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.
And here's the trailer for To Rome With Love, the Woody Allen film that Khondji references multiple times in his advice:
Video is no longer available: 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.
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!