By James Mathers, Director of Photography
It’s the Director of Photography’s job to control the elements of light, shadow, composition, and movement to visually tell a story. As we apply film production techniques to new digital applications, we are finding that we have a hard fight to keep this control.
A big part of the DP’s job has always been to interpret how the images we photograph on the set will be translated to the final audience. It used to be that DPs developed their eye by simply running a lot of film through their cameras and then seeing the results projected or telecined. Nowadays, we are able to take advantage of the superb images we can see on our display devises, (perhaps better than anyone will ever see them again). It’s instant gratification, instantaneous feedback, and has been a great boon to the collaborative process; but how do we really know that the image we sign off on during production is the same image that will ultimately be perceived by our audience? And, how do we defend our artistic choices in an environment where anyone who know how to watch TV may feel qualified to judge the image on the monitor.
As we develop new digital production methodologies, there are a couple of things we need to do to make sure we don’t loose our authorship of the visual image. One is testing; I recommend you shoot extensive tests before any digital production and I try to see them all the way out to film, or whatever is the intended distribution. If you’ve got a show in preproduction, labs and rental houses will generally offer you gear and services for testing so that you can see your work on the big screen and get everyone’s input early in the process, which can be really helpful later on.
It used to be that we could get familiar with a couple of film stocks and no matter what gear we were using, as long as we had that stock running through the gate, we knew what we were going to get. Now every camera might have it’s own “look” and unless you establish your preferences in pre-production, you will be at the mercy of however the last technician may have set up that camera. I’ve often found that the image that is most desirable from a technical perspective is not what we want to see aesthetically. We may have to fight for the time in pre-production, but it will be worth it.
The second battle we need to wage is too be kept in the post-production loop. With the tremendous latitude now available in post, a Colorist may want to “help you out” and make your moody moonlit scene look like High Noon; and it doesn’t stop there. If your digital project is destined for a filmout, there is a whole other transformation that can take place and we need to be there to maintain our vision.
It’s still my job as a DP to be the guardian of the image and to try and make sure that what we see on set will be the same image ultimately translated all the way through post to the final exhibition, whether it be to a theatrical screen, a home TV set, or both. Unless we endeavor to be included in pre and post production, there is no way to effectively do our jobs.