Approaching the Light
by Marko Alonso
THE DP’s PERSPECTIVE
The Godfather was a huge influence for a generation of cinematographers for the use of top light. This light gave the film it’s “gangster look” and has since been duplicated countless times.
Legendary DP, Gordon Willis (The Godfather, Annie Hall, All the President’s Men,) famously claimed that he didn’t decide on the look of The Godfather until 10 minutes before they started shooting.
Now, cinematographers sometimes have a strange sense of humor. Of course, many things that define the look had to be already settled way before the first day of production - lenses, film stock, lighting package, crew members, etc. But I think what Gordon was referring to is that a DOP never really knows what the right choice for the film is until the moment of truth is in front of them, until it’s just the actors, the director and the camera. Yet it’s good to do all your homework first so you can have more freedom when this moment comes.
Homework starts by deciding whether or not to work on a project in the first place. I know if I want to do it after that first meeting with the director. If there is excitement, if there is fire, (and if their previous work speaks to me) I’m in. I actually prefer to have that first encounter without having read the script, so when I do I it’s already thru the eyes of the director.
On our first meeting I keep my mind open, I want to know what excites them about that story, why do they want to make it. Any references are welcome. The web page, shotdeck.com, is a great tool to find stills from movies and create mood boards. I start asking questions that give me a concrete insight into the vision of the director, for example, how much freedom the camera will have, are we staying mostly on sticks or handheld, is the camera another subject in the story, or does it stay outside as an impartial observer. What’s the tone, the point of view? Musical references are a great way to convey the spirit of the film.
Equally important is to know what the limitations are that we will face. As a DOP I’m constantly balancing the free, limitless possibilities of artistic expression and the reality of production, the budget, the amount of days we have scheduled. Problem solving is as important as envisioning great shots.
I like directors that have a good sense of the camera and where to place it and the role it will play in the story. I welcome when they have a preliminary shot list to which I can add and further develop it together. One of the most important skills as a DP at these early stages is to understand how the director likes to work and be able to adapt to it, to feel it, to engage.
The beauty of film-making is that you get to work with such different people and there are so many different ways of telling a story. Knowing the kind of director I’m working with is one of the first things to figure out - what’s in their mind and in their soul. If I can’t understand the director, I won’t be able to understand the movie we are making. I like a director with a strong view, even if this means that some of my own ideas will not make it into the movie. But a movie needs to have a strong personality to have something to tell.
Once I’ve got a glimpse into the mind of the director and the bases of the film are established, I start thinking - what do I want to bring to the project? What part of myself do I want to pour in. An interesting fact about filmmaking is that many times you get involved in projects that you are not the audience for. Does that mean that you are incapable of doing so? Absolutely not. Indeed, I find this refreshing and an opportunity to learn yet a new perspective, a different way to view the world and life. I’ve told stories of murder, family loss, and dystopian worlds. I haven’t lived many of these stories personally, yet in each of them there is something that resonates in me, many times in dark, subconscious ways.
I also consider if I want to experiment with any new techniques. Of course, as a DOP I’m hired on the presumption that I can do the job and I will deliver what I’m asked for, so I walk this fine line where I “play it safe”, execute my job in a way I’m confident with results it will give me, and trying something new, pushing it, taking risks, spicing it up. Where to place this line and how comfortable I am with it is something I must figure out in these early stages. It is not a bad idea having a B plan for certain complicated scenes, especially if you will be strapped for time (which you always are). Ultimately you want the director feeling safe, knowing that you have their back.
Eventually I start creating rules: Limitations can enhance creativity, and they define the vision. What the contrast ratio will be, how much saturation? Are we showing the full spectrum of tones from deep blacks to whites, or are we keeping everything closer to the mid grays? How much separation do I want between characters and background? How shallow the focus should be? Are we staying wider or closer? Is there a prevalence of back light or frontal light, and what’s the quality of this light (hard or soft)? And more importantly, how all these elements will vary throughout the story to create narrative contrast. All these remain open questions till the very first day of shooting.
I believe that a regular script can be turned into gold by a director with a vision, but a good script won’t take off if no soul is injected into it. And when good writing meets vision, the actors bring the characters to life, and I (hopefully) create the right atmosphere, magic happens.