Director of Photography
What you do in the job?
Directors of Photography (DoPs) are key Heads of Department on film productions, and theirs is one of the major creative roles. They are requested by the Director, and must be approved by the financiers, studio and/or completion bond company. DoPs work closely with the Director and Production Designer to give a film its visual signature. Lighting is one of the fundamental elements in filmmaking; the way in which light falls on an actor's face, reveals an interior space, or illuminates a landscape, can create mood, drama and excitement for the audience. The ability of cinema to entertain and emotionally move an audience is the result of a highly collaborative process which encompasses performance, editing and music. The role of the Director of Photography or Cinematographer is to provide a film with its unique visual identity, or look. Most DoPs work on commercials and promos as well as on feature films. Although the hours are long, and some foreign travel may be required, involving long periods spent away from base, the work is highly creative and very rewarding.
DoPs must discover the photographic heart of a screenplay, using a variety of source material including stills photography, painting, other films, etc. They realise the desired look using lighting, framing, camera movement, etc. DoPs collaborate closely with the camera crew (Camera Operator, 1st and 2nd Assistant Camera, Camera Trainee and Grips). During filming, DoPs also work closely with the Gaffer (whose lighting team are key to helping create the required look of the film), the Production Designer, Costume Designer, and the Hair and Make Up Department.
After reading the screenplay, DoPs meet with the Director to discuss the visual style of the film. They conduct research and preparation including carrying out technical recces of locations. They prepare a list of all required camera equipment, including lights, film stock, camera, cranes and all accessories etc., for requisition by the production office. During preparation DoPs also test special lenses, filters or film stocks, checking that the results are in keeping with the Director's vision for the film. On each day of principal photography, DoPs and their camera crews arrive early on set to prepare the equipment for the day's work. During rehearsals, the Director and DoP block (decide the exact movements of both actors and camera) the shots as the actors walk through their actions, discussing any special camera moves or lighting requirements with the Camera Operator, Gaffer and Grip. Each shot is marked up for focus and framing by the 1st AC, and, while the actors finish make-up and costume, the DoP oversees the lighting of the set for the first take. On smaller films, DoPs often also operate the camera during the shoot. At the end of each shooting day, DoPs prepare for the following day's work, and check that all special requirements (cranes, Steadicams, remote heads, long or wide lenses, etc.) have been ordered. They also usually view the rushes with the Director. During post production, DoPs are required to attend the digital grading of the film, which may involve up to three weeks of intensive work.
What qualities are required?
The basic requirement for DoPs is a good technical knowledge of photo-chemical and digital processes and camera equipment. In-depth knowledge of lighting techniques, and how to achieve them, is essential. A combination of practical, technical and creative expertise is required, as well as considerable industry experience, in order to achieve the best results while also saving time and money. They must be flexible in order to adapt ideas instantly, and to be able to take decisions quickly. Knowledge of photography, painting and, particularly of the moving image, is essential. Some knowledge of film history may be useful, as it enables DoPs to be inventive, and to have a working knowledge of how technologies evolve.
Key Skills include:
creativity and precise attention to detail;
good colour vision;
ability to give and to accept direction;
excellent communication skills;
diplomacy and tact when working with cast and crew;
knowledge of the requirements of the relevant Health and Safety legislation and procedures.
How you start and where you can go with it?
Stills photography provides a good all round understanding of composition and light. The National Film and Television School's MA in Cinematography provides the opportunity to specialise, and is taught by practising DoPs. Although DoPs do not need to have electrical qualifications, they do need to understand the functions of a variety of lighting equipment, and to have thorough knowledge of cameras, lenses and film stocks. They may have previously studied Drama, Stills Photography, or Art, or taken a Film/Media Studies degree, where useful research skills are also developed.
The majority of DoPs study film and/or photography to degree level or higher, subsequently working in a junior capacity, e.g as 2nd Assistant Camera on short films or promos, and progressing through the camera roles. Camera Operators often progress to becoming DoPs by carrying out second unit work, although there is no set route. Less frequently they may progress from the Lighting Department. Becoming a DoP can be a long and arduous process, but the eventual rewards are great. Although experience of working on short or student films can provide a good introduction to feature film production, the on-set hierarchy and traditions of working as part of a camera crew can only be learned by experience.
Alan Duxberry - Director of Photography (Reality Show) - My story:
I joined the BBC in 1980 after studying Maths and Physics at A level. This was the requirement then as technical operators were expected to have an appreciation of how television works.
The BBC ran a three month induction course with further training at a broadcasting centre. After three years I did another course specifically for camera operators.
I then worked on many genres of programme making in studios and outside broadcasts and assisting film cameramen who were beginning to shoot locations on electronic cameras, PSC or Portable single camera.
I got a break when one of the film cameramen went off to do a drama and I got to go to India for two weeks. It was not the first time I had shot anything on my own but it did feel like a make or break with the film unit manager checking the rushes back at base!
Since then I successfully boarded for the post of Lighting Cameraman and have since filmed all over the world.
I am now freelance like much of the industry and am offered jobs through people I have worked for in the past and by word of mouth.
Because of my experience in PSC and multi camera shooting, a recent job I have been involved in was The Bachelor for BBC3, where I was Director of Photography.
This involved coordinating five crews on location in Barbados and taking responsibility for the lighting. The first programme has The Bachelor meeting 25 girls at a cocktail party and selecting the 15 he would like to stay and yes, if they did not like him they could refuse!
It was important to create the right atmosphere with lighting, the first major shoot day went rather something like my description in A Day In The Life section.