transferable.
Usually I work with a larger camera/electrical department, consisting of at least a Camera Assistant and Gaffer. If the production is bigger I usually work with two Camera Assistants, a Focus Puller and Clapper Loader, and two electrical department crew, a Gaffer and Spark. Working with a bigger crew allows me to concentrate on the film rather than the technical aspects of making the camera and lights work. As such, my Focus Puller will take care of the camera, ensuring it has power and media, and my Gaffer will work out how to rig and power the lights I request. This allows me the time to spend with the Director to work out what they are after and to remove myself from the camera to see rehearsals, fine light the set/location and to give myself space to see problems that may develop and to ensure they don’t!
I really enjoy these types of production as much of the nitty gritty is done in Pre-Produciton and much of the film making process is a execution of the plan! That said, when given the freedom to think about what is being shot and the story it is great to deviate from the plan!! This is where those skills learnt in documentary and corporate productions really come in useful, thinking on your feet and making use of locations is a real plus. Perhaps it is getting an extra shot or changing the way you planned on shooting a scene as the location lends itself to something else.
The Daily Schedule
The daily schedule usually runs pre-rig, rehearse, fine light/rig and shoot. To break this down a little, at the beginning of the day my Camera Assistants will get the camera rigged ready for the days shooting, if there is any specialist equipment they will ensure this is prepped too. My Gaffer and electrical team will start to pre-rig the lighting as per my lighting plan so when we rehearse we can not only see where we’re walking on set but I can also see how things are looking.
Usually it is at this point the Actors will come in to rehearse the scene on set. We may put the camera in a couple of positions, to have a look at shots, but usually I walk around set checking out angles and keeping myself near the Director so I can hear what is going on such as, when do the Actors move and what is happening in the scene etc. This is called blocking. Sometimes the blocking doesn’t work out well for camera or lighting, for example when Actors walk out of the light or are hidden behind a wall, so I will usually mention this to the Director so we can change what the Actors do. Each Director is different and the amount of input they would like from me and how much they want the actors to ‘do it their way’ will vary, but usually we can make it work and it is the time between rehearsal and shooting that allows us to tweak the lighting and camera positions to make the scene sing!
With this type of work we are usually working with a shot list or storyboard so I will use this as reference when blocking to see if it is going to work or where to best place the camera to get the shot the Director requires.
Once when have done the final tweaks to light etc. it is time to shoot. I like to keep the amount of tweaking of lights between shots to a minimum as I feel this breaks up the scene too much for the Actors and it also helps speed up the process of covering a scene. For instance, I remember one shoot where we had a few set/design issues which pushed back the time we began shooting by about 3 hours, only leaving 4 hours to get 4 minutes of content! The speed at which I could move between camera angles really helped us achieve getting everything we needed to get ‘in the can!’
While filmmaking is very much an art form, and a collaborative one at that, the role of the Director of Photography is also one of a manager too. With both a Camera Department and Electrical Department looking to you for guidance and leadership – along with a Grip Depeatment too if your lucky, you could have a team of 2-40 under your leadership. Thankfully you have your Focus Puller, Gaffer and Key Grip who sub manage each department; but ultimately each member of those teams will look to you and ultimately, if they aren’t happy about something (whether that be the working conditions or quality of equipment), you will hear about it!
As a DoP, your crew are critical to a successful production, so ensuring you keep them happy is key to get the most out of them. Whether that would be ‘sticking up for them’ or helping them when required. Remembering crew are people too is important, this may seem silly but some productions treat crew like robots, so keeping this in mind they’ll thank you for!
So there we are, a day on set can be very different – even if the camera and DoP are the same! It is the experience at working on various types of production and the transferable skills between different projects that ultimately lead to every DoP’s experience and skills being different. Therefore, when booking a DoP, don’t compare them apples to apples, while many operators may own the same equipment or camera their experiences and portfolios will vary greatly. I take some time ensuring I keep my website regally updated to feature my latest work, along with my showreel, to ensure I am selling my wares to the best, and to give Directors & Producers the greatest insight into my work so they can make an informed decision whether I would be the best person for the job!
Next in my series of DoP Life we will look at the Post-Production process, check it out here!