Ah, the challenging and important role of the Director of Photography! In this post, I want to give you an idea of what is a DP in film. We’ll also look at what makes a great DP.
We’ll also take a look at questions like: Is there a difference between a DP and a cinematographer? What are the common mistakes as a beginner? We’ll also jump into some options of successful DPs and what they think are the keys to success in this industry.
The Role of the DP
On 31st of March 1999, the first of The Matrix hit theaters. The film’s futuristic concept and stunning fight scenes blew the minds of audiences worldwide, quickly generating a cult following that cut across all age, gender and racial divisions.
Though many were quick to hail the film for its exceptional CGI (computer generated imagery), it was really a masterpiece in revolutionary cinematography, sound and special effects.
The Story Told Behind Scenes
Take for example, the legendary roof-top scene popularly known as the “Neo Bullet Dodge”.
Neo (Keanu Reeves) defies gravity to suspend himself backwards on bended knees, while constantly twisting his upper body to dodge an onslaught of bullets fired at him by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), until one slug catches him in the leg.
The directors could easily have opted for a camera shot from the side. Instead, the camera seems to oscillate around Neo as he rotates his shoulders with coat curling under him.
But what’s most fascinating is that Neo moves in slo-mo together with action around him (bullets flying), but your view (camera angles) moves at normal speed.
In one fell swoop, you follow the trail of bullets from every angle as they whizz past Neo. The shots make you feel like you are circling Neo, watching bullets fly above, below, either side and almost right into your own face.
Pretty fantastic, huh!
Well, behind it all was a person who took time, thought and effort to make that 10-second scene grip you to edge of the your seat. That person is the Director of Photography (DP), or Cinematographer, and in this case, Bill Pope.
The DP is Lights….Camera….Action!
The DP is the person who supervises the camera and lighting crew in a film production. He makes decisions about the camera movement and operation, shot angles, lighting, lens choice and filter selection in order to best capture a scene as envisaged by the movie director.
These aspects of filming make up the study and practice called cinematography.
In many cases the word cinematographer is used interchangeably with Director of Photography (or DP). British movie accreditations favor cinematographer while Americans favor DP.
It’s interesting to note that the BBC seldom used the term DP in accreditations for their productions. They felt a set could have only one director. However, they have now reneged on this stance.
Through the camera, a viewer is able to accompany the movie’s heroes & villains on the epic adventure the director has designed.
It’s the DP’s job to guide the viewer’s eye along the journey through the camera, and make the experience as dramatic and fascinating as possible.
It must be noted that the DP is not necessarily the camera operator. This is because photography is only one function of cinematography. The DP uses photography and a host of other physical, organizational, interpretive and imagery solutions to bring alive the vision of the film’s director.
DPs are Technicians and Artists All Wrapped in A Bundle
To breathe life into a story, the DP makes creative and technical decisions concerning camera operation, lighting and shot selection.
The DP collaborates with other production staff like the grip & lighting crew, set dressers, and more to give the film and its scenes a particular look.
The 1987 movie The Untouchables starring Robert De Niro as Al Capone and Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness was shot as a period picture. All actors were dressed and styled in accordance with the film’s 1930s period.
But to give the film a more 1930s look, DP Stephen Burum decided to shoot it in brownish hue. To intensify his use of color, Burum explained, “But you can subdue the color, so it doesn’t bounce out at you”.
For this reason, camera color in Ness’s home and police station were drab and subdued, to portray a cop’s world. But colors were more vibrant & silky in Al Capone’s surroundings, to show 1930’s opulence and power.
When it comes to lighting for film, the DP may consult with the director to understand what’s needed.
If the director needs a scene of two actors talking around a fireplace, the DP may choose warmer and shaded lights to give the audience a heartwarming feeling.
But if the director needs a scene in the North Pole, the DP may choose an icy blue light to depict a cold environment.
In the 1972 movie, The Godfather, DP Gordon Willis was faced with a unique problem. He had to balance between lighting for the general tone of the movie against scenes with actors wearing heavy make-up.
Willis told a biographer, “I knew that if I simply put light directly in front of him (actor Marlon Brando), the effect of the makeup would be neutralized. So I had to come up with the kind of lighting that would not only be right for him, but also the right for the rest of the movie.”
Normally, the DP does not operate the film camera. In fact, the International Cinematographers Guild (IATSE Local 600) basic agreement, or simply ‘the setiquette’, states:
“In operation of cameras, this work shall be handled by a Camera Operator”.
The Director of Photography instructs the camera crew in the way a scene is to be shot in order to best get the director’s vision.
To achieve this, he will choose the number of cameras to be used, their placement and movement.
DP Bill Pope teamed up with CGI specialist John Gaeta for The Matrix. They planned in advance and mounted 2 motion picture cameras plus 120 still cameras on a rig set up around Keanu Reeves and a green screen background.
They also used a laser-pointer system to guide the heights and angles of the cameras. Coupled with some clever CGI, they created the jaw-dropping “Neo’s bullet time” scene.
Framing & Shot Selection
In a production setting, the director is usually the ‘story geek,’ while the DP is the ‘image geek’.
In collaboration with the director, the Director of Photography selects the shots that properly depict the mood and emotion of the scene.
For example, if the director says he needs an establishing scene, the DP will suggest an extreme wide shot to portray the surroundings of the character.
However, if the director needs an emotional scene, the DP may suggest a medium close-up shot. This is a shot from the middle of the chest upwards, emphasizing the character’s facial expressions and body language.
Right: DP Dave Insley sets up a shot using an ‘underslung’ Lampda head which enables the camera to be positioned under the dolly’s arm for a near ground-level point of view while preserving the mobility of the dolly.
David Insley, the DP for several episodes of the 2002 HBO TV series The Wire, explained this technique further: “It was decided early on by the producers that this shouldn’t be a Steadicam kind of show. It was always designed from the beginning….to be a classic long lens kind of show. There was a lot of handheld in the first season, but it evolved and became an all long lens on a dolly look”.
That meant most shots of The Wire had the camera in motion, giving the audience a feeling of smoothly gliding-by the characters.
Obviously, the work of a DP surrounds everything he / she does before, during and after production of the film. He is an integral part of the process, from script to screen.
No DP, No Movie!
Being a DP isn’t just about shooting pretty pictures, it’s about conveying a message.
Let’s say you are an Englishman watching a Chinese movie where the actors are speaking Mandarin or Cantonese. You will not understand what’s being said, no matter how well they speak.
But you will understand the sadness, joy, anger and even very complex concepts, just by watching the well-crafted images in the movie. That’s how important a DP is in a production.
Today, Hollywood press and some film classes have popularized wrong perceptions about the box office success of a movie. Audiences have been left thinking a blockbuster is the handiwork of a seasoned director and a superstar lead actor.
In truth, it’s the collaborative effort of the director, DP, writers and other film crew that ensures audiences are drawn to the theater. It’s a team game.
DP Michael Benson of the 1999 movie Universal Soldier: The Return stated, “They (DPs) are the main reason audiences fork hard-earned money to be entertained.
Because, if not for the cinematographers’ talent and knowledge, there would be no way to make a writer’s words into pictures for everyone to see.”
In short, without a DP, there is no movie.
What is a DP in Film – A Conclusion
In summary, the DP is like a painter in front of a model who only knows how to pose (the actor).
The guide (director) needs the painting of the model to come out in a certain way, but doesn’t know how to paint. The painter (DP) uses the director’s information to choose the colors and appropriate background.
His strokes of the brush and light then bring forth the best features of the model. His understanding of light and color also set the mood and tone of the painting. All this work is done by the DP.
So the next time you go to a theater, remember that a DP and his crew put in some long hours to provide you, at least for a short time, a chance to enter a whole new world.
We hope you’ve found this article on the role of the Director of Photography informative. Are you a DP working in the film industry? Let us know some of your war stories from the industry in the comments below. Thanks for reading!