The Shoot – Set Etiquette for Cinematographers

As the cinematographer, you drive three departments: camera, lighting, and grip. It is your job to know at all times what is up next for all three departments. By staying in close communication with the first assistant director, the cinematographer can always be one step ahead of the director in setting up the next shot, scene, or location. An efficient first assistant director is worth his or her weight in gold, and together, the two of you can be the best of friends and the producer’s heroes if you communicate well. The first assistant director always knows what the next setup will be and when you will be moving to it. He or she knows when everybody on the set goes into overtime and always has a sense of where you are in the day’s work, so the first assistant director can help the cinematographer to move things forward on a minute-to-minute basis. On set, the cinematographer’s mantra should be “What are we doing next?”

As the head of the camera department, I always instruct the camera assistants to have the camera(s) on set, powered, booted, and viewable, with fresh media and a lens, and ready to shoot—at call time every day. The digital imaging technician should have monitoring and record capabilities live and ready at call as well. Avoid camera reboots whenever possible, but also let the director and first assistant director know what to expect from the camera being used in terms of reboot time, media or D-mag changes, pre-roll, and any other special camera needs. I have many conversations with the operator(s) about framing and camera movement based on the discussions I have had with the director during our prep time together. Frequently the operators will wear headsets so that the cinematographer can whisper framing and composition comments to them as a shot is being made.

I prefer not to abort takes if something is wrong in front of the camera when shooting digitally. On film shoots, this was common practice if something went badly in front of the camera, such as a bump in the dolly track or a fallen flag, but when shooting digitally, the imperative to save money by cutting is not as strong, and I prefer to let the action play out on the off chance that a happy accident might occur in the scene. If, after the scene is over, I am convinced that the take is unusable, I always have a conversation about it with the director and the script supervisor so that bad takes do not end up cut into the finished project.

I like to constantly give the lighting and grip departments information about what is happening next, they always appreciate as much time as you can give them to drag heavy cable, lights, scaffolding, or dollies. It is important to check the technical schedule frequently to remind lighting and grip of special equipment needs and to give them as much prep time as you can for specific setups.

Be prepared to have a continuous conversation with the gaffer and the key grip about pre-lighting and pre-rigging the next scene, the next day’s work, or even the next week’s work. In television, this can be imperative in staying on schedule. Most of all, while shooting, try to keep cool, calm, and dispassionate about the chaos around you. Try to develop a Zen state for being in the moment of shooting: be one with the confusion and let the chaos flow through you. Stay focused on the work, stay focused on the director’s needs, and stay in communication with the first assistant director. If you have prepared thoroughly and have chosen the right people, the right equipment, and the right workflow, the shoot should be a joyful and fulfilling experience, so treasure that experience and try to find ways to let it be enjoyable.

Monitors, Tents, and Directors

I prefer to have at least one control monitor in a light-controlled environment or a dark tent, and that monitor is my private monitor. The director can share, or preferably have his or her own high-quality monitor on the set, close to the action. I like to allow the rest of the crew access to camera and monitors as much as possible within reason, but I try to discourage too much conversation and “contribution” to the image on set. It is fine to spot a mistake such as a coffee cup or a plastic water bottle left behind on the set, but it is not OK for random members of the crew to give “artistic” lighting or framing tips.

During takes, I like to watch the shot at the best monitor that I can get. I watch focus as closely as possible because it is the area of greatest concern to me on set when working digitally. Very small errors in focus can be very hard to detect when working digitally. If for some reason I have to watch takes somewhere other than at the monitor, I appoint the digital imaging technician to scrutinize focus closely for me and to report quietly to me (and me only) if there is a problem.

During the shoot, I prefer not to engage the actors in conversation unless they come to me. The process of acting in front of the camera is a delicate one, and I am trying to assist the director in getting the best performance possible, so I try to hold my interactions with the actors to the mechanics of getting the shot or scene.

You Are the Producer’s Business Partner

Part of the cinematographer’s job is balancing the demands, hopes, dreams, and wishes of the Director with the money available to do the job. This is a delicate dance, and ultimately the cinematographer walks a diplomat’s tightrope in balancing what the director wants with what the producer will let you give him. This part of the job has always been the most stressful to me, but I find it useful to keep in mind that one must be diplomatic while being resourceful and unreasonable. Resourcefulness is always rewarded in the process, and making the effort to save money will buy you favor and credibility with the producer and the studio, but at the same time, being unreasonable in the pursuit of the director’s vision will create a bond that pays off in loyalty and creativity in the work you share.

You Are the Director’s Hardest Working Best Friend

The cinematographer’s job is ultimately awarded by the director. Yes, the producer and the studio have a say so in the matter, but if your director wants you on the job, he or she will usually get his or her way. Directors have widely varying styles and interests. I have worked with directors that have little or no interest in camera placement or lens selection, lighting, and composition, and I have worked with directors who say, “Put the camera right here with a 50mm on it and dolly slowly to over there on this line in the script.” Every director has a different style and focus, and it is up to you to learn and accommodate for each style. One helpful tip is to begin the prep exercise by watching movies together and talking about them as a way to formulate a look and style for the project you are doing together. Directors always have favorite movies, and they always have a movie to point to as a way of explaining their wants and expectations. It is up to you to realize those expectations, so you must translate the director’s intent scene by scene to the rest of your crew: your operator(s), your gaffer, your key grip, and your dolly grip(s).

The Studio—What Time Did You Get the First Shot of the Day?

It is important to remember that someone is putting up a lot of money and taking a lot of risk to make a movie. You have a responsibility to make the best effort to see that risk rewarded. Bring honesty and integrity to your work as a cinematographer, be open and communicative, and the studio can be your friend. They want to know what is happening all day, every day on the set. They want to know what time you got the first shot, how many shots you got by the time the crew broke for lunch, how many shots you got in your day, whether you got every shot that was on the call sheet, and whether any overtime was incurred by the crew. The studio does not like to hear about upsets on the set. If, for example, you can run a calm, easygoing set (in spite of whatever chaos may be happening around you), it puts everybody at ease, allowing for a more creative mood and better work, and that may be what gets you your next job.

Making a Shot

The ritual of the shoot day was taught to me by several mentors, in particular, Phil Lathrop, ASC, who was always a gentleman on set, and Roger Corman, who mentored many famous directors and cinematographers. It is a well-evolved ritual that can work to perfection when followed.

Before beginning your production day, have a good breakfast, and then be sure to arrive on set well before shooting call. The cinematographer cannot be late to the shoot— ever. Find a second assistant director, get a set of sides (miniature script pages and a daily schedule for the day’s work), and then make your rounds. Have conversations with the gaffer, the first assistant director, the first assistant cameraperson, and your director. Begin the preparation for the first shot of the day well before you go on the clock.

Generally the lighting for a new scene will have been “roughed in” by the lighting department’s rigging crew, based on a description of the scene by the cinematographer and the director.

The director, the assistant director, and the cinematographer confer to determine the order in which to shoot the scene; then the director describes the specific shot he or she wants to the cinematographer. As the director blocks the scene, the actor stand-ins, the cinematographer, the gaffer, and the first assistant cameraperson watch quietly to determine camera placement, movement, lighting, and focus marks. As the scene blocking solidifies, the first assistant cameraperson begins setting focus marks for rehearsal with stand-ins. The cinematographer confers with the gaffer and the key grip and begins lighting and camera placement. The stand-ins move in for lighting work while the actors are sent for their final hair, makeup, and wardrobe checks. The cinematographer sets the lens, camera height, framing, and camera movement while the lighting and grip departments light the scene. When the actors return from makeup, rehearsals resume until the director is satisfied with the action.

When I trained under my original mentor, Phil Lathrop, ASC, he always had a small bicycle horn hanging by the camera, and everyone knew that when he was ready to shoot the shot when he honked the horn. This is the signal for the first assistant director to walk the actors onto set and to do a last rehearsal. When the rehearsal and last looks from the hair, makeup, wardrobe, and lighting departments are complete, the cinematographer sets the stop and shooting begins.

If there are SPFX, smoke, rain, or fire, those are set; the first assistant director locks up the set and stops any traffic that must be held for the shot. The first assistant director calls, “Roll,” and the sound person acknowledges when he or she is at speed, the assistant director calls, “Roll camera.” When each camera position acknowledges that he or she is rolling, the operator calls, “Marker,” and the second assistant cameraperson claps the sticks, calling out the scene and take per the script supervisor. The first assistant director calls, “Background action,” and either the first assistant director or the director calls, “Action.” When the scene is over, the director calls, “Cut.” The first assistant director calls, “Reset,” or “Back to one,” and the next take is prepared. When shooting the scene has been completed, the first assistant director will frequently call, “We are on the wrong set!” or “Company moves!” At the end of the day, the assistant director might call out that a shot is the “Abby Singer,” which means that you are on the second to the last shot of the day, and after that, he or she will call everybody’s favorite—“That’s a wrap!”

Image by Jakob Montrasio via Flickr

Excerpt from Digital Cinematography: Fundamentals, Tools, Techniques, and Workflows by David Stump © 2014 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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