I see a great number of independent movies, reality pilots, short films, and other video work from people around the world. But in the vast majority of cases, there’s one overwhelming shortcoming with the project: It just doesn’t look very good. The truth is – even in the era of inexpensive high definition and 4K cameras – the Director of Photography matters more than the equipment. If you’re a producer, director, or investor, you need to make sure the person behind the camera knows what he or she is doing. So in the interest of a more visually compelling world, here’s a handful of criteria I use to find the right DP or camera operator for my projects:
1) A great DP understands current visual styles. I watch way too many films, commercials, and short videos that look like they were shot a decade or two ago. Particularly in commercials, styles change as quickly as the culture changes. A good DP knows what’s hot right now, and a great DP knows what will be hot next year. Certainly great technique is classic, but shooting styles related to color, lighting, and camera movement change, and a great DP will understand those changes.
2. A great DP uses the right equipment for the job. We recently did a number of short films for The Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. Because they would be updated in a short time, Brad Knull, our DP suggested we shoot the interviews on a DSLR to save time and money. But when it came time to shoot the archive of historic manuscripts and ancient artifacts, he suggested 4K, since that would be high resolution footage we’d use again and again. It’s a similar story shooting in extreme locations, or in tight spaces. Each situation calls for different equipment. In the old days, we didn’t have much choice when it came to cameras, but today, there’s a lot of options. A great DP knows those options and when to use them.
3. A great DP is interested in the story. If your DP hasn’t asked to read the script, or inquired about the story, it might be an indicator that he or she isn’t the best choice. I want my DP to help me tell the story by his or her choice of lenses, lighting styles, and camera movement. It’s not just about single shots edited together, it’s about the visual thread that goes through those shots and ties them all together.
4. A great DP knows how to tell a story. Being interested in the story isn’t enough. I want a storytelling partner in my DP. I want his or her suggestions and ideas. This is why when I look at a DP’s reel, I’m not looking for a montage of different shots edited to a popular rock song. I’m interested in seeing complete projects, because that’s the way to know if they understand how stories work.
5. A great DP is a leader of the crew. On a set, more people than the camera crew look to the DP for leadership and support. The costume designer wants to know how the clothing will look on camera, the effects team must work closely with the DP, and the make-up artist needs a DP’s feedback. A bad DP can create conflict, fight with the director, and build enormous division within the crew. But a great DP knows when to creatively lead, and when to defer to the director or producer. That balance can make the difference between a great project and a miserable experience.
For your next project, take the time to find a great Director of Photography. Your investment in the search will more than pay off during production.
I’d love to hear about your experiences as a Director working with a DP, or as a DP working with Directors.