A lot of people think being a DP is all about art, composition and lighting, and sometimes forget about the Management aspect of the job. For me, being a Manager is a task that can be the most complicated part of the job, requiring tact, decisiveness, planning, and patience.
On any given shoot, I work for the Director, and I work for the Producer, and I work for their Client. They all have somewhat divergent interests in me and the work that I produce. On set, I usually feel my biggest responsibility is to the Director, but on a political level, I try to keep everyone happy. I also have to coax the best out of my crew, because they really can make me shine or slow us to a crawl.
Like everyone, I have an opinion. That’s part of being an Artist and a Craftsman, and it’s what makes my style different than other people. On a film set, I find artists at every level and in every position, from my gaffer to the set dresser down to the PA’s and Craft Service person. Many of them are in the film industry because they have a passion for the craft, and many are working their way up the ladder.
The way we express our opinions is where the art of politics and management come in. I think this is a critical aspect of what makes a great Cinematographer, and why some DP’s get reputations for being arrogant or difficult to work with. We’re in a difficult position, between the Top Brass and the Gears that make everything turn on the set. We have to constantly make concrete decisions, and we have to understand what our bosses want, what we want, what our crew wants, and how to navigate a bunch of different personalities and relationships.
I’m very self-conscious about how I carry myself on set, and I know it’s important that I be assertive and give counsel to a Director, but at the same time maintain an open mind and an easy demeanor. I’m not hired to be a button pusher, and I have to find a way to express myself as an artist alongside the other artists that I work with. I just read an interview with DP Barry Ackroyd, who said “It’s about telling someone else’s story, but with your voice.” Filmmaking has a fascinating dynamic, where artists come together to collaborate on a single project, yet at the end of the day, it’s not a Democracy — it’s a Dictatorship where the Director has the ultimate say.
For DP’s and Director’s alike, I think as a Manager, it’s important to be able to make a decision. Imagine if you had a boss that didn’t know what he wanted, and how confused and frustrated you’d be. I like to have the debates and discussions in prep, so that when we’re on set we don’t waste a lot of time going back and forth. The Director and I need to be united on what shots we need, where the camera goes, where the actors go, and what’s going to happen. At the same time, I want to offer some freedom to allow for the ‘Happy Accident’ and the improvisational nature of being on set with a troupe of talented actors and crew. This is why I like being closely involved in the shot-list making stage of prep.
I love working for Director’s who know what they want, can definitively say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to any option I offer them, and yet are open to my ideas and are willing to discuss the ‘Why’s’ of what we’re doing. That’s how I better understand and execute their vision, by asking a lot of questions, and by working to create a method and pattern that makes our work distinct.