Plays well with others: why you should DP for other directors

on August 14, 2014

When I first got into the film industry, I looked for any excuse to get on set. I did PA and extra work wherever I could find it. I got lots of coffee for people. I worked very long hours for very little or no money sometimes, but I got to see MOVIES get made. Like many filmmakers, my dream was to one day be the guy in that director’s chair calling the shots and making the movie. Why would anyone want to do anything else? I then found out that for that one director to sit in that chair in a studio production, there are hundreds of people on the set to make sure everything else goes smoothly, and dozens of people NOT on set to make sure that everything gets on set. But that was what I wanted, and I wouldn’t have been convinced otherwise.
Now that I have gotten older, and hopefully wiser, I have found that the easiest way to be a director is to start as one, and build out from there. Yes, that means that there will be smaller crews and smaller budgets, but as a trade off to making your own dreams come true, it was worth it.
Now that it has been a few years, I find myself looking for opportinties to work with other directors- which is a difficult proposition. There is only one director on set, and co-directing is difficult territory.
Then I was asked to DP a project for a friend. “But I’m a director” I thought. Not only that, but I have worked with some incredible DPs with such incredible understanding of light and crafting shadow, I would be doing their profession a disservice. Still, his production was under the gun (t was me or nobody) and I thought, it would be refreshing to not have to handle EVEYRTHING that’s going on and just concentrate on making the picture beautiful. I knew I couldn’t do as well as some of my heroes, but I knew enough to HAVE cinemotography heroes. So I came on board.
It was such a joy. I was able to devote all my attention to the image, and ignore all the drama of dealing with the talent. I could geek out on the technical aspects of the image. It was a joy. But more than that, I got to see how another director worked on a small production.
The thing about Guerrilla-style filmmaking is that you have to wear so many hats. So much of what you do is managing tasks and being your own producer. You have to design your workflow, and very frequently, it’s whatever way youthink is the easiest.
Then I discovered Film Riot, with Ryan Connoly.
If you haven’t subscribed to his Video Podcast, I highly recommend it.
I just finished a 3-day intensive of his on Creative Live about Guerrilla Filmmaking. He isn’t a guy from the studio system telling you how to shoot- and believe me, many blogs are just that. It’s important to know how to work on a professional set, but when you are a geurilla filmmaker- your shoots are sometimes JUST YOU. There is no 2nd AC. Or 1stAC… or 1st AD, or audio department or hair and make-up! It’s you, and you have to be able to wrangle all those hats while still composing the image, setting up the shot, getting the next shot, and pulling focus.
Watching Ryan on Film Riot is a peek into how he works with a minimal film crew: it’s basically just him in fron of the camera, his little brother Josh behind the camera, and occasional cameos from his little sister Emily. He goes into how to do special effects- and if it’s complicated he has a friend of his who is more of a VFX guy- all with software that is readily available on your computer.

He has a few shorts that he has produced- all are in the low to no budget range. THey are the kind of thing you would get together with a few of your friends and scrape up some money to put together, and the production value is pretty damn good. It’s not Hollywood blockbuster special effects- it’s just enough to get the story from the page to the screen. And that’s what his emphasis is on- how can you best tell the story.

Over the last three days, I can honestly say it was such a pleasure to watch him work. If I could DP for him and learn a little of his on-set workflow, I would in a heartbeat.
Moral of the story: play well with others, look for any opportunity to just keep shooting, and try to steal as many things from other directors as possible.