Six DPs from films including 'Silence,' 'La La Land,' 'Fences,' and 'Arrival' discuss what it takes to be a modern cinematographer.
2016 has now come and gone, but last year's achievements in cinematography will certainly be hard to forget. As a part of their annual retrospective, The Hollywood Reporter has released a wonderful series of hour long, year-in-review roundtables with some of the most influential figures in film. The full slate includes eight separate talks with actors, actresses, writers, directors, songwriters, composers, producers and documentarians.
The cinematography lineup includes Linus Sandgren, who lensed La La Land; John Toll, who shot the first ever 120-frames-per-second film in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk; Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who did double duty with Fences on film and The Girl on the Train on video; Bradford Young of Arrival; Caleb Deschanel, a seasoned vet who worked with Warren Beatty on Rules Don't Apply, and the stalwart Rodrigo Prieto, who took on Scorsese's epic Silence.
If you don't have time to watch the full hour, we've highlighted a few insights that we found most valuable.
1. Prepare to be more than just a photographer
When asked what the biggest misunderstanding about cinematographers was, John Toll was quick to respond that the job always demands more than people could ever know. "They don’t realize everything we do," he explains. "Because there’s a lot to the job, more than just being a photographer. Incredible organizational skills, you’re a manager, you’re an organizer, that’s all part of the job."
2. Depending on your director's style, you might have to fill in the blanks
It's no secret that every director has a different style, and as a result, different aspects of the film shoot that they tend to put more emphasis on. "Sometimes you work with directors who really don’t care about what the film looks like so much and others are much more attuned to visual imagery," Caleb Deschanel remarked. "So you have to adjust yourself depending on what the director is really interested in." For the cinematographer, this is two-fold. You have to make sure you've accomplished what the director is most interested in, while simultaneously picking up the slack on any area where their focus may be missing.
3. Let the director's drive fuel your drive
Time and time again, from screenwriters, directors, and producers alike, we hear that you should only set out to make a movie if you really, really have the ambition to do so. Mr. Deschanel agreed. "The reality is that you really want to go in and meet a director and have him draw you into their excitement and enthusiasm for the project they're doing. You need to have that, because to make a movie, you have to have an incredible drive and enthusiasm for something." As director, you're going to be the leader on that shoot, and if you're not giving it 100% all the time, your crew is going to follow suit. "You can’t let it wane," Deschannel insisted. "No matter how many problems you have along the way. You have to just keep going. So it's wonderful to have a director like that."
4. As a director, you need to have your DP's back
When he took the job for Arrival, Bradford Young knew two things: he loved Denis Villeneuve and he had zero experience using heavy VFX. "The challenge was like, when I’m totally clueless and I don’t know what the hell is going on, can I look at you say 'I don’t know what’s going on?' Can I trust that you will say, 'No problem man, let's hand this off to someone else.' Being vulnerable, and being able to be honest and saying, I don't know. I'm not sure if I trust this. I'm not sure if this is actually working. I'm not sure if this is the way to do it. Or the way we would do it if this wasn't a heavily visual effects environment." It was a lot to reckon with, but in a healthy collaboration, these sort of problems are a non-issue. "I knew that Denis would be supportive in that sense," Young went on to explain. "To know that I would have support in that way was really important."
Ask yourself how where you come from influences your own unique and personal vision.
5. Don't forget what makes you a valuable storytelling asset
Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who worked on both Fences and Girl on A Train this year, grew up on a farm in Denmark. She attributes her fascination with light to working in the stables of her father's pastures. "You bring something of yourself," she pointed out. "You come from somewhere and even though we are trained to adapt to a script and a story and a director's story, you always get something from home that I feel that you offer the story, and that is what you use to adapt." For your own work, you should ask yourself how where you come from influences your own unique and personal vision.
6. Don't hang on to a specific take
When asked if they've ever gotten upset that one of their favorite shots wasn't included in a final film, it was the most experienced DP of the group who was quick to laugh. Deschanel admitted that, while it may feel great on set, there are so many other factors that contribute to the final decision that you have to be ready to shed any attachments to specific takes. "It’s interesting about the right take," he began, "because I think initially a director will pick a certain take and then you get in the editing room, and as the scene evolves, you find that actually another take has a certain kind of emotion that you want more but didn’t realize it at first. It’s a very fluid process."
7. Don't sign on to project if you're not comfortable with its director
A lot of us may not be at the point where we're receiving a ton of requests from directors to interview for their projects yet, but when the time comes, it's important not to be overeager. In fact, as John Toll sees it, "It’s a two-way interview because you need to feel that you’re the appropriate person for that job." In that mindset, you need to have certain strategies in place to learn quickly about your collaborator and their vision. "In a way, you need to encourage the director to express all this, what is this, what are their ideas, what are they trying to pull out of a piece. And sometimes you’re not the appropriate person for that picture. So it’s important to know that before you start shooting."
8. No matter what your preference is, the medium should always fit the project
Caleb Deschanel has been around for both film and digital. If you watch the whole discussion, it's not hard to see which medium he prefers, but that doesn't mean it's the right medium for every project. "A problem I always had with digital is actually photographing faces, because you have to be really careful about how sharp an image is," he explains. "I mean the thing I always liked about film is that each frame is different, so the fact that one frame goes to another and the grain is in a slightly different place is actually much more forgiving for the human face. It actually gives you a certain quality that I find really fascinating."
As time moves on and technology improves, however, it's better to embrace than resist. "John shooting [Billy Lynn] at a high frame rate and projected at high frame rates and 3D," Deschanel admitted, "that's what artists do, they take a technology that somebody brings to them and they explore it and see what they can do with it. And sometimes you succeed remarkably. And sometimes you fail. But that's the process."
"Film vs. digital is a conversation going in circles, and it’s become kind of a self-destructive one too."
9. The film vs. digital debate may not be dead, but it needs to evolve
At this point during the roundtable, the age old film vs. digital debate flared up and things got a little emotional. Bradford Young staunchly supports the democratization of film, a phenomenon which leaves everyone with an opportunity to tell their story. "I think the whole universal conversation about digital vs. film...This idea of pixels of information, how much is there, how much isn't there? It’s a conversation going in circles and it’s become kind of a self-destructive one too," he laments. "It’s not the medium. It’s what anchored in it. Finding your voice, finding your language, that’s the real struggle. I’m interested in having a conversation about why film could be a revolutionary venture in our evolution as human beings. I think we keep getting caught in the conversation between ARRI and Sony, and all they’re doing is providing us with the stuff and saying 'Y'all do whatever you want with this stuff. I can’t tell you.' The conversation should be how do we anchor it into something that gives us feeling? How do you bring feeling? That’s the most important thing."
10. Be open to the possibility of mistakes
In today's film landscape, there are an unbelievable and ever-growing number of ways to ensure that no one on your set ever makes a mistake. Monitors, in particular, ensure things are captured exactly how they should be, with little room for accidental artistic magic or mystery. Christensen believes that all this expensive tech may actually be causing more harm than good. "Sometimes it’s like, oh man, that little bit of feeling of not being in control. And then sometimes there's a mistake. But that mistake adds something. Sometimes not being in control, by having the monitor village and having all the buttons that you can go and check and see and do and try it, is a good thing."
Her argument is that it really takes you out of the process. " Sometimes I don’t want to try out. Right now I just want to be here with this scene and this idea," she concluded.
11. Like it or not, the DIT is now a key cog in the machine
With such a wealth of post-production tools available, the DI has clearly become an integral part of any production. And why not? The ability to manipulate a shot so it looks better in post should be an incredible thing, right? Well for La La Land's Luis Sandgren, the idea is a scary one. "I am very nervous about the DI," he admits "Because I don’t want it to look any different than what I intended. That’s my biggest fear. To me, the DI is one-third of the possibilities of what you can achieve with the look of a film. I think whatever you do on set, so little of it should actually have to do with a DI. The more you do there the more you screw up the image from how it was captured."
Rodrigo Prieto, however, has a much more open mind to the situation. "I think DI is kind of a two-edged sword," he explains. "I loved the possibility of continuing the creative process into post production and being able to tweak the image to a certain extent." Of course, even a DIs work can't be the fix-all end all solution. "I try to put it in all on camera because, contrary to belief, you can't re-light a movie even in the DI. No matter what you do, the position of a light is the position of a light and the character of the scene. Certainly, you can do a lot," he said. What's most important is to be there through the whole process to ensure your vision isn't tampered with. "I manage the movies I make if I have to do a DI or not, and I've turned down work to be able to do this. Because it's such an integral part of the whole process. It's like missing pre-production and going straight into a movie. It's crucial."
John Toll agreed, "The only way that cinematographers can guarantee their original visual intent is to carry it through to the completion of the picture. And we have to be there to basically participate in that process. Sometimes there are well-intentioned people who get involved in that process who feel they have better ideas about how the film should look. But we as cinematographers need to be there and guarantee that what people are seeing at one point is what was intended. You can't phone it in. You have to be physically sitting there. Because you have other layers of producers, other layers of studio people — their job is to basically finish the picture. So it's good to have a clear distinction of who's doing what."