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Monday, July 13, 2020

Justus Page on the Director/DP relationship

Justus Page
My DP career began 6 years ago. What was my understanding of the Director/DP relationship back then? I was there to do what I was told. And yet inside I was angry because a part of me felt like that wasn’t right. I should have a say. But I felt too self-conscious in my abilities to be able to speak up. We existed with different expectations of each other.

This can be a very common experience for young DP’s and directors who are finding their footing. You might’ve been lucky to find someone you clicked with right at the beginning, but most are not so lucky. What is supposed to happen is an evolution of your working process. But let’s be honest; Is that what’s happening for YOU?

I think many people running in the independent/no budget circuit innocently never learned about this evolution. Nobody told them. Certainly, nobody told me. It was years of trial and error. But I found that in those roles, that evolution is a big part of your upward mobility in the industry.

Directors: Who is your cinematographer to you? Is it someone you hired to make your film look pretty? Naively, but understandably, this is often where our headspace can be, right? What’s your expectation of them? Are they there to hear your ideas and nod? Are they there to do what you tell them to? Do you want them to just show up and take command of the visuals entirely?

Image courtesy of the author
DP’s: What are you looking for in a director? Are you looking for someone to hand-hold you? Or someone completely hands-off who leaves you alone to do what you know best? You are the professional after all. A director who vomits meaning into every angle? Or a director who couldn’t care less, as long as it looks fine.

Let’s diverge from all of these entirely, and consider another possibility. Your DP/Director is your co-collaborator​. Some seasoned DP’s and Directors might scoff when they read this part because many of them understand this is how it’s supposed to be, ​duh​. But it’s not a given.

The first time I mustered up the courage and gave honest feedback on a script I was offered and the Director went “Oh, that’s a great insight! Let’s make that change,” my whole career evolved. I realized that I could insist on reading a script first, insist on giving feedback, and have an open dialogue with my prospective director. I realized I didn’t want to work with Directors who wouldn’t give me that consideration. But also, those that did showed me their ego was left at the door. They cared most about telling the best story, whatever form that took. It no longer mattered to me whether my director wanted to plan all the shots themselves, or whether they left all of that to me; My expertise was respected, my opinion was welcomed, and that created the type of working environment most conducive to doing our best work.

Image courtesy of the author
Shooting a pivotal moment in the film, the director could say, “Let’s do the shot like this,” and I could feel comfortable saying, “Actually, based on the discussions we’ve had about what we’re trying to say about this character, I think we might be better served doing this.” And guess what? The director can say “I disagree. Let’s do it my way,” and I am absolutely fine with that. That given respect is mutual. Oftentimes, conversations like the one above are avoided on the day, because I do extensive prep and planning with my directors involving look books, breakdowns, discussing character motivations, doing boards, writing shot lists, and religiously reading the script. This gets us all on the same page long before we walk on set.

Who are we as DP’s? We are the guardians of our Director’s vision. We are meant to champion their creative integrity and protect them however we can. We do this by doing everything in our power to understand them, ask 8 million questions until we’re sure we know what the expectations are and what they’re trying to achieve. We stand up for them if someone calls into question that integrity. We go the extra mile to be involved wherever we can, just to gain even an extra ounce of understanding of the vision.

As a Director, doesn’t having someone who champions these things sound exciting? Does it not sound like a weight off your shoulders? Can you sleep better knowing your vision won’t be compromised? Doesn’t it ease your tensions to know you can confide in your DP and ask them for their help? This is the world we’re all trying to live in. And it’s possible. But it takes vulnerability to open yourself up to this dynamic. You as a Director have to be open to ideas and to accept that help. You have to be open to being wrong, but also be comfortable being right, and knowing that standing your ground won’t ruffle any feathers because you’ve fostered this relationship. As DP’s we have to be open to considering ourselves as storytellers in our own right and respect ourselves enough to accept that our jobs are so closely tied to telling a story. Even if, at the end of the day, the Director gets the final word, we can allow ourselves to express our ideas to them openly, and ego-free.

In this day and age, it isn’t too hard to find someone who will make your film look good. But what about someone who makes your story better? Someone who’s invested in its success? Someone who wants to throw the full weight of their craft behind enhancing what’s on the page, and finding ways to make it even better than it was?

The key to being better storytellers for us all is collaboration. Don’t take my word for it. Go discover it for yourself! You’ll never go back to the way things were. And that, I can promise.

Feel free to reach out and open a dialogue! I’m always happy to chat!


 
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