DP Workshop

A few years ago I did a workshop from this document, you might find it interesting! - MV

Being a Cinematographer - Mark Vargo asc

Personal Intro – Condensed Discussion

It’s called a motion picture and it requires a large group of people to create one. 99% of that crew busy themselves with the motion and only one is responsible for the picture.  That person is the cinematographer.

1. Getting the Job – Agents, Reels and your Personal Network

For me, there are 3 ways that I get work and my list is in the order of probability:

a. Personal Contacts and Relationships
Loyal producers and directors that have used me before and crewmembers that hears of something and tip me off.

b. Scratching and digging on my own. Searching the trades, calling friends, going to trade meetings, screenings etc.

c. My agent. He might find something or follow up on a tip that I give him.

My take on agents. They can find projects that I’m not aware of. They do all of the negotiations that I would prefer not to conduct, usually driving the rate up and adding perks I might not think of. They also provide valuable career guidance and provide some emotional support if needed.

Agents are at their best when you are working as hard as they are to find a job.

It usually goes like this. My agent calls a production company that is looking for a DP and will send a resume. If they are interested they will request a reel. If they like that, then they will send me a script and that means I will get a meeting with their powers that be. That is, presuming I like the script and want to do the movie.

Meetings with experienced directors are social, will I be able to like and get along with this guy. We rarely talk about the script. There will be plenty of time to work out the art.


The meetings with 1st time director can be tedious because all they want to do is talk about their favorite shots and films and how they want to rip off something that’s been done before. These are scary because oftentimes I haven’t seen some of the films they obsess about. (I have a life) Because of my lack of knowledge I usually don’t get these gigs and that never bothers me.

Ok let’s say we get the job. Then what?

2. Prep:

Breaking down the script, choosing the format, storyboards, production design, pre-vis and locations.

In other words: Establishing the Look and the planning stage for executing it.

The Script - is a blueprint and a road map to the art of the cinematographer. We turn words into light through this medium. Lens choice, camera movement, hard light, soft light, natural light, contrasty or flat – all these choices are derived from the script. We support the emotion and the experience with light and lens. For example: lighting a close-up. Is it day or night, raining or snowing – is the actor young, old, innocent or guilty, happy or sad. The script provides us the environment and we interpret that reality with our photographic choices.  If it were a story about the wide-open spaces, we would probably choose the wide screen format. If it’s a claustrophobic 2-person ensemble piece the wide screen format probably wouldn’t be my first choice.

I like Storyboarding action scenes because they are a common document that all departments can plan from. Action scenes are usually the most expensive scenes in movies today so spending the money to board them makes sound financial sense. Action scenes are dangerous, so it’s very important that everyone is clear on the plan. Storyboards help the director clarify his vision. Most action scenes benefit from this process because they are constantly being redrawn and improved upon, almost like a story reel in animated features. For me, I can generate a special equipment list from boards, and separate what I think I can do practically versus a shot that might require visual effects help or might entirely be created in CG. Thus Visual Effects can begin to budget from storyboards.  You can generate a shot list that can be accurately schedule from. The stunt department can get a sense of the personnel they may need and get a jump on the rigs they have to prepare. Etc. Some directors storyboard every scene in the movie but I must tell you, every dialogue scene I’ve have photographed has ended up in no way resembling the boards that were drawn in prep. The reason is that actors have input during the rehearsals that usually dictates the eventual blocking. They go crazy when you show them storyboards.

Pre-vis is a storyboard come to life via cg animation. This is a relatively new tool that is time consuming and expensive. Scenes that require a lot of 3d CG animation is always pre-vis’d. In fact it is included in the bid. On The Ring 2 we had a Japanese director who spoke little English…

Production Designers and DP’ work very closely together in prep. Agreeing on the color palette is an essential beginning to a mutual artistic pursuit. (explain the palette) I work closely with the PD on ceiling height, wild walls windows and other potential sources of light and where to hide lighting instruments. Choosing locations is another area that would be nice to agree upon. Mostly we do, but occasionally we don’t. Selecting locations is a big deal and is a subject that requires a little more time than we have here. But a quick rule of thumb for me for exterior locations is, exposure to the sun, accessibility and if the weather is bad, is there a place to shoot something else. A cover set. Also avoid interior locations that are above the 2nd floor of the building. The prep is in many ways is the PD’ domain while the shoot is the cinematographer. They own prep because they are the first person hired, followed many weeks later by the cinematographer. The director’s vision is forged during prep aided by his key artistic collaborators, the production designer and the cinematographer. In my experience, as the relationship between the PD and the DP goes, so goes the rest of the movie.

Camera tests. Spidergirl.


3. The Tools of the trade.

For me, my equipment remains pretty much the same. I try not to over tool. I’ve had the same spot meter for twenty years and replaced my incident meter 5 years ago. I go through phases with my Polaroid. Didn’t use it once on Garfield or Catwoman, but used it constantly on the Ring 2. Recently I updated my digital camera to the Nikon D70. This I use for light studies during the day and occasionally, I will Photoshop certain exposures to get an approval for lighting or special looks. My computer is a G4 power book. I use this for printing photos and editing tests and sometimes scenes. If I’m overseas scouting I will use my GPS for certain fixes for solar studies or just for fun. The GPS is not an essential tool, but it is great in the open spaces and not so good in big cavernous cities. I always have a grey card and a color chart, camera assistants usually carry them but I have a backup too. I always carry a compass and an inclinometer for shadow and visual effects needs. Big shows have added someone new to the camera department. This person takes a digital photo after the set is lit and then prints it to the DP’ specifications. This picture gives the DP a virtual look at the set lighting, which he may improve upon, or not. Often this print is sent to the lab with the days negative for a timing reference. Another copy is saved if they have to return to the set for reshoots, or it could be passed along to the 2nd unit as a lighting referral. Your best tools are your eyes and the less they get distracted the better. If you think it looks a little dark, it probably is. Learn to trust them over all other instruments.

4. The Crew

The Process of Crewing Up – Did you know that easily half of a shooting crew reports to the Cinematographer.  We are considered a Department head. Directly supervising the ways and means of the camera. But the key grip and the gaffer also report to the DP. Same can be said for the video assist team, the greens department and the standby painter. (what’s a standby painter)? If visual effects are needed they depend on the DP’s guidance, experience and sometimes our wrath. I’ve just mentioned at least 25 people. Your crew is a big family and if you have a busy year, it’s possible to spend more time with this group than your loved ones. I have a core group of key people that I have worked with for a long time and that’s typical. Occasionally one of the principal members is not available. Replacing this person can take a lot of time. Usually I’ll try to track someone down who I’ve wanted to work with or I’ll call a colleague for ideas or recommendations. Rarely will I refer to the pile of resumes that accrue during prep. Resumes are my last resort. Bottom line – surround yourself with the best, can do people available and if they aren’t measuring up – get rid of them. The job is hard enough to also have to worry about someone else’s mistakes or lack of cohesion. I’ve never fired anyone who didn’t get plenty of chances and the time to see it was coming. C’mon, it’s a performance-based industry – so perform. There is an exception to everything I’ve just stated. And that is whenever you work in a foreign country. But I’m not going to discuss that for now.

5. The Tech Scout

So the crew is now hired, you are well into prep and within a couple of weeks you begin shooting. The tech scout is usually the final time you visit a location before you shoot there. This is a trip you take with a large group. It typically includes all of the key members of the crew. At each location the essence of the scene is discussed and then the DP explains how he wants to light the scene and where he wants to put the camera. This can be general or very specific information. The point is, the technical crew gathers all of the ideas expressed now and determines the equipment and crew needed to pull this off in the allotted scheduled time. This can include, condors, cranes, rain machines, Ritter fans, extra greens, fire department personnel, big lights, special lights, lightning machines, smoke, etc. This is where all of that is recorded and included in the special equipment list. The list contains all of the extra equipment that isn’t already carried on a daily basis. This scout is where the transportation department figures out where the base camp for the crew will park, all the permits are determined through the locations department and any final surprises are discovered. Because this is a technical trip, often times the director isn’t present. Tech Scout the auditorium. Call it a cover set.

6. The First AD

One of my best friends is a 1st AD and I’m glad he’s not here for this part of the talk. Does everyone know what the first assistant directors job entails? First of all, there are all kinds of AD’s. Most started as P.A.’s and all of them need to run the show and make sure everyone is knows it. They can be screamers, irrational egomaniacs who know all or the calm, confident nurturing type with a steady hand. Whoever they are, regardless of type, they can be tiresome meddlers that need to be watched constantly. They are your den mother, pit boss and cheerleading cruise director. Their main responsibility and concern is the schedule. How many shoot days there are and how much work is laid on for any given day. It is the latter that directly involves the DP because it is the DP that rallies the crew to accomplish those goals. It’s the schedule that the studio cares about the most – fewer day’s equals less money and they really like that. So the AD is pushed and sometimes demanded to cut days, causing them to cram as much work as they can into the day. This is where the DP comes in. If I think the day looks heavy I’ll make a note. For instance, if they’ve scheduled 6 actors for 5 pages of dialogue and a complicated stunt then I know we’re doomed because the coverage will be inadequate. You figure any crew will average 15-20 setups a day with one camera and that isn’t enough for a day like this. Funny thing is, the AD, Director and the studio knows this. Yet we forge on, often times starting a movie with an unrealistic schedule. Go on record with your concerns early, because the schedule can make for shaky ground later on, particularly if things get ugly and the blame starts to fly. Be positive, because if things are going well and the film is showing real potential, additional days will begin to magically appear.

7. The Shoot Begins – Working with the Director

Some directors are involved in the Photographic process, others are pretty much hands off. My favorite directors fall under the second category. Generally speaking, inexperienced directors fear actors so they busy themselves in how a project looks rather than how it’s playing. Concentrating more on whiz bang effects shot and complicated camera moves. I prefer directors who tolerate the shooting as a means to a dramatic end. The truth is I think the perfect director is a little bit of both, because after all it is a visual medium, where the best movies have a little bit of both. Finding the balance is the trick and DP’s need to help the director get there. Directors can be moody and unpredictable. They are under a lot of pressure and must suffer under the heavy hand of the studio. Consequently a lot of leadership responsibilities fall on the DP. I don’t mind this if assuming that role helps forward the success of the project. If the director feels threatened by this then you have to adjust, or else. It isn’t always like this. But if it’s perceived that the director is wasting or miss-managing his day then the suits start showing up.

A typical day begins with a rehearsal where the set is temporarily closed so that the actors and the director can work out the physical and emotional beats of a scene. This can take up to an hour. The DP is off on the sidelines observing this process. When they finish this, key crewmembers are invited to the set to observe the walk through. This is a chance for everyone to get a sense of the coverage and technical support required to get through the scene. Usually you begin with the widest shot or the ‘Master’. It makes sense to light for the big shot first because the set is clear of equipment at the moment but it also gives the actors time to warm up to the scene before their close-ups. It takes a lot of time to light for a master but that time is well spent because everyone knows where the key sources are and they know that subsequent set-ups will build on the established look of the master. If the rehearsal took a long time, and the lighting for the master takes a long time, then the AD and the producers start to get jumpy because it might be late in the morning before you get the first shot. It’s this part of the day that is the most stressful for the cinematographer, because we are on the clock now and all eyes are on you. Hang in there and get it right, is all I can say. The more you accomplish now saves time later in the day. Having seen the rehearsal, and planned for the first shot, you now have a good sense of how many set-ups will be required to complete the scene. As the scene evolves shots are usually added to support some of the action the actors invent. DP’s and directors can argue about coverage and that’s normal. We each have our favorite shots and try to get them into the day if possible. It’s the DP’s job to simplify the coverage if time gets short. This is the fun part. Putting the puzzle together. I like blocking because I like editing; the two go hand in hand. As mentioned before, on set editing can help ascertain if shots are working or not, this is a good check, but it can slow you down if a big debate about film editing ensues. It’s important to get through the wide shots quickly. These shots establish the set and the geography and that’s about it. The drama and the emotion build with the tighter angles so that’s where the time is best spent. If an actor is stuck offstage try to shoot an insert, try to keep the crew occupied. Don’t stand around; there is always something to do. Everyone is there to shoot, so shoot.

8. Script Supervisors

Script supervisors keep track of a lot of vital information. They are the mavens of the script, following the actors read of the dialogue and if they improvise, make note of the changes. They also note the physical action of the actors. “You used your left hand, or, you sat down before you said the line.” “Nope, the top button is undone.” Etc. They also keep track of all the dirt and gossip on the set. They are privy to the deepest and darkest secrets because they sit next to the director all day and hear everything. This I think gives them a sense of creative entitlement that drives me crazy. No one knows the coverage better than the Cinematographer, so when we move on to a new set-up and thinks the screen direction is iffy or wrong, even though it is fine, then you have to take time out to explain the plan to her. If she really starts to fuss, then the director gets involved and it can turn into a real pissing contest. So you shoot the rehearsal and cut it in. This is where a good video guy comes in handy because if he likes it, the problem is usually solved. Most script supervisors secretly want to be a director, that’s fine. But get your own movie and stop interfering with mine.

9. Actors

You don’t need me to tell you about the quirky world of actors, the tabloids cover that well enough. My experience has been that they come to work prepared and ready to work. Obviously there are exceptions but I’m not going to get into that. First of all, it’s their movie; it’s now an actor’s medium. Everything revolves around them. It’s important on their good side and caters to their needs. This accommodation cuts across all departments on the film. If they want to change a prop, a piece of wardrobe, the bedspread the lighting, they probably will, regardless of their status in town. Some actors try to hit their marks, others don’t. Some will stand for focus measurement others can’t be bothered. If you tell the AD that you’ve finished lighting and you are ready, then you better be ready. Tweaking and rushing around with the actor on set drives them crazy, “I thought you were ready?” “Why did you call me?” Many times an actor has pulled me aside and nervously told me that they thought they didn’t look good, and was there anything I could do. “Don’t shoot a close-up, OK?” I just reply that I think they look great and I’ll double check when we get to the closer coverage. What can you do, I try to never agree with them on the record. Be Switzerland, concentrate on the lighting. The great thing about actors is that most of them can act, and when they breathe life into a scene, it’s marvelous to be a part of. The quicker you adjust to their eccentricities the more efficient you’ll be, which result in a happier actor. And that’s the goal!

10. Make-up, Hair and Wardrobe  (the Royal Court)

Most established actors have their own vanity people that go from movie to movie with them. They know their clients like the back of their hand and are fiercely protective of them. Because I am responsible for photographing the end result of their creative efforts, you can bet they watch me closely on behalf of their clients. Actors don’t go to dailies but make-up and hair does, reporting back to everyone if they don’t like how their masters look. You’ll never hear anything if they approve, but if they don’t – look out. I try to get off on the right foot during the initial camera tests, giving them every “look’ they want to try and make sure they review the results of the test carefully. As with all departments, building alliances early pays off later on.

11. Blocking a Scene – What is it?

If you can block, half your job is done. Start with a good rehearsal and then design your coverage to fit the allotted time for the shoot. If a scene is well blocked and covered, the editor will be able to edit the scene in many different ways. I think this is important because films take on a life of their own after a while and the more options the editor has the better. Actors have a lot of input in the blocking because they will want to do what comes naturally vis a vis the script. They will invent “business”, that supports the vision of the character. Choosing where the camera goes can be as easy as placing it where you stand while observing the rehearsal. Watch any director during this process and more often than not the camera will end up where he is while he moves around during the rehearsal. Block the actors, then the camera. EXAMPLE. Even though this lecture isn’t in a screenplay we could block what we’re doing right now. Let’s say some of you are making fun of me right now…. Give the first close-up to the bigger star.

12. The Camera Crew

I’ve had the same camera crew for a few years now. I use three different operators depending on the script. If a story requires a lot of steadicam I use one guy, if it’s stunt heavy, I’ll choose another. But if it’s dialogue heavy with big stars I’ll use the third. Operators, like any other crew person have strengths and weaknesses. Every so often I need a jolt so I’ll take over. Operating is a lot of fun and it is considered one of the best jobs on the film crew. In Europe the operator has a closer relationship with the director. In fact, the operator is responsible for the blocking of the camera over there. The DP’s main charge is the lighting. Not so in the U.S. Friction can develop between the DP and the operator if the operator begins to side with the directors choices over his cameraman’s wishes. You do that more than once and you’ll get fired. It isn’t a dictatorial thing; it’s just not proper protocol. Only the cinematographer knows all the pieces of the scene and it isn’t wise to second-guess that plan. Most DP’s prefer single camera coverage except for stunts; so every now and then we have a second or third camera for a shot. Oftentimes these additional crew members just work for a day or two and are not part of the immediate camera family. Multi camera coverage is an involved subject and is relevant more to television than to feature films, so I’ll skip over this for now. The most important person on my crew is the focus puller, and he I think; they have one of the hardest jobs on the film crew and a tremendous amount of responsibility. Actors and Marks, hairs in the gate, managing the truck, and just pulling focus with no depth of field. I think it is a black art.

13. Special Situation’s:

Aerial, Underwater and Visual FX Photography

If you work on a production that requires any special photographic situations that you are not an expert in, do yourself a favor, and insist on bringing a pro in to help you. The production manager will usually support you here. I personally hate re-shooting anything, and if you gamble in an unfamiliar area you’ll usually be sorry or at least dissatisfied with the outcome. Producers will complain about the additional cost, but that’s too bad, DP’s are responsible for the quality of the picture and it’s important to fight for the very best. Believe me, for the rest of your life you’ll see this movie and you don’t want to ever have to cover eyes.

14. Stunts and Stuntman

Stunt people are a rare breed, crashing cars, jumping out of buildings, setting themselves on fire, etc. I know I wouldn’t do it. When they are performing you want the best operators behind the cameras for at least two reasons. What their doing is dangerous and it’s best to get the shot in one take. And it’s also expensive. Every time you do a take the reset time is extensive and the stunt performer gets an additional adjustment. Adjustment fees vary with the degree of difficulty and danger involved. Stunt coordinators can be notorious in asking for additional takes for financial reasons more than the artistic improvements. Beware of this. Also their opportunities are diminishing due to CG stunt people. So there are a lot of unemployed stunt people. In the old days, stunt guys were always the 2nd Unit directors, because of fight scenes, cowboy and Indian stuff, chases. In other words, stunt intensive stuff. Even though a few of these directors are still around, few have changed the way they cover scenes which to some is old fashioned. And I agree. Movies are made differently now even though most of the stunts are the same. All shots need to be cut together seamlessly, so 2nd Units are being directed by more and more DP’s like myself.

15. Children and Animals

Common sense dictates a different pace when filming child and animal actors. Animals can work all day, but kids have limited hours because of child labor laws. Triumphs and disasters aside, production slows down when filming these scenes. Patience is the virtue here, because the work will get done. I have never been more amazed when I did a shot in Mouse Hunt where the mouse climbed into his bed and put his head on the pillow. Blew my mind. Conversely I have shot a lengthy dialogue scene with a child that was photographed repeatedly “phrase by phrase.” That was painful and it was with an established child actor too! Go into these days with no expectations and you might be pleasantly surprised because the kids can be a lot of fun and the animals simply amazing.

16. Using Light as a Tool

This is one of the topics that I could speak on for an entire semester! Talking about it is one thing, but observing it, as a way of life is my passion. Great painters throughout history felt that way too, I’m sure. I have a number of great books that I refer to all the time for ideas and wonder. Some films require many hours of testing to achieve a look, like “The Patriot”. Caleb Deschanel was the first unit DP and I was the 2nd Unit guy. His office walls were covered with prints of famous 18th Century American Revolutionary War paintings. Obvious inspiration for an amazing creative effort the film would become. Nominated for Best Cinematography.

Then you take a Larry Clark film, all handheld with as much natural light good or bad as he can get. He hates lighting dollies, cranes and anything that smacks of Hollywood gear. That’s his style. Melanie Griffith story.

I don’t need to tell you that light is a raw material that can be shaped, colorized, bounced, skipped, cut, dimmed etc. It comes in various intensities and qualities, from a bare light bulb to a 100k xenon. I have used all of them, and they have very specific applications. I told Cindy that if I could only have one gaffer and no key grip or one key grip and no gaffer I’m not sure whom I would choose. Because I take as much light away with flags as I leave on the set. The truth is you have to have both unless you’re doing a home movie with your camcorder. The important thing is to manipulate light, this incredible raw material, to support the vision, inspired and motivated by the what? The script.

17. Day and Night Exteriors vs. Shooting on Stage

I spoke about my lack of enthusiasm for exterior shooting last week and I’m sticking with that. Most cinematographers prefer to shoot on stage because he has absolute control of the lighting and the set. It can be day all day or night all day. It’s quiet, there’s no traffic control, no wind, rain or bugs. You get the idea. The only thing I like about shooting outside is that at some point, the sun will go down, or if your shooting nights, that sun will come up! But on stage you can shoot for, as many hours as you can stand up – so sometimes the hours can get very grueling. The hardest illusion to pull of on stage is a day exterior set. Why? Because it takes a lot of light to create a realistic feel of daylight ambience. The sun is an amazing lighting instrument that is difficult to emulate.

18. The Lab

As always, you want to have a great relationship with the people at the lab. They can make you look good and vice versa. Unfortunately most dailies are now delivered on DVD or Hi Def mediums, which creates problems evaluating your film properly. The video mediums are never accurate color or contrast wise, and you can’t really evaluate critical focus issues because the video is so sharp. What I try to do is save a roll of film a day just to check a problem scene on print just to make sure. Or if it’s a huge new set, validate the lighting before you get too deep into the work. If you have a camera scratch the lab should notify you immediately, although sometimes it is they who have done the damage. The same goes for fogging, abrasions and dirt. Most of these superficial problems can be fixed in post now. It’s cheaper than reshooting the shot, but it’s not cheap. If you get some dailies that are too dark, or the color is off the lab reprints the job at no charge, but only if the Cinematographer asks for it. I usually spend a lot of time at the lab with all test footage so the lab guys know what I’m trying to do.

19. The Answer Print and the Digital Intermediate

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