March 6, 2014

Legendary DP Darius Khondji Has Some Great Advice for Cinematographers on a Budget

After one glance at Darius Khondji's IMDb page it's easy to see that the famed French cinematographer is a living legend. From his work with David Fincher (Se7en, Panic Room), to Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Amour), to Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love), and my personal favorite, Jean Pierre Jeunet/Marc Caro (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children), it's safe to say the Khondji has had a storied career as a cinematographer. IndieWire recently talked with Khodji about his advice for low-budget cinematographers who are shooting on location, and needless to say, the man had some invaluable tips. Here are a few of my favorites.

First, here are some trailers from a few of my favorite Khondji-shot films, Delicatessen and Se7en.

And here's the trailer for To Rome With Lovethe Woody Allen film that Khondji references multiple times in his advice:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZcip9HY1Pw

Here are two of Khondji's fantastic pieces of advice for DP's shooting on location with a limited budget:

Leave yourself a wide-angle option.

When you shoot on location, you have to be incredibly prepared because you can’t move the wall around like when you’re in a studio. You really need to know that the camera is going to fit there, that with the focal lens you’re going to be able to go back far enough to get a wide shot without putting on a ridiculously wide lens that would be very vulgar or warping. In order not to do that, you need to have a location where the wall or the side of a room allows you to go back enough to get the wide shot that the director wants. This sounds obvious, but sometimes let’s say you shoot CinemaScope anamorphic with 2.35:1, you have to go much further back to go to a wide shot, in terms of height. Otherwise, you shoot medium and close-up all the time. If you don’t scout out your location, it can be really bad.

Personally, I can't stress this one enough. As someone who is quite fond of moving master-shots and wide-angle compositions in general, one of the first things that I do when scouting a location is to determine whether the space is sufficient to be able to compose all of the needed shots without compromising lens choice. Beyond the implications of how you lens and frame your subjects, additional space is also wildly helpful in terms of having the freedom to light many different ways. So when you scout, make sure that your locations don't just have the aesthetic you need, make sure that they can accommodate all of the technical and artistic decisions that you want to make.

Darius Khondji 2

Have one strong thematic idea, not a bagful.

I’ve learned one general thing in filmmaking: to work with one strong idea. One strong concept that pushes you to work in a certain way artistically. Then you can bring it into a family of ideas. Then it’s like a tree: You have an idea for each scene, but one main idea in the film. The more you have concepts and ideas like this before you plan the film, the better it is. I’ve found that the great directors I work with, usually for the movie they have one strong idea visually that makes the film what it is. I realized that usually they don’t have multiple ideas, because you always get clogged when you have so many ideas to tell a story visually. I don’t think it’s great to come with a bag full of ideas. It’s better to be behind one strong statement or one strong idea for a film. For ‘To Rome With Love’ it was the saturation of the colors, the fact that the Italian scenes were more like the old Italian cinema of the ’60s and ’70s, and the modern scenes, when the Americans are in Rome, are more wide angle, a little bit colder, sharper, less saturated. It’s thematically brilliant.

This might be one of the single greatest pieces of advice for aspiring cinematographers. Many of us young shooters, myself included, are guilty of trying to incorporate too many visual ideas into a piece, which can often lead to visuals that lack the refined, cohesive aesthetic of the more experienced DP's. However, through focusing on one strong visual idea, one that helps to tell the story and amplify the subtext, your work will begin to form a sense of unity that remains constant from scene to scene, and the film will  be stronger for it.

Make sure to head on over to IndieWire to read Khondji's other tips. There's quite a bit of pragmatic advice in there about location scouting and utilizing both natural and artificial light, so head on over and learn from one of the best in the business.

What do you guys think of Khondji's advice? What are some of the your tips for shooting on location when budgets are low? Let us know down in the comments!

Link: Woody Allen's Cinematographer Has 6 Life-Saving Tips for Low-Budget DPs -- IndieWire

Your Comment

17 Comments

Beautiful. Darius has a true artist's eye, man. Love it.

March 6, 2014 at 8:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Se7en is why I wish Fincher would return to film. So awesome looking.

March 7, 2014 at 11:39AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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VinceGortho

I love the "one strong idea" advice. It's really easy to get lost in a host of concepts and themes, but by choosing one as foundation the filmmaker can maintain consistency within experimentation. Great article!

March 7, 2014 at 11:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Yeah, one strong Idea is really easy to say but hard to do because you want to incorporate all the cool stuff you really dig into a single piece. It's the same when I write a piece of music. I always want to throw the kitchen sink in but usually the best stuff is when I start with one strong theme and let it carry the piece and only add whats needed. Same when I work on short films. Have one good idea not a ton that distract from the main idea. There's some great advice here. Thanks.

March 14, 2014 at 10:36PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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The one strong idea is definitely the best piece of advice. When you break rules, you learn to give yourself new rules for each piece, so that it's consistent, not to mention, it helps you with your workflow on set, and in editing. All the pre-visualization elements of that one strong idea make life easier. Basic example is If you want to shoot your film all close to evoke a feeling, then do mediums, and closeups, if you want to show the landscapes and your characters then do wide shots and close ups, very basic example, but you get the idea.

June 3, 2014 at 5:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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good information, he don´t hesitate telling the truth about his work, amazed reading this.

June 7, 2014 at 2:56AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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carlos manzano

I like that he calls very wide angle lenses "vulgar." I'm not a fan of shooting motion close & wide due to the distortions it can cause (although I frequently love it for stills!). I actually think vulgar is a pretty good word to use for how it looks.

June 30, 2014 at 5:20PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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jim

Vulgar? His advice is great but off the mark about wide lenses. There's an aesthetic quality to them that can't be written off so easily. Heck all of Emmanuel Lubezki's portfolio has just been written off as vulgar by this guy's standards.

July 30, 2014 at 9:58AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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jas

I think what Darius is trying to say is that a really small space can force you into using a wider angled lens than you would normally use (i.e. so wide that your picture is excessively distorted). What he is addressing is 'location' NOT wide angle lenses in themselves.

Here again is the quote:

"You really need to know that the camera is going to fit there, that with the focal lens you’re going to be able to go back far enough to get a wide shot without putting on a ridiculously wide lens that would be very vulgar or warping."

October 23, 2014 at 6:12PM

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Gboyega Dada
Director of Photography, Editor
110

Thanks a lot... The guy is really good at this.

July 30, 2014 at 8:21AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Allan

Wow... great advice. Thank you Mr. Khondji :)

July 30, 2014 at 8:22AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Pradip Atluri

Great stuff and solid advice, not just for cinematographers but for directors, too. Especially the bit about one strong visual idea. After I wrote and directed my first short film, I noticed how little I had going on visually. That sounds kinda ridiculous, and I had nice compositions and camera movements... but I didn't take it the next step and really detail a "look" for the film with my cinematographer; I didn't speak visually enough to take the film from decent to something eye-catching. It's something I won't forget again. Thank you for article!

October 23, 2014 at 6:51PM

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Geoffrey Young Haney
writer & director
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in the very first line of this report it says: "After one glance at Darius Khondji's IMDb page...". my question is have u really glanced at his IMDB page? coz on that page, on the very first line it says: "Darius Khondji was born on October 21, 1955 in Tehran, Iran." which makes him "the famed IRANIAN cinematographer, not "famed French cinematographer..."

October 24, 2014 at 1:12AM

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Just pointing out that the title says Ledgendary instead of Legendary

October 31, 2014 at 5:16AM, Edited October 31, 5:16AM

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Yash Lucid
Filmmaker
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I remember working with Darius on set in Rome for a commercial for Nintendo Cube... that was more than 10 years ago... the silence and magic that floated around him was impressive, everyone knew this guy was a magician, even the catering guys and the extras knew him. Thw Director, the actors, everyone knew that something beyond the ordinary was taking place... he is a luminous star - wherever he goes these is light. The space around the actors was huge, so that he could take wider shots even with longer lenses... There wasn't a huge amount of kit on set - exept for lights... and that I guess encouraged creativity and ideas rather than depending on toys like you often find on sets nowdays... the less lenses you have, the more you will think of ways to make every shot work, I think...

May 30, 2015 at 2:50AM

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Maximilian White
Director
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Darius Khondji was not the cinematographer on Panic Room, it was Conrad W. Hall. Mr. Khondji left early on during filming. I don't blame you for the mistake, Google and Wikipedia also list the movie under his credits :)

May 30, 2015 at 4:56PM, Edited May 30, 4:56PM

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Phantom
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Bong Joon-ho - Of all his films, I liked Snowpiercer the least. It was good filmmaking but not a great film. I'm excited to see Okja and see what it'll be like.

June 30, 2017 at 3:25AM, Edited June 30, 3:25AM

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Sahit Anand
Director and Co-Founder of DO. Creative Labs
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