The #1 Job of a Cinematographer

What’s the #1 Job of a cinematographer? Is it to create beautiful images? Is it to visually execute the best way to tell the story? Is it to manage the crew that is involved in all aspects of the visuals (Gaffer, ACs, Grips etc?). Well the answer is yes, it’s all of those things. But none of those are the #1 job of a cinematographer.

It’s quite simple really (in theory!). The #1 Job of a cinematographer is to execute the vision of the Director by ensuring he gets the materials that he envisioned to create his film. That’s not too hard is it?

But what if the Director is leading you down a boring and “incorrect” path? What if he is not interested in your opinion, your approach, your input? We’ll come back to these questions below.

Are you capable of executing whatever the Director throws at you?

So how hard is it to execute the Director’s vision? I guess that depends how skilled you are and how easy the Director is to work with. The key here is that there are many ways to skin the cat, many ways to interpret a scene, many ways to light a room, light a portrait etc. All of these decision will contribute to the message and story of the film and that belongs in the hands of the Director. He makes the final calls on that.

As much as we may want to control the visuals, the key is to make sure that its in line with what the Director needs. You have to become one with his vision so that you can begin to think like him as there are a myriad of minute decisions that are constantly taking place.

Watch below from 25:44-26:40 and see what i mean:

But the real point here is that you have to be . . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . VERSATILE.

You have to have a wealth of experience in shooting in different conditions and scenarios. Your library of possible setups to achieve a look must be vast. Otherwise you will most likely fail in executing certain looks and styles.

This versatility is what will get you noticed and get you hired often!

You are NOT the boss.

The other major point here is that you have to be humble enough to take direction. This starts to become a fine line as some Directors are not looking to “work together” and receive feedback and ideas. This is a big loss for them as they are losing potentially valuable input from a professional in his field.

I recently worked on a project where I jumped over to the other side of the fence and sat in the Director’s chair. I brought on the amazing Phillip Briggs (presenter in our last CineSummit) and we immediately began to tango.

I gave him clear direction and ‘looks” that I researched for each shot, and then set him completely free to do his thing. More than that, I asked and insisted that he feed me any ideas he had. (Yes, I know. I’m such a lovely guy)

Phillip Briggs and I on set. Photo credit: Liron Samuels

Phillip Briggs and I on set. Photo credit: Liron Samuels

In turn, I noticed something that was very important for all cinematographers to take note of; he always, even when I was ready to move on to the next setup, checked with me and asked “are you happy? do you want to look again at playback?”

In other words he was doing the #1 thing a cinematographer needs to do: “to execute the vision of the Director.”

Are you fighting to get the best possible images?

Having said all that there is another side to the job of a cinematgorapher. We should always be pushing to create amazing visuals and fighting to explain and have our way for the betterment of the piece. If you are not doing this, then perhaps cinematography is not for you. Or at least lets admit that its just a boring day job where you pick up a check and take orders from others. And who the heck wants that?!

If you’re in the biz of film making, surely it’s because your excited to not have a “regular job.” As one of my colleagues once told me after explaining to me the battles and frustrations he was going through on a film project, he ended with: “it still beats a real job.”

Let’s face it, we’re not in an office, 9-5, lunch breaks, “can I get a day off?”, and all the other stuff that comes with a regular job.

You should be executing the Director’s vision but you should not be content if you cannot flex your cinematography muscles!

Vittorio Storaro said (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor, 3 Oscars) . . . “I think you should be always yourself. From when you start . . .  yes, young cinematographers telling me “yes, YOU can do that … to refuse a project . . . because you are NOW this kind of person (a succesfull cinematographer).” I remember on the first film . . . I found myself uncomfortable with what the Director asked me to do and I was forced to do it. And at the end of the day . . . I was 28. I said “Good bye – I don’t think I come back tomorrow because I don’t think you need me. You need somebody to just put one light just to let you see whoever is in front of you.”

Gordon willis said (The Godfather) . .  “ ‘No’ is a very important word… In fact ‘No’ will get you more work then ‘yes’.

Listen for yourself – jump to 19:50. Then watch the entire film!!!

There’s a big BUT!

So what’s the final point?

A cinematographer’s #1 job is to execute the vision of the Director … with one big but . . . BUT you should be striving and insisting on doing stellar work and do not let yourself get pushed into filming rubbish. (not the most poetic sentence but you get the point)

In the long run, not only will you improve more, but you will also get more work. Yes, some will not want you because of this, but many will appreciate that you are insisting on giving them top quality. Furthermore, you will improve more this way and your portfolio will show it, leading to more and better paying work as your level increases.

How has your experience been with Directors?

Are you focused on their vision?

Do you push the boundaries to ensure the best results?

 

  • Aviv Vana

    Well said Forty130

  • j vann

    Thanks, its super helpful for me to understand all this, as I mainly only do my own productions.

  • Samuel Laseke

    The director does not exist in a vacuum. It’s the producers movie. They get the awards for best picture. The director collaborates with the producer the same way the dp collaborates with the director. The directors vision is not theirs alone. It’s a collaboration with all the department heads. If you watch the entire movie in your post you will see they actually disagree with your stand on directors vision being most important. A director does not win the award for best cinematography and nobody wins best cinematography because of a beautiful image. A good director works with their key department heads to create a single unified vision for the entire film. Not only their vision but the vision of everyone involved. If they don’t they will have a very disjointed movie. A director that takes their concept from idea to vision without their team is not directing. They are delegating and any key’s assistant can do that. Directors are visionary leaders not dictators.

    • Aviv Vana

      Samuel, I actually agree with everything you said. I do not have a stand of “directors vision being most important.” Only that the cinematographer’s job is to execute his vision. Just like it’s the gaffer’s job to execute the cinematographer’v vision. And on and on . . . You make many good points that their is still a hierarchy going up above the Director and hopefully its obvious to everybody that in the end it’s a team effort between all departments.
      Making a film is very much a team sport, not a “Dictatorship” like you said.

      • Samuel Laseke

        The ASC cinematographers in that video have a very different opinion of their role. They specifically state that your job as dp is to say NO! not yes when the direction is wrong for the story. The ASC cinematographers all say “their” job is to create the style, look, and visual choices of the film. They say “their” job is to work with the director to understand what the director is trying to say and then they translate that into a visual story and create the look.

        The cult of the director gets so much credit for things they merely approved. The Gofather for example is taught in film schools that Coppola made his movie in a way that it could not be changed. We find out from Gordon Willis that it was him that chose the look and style 20 minutes before they started shooting. Coppola also thinks the GH2 is better than an Alexa. Which is why the dp exists and these decisions belong in their hands and not the directors. There are some notable exceptions like Soderberg and Rodriguez. But they simply direct, shoot, and edit their own movies.

        • ocube

          Great colour and mood alone never made a good film, good story telling (script interpretation) and great acting (as directed) is where it all starts. Let’s appreciate the work of a cinematographer but lets not devalue the work of a director in the process. Film is a collaborative medium but only one person conducts it, the success of a film rests on the shoulder of a director.

          • Samuel Laseke

            I don’t think anyone is devaluing the role of a director. Just defining the relationship between a dp and director.

          • Dion Guess

            Exactly ocube. You are devaluing the role of the Director John Thomas. Look at all of the statements that you made, and then you have the gall to say, “I don’t think anyone is devaluing the role of a director. Just defining the relationship between a dp and director.” What??? You are so full of it. Again, you have the gall to right all of that crap, and then try to twist what you said around. What a bare faced LIAR!!!

        • Dion Guess

          O.K. then, so Coppola doesn’t know anything, it’s all the D.P. and Soderberg and Rodriguez are better Directors than Coppola. I think that it’s time for you to go and smoke a few more reefers…

          • Dion Guess

            “The cult of the director gets so much credit for things they merely approved.” Your life must be so sad and depressing John Thomas. it must be tough getting to sleep while you think about all of the credit the Director gets. Maybe you should start Directing, (if you can handle it) Directing may make you a happy man. All i see is a miserable defeated jealous of the Director man!!!

          • John thomas

            Coppola thinks an iphone is better than film and a GH2 has a superior image to an Alexa and Epic. So his visual style sure didn’t come from him. In fact it’s well documented that he didn’t come up with the visual style.

            Soderberg and Rodriguez are both DP and Editors on their movies. Coppola is not even capable of comparing the quality of film to that of the IPhone 4. So there is that.

    • Dion Guess

      Bla, Bla, Bla… I will guarntee that you never shot a feature film in your life John Thomas…

      • Dion Guess

        Also, did the article say that the Director should exist in a vacuum??? This is a great article, and everything that was said in this article is true!!!

        • John thomas

          Unfortunately the video the article is based on says exactly the opposite of what the article says. Which was my point. Seriously watch the whole thing and see what the best DP’S in the business have to say about their role with directors. They all keep saying it’s the dp’s job to tell the director NO! What do you think the DP does? It use to be against union rules for a DP to operate a camera. So what did they do? Why do they have Director in their title? Just curious.

      • John thomas

        Actually I have shot 3 features now. I have been on 450 sets. I have worked with legendary directors and DP’S. New directors and the occasional control freak are the only directors that ever tried to tell me how to do my job or anyone else’s. A good director collaborates and knows their not a cinematographer.

        I have directed many shirt films, many music videos, and many commercials. I have never had a problem with my DPs. As a DP I have only had a few 1st time directors tell me what lens, support, or even move to use and when their wrong I tell them. They always over rule me and they have every time came back to me and asked how I knew it would not work the way they wanted.

        It’s a collaboration plain and simple. Your obsession with making director out to be the only creator on a movie is the real issue. If all the ASC cinematographers say the same thing I am saying you may want to rethink your argument. Clearly you have some insecurity about maintaining control over “your” movie. I would suggest you never direct television, commercials, or even a label music video. You will have a new reality given to you quickly.

  • Joe Adset

    Thanks again for letting us in ‘behind the scenes’, Aviv! It may not seem like much for you, but I learn SO much from your blog posts. It’s so helpful for a guy like me starting out, thank you! 🙂

  • Dion Guess

    As a Director and D.P… Bla, Bla, Bla… it is quite evident that you are a control freak, and the very last Cinematographer that I would ever hire to shoot a feature film with. “Micro managing them and telling them the movements and shots I want is not vision its instruction.” So the Director is just supposed to let you shoot the movie however you want, and not tell you how he wants the camera to move, etc… Lol… You’re a joke…

  • ken