The Best Things You Can Do For Your DP Career Off-Set, Part 2: Building Skills & Inspiration
It's essential to hone your craft and stay inspired while off-set.
[This is part of a two-part series. Read the first installment, which focused on forging stronger networks, here.]
On-set is a highly intense time, where minutes matter and it is unlikely you’ll be able to test much out: you come to the situation with whatever past experiences and knowledge you’re already packing. Sets can be sources of inspiration, where the culmination of factors such as story, crew, actors, gear, and direction inspire you to frame and light in a certain way.
The greater the groundwork you have laid of inspiration and ideas going into this collaborative art form between possibly dozens of humans on a time crunch, the more material you have to draw on under the gun. In this post, we talk to four talented, established cinematographers about how they use their time when they aren’t shooting to increase their skills, grow their knowledge, and find creative inspiration.
“I think of every day and every situation as a classroom to experiment in.”
Exercise your imagination
DP Valentina Caniglia is a narrative and documentary cinematographer who also shoots commercials. She has been recognized for best cinematography on a number of pictures, and her period film Madeline’s Oil was recently awarded Best Cinematography at the Louisiana International Film Festival. Valentina is a member of the European Federation of Cinematographers (IMAGO) and the Italian Society of Cinematographers (AIC).
Caniglia describes a routine she practices when reading fiction novels. “I close my eyes and imagine how that chapter could be lit or shot or framed,” she shares. “It’s very stimulating for the brain.” She thinks about the particular lighting sources, and how much power they’d draw. “When I’m by myself and reading there is more time to be creative. While on set you have to be more technical. I think about the quality of the light.” Author Haruki Murakami is a particular favorite.
Caniglia also finds herself pondering locations. “Sometimes I see something beautiful and I imagine how it would be lighting a certain location. My boyfriend and I were walking the other night and we saw a fountain and I was picturing how to light it—maybe I can go by when the sun is at a certain point to see how the reflection looks; I shoot a lot with reflections.” Sometimes these are mere thought experiments, and sometimes Caniglia later turns these ruminations into tests, either at the space or at a rental facility. “The next movie may have a fountain,” she muses. “You never know.”
DP Noah Greenberg also puts a lot of time into visualizing how he’d shoot a project. He’s a still photographer turned narrative cinematographer, and a recent feature he shot, Most Beautiful Island, was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. Some of his work can be seen here. Greenberg candidly describes his practice of creating an extensive look-book on projects before his initial interview with directors, so he comes to the table with well thought-out ideas.
“When I get a script I usually read it, then skim it again and do a simple breakdown of characters and locations, making note of any specialty camera work or conflicts/red flags—and anything I’m excited to about. I dig in; I feel much better going into a meeting with a director really knowing the script, and having thoughts on the arc of the camerawork, technical considerations, and the nature of the lighting,” Greenberg describes. “Typically I’ll put together a look-book in the application Adobe Light Room: 30-50 pages in pdf, with an image a page. It’s a way to get on the same page aesthetically with a director.”
Some movies may already have creative briefs, but on others you may only get a few brief notes on direction, such as influential films. For Greenberg, a look-book is an experiment in putting together a 30-page document that feels like one vision.
Pro tip? Greenberg recommends https://film-grab.com/ as a resource for perusing film stills.
In addition to the above resource, Greenberg pulls from his personal database of images, from movies he owns, and from the web. He combines film stills, images from paintings, and photographs, including his own.
Collect visual references
Many DPs draw inspiration from visuals, and here cinematographer and director Arianna LaPenne shares some of her methods. LaPenne's work has a strong social justice bent, and she has shot and directed for The New York Times, Al Jazeera, National Geographic, and Viceland. Her work as screened on PBS as well as at SXSW, DOCFest, OUTfest, and DOC NYC. While Lapenne is currently focused on directing, she offers reflections on her career as a worldwide cinematographer.
Shooting for documentaries, LaPenne doesn’t aim to just shoot straight. “I want to create work that is stylized and beautiful and dynamic,” she tells us. “For inspiration I look at narrative filmmaking: cinematography for documentary should be just as interesting as cinematography for narrative. I am striving to make it beautiful.” LaPenne examines films that she thinks are done well, and thinks about how to incorporate their ideas into her own work. As an example she points to Fire At Sea, an Italian documentary that is shot like a narrative.
“There’s a visual language to narrative,” LaPenne reflects. “You feel like you are being transported in some way. That’s the kind of photography I’m interested in as well: not straight doc, but work containing a magical quality, where reality feels suspended.”
The fourth DP we turned to, William Rexer, enjoys watching shows and endeavoring to understand the DP’s thought process. Rexer shoots narrative and documentary features, recently collaborating with Baz Luhrmann on television series The Get Down.
Rexer joins Caniglia and Greenberg in an appreciation of museums. He enjoys taking his wife and children to museums and hearing their take on the artwork. “Seeing the work through the eyes,” he muses, “is very insightful.”
Caniglia finds herself drawn to classic French painters, and also finds inspiration in war photography.
Rexer, Greenberg, and Caniglia are all big believers in testing out gear in their down time. Rexer is constantly looking to mix old technology with new gear. When he is not on a job, he’ll head to a New York camera rental house and put fifty-year-old lenses on a RED 8K sensor.
Greenberg goes into detail about why he spends his time and energy testing different gear: “On set there’s no time for this stuff. A million times I’ve wanted to do little geeky tests and you’ve got to know it before you go in. If something is absolutely critical to that film you can justify taking a few minutes, but general knowledge about how equipment behaves is best figured out between jobs.”
Greenberg has a natural technical curiosity, and testing enables him to up his craft. “I spend some time doing testing and reading tech information and getting into the nitty-gritty. At a camera rental house recently, Greenberg played with different brands of neutral density filters, as many have a slight shift in color. “I set up a vectorscope and a neutral target and I calibrated, then stacked ND, and checked to see how much the color shifted between brands and between intensities.”
"General knowledge about how equipment behaves is best figured out between jobs.”
The goal was to find which brands were the cleanest. (He’s going with Mitomo True ND.) Failing that, the goal would have been to know before shooting what effect a filter had, so that a slight tint could be dialed in on camera automatically every time the filter was added, in order to provide the cleanest image—and without needing to try and figure out that slight tint in the controlled chaos of a shooting day, where other considerations would likely take priority.
Caniglia, like Greenberg, also reaches out to manufacturers, calling them up to chat or going by to test out a piece of gear or a lens. She finds herself drawn to testing lights: how their light falls on the human face, or on an object, or in a location. “For me,” Caniglia reflects, “it is very important that it is not the camera that leads you, but it is you who leads the camera.” For her, it is essential to experiment so she knows the parameters of the gear.
Read up and explore photography
Many of these folks read cinematography magazines such as American Cinematographer and ICG to learn how other shooters achieved a certain look. Rexer enjoys reading other cinematographers’ posts, and recommends reading Roger Deakins' blog.
Greenburg, Caniglia, LaPenne, and Rexer are all photographers. Caniglia appreciates that photography is an individual art, whereas filmmaking is a collaborative art, and she finds this liberating. For LaPenne, shooting on Fuji 50 ASA slide film with an old 35mm camera is a way she looks to capture mood and to find the surreal in the real. “Slide film is hard to expose so it keeps you on your toes, and if you are dead on it’s the most beautiful way you can capture an image. That’s what keeps me in love with the visual profession.”
Spend time out in the world
LaPenne recommends getting away from your computer and exploring the real world. She enjoys hiking in natural parks and creating visual pictures in her minds of things she’d want to see in a film. The visuals of different cultures and countries also resonate deeply with her: how the color of the sun looks different across the world. From a DP perspective, how would you color your film to reflect the tones of that particular world?
How would you color your film to reflect the tones of that particular world?
Rexer also believes that, in the process of living a full life, one has more to bring to the role of director of photography. I met him when he and his son visited Standing Rock, North Dakota, and the grass-roots resistance that was taking place on behalf on indigenous rights.
Care about what you are shooting
LaPenne only takes documentary work where the subject matter has caught her attention: where there is a fascinating or unique element to the material. “I’m interested in the world, and shooting documentary introduces you to people, places, and situations, you would never have access to otherwise,” she reflects. DPing on docs offers a unique opportunity to shoot spontaneously: “Often you are on your own, in a vérité situation, or the director isn’t able to be over your shoulder, so you have the opportunity to use the light and react and reposition yourself and your camera to make things more beautiful rather than imposing actors or props on a location.”
It helps greatly to care. LaPenne feels burned out working on projects where other crew members aren’t invested: “I really need to be interested in the subject I am filming; it informs how I shoot and keeps the work feeling engaged.”
“I think of every day and every situation as a classroom to experiment in,” Rexer says. “I think the best thing a DP can do in their down time is play.”