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Jeremy Parsons

How does the DP work with the AD?

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I'm a planner by nature. When I was in school, I meticulously planned my cinematography assignments with storyboards, shot list, schedule, and lighting plans. When we got to set, they ran like clockwork. It was great.

 

When I had to collaborate with a student director, I often had to force them to sit down and make a shot list, storyboard (what they described was not often what they drew). Sometimes we had a 1st AD, but they were also a student and were more of a clock-watcher than involved in the planning process. I still had a heavy hand in the scheduling.

 

Most of my paid professional work is as a 1st AC. As such, I'm not really part of the planning process. If I'm DP on a local commercial, the agency has already dictated the storyboard & shots, those run like clockwork.

 

***

 

I'm starting to do more narrative work as DP again. I know this planning process isn't my lead but rather the Director and AD.

But how is this supposed to work? I mean....I would much rather NOT do someone else's work and focus on my own.

 

How do you usually coordinate with a capable AD?

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pretty much every narrative project I've done either a director gives me a shot list they want to stick to or we collaborate together and we talk through it either way. Then the AD works up a basic schedule based on their industry experience and then the Director AD and myself all sit together and talk through it (usually I have more concerns then the director and the AD wants to know how long lighting setups will take and sometimes I need to consult my gaffer on that)

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One of the reasons I stopped (many years ago now) chasing narrative work was that all the productions I'd ever been involved with were fetid, seething pits of utter disorganisation. Now, on the very odd occasion I produce a short, I am at immense pains to avoid this happening.

 

The upshot is that narrative work at all levels is an absolute crapshoot. You'll have to play it by ear, even on comparatively high end shows.

 

With that in mind, is certainly the case that some people wing it far more than others. Some are better at it than others, and some get away with it more than others. It is normal for different directors and ADs to have quite wildly differing approaches and some people turn up alarmingly under-prepared, then do impressive things. Naturally, it's important not to upset the disorganised genius by fretting about paperwork. Unfortunately it's difficult to distinguish people who seem disorganised from those who are disorganised until it's too late, which is why it's a good idea to look at the director's reel so you can work out how much deference to show him or her.

 

Personally I am off the Six Ps persuasion. Plans can be discarded if shown to be unnecessary, but can't be developed and implemented without significant lead time.

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Collaboration is EVERYTHING as far as I'm concerned. Where storyboarding/shotlisting is concerned, that's always going to come down to the Director in the end, and how much they want to plan these things out in advance.

Where scheduling is concerned, I personally consider the collaboration between DP and AD to be one of the single most powerful tools we have as cinematographers.

 

I always insist on running through best-case scenarios for time-of-day scheduling with the AD at the outset of every project. If you don't get in early, you'll always be at the mercy of other people's scheduling concerns. So making a concerted effort to try and ensure that you're not shooting out under the midday sun (wherever possible), or are planning your locations based on time-of-day and sun-positioning, ALWAYS leads to better photography in my experience.

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It's at the director's discretion as to how much they want to shot list, etc.

 

When a director doesn't do any of the shot listing and storyboarding, do you do it? I'm working on a feature film this summer, and the director is very hands off on that sort of thing; we're planning to do some blocking rehearsals before we begin production (we're scheduled to start principal in about six weeks, depending on whether or not the weather cooperates).

 

Since that's coming up soon, and we have a little bit more location scouting to do, I want to start getting properly prepared for this film.

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it's really up to the director. Some, actually many tbh, will wait to block it on the day with the actors to get their input as well as well as to capitalize on how the rest of the shoot has been going. Much like playing music there are myriad styles to directing, and some like to do it as improvisational. That said, with experience you get a sense of how a particular scene might be covered anyway so you can sort of pre-plan that in your head and be ready though building in the flexibility to change on the fly (as you should anyway even if you have storyboards since things always change),.

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Thanks so much for your replies.


I have trouble wrapping my head around why anyone would spend all this time, money and energy into something only to throw it to the wind by “winging it”.


I've not yet been DP on a project that could afford a full truck to pull from when the director wants to get creative. I find planning to be instrumental in getting good material out of low/no budget stuff. I spec gear for the shot list of that day (or weekend) and not much else. I would hope the AD would be my ally in keeping the director on target for that we planned.


This director is very green. I think he’s directed one short not counting a 48hour festival or two. I am also locally unproven so I have to take what I can get to build the reel and reputation.


Right now, we're on our 3rd AD on the project. The first two had to bow out for their own reasons. I do wonder if there is a more common reason. :unsure:

Edited by Jeremy Parsons

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In my very limited experience with small commercials.. a story board can be a double edged sword.. I think there good for a rough idea of the shots needed.. or some client must have produce shot.. but not something you have to stick to overly rigidly .. if there is a better shot on the day.. then shoot that.. alot of very good directors like Paul Greengrass ..will suddenly come up with a shot on the spur of the moment .. thats were the DP earns the money.. if you know the dir is prone to do this.. you have gear standing by.. or mentally already preparing .. oh he's going to want this shot now for sure..

 

Ive seen the exact opposite in Japan.. a rather "lowly' ranked young guy was sent from the production company as a "director" but basically he just had a story board.. ( done by committee by the suits )..that was adhered to, to the millimeter.. zero input from anyone.. and this guy was bullied even by the loader.. and burst into tears one day !.. and also why Japanese commercials look like something from the 50,s and are total crap.. beware the story board !

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Jeremy, you're spot on with the importance of planning, especially for low-budget shoots. The jobs that can afford to wing it as a matter of course either have enough budget to carry everything on the truck at all times, or they are specifically scheduled for these parameters and usually carry a small crew (think Kubrick or Terrence Malick productions).

 

Needless to say, this is not the vast majority of jobs.

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Thanks so much for your replies.
I have trouble wrapping my head around why anyone would spend all this time, money and energy into something only to throw it to the wind by “winging it”.
I've not yet been DP on a project that could afford a full truck to pull from when the director wants to get creative. I find planning to be instrumental in getting good material out of low/no budget stuff. I spec gear for the shot list of that day (or weekend) and not much else. I would hope the AD would be my ally in keeping the director on target for that we planned.
This director is very green. I think he’s directed one short not counting a 48hour festival or two. I am also locally unproven so I have to take what I can get to build the reel and reputation.
Right now, we're on our 3rd AD on the project. The first two had to bow out for their own reasons. I do wonder if there is a more common reason. :unsure:

 

An experienced A.D. will not deal with a director that won't listen to reason or logic or who is destroying their own production. They'll walk. Getting a real A.D. on a shitshow is a miracle and the A.D.'s know it more than anyone. So when a director is not appreciating or resisting the help, it's considered to be just hysterically ignorant. Which many wannabe filmmakers are.

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I'm also a bit cautious about storyboards. People tend to draw what they want, as opposed to what can be achieved, and spend too much time failing to achieve it. Planning is crucial and I would never encourage people to arrive without a good idea of what they want, which may include a storyboard, but I wouldn't advise too close a dedication to it. I prefer a shotlist, with notes as to the descriptive content and artistic intent of each setup, which is more flexible, more expressive, and quicker to do. Most people can't draw well enough to produce a useful storyboard, and those who can are often ignorant of basic camerawork, the rules of perspective, or even the geometry if the location.

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I mainly use storyboards to get thoughts out of the head so everyone can be on the same page. Not everyone can communicate images verbally.

 

The other thing I find helpful - which this guy still hasn't done despite my asking - is providing stills from other films the director likes or would like to emulate for their project. All he's explained to me he really liked was the sunset shot from Sicario where the ops were walking into the desert...Except there are no sunset or desert scenes in this film.

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Did you ask him why he liked that shot? I'd be curious as to why he went to it.

I did:

 

"I just liked it" :blink:

 

Overall, he liked the look of Sicario. I had trouble getting out of him specifically what. He also liked True Detective (S1) which is thematically closer to our thriller.

 

So I'm going with the soft lighting of Deakins' Sicario combined with the composition and movement of True Detective.

Edited by Jeremy Parsons

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I'm also a bit cautious about storyboards. People tend to draw what they want, as opposed to what can be achieved, and spend too much time failing to achieve it. Planning is crucial and I would never encourage people to arrive without a good idea of what they want, which may include a storyboard, but I wouldn't advise too close a dedication to it. I prefer a shotlist, with notes as to the descriptive content and artistic intent of each setup, which is more flexible, more expressive, and quicker to do. Most people can't draw well enough to produce a useful storyboard, and those who can are often ignorant of basic camerawork, the rules of perspective, or even the geometry if the location.

 

 

Where I do find storyboards incredibly useful (and granted it is RARE that any project does them properly), is that they give you a really clear, instantly referenceable, visual summary of a scene. And I find this is actually incredibly helpful when things/locations don't go to plan and you have to improvise, because you have the clearest possible vision of what the scene is supposed to be, and this makes it MUCH easier to adapt and improvise revisions to the scene that capture the same notes you were trying to hit with the pre-planned one.

 

That's not something you can do with a shotlist in my experience.

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Overall, he liked the look of Sicario. I had trouble getting out of him specifically what. He also liked True Detective (S1) which is thematically closer to our thriller.

 

What I usually end up doing early on is pulling frame grabs from a bunch of Blu-Rays and DVDs and compiling a 'mood board' collage in Photoshop. I present that to the director for approval and then share it with art department. Then when we do location scouts, I take my stills camera and color grade those shots to look similar. This helps keep everyone on the same page throughout the process. It's a lot of work, but well worth it in my opinion.

 

For example, here's a mood board I made up for a horror project last year:

post-5721-0-28755900-1488766289_thumb.jpg

 

Here are the graded location stills:

https://flickr.com/photos/18675976@N03/sets/72157665613768264

 

Finally, frame grabs from dailies:

https://flickr.com/photos/18675976@N03/sets/72157670534383375

 

Now, of course all kinds of things change between prep and production, but if you get everyone to buy off on the general direction of the look with specific examples, then things will generally go a lot smoother.

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This has turned out to be an interesting thread. Most of the shorts I've worked on have been planned to a degree, in that I met up with the director beforehand and we discussed how we were going to shoot each scene. Some have been completely off-the-cuff, and those have ended up being hit or miss as far as how well things went.

 

I did have one director make up a moodboard and send me a list of films that showed looks that interested her, and the project where she did that ended up being one of the smoothest I've worked on.

 

The moodboard approach seems really uncommon, so I've been curious as to whether others with more experience use that approach, because I thought it worked really well. It's nice to know that we're not the only ones doing that. :)

 

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I do like mood boards. I don't do them as often as I like because it tends to override any vision the director might have with my own. Every time I do it, the director says, "Great! lets do that".

 

On this short, for example, I created a rough shot list based on my interpretation of the script and put it in a common spreadsheet shared by the production. The director basically copied the whole shot list adding one or two, if any, shots of his own. So we're shooting my vision, not his.

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The director basically copied the whole shot list adding one or two, if any, shots of his own. So we're shooting my vision, not his.

Maybe he liked your ideas better than his?

 

I like all of it... look books, mood boards... pretty much anything I can do to walk on the set feeling as comfortable as possible. I also don't feel experienced enough to walk on a set and work off inspiration alone, which I do think some directors are capable of. I always storyboard. If I can't afford to hire someone, I'll do them myself. I can draw good enough to get the point across.

 

I actually get very anxious if I feel unprepared, so it's kinda healthier for me to do the homework. Plus I love sitting in a coffee shop and dreaming up ideas without 30 people waiting for me to tell them what to do.

 

People tend to draw what they want, as opposed to what can be achieved

 

 

This is totally true and I've seen it a number of times... the low angle shot that's so low you would have to dig four feet into the street to get it.

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I do like mood boards. I don't do them as often as I like because it tends to override any vision the director might have with my own. Every time I do it, the director says, "Great! lets do that".

 

On this short, for example, I created a rough shot list based on my interpretation of the script and put it in a common spreadsheet shared by the production. The director basically copied the whole shot list adding one or two, if any, shots of his own. So we're shooting my vision, not his.

 

I guess one difference there was that the director made up that mood board. She doesn't like to draw, so she snagged images and frame grabs, but it was very helpful.

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I do like mood boards. I don't do them as often as I like because it tends to override any vision the director might have with my own. Every time I do it, the director says, "Great! lets do that".

 

Which I think is totally fine. Some directors just aren't that visual and want you to take care of that aspect for them. If they don't have a specific vision for how it should look, then you don't want to show up and have nothing.

 

You're also there to collaborate and push back on any ideas that you think are bad or could be better. A lot of great moments come out of bouncing ideas back and forth. In a way, your job is to pull the best out of the director, not just the other way around.

 

So this is another reason to prep as early as possible, since the director is going to be so swamped with other things that on production days that you need to be mostly autonomous by that point. So by building up that trust and vision together in prep, hopefully the director won't feel the need to micro-manage you on the day because then you really are in the weeds, so to speak.

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Yes! Location shots if possible! Go to places and get photos, even if it turns out you might not be able to use that location. There are cameras in phones and nice digital cameras and everything and they can be really great tools for tryi g things out and thinking about what you want to achieve. It can really help you to think about what you want to achieve and what may or may not be possible and it doesn't even require any drawing.

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I've had directors in the past say they didn't feel empowered when working with me. So maybe I'm overcompensating for those experiences by trying to be overly friendly to directors.

Then again those directors kept going off track on a very tight schedule. :/

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I've had directors in the past say they didn't feel empowered when working with me.

 

What does that even mean, 'empowered'? Are you supposed to be a vat of magic mutant goo that they can dip their toes in and gain superpowers from?

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