My Creative Process for Narrative Cinematography
Filmmaking through films is a collaborative art form and this page outlines my preferred path to a deep and meaningful partnership as we move forward on this visual journey. Even though creating beautiful imagery is commonly considered a technical craft, this approach addresses a few quintessential steps that are often overlooked in the process which ultimately leads to storytelling compromises or unforeseen expenses. This process is very sacred and I love using my experiences to steer each project in the right direction from the start.
The right approach involves taking a "story-first" with my cinematography. This means delving deep into the purpose of a film, the subtleties, and the "feelings" behind each shot. Secondly, I have several exercises to create alignment with the Director or Stakeholder's vision on a shot-to-shot basis. Thirdly, it's critical to create an environment that has good vibes, momentum, and rhythms. Since film is a visual medium, this starts with the vision.
This article assumes that I will be collaborating with a creative stakeholder that will be overseeing the scripting and production needs of our potential endeavor. While not all projects require a script or storytelling, all projects do in fact need a purpose. For these types of visual projects, I can work with you to develop a creative brief.
After reading the script or creative brief, I will present my approach to the film's look, style, and cinematography. This process may include references or a treatment. As the Director of Photography, I give ideas. From here, we find common ground that will create a unique looking for the film or commercial. This is the best place to find out if we're a good fit. This is also before money exchanges hands. During this time, I will be curiously searching for a "spark" - also known as the inspiration for the piece which will ultimately give life to this endeavor. I have a few guided questions and exercises done through a Kickoff Call followed by a Discovery Session. This helps us to align on purpose and provides clarity for later discussions.
This should provide me with enough substance to create a quote. If agreeable, we will create a commitment in the form of a contract with a deposit.
For many projects, I will follow up with a treatment discussion with the Director or Co-Director. Sometimes, it's in the form of a reference but when there's a need for a more unique style, I would work with the creative brief or director's treatment to create a visual treatment for the film. This is very useful for communicating with other department heads including a Production Designer or Lighting Technician. Ultimately, this begins to influence the film in a deliberate way.
What the style discussion creates are the restraints that the team will within. Restraints create rhythms. It's a way of defining the resources that "we have" and finding reasonable solutions to potentially lofty ideas. Without properly addressing potential concerns early, you leave the entire endeavor exposed to unnecessary risks.
Beyond references, three elements that are worth discussing during this period are color palette, aspect ratio, and lighting ratios.
The script breakdown is where the film starts to come alive for me. Here we'll look at locations pictures and create the initial blocking with overheads. While we won't go into every single detail, I do this exercise to discover the nuances that we're looking to capture in other to take an intentional approach to achieve the film's essence. Time on set is very precious and this step can be incredibly valuable later on as we begin filming.
All the ambitions that we had early in production starts to become real as we put together a shotlist together. The list condenses all the information and ideas into one document. I like planning for a keyframe that epitomizes what each scene is about. The shotlist is a good way to think deeply about pacing, rhythm, and camera movement. Here is a good opportunity to find creative ways to enter and exit a scene. Lastly, we put together an equipment list needed to execute the desired result to avoid any surprises when it comes to filming.
From here, the production will be able to create a workflow that addresses which camera and format are best for the shoot. Sometimes, it is necessary to put some of the gear to test during this phase to make sure it's delivering what the stakeholder expectations are. Ultimately, this process forces us to put the story and purpose in front of the tools.
While I've done many 1-man or 2-person production with great results, the surest way to increase the production value of a film is to add an organized crew for the job. I've had the great pleasure of working with 30-person crews where there's a need for many specialists and I've worked with smaller harmonious teams where having people who wear multiple hats is critical to the success of the shoot. As a DP, the most important person on my team is the Gaffer (or Lighting Technician) who oversees lighting. This team is organized together in a crewlist.
Beyond lighting needs, my relationship with the Production Designer and Assistant Director is paramount to the success of a film. Doing the proper homework such as visual treatments, shotlist, and overheads will aid this discussion.
Scouting and Logistics
The location scout is the most effective way to make decisions regarding the day of filming. It is a luxury to have these resources but the alternative to actually visiting a location is reviewing images of the location. I like to know all the risks and potentials problems that we'd face prior to a scout and be ready to find solutions on the day we are on location.
Nine times out of ten, the challenge of a production is summarized in the schedule. Revising and reviewing the shotlist is the best way to create an accurate schedule. Most importantly though, this is where you can optimize the shots for the shoot. Without this homework, you won't be making the best use of all our assets and energy on the day of the shoot.
On Set Strategy
While there are times one ought to be spontaneous onset, it is not the way to plan a shoot. I believe in creating a "sandbox" where there is room to be free and to be instinctive. The set is a sacred place to be intentional with the moments that you create. I have over fifteen years of experience in strategizing to maximize time on set to shoot, therefore, increasing our chance to capture that perfect moment.
If you've read through all this, then I am delighted that you've taken the first step towards appreciating my style and preferred approach. This is just the beginning. I would love to know about your style and your approach to see where we meet. Making films has been a life-changing endeavor for me and I look forward to more wonderful journeys with amazing people.