as of writing this post i recently completed my last feature film, NERVE, and oh gosh does my right shoulder hurt. i did not operate the camera much until the last week of production when i completely abused myself filming reduced unit work. "reduced unit" means running around on subways, streets and other difficult to film areas with a much smaller crew than during principle photography. you would imagine the last shot of a film's production schedule to be the glamorus lead actress falling to her death, a la Black Swan, but more often it's a shot of a foot on a gas pedal, or a car driving passed frame. it's often the logistically difficult, time consuming and / or tedious shots that helps tell a story but are inefficient for a full unit to shoot.
on a union film, of a reasonable budget and higher, the DP is expected to use, and regardless of preference, must hire a camera operator. a DP can insist upon operating but an operator will more then likely be hired and on set regardless. throughout film school and the decade that followed i never worked on a set that was big enough to staff a camera operator. when i finally got to a budget level that staffed one i lacked the communication skills to allow an operator to execute, interpret and improve upon my initial concept. it's the ultimate difficult thing to explain: a shot. take something as seemingly simple as a insert of a key in a hand and i can think of 20 ways to photograph it and 100 ways the shot can be screwed up. if a shot is verbalized poorly , it's like a bad game of telephone, with everyone getting frustrated with each other.
the art of communication is a skill of never ending potential. one can get very good and fast at lighting an actress' close up or become efficient with camera blocking but you can always improve on communicating with your team. i have found that instead of responding to a co-worker with "how could you possibly screw this up, i told you exactly what i wanted." its much more effective to ask yourself, "how did my words become open to this interpretation." i'm probably sensitive about this wording since i have often been on the receiving end of the "how could you screw this up" conversation.
film sets seem to be a meeting ground for the deslexic, me included, which gets super complicated when "right and left" are usually flipped on set and called "camera right and left"... not to be confused with "lamp right and left", that is used when talking to electrics and don't forget "mag right and left", that is for the dolly grips. then compound that with lack of sleep and you get a large group of people who make no sense to each other and can't even agree which direction is "right and left".
i certainly am guilty of running up to the 1st A.C., barking some notes and then running off to the next person.... meanwhile the A.C. has no idea what the heck i was just talking about---was i talking about the shot at hand or something further along in the day and meanwhile he / she is not sure if i asked for a "hollywood black magic filter" or a "black magic camera"... it's not easy to verbalize something so intangible as a shot and especially not easy to verbalize a long series of shots to dozens of people. often times, the wrong information is given and it just confuses things. here are something that the crew does not need to know.
- how awesome a shot will be.
- what classic film inspired the shot.
- the actors motivation.
- what montage you think it will cut into.
the shooting crew does not need to understand everything, but some basic information that is often over looked.
- when does the action for the actors begin and end. it's beyond important to be truthful to this. if you think it might start earlier then departments must know this. directors will often decide at the last minute to have the actor take it a beat earlier. from a production perspective that might mean the actor will open a door to another room that is not lit, has a sound man standing in it, or opens to a set that no longer exists. directors will continue to make these requests, it's my job to anticipate them.
- what does the camera see? what is the left, right, top and bottom of the frame. if you decide at the last minute you want to see a bit more to the right of frame it will usually require adjusting the background action or shifting something.
- what piece of camera support will be used to achieve the current shot and future ones. a well oiled crew can go from steadicam to dolly in an instant but it's because they know what is going on in advance. things move quickly because so much work was done in preperation.
- and most importantly, what gack needs to be moved. much of a shooting day can be wasted by designing set ups without thinking about the staging of equipment. moving gear is inevitable but moving it multiple times in a day will destroy momentum and steal time.
when i am on the receiving end of information, as in working with a director, i find repeating the creative notes back to them can be useful. i need to confirm that i have the right information so i can disperse it to my multiple departments. i also try to remain sensitive to the creative process. for many of us, we are trying first to understand what we want visually and then find a way to verbalize it. one of the most antagonistic sentences one may say on set is, "just tell me what you want!". through out a feature shoot, a lot changes from prep to shot day and you are constantly trying to catch up and figure out what "you want".
an indie film production might be 80% creative and 20% production logistics. as productions get bigger and more money is at stake that percentage shifts sharply in favor to logistics. "the plan" becomes just as important as "the idea". the DP's role is often to balance this out, protecting "the plan" and "the idea" and making sure that both get screwed equally.
executing an idea into a shot certainly becomes easier when you work with one of the best operators in town, PETER VIETRO-HANNUM. so talented that they gave him two last names.