How to Jump From the Shipping Department to Shooting Major Hollywood Releases
It’s hard to break in. Michael Dallatorre is proof that it’s possible without connections or fancy film school.
As a kid, DP Michael "Mike D" Dallatorre was the subject of Oscar-nominated doc Colors Straight Up. (It followed a group of inner-city kids using art to keep out of gangs, drugs, and trouble.) Throughout that experience, Mike D noticed he kept gravitating to the cinematographer. So, he decided to become one! After high school, he joined Inner-City Filmmakers and from there, got a job in the shipping department at Panavision while studying at LACC.
"Then I worked my way to the storage room where all the equipment is stored,” explained Dallatorre to No Film School. “I did that for about six months, and then I became a prep tech. I was a prep tech for about nine years, then one of the lead prep techs. About eight years ago, I started working in the marketing department running Panavision's new filmmaker program.”
All the while, Panavision would give him time off to shoot and assist. When he could meet people who wanted to direct, he’d shoot their short films or music videos. Then about 12 years ago, he met Brightburn director David Yarovesky. “A friend of mine was going to shoot a music video for him, and he wasn't able to do it because he had another job, so he introduced us. We've been very good friends since then, and have done probably a hundred music videos together.”
Now, he shoots features for name-brand directors that play in movie theaters.
Dallatorre sat down with No film School to break down everything you need to know, from describing a typical day on the set of Brightburn to how he worked his way into the position so that other aspiring DP’s might learn from his journey.
Why becoming a legit DP is equal parts artist, politician, and leader
NFS: Was there a point at which you felt like you had the skills to say, "Okay, now I'm really confident that I am a DP?"
Dallatorre: Honestly, I don't feel like I called myself a DP until maybe after I shot my first feature, which was in 2014. What I feel like people don't understand, until it happens, is that the business and political aspects of filmmaking that have nothing to do with cinematography are a huge part of it.
It's a make-or-break aspect that needs to be learned and crafted. You have to be an artist, a politician, and a leader at the same time. That's what I feel makes me a good cinematographer. All those things then allow me to find my voice and create a style. It's all cool that, "Oh, I've got these crazy ideas," but if you can't convince someone to let you do those crazy ideas, then they're just ideas. Not to mention you have to be able to have 50 people follow you in those crazy ideas.
You can't do everything yourself. My operators, my gaffer, my key grip, the better they are, the better I look. And if I can get other people to also have my vision, it's just going to make it more likely to accomplish.
Getting the job
Sometimes you formally interview for a dream gig. But sometimes, you work on something, and later get an enigmatic call for a gig. Dallatorre met David Yarovesky after working with James Gunn on the Guardians of the Galaxy: Inferno music video, and from there, a friendship developed.
Dallatorre: I felt like [that music video] was a test run. I think that was in April 2017. Dave and Simon were producing it. A couple of months later, Dave was like, "Hey, we've got a project. Would you be interested in shooting it?" Without knowing anything about it, honestly, I was like, "Yeah, of course, man." We've been together for such a long time that I know David's a very visual director, and I know he's going to come up with something really cool. And then he just goes, "All right, I'll get back to you." I'm like, "All right, well, thanks for leaving me wondering."
Sometime before Thanksgiving, that they were like, "All right, this is the movie. Do you want to do it?" I read the script, I thought it was crazy and loved it. From there, we just hit the ground running. Dave and I would have what I call ‘date night,’ and we would watch a scary movie or two and talk about what we liked about it. We did a lot of shotlisting and workshopping ideas.
Then, once we got the green light in December that we were going to start pre-production in February of 2018, then we just put the pedal to the metal.
“If you can't convince someone to let you do those crazy ideas, then they're just ideas.”
Pre-Production on a $6 million dollar movie
It’s a lot of money, and yet not a lot of money for a Hollywood feature with VFX, night shoots with kids, big stunts, and high caliber actors like Elizabeth Banks. Dallatorre had already shot The Hive for David Yarovesky, so they had a working language. But this time, Mike D knew he had to be extra prepared – there was no room for costly mistakes.
Dallatorre: We shot listed thoroughly because the budget was tight. I wanted to make sure that all those shots were already on paper so that I could figure out, “All right, these are the days we need a techno crane. These are the days we need however many condors for night lighting, and these are the days we need three cameras because we're dropping a car,” or those kinds of things.
So, shot listing was key. Dave had a storyboard artist that he had been working with three months prior to production. I made this giant bible of the shot list. It gave us and our 1st AD, Jacques, a good idea of how much time we needed for the scenes. Once I had that, I was able to go and meet with our production designer and our 1st AD and make sure that we had what we needed for us to achieve those shots, but also to make our days.
The other thing we did was a lot of was testing. Some of the ideas were very like, "Hey, I want to do this thing," and we'd be like, "Well, we need to see that." If we want to see what the ‘laser vision’ looks like, we have to do a test on that, just so on the day of, we're not surprised by something not working.
“On smaller films, you can get away with a little more… as the films get bigger, they don't like making mistakes.”
Dallatorre: We even stayed at the same hotel, right next door to each other. Every night we'd come in and talk about stuff. James wasn't there for pre-production. He was there for the entire time for production, but in pre-production, he was in LA. I feel like he almost treated it like how he has to talk with Marvel. He gave us studio-style pre-production for our indie movie. Every day we were presenting to him things through what they call cineSync. Every day it was like, "Hey James, we're going to do this, and this, and this on these shots, and this is how we're going to do it." He'll be like, "Okay," or he'd be like, "I don't know about that one scene. You guys have to show me a different way or maybe some location shots of it, or whatever." Then, we'd have to go and do those things to sell him on how we wanted to do it. There was a lot of no’s. Not bad no’s. It was more of James nurturing us and giving us an amazing experience of how a studio picture is going to treat you.
That was cool and a bit nerve-wracking. On smaller films, you can get away with a little more. You can take more chances. If they don't turn out, you're not penalized for them. Whereas, as the films get bigger, they don't like making mistakes. I always tell people, it's called the film business, and as much as we want to be creative, we still have to produce something that is a product at the end.
A typical day on the set of Brightburn
THE NIGHT BEFORE
Dallatorre: Most of them did start very similarly in that it started, honestly, with the night before. I would check our call sheet and make sure that what we had scheduled for the next day reflected my shot list. We made a shot list, and then I would make a daily shot list. I would make sure that, “Okay, we were going to do 10, 12, and 13 today, but now we're doing 10, 12, and 15. I would just have an Excel spreadsheet ready. I'd print those out. When I get to set, I'm very much about having my crew as prepared as possible for the work because it makes me look better, honestly.
ARRIVING TO SET
Dallatorre: I normally run into everyone at the breakfast tent, and I'd see my operators. I would hand them the shot list. I would hand my key first the shot list. I'd hand my gaffer and key grip the shot list, and I'd also give it to my AD and the script supervisor. Then I had one for the director, always. Again, the shot list isn't' specific, like “We have to do these shots.” But it's a great guide. We would get there sometimes and be like, "These are the shots, but this room is not that big for those shots. How about we do these and these? That's fine, right? That's perfectly doable."
But, the fact that they knew, "Oh, after lunch we're doing that crane shot," my key grip already had the crane built. Everyone had stuff ready for me. There was no need for micromanagement and very little need for actual management-management because they were already managing their departments, doing what I needed them to do from the shot list.
Once I give them that, I have breakfast with the director. We would have a thing where we would talk about our biggest worry for the day. Like, "Hey, I'm concerned about Elizabeth Banks hanging from the windowsill." You know, there's that shot where she's hanging from the windowsill. If it was a big enough concern, I would say, "We can take a look at it, or we can have the guys set it up before we do it, to just make sure it's the right shot." With the first AD next to us, we'd make sure everyone knew what we wanted to do on the schedule.
I like to get to set early, too. I like to survey the land, in a way. If we're shooting in one of the bedrooms, I'll come in and walk around, just see what's going on and get a feel of what we want to do. It's like prepping yourself for that shooting day, but I feel like it helps me feel the environment and grounds me a little bit, I guess.
THE IMPORTANCE OF STAND-INS
Dallatorre: The great thing is once they call, go on the set, everyone knows what they're doing. We walk in, and we do a blocking rehearsal with our actors. Then, we bring in our second teams, our stand-ins, which are key.
I've done four films, and this is the second film I had stand-ins. It's so important because you're really lighting them. You don't get a chance to sit an actor down for an hour and try to light them. So, stand-ins are very important. If you have really good ones, like we did on Brightburn, they will actually watch the blocking rehearsal with the actors and mimic exactly what the actor is doing. Sometimes, if they sit, they slouched, and if you lit for someone who's standing more upright, it may not fall the right way. Or, if they stand in a different spot than they're supposed to, and you're really being intricate with the lighting, when the actor comes in, they're like, “Oh, the actor's in the shadow,” or they didn't land where you wanted them to.
You get good stand-ins, and it can really help you tremendously with lighting and camera positioning. There are many times where we actually would run a camera rehearsal with the stand-in, who was doing exactly what Elizabeth was going to do. It was almost like we were shooting Elizabeth. Actually, many times in the movie, we used Elizabeth's stand-in Erin as her shoulder or her hand or crossing frame because she was already doing the actions.
Sometimes, even when we'd figure out something, we'd be like, "Oh, shoot. Remember she went here? That's not going to work. She's going to have to go here." Then, Elizabeth [Banks] would come to set, and Erin would be like, "Hey, we were over here, but we had to move here because the camera kept running into the side of the desk." Elizabeth was like, "Oh great, great." She, then, would do that. Elizabeth, she's a total pro, she's amazing, would come in and just kill it, and then we'd move on.
“You get good stand-ins, and it can really help you tremendously with lighting and camera positioning.”
RUNNING BEHIND SCHEDULE
Dallatorre: Then, it's funny because, in typical fashion, like any shoot, you start getting towards the end of the day, and you're like, "Hey guys, we're a little behind. We need to get these shots," and it turns to the mad rush of finishing the day, which is funny. No matter what budget you're on, you're still rushing to finish up the last bit of the day. And Jackson Dunn, as the 13-year-old Brandon, has a lot of time restrictions, so you can't shoot his age past 12:30 a.m. On a night shoot, that makes it quite difficult.
Then, the wrap out is very much everyone finishing up to try to go home. I actually do a decompression. I'll walk around the set again and just look over what we did, and look at areas for tomorrow.
Then, say goodbye to everyone. I like to thank everyone, especially my crew, thank them for their hard work, and then make our way home.
When I get home, I'm redoing my shot list again because maybe something has changed, or we decided that the day was going to be too short, and we had to cut some shots, just get that prepped for my crew, who will get the scenes the next day. That’s literally pretty much every day.
Seriously, how did you shoot the movie?
Dallatorre: The great thing is I had some amazing operators on the job with me. Ramon Engle was our a/Steadicam operator, and Jan Ruona was our b operator. They've been doing it for a very long time, and they're really good operators. When I gave them shots that I wanted to do that were tricky, they actually helped me figure out the tricky ones. It was really cool. There were times where I wanted to do this, and I'd go, "I think that's a Steadicam," and they were like, "Well, check this out. If we put the dolly here, and we use this offset here, we can actually boom past, and it will be more solid," and so forth. I'd be like, "Yeah, I like that." So, they would help me develop some of those shots further, just being more knowledgeable about the physicalities of the craft. When it came to my gaffer and my key grip, they were awesome, too.
Dallatorre: We did use a mixture of HMIs and LED sources, a lot of SkyPanels. I feel like SkyPanels are the things that everyone uses. For instance, in the diner scene where the lights are all flickering, all those lights are our sources. We ran LED strips inside of those lights, and then they were all routed to the back to our board operator. So, the board operator could essentially make whatever pattern of lighting flickering that we liked.
“Our theme for the film was this is a low-budget horror movie that gets invaded by a big-budget superhero movie.”
Dallatorre: So, in that scene, there was a lot of that. Because of the schedule, we actually shot that during the day, so it's completely tented out. My key grip completely tented out that diner. Because we had the condensation on the windows, we backlit with a bunch of LED sources, so that you could see the pattern through the condensation.
Our theme for the film was this is a low-budget horror movie that gets invaded by a big-budget superhero movie. If I wanted softer family moments, I would really diffuse the light pretty heavily, but then, when the moments started to become a little more horror-like and grittier, I went with harder sources, sometimes using the Sky Panel with just a grid on it, and then some smaller LED sources that are a little harder, to just make things look a little harsher, especially towards the end of the movie. It just wants to feel a little harsher.
NFS: The color red is big in the film. At the end, in the barn, Elizabeth Banks' character is running in between flashes of normal light, and then darkness, and then red light. Was color big in your mind for the look of the film?
Dallatorre: Red and blue were our big colors. The blue represented his earth family and red represented his alien side. So, in production design, and even in wardrobe, they did a progression of him wearing more blue to starting to wear more red, and so forth. We did a similar thing with the color in that most of the family stuff actually has a light blue hue to it. It's just a little cooler. Where, when more crazy shit happens, it's hard to see, but it's subjectively there, where there's a little more chroma to the red. That's something that we did, that I worked with a lot.
In post, when we did the color correction, I knew that stuff was there. We just enhanced it a little bit more. But at the end, when it's the final where she takes the part off the pod, and essentially the pod goes insane, we called it alarm mode, it was sending out an alarm. That one was pretty tough, honestly, too, because the barn is huge. We covered quite a bit of ground to wash the area with both red and white light.
We used a lot of SkyPanels under the pod pit, where the trapdoor was, and then we hung some in the actual barn to give us more of that...like it's bouncing around in it. But that red is that final color. We were toying on just being red the whole time. We did some tests, where I showed Dave multiple variations. The thing about red is that sometimes our eyes focus red differently. So, not only cameras focus red differently, but people focus red differently. Sometimes stuff looks out of focus, and it's not. Our eyes correct, so if you see red for long enough, our eyes will tone it down to try to get more neutral as it goes.
So to create a more vibrant aspect, I was like, "Look, if we go back to white, now our eyes know what white looks like. So now, this red goes back to being very extreme, as opposed to just having a constant red, which our eye wants to go back to normal.
NFS: They adjust to it.
Dallatorre: It’s like if you've done green screen stuff before, and you're staring at the green screen long enough, and you go outside, and you're like, "Everything's magenta." It's just because your eyes are correcting for that. Similar way there, we wanted to make the red to really pop, and to do that, you almost needed to refresh your eye to have like, "Oh now, this is white."
So, I showed him that. He was like, "Okay, yes, yes, yes. Let's do that."
“Not only cameras focus red differently, but people focus red differently.”
As a DP, VFX is your problem too
Working at Panavision, Dallatorre gets to see a parade of cutting edge glass on the job. (He’s friends with Panavision’s Dan Sasaki, their mad scientist of lenses, who can create the setup to pull off just about anything.) But for Brightburn, Yarovsky wanted to shoot anamorphic, and Dallatorre knew that with so much VFX, there was one choice: T-series.
Dallatorre: Panavision's anamorphic is the busiest – it's the most utilized lens selection. Luckily, there was a set available from out in Atlanta. (We shot in Atlanta.) There was a set available of T-series anamorphics I wanted to get anyways, so we got lucky. The T-series has a little more even field. Anamorphics can tend to really break up the image pretty drastically, which sometimes gives a very pleasing image, but also is not always very great for visual effects.
These T-series anamorphics are a great in-between. The background and the foregrounds really have that anamorphic fall-off quality, but the field in which it's in focus is actually nice and in focus. Some older anamorphics aren't that way, and they fall apart. They can look appealing, but when you put that in front of a green screen, or you're doing a visual composite, it can be a problem.
Our visual effects were by a company called Trixter, they even said, "Oh, this stuff looks great. " It helped them out a lot more, which in turn, makes the film look better. Honestly, bad visual effects are bad visual effects, so whatever I can do as a cinematographer to help blend the two, the better.
NFS: How big of a challenge was working with the amount of VFX and green screens?
Dallatorre: Having done a lot of music videos, I've done quite a bit of green screen. I did this Break Loose Doublemint Gum commercial with Chris Brown, ten years ago, and that was all green screen. Having done a bunch of them was really helpful because I've been successful, but I've also failed on some of them. That's why music videos are great. You can totally fuck something up, as long as you can be like, "Oh that didn't work because we didn't put tracking markers on the screen," or "I lit this part brighter than this part," or whatever it is. So I felt that I came into Brightburn pretty good at it. It also helped to have the Trixter VFX supervisors and producer there. There were many times where I would be like, "Hey, blue or green screen?" They would say, "Blue."
Then, there would be times when I would have a question and go like, "Hey, you see how this is cutting off here, can I leave it like that, or do you need me to correct it?" They would be like, "Ah, yes." They were from Germany, very German guys, so, "Yes, please correct." It was great because I could bounce ideas off them on such bigger scales. Again, they did most of the visual effects for Guardians of the Galaxy. They did visual effects for Spiderman. I learned a lot from them and worked very tightly with them. It was very important that the visual effects look good.
It's that old adage, if you want to be better at anything, you surround yourself with people that are better than you. That was the case, actually, with most of the people on set. It was great.
“Anamorphics can tend to really break up the image pretty drastically, which…is not always very great for visual effects.”
Parting advice on building up to Hollywood
Dallatorre: I would say to build your community. That's not only directors and producers, but also other cinematographers and other crew, gaffers and operators. I have a friend; he's another cinematographer that's doing really good work, and we're constantly calling each other and being like, "Hey, this and this is happening, what do you think?" To be able to talk to another filmmaker about how to figure stuff out is great.
[Brightburn] came from me having worked with Dave for a very long time. We've built a relationship, and he's part of my filmmaking community that I can reach out to. I've actually reached out to him for other things, about advice on scripts that I've wanted to take. Maybe he knew someone that I was going to interview with, how they were and so forth. Those people, you grow with them. I see Dave and I making bigger films together as we go into the future. When we met 12 years ago, we were making $2000 music videos. Our gaffer from then was the gaffer on our additional photography in Brightburn. It's about that community of people that support you and grow with you. And it makes your work better.
Thank you, Mike!