Join Chad Perkins for an in-depth discussion in this video The cinematography workflow, part of Creating a Short Film: 07 Cinematography.
- In the previous training series about working on set, we talked about the workflow of working on set. Here, we're going to look in more detail at the workflow when you're the DP, or at least the workflow I usually follow on set and the workflow we followed on The Assurance. The process starts with the AD telling me what the next shot is. Then I'll quickly confer with the director, just to make sure that we're still seeing the shot in the same way that we discussed in pre-production. We will almost always shoot the widest shot in the scene first, because that wide shot establishes the world and becomes kind of like the template or the reference for closeups in all other shots in the scene.
Because of this, the widest shot is often called the master shot. I will then rush to get the camera in kind of roughly the right position with the shot framed in the ballpark of what I was thinking and I'll usually do this with a zoom lens, so that the director can audition different focal lengths quickly. I'll also make sure that we agree on where the axis of action is, which we'll talk about later in this chapter. The director will check the monitor and sign off on the framing of the shot.
Now, this needs to come first. I've been on so many low-budget sets where the communication between the DP and director is just terrible and everyone is too busy, and behind schedule to make sure they're on the same page. So, then what happens is that the DP often misunderstands the framing and sets up the shot incorrectly and it wastes so much time. Once I'm certain of the framing, I try to find a motivation for the light. We'll look at what lighting motivation is later in this training series, but once I've found that, I confer with my gaffer about what I'm thinking for the key light, this is the main light source in the scene.
I usually tell the gaffer the qualities of light that I'm looking for and then I leave it to their expertise to figure out which lights to use for that. So, I might tell the gaffer that I want a daylight balanced hard light to hit the profile of the actor in the scene and then the gaffer can choose which light would be best based on which lights are available or which lights might work best with the power that we have left. While the gaffer is getting the key light roughed in, or, in other words, in the kind of approximate spot, I get to work with the camera team to set up a more accurate camera placement and lens choice for the shot.
With the key light set, we'll add fill lights and edge lights as needed. I'll usually grab a PA or another available crew member and have them stand on the actor's mark, or, in other words, the place where the actor will stand during the shot. This way, I can gauge how the light looks on an actual person. Now, why don't I just use actual actors instead of a stand-in? Well, because they're preparing to shoot the scene, usually working with the director off set, and they shouldn't be disturbed with this stuff, not right now anyway. During this process, I'm staying connected with the first AD so they know about how far out we are from being able to shoot again.
Once we're almost ready to shoot, I'll let the AD know, and the AD will then fetch the actors and director who will then be brought to set. The director might choose to rehearse on set with the actors to give the actors a chance to rehearse in the same environment that they're going to be shooting in. And while the actors are going through this, I'm taking notes and I am making marks of their blocking, and blocking is an actor term, which we call the movements of the actors. Now, I do this so that my team knows how to move the camera and when my first AC will need to pull focus.
If there are any potential focus issues, we'll make marks for the talent to hit and the first AC will make marks, usually on a follow focus, which is a mechanism for controlling focus which we'll look at later. These marks help the first AC know how to adjust the lens to keep the subject in focus throughout the shot. Once lights and camera are ready, I let the first AD know. Now, sometimes the first AD will announce "pictures up" to let everyone know that the camera and lighting departments are ready, because, let's be honest, it's us camera and lighting folks that always take the longest on set.
And then we shoot the scene as discussed in the previous training series. Now, members of the G and E team are usually very busy setting up lights between shots, but, during filming, if there are some G and E folks that aren't tied up, I might have them start setting up lights for the next shot. Of course, you'll want to make sure that they don't make noise and disrupt filming, so they'll need to be a good way away from set, but this can be an awesome way to get more out of the shoot day. Note that after you've shot the master shot, shooting usually goes much faster, because the lighting will most likely be very similar to what it was in the wide shot.
Also, at that point, the actors have already rehearsed and warmed up, and filmed a bunch of stuff, and they usually, then, stay in the zone with their performances, so things tend to move on a little quicker after that. Now, if you're working with an inexperienced director, especially a director with a background in theater, they will probably want to shoot in order to help the actors. But you must do your best to convince them of how inefficient that is. Shots from similar angles should all be filmed before getting footage from a completely different vantage point.
Check out this footage from The Assurance. We got all of our footage from this direction and then we reversed to shoot on the other side. Now, look how long that process takes. We had to move camera gear out of the way, lighting, backpacks, cast, crew members, tons of stuff. Imagine how much less we would be able to shoot in a day if we kept going back and forth to shoot in order of the chronology of the film. So, shoot all shots from similar angles before moving on.
Now, this workflow might vary from set to set, but this is usually the basic workflow that I've seen on set and essentially the same workflow we followed on The Assurance.
- Understanding exposure
- Getting coverage
- Diffusing, blocking, and shaping light
- Shooting at night
- Using wide and long lenses
- Telling stories with camera movement
- Framing the shot
- Using mobile cinematography apps
- Mastering cinematic lighting
- Using common grip equipment
- Lighting people in a flattering way
- Achieving a shallow depth of field
- Creating more cinematic shots
- Working as a Director of Photography