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    Story Doesn't Matter (for a DP) - It's Skillset & Equipment (Rant/PSA)
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    Senior Member Eric Coughlin's Avatar
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    So I keep hearing people (I'm looking at you, Dan (puredrifting)) saying how videos are all about story and equipment isn't that important (comparatively speaking), and while technically true, I just think a qualification needs to be made whenever someone says that.

    The qualification is that story is primarily the job of the writer, director, and producer, and typically not the DP. Many of us on this forum such as myself are freelance DPs, and to us, story is often not our job, equipment and the skill-set and technical knowledge to use it well is our job. So when downplaying the importance of equipment, it's best to say, "As a producer..." and then go on about how equipment may not be as important to telling the story as the story, acting, etc., while meanwhile, to the DP, the equipment is very important for them to do their job well, and as an own/operator who rents out their gear when hired, it's very important in relation to profits for their business model.

    If I'm hired to shoot an interview and given frame grabs to match previous interviews for a documentary, then I know exactly what I need to do. The story is irrelevant to my job because I already know how the interview needs to look, so what is relevant is my knowledge of how to use my equipment to replicate the look. Meanwhile, for the producer asking the interview questions and framing the story, story is very important. But again, not my job.

    I do also produce and write, so I'm well aware of the importance of story, but 90% of my work is as a freelance DP and for that generally speaking, story is heavily irrelevant.

    I recall back when I did weddings I followed the wedding video company Stillmotion, and their reoccurring mantra was, "story, story, story." Once they even blamed a technical error on, "We were so focused on the story we didn't notice the light changing [for an interview]." Ha. I bought into it at the time for wedding work and spent time "getting to know" the couple, learning their story, and then hoping to somehow integrate what I learned about them into how I filmed and edited their wedding video. The result, I ended up shooting and editing their video exactly the same as I would have had I not wasted time trying to get to know their story. It's pretty basic; you have vows, speeches, etc., and edit them together in a way that flows well. The fact that they were thinking of adopting some children, how they met, or that he was an engineer, etc., was completely irrelevant to me choosing a 70-200 for the vows, or editing in the father saying a nice thing at the speeches. Perhaps if I had spent less time wasted on a failed attempt to integrate story, and more time on technical mastery, the film would have turned out better.

    Now when it comes to DPing narrative work, the DP can use the story to help frame their choices for lighting, lenses, angles, etc. Then again, they could approach it more simply and just try to make it look good, focusing more on technical aspects, while of course in a more basic way making choices that are appropriate (e.g., more dramatic for horror, less dramatic for comedy). They are different approaches and I don't think it's accurate to completely put down one over the other. For myself, I'll often veer toward the latter. People ask me, "How are you going to shoot this to reflect the story?" I say, "Check out my demo reel, previous films, etc., and you can see the quality of my work. I'll give you a similar quality for your film."

    This one time I was DPing a feature, spur of the moment, mid-shot, I decided to start doing a long focal length Steadicam move wrapping around the three characters in conversation. Director loved it, and asked what inspired me to do that, if it was the character's state of mind (frantic), etc., and I just said, "I thought it would look cool."

    I'm not promoting a simplistic view of cinematography and motivation, but I am putting down people who B.S. to sound cool ("Yes, I thought how frantic she was so that clearly was the reason for the motivated movement"), but don't actually have quality work to backup their B.S. Just to qualify myself, I do think my narrative work is better than many who approach it from a very story and character motivated approach, so I'm just saying, that way isn't always the absolute best approach as some seem to imply. It depends on the person, either method can work, but for myself, I tend to focus more from a technical point of view. I'm analytical and was a math major before switching to film, so perhaps that explains some.

    At the end of the day, good is good, great is great, and whether your motivation came from technical knowledge and/or a deep understanding of the story, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll get better results one way or the other. To fulfill technical mastery, you need the skill-set to do so and equipment capable of doing the job. The better your equipment, the easier it is to do your job well, which generally translates to better results.


    Another pet peeve of mine is when a producer calls me and expects me to get all excited about their story; I get over 400 inquiries a year for jobs and I'm supposed to find your particular story so exciting that you'll hear a raise in the excitement of my tone of voice over the phone? I've literally lost a couple jobs because the producer didn't think I sounded excited enough about their story on the phone; my passion isn't for other people's stories, it's for cinematography, equipment, technical knowledge, getting good shots, etc. I'll do the job well but don't expect me to ooze passion over other people's stories. I need to discuss what equipment you'll be wanting, date, time, location, budget, and again, the story is the producer's job. Sure, I may appreciate a quick summary of what the video is about, and some stories are more interesting than others, but it's lower on my priorities since it has little effect on how I'm going to do my job, and please don't take 10-20 minutes giving all these story details when there's a 70% chance you can't even afford my rates.

    The sooner producers realize that a DP's involvement with the story is often not important, the better off we'll be to be able to do our actual job.

    End of rant/PSA.



    TL;DR: DP's job is filming, equipment, technical mastery, not story; leave story to writers, producers, and directors. Equipment is important for the DP.
    Last edited by Eric Coughlin; 03-28-2019 at 03:38 PM.


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    Good stuff Eric. I've learned an important qualification when posting anything is an understanding of what role we play in the process and business model.

    It's easy to give someone flack for wanting more DR and IBIS in a camera, unless you realize they are shooting remote documentary work half the time. Or to give some flack for focusing on gear over story, when someone has nothing to do with story! Or to tell someone to use LOG when they are primarily delivery content to clients who don't want LOG, or so on so forth.

    Most of us tend to speak from our frame of reference, easily forgetting there are a lot of roles, content types, and business models in this industry.


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    This is a bold statement Eric, but I get where you are coming from.

    I think the key is to strike a balance; just as a DP must have a technical side and an artistic side, so should go their involvement in the storytelling. I do feel that it is important to get inside the director's head to know what their intentions are thematically so that the visuals complement this, but when it comes to the shoot day, the DP's focus must be on their job first and foremost.

    The reality is that this an industry of perception and politics. Some directors are looking for a DP that presents themselves as a fellow artiste and don't respond well to what they perceive is a technician. Others are more workmanlike about the process. I can sit down to shotlist with the first type of director and have to spend the first 20 minutes talking in abstract terms before we even get to discussing the first setup, whereas with the latter type we are already halfway through the shotlist by that time. The political part of this business is being able to mold oneself to be able to work with a wide variety of individuals and have them appreciate what you bring to the table.

    I do think that "story" is an oversimplification, as I believe as DP's our work should be illustrating a combination of story, tone, emotion, atmosphere, rhthym and style. While that may sound a little glib, the power of imagery cannot really be overstated in the way it can influence the viewer's response to the material. It can be hard to parse out the reason behind one's specific choices as a DP because our skillset is a combination of everything we've shot in the past plus everything we've seen. For me, I just call that my instinct and unless a director asks me to elaborate, I'll just go with that. When you opted to suggest the long lens Steadicam shot, presumably you saw the shot in your mind's eye and knew what focal length and what type of movement you thought would work well. Is it not possible that your decisions were perhaps influenced at least a little by the scene itself that you've been shooting? I wonder if you are selling yourself a little short...?
    Charles Papert
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    Senior Member Run&Gun's Avatar
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    I'm trying to articulate what's in my head... Okay... "It's about the story" is something you say to the kid coming out of college who is hung-up on gear instead of craft and thinks he needs to spend $100K on a RED package to shoot his little indie movie with his buddies. They need to understand that there is more to it than "the gear". Working professionals- cameramen, cinematographers, DP's who make their living making images, especially that have been doing this for years know this(or should). Yes, if the story is good enough, people will watch it if it was shot on a cellphone, but at the levels I'm working, it's not my job to come up with the "great story", it's my job to help tell the story visually as best I can, which is part of telling the "great story", but completely different.


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    I think bottom line is a DP's involvement in "story" should be SERVING that story as best they can. That could involve lens choice, angle, lighting, shot list, etc. If you truly don't care about the story, what's to keep you from shooting every night scene the same, regardless of genre, mood, feel, what's happening at that point in the script, etc.? Sometimes the directors know enough to tell you to do this or that, add a subtle nuance to lighting or lenses etc., but they may not and that should be where you come in. "Maybe the key light gets less toppy and more into their eyes as their situation improves throughout a film" (real example from "The Cooler"). That kinda thing. So I would yes, to some degree, story should be important to the DP.


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    Senior Member Eric Coughlin's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CharlesPapert View Post
    When you opted to suggest the long lens Steadicam shot, presumably you saw the shot in your mind's eye and knew what focal length and what type of movement you thought would work well. Is it not possible that your decisions were perhaps influenced at least a little by the scene itself that you've been shooting? I wonder if you are selling yourself a little short...?
    Well yes, on a more subconscious level, quite possibly. I guess I just don't feel the need to articulate it by holding the director's hand to make them feel good about me. If they like the shot, then great. Like you said, hopefully they'll take "instinct" as a proper answer and let us move on to continuing our work without having to butter them with up with fancy words and explanations to feel extra good about us as a DP.

    Lately most of the narrative work I've been doing has been self produced or for friends, as that way I can still do narrative work while avoiding politics. Corporate and doc work tends to be more straightforward with less politics, with a lot of the "politics" being them wanting particular gear, which I'm typically able to provide, otherwise they would have contacted someone with a different gear list. I do get a few narrative offers a month, but most pay far below typical corporate/doc work, at which point my mindset lately has been, "Why work for them for peanuts if I can make my own movies in my own time with more control, less politics, and likely a better end product."


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    Senior Member Eric Coughlin's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Josh Bass View Post
    I think bottom line is a DP's involvement in "story" should be SERVING that story as best they can. That could involve lens choice, angle, lighting, shot list, etc. If you truly don't care about the story, what's to keep you from shooting every night scene the same, regardless of genre, mood, feel, what's happening at that point in the script, etc.? Sometimes the directors know enough to tell you to do this or that, add a subtle nuance to lighting or lenses etc., but they may not and that should be where you come in. "Maybe the key light gets less toppy and more into their eyes as their situation improves throughout a film" (real example from "The Cooler"). That kinda thing. So I would yes, to some degree, story should be important to the DP.
    As I already mentioned, yes, genre, as in my example of horror vs. comedy, should heavily influence your choices as a DP. But the fact that Karen in the story is self-conscious and about to make a bold move in her life to overcome her fears at the prom tomorrow, while yes, you could try to figure out some way that the lighting, angles, and lens choice gets that across, more likely you'll take on a bit more simplified approach, and that's not necessarily the wrong choice. I'm not putting down DPs (for narrative work) who use story to influence their choices; I'm putting up DPs who don't use story to influence their choice, meaning it's optional and either can work. I'm saying that not every choice as a DP needs to be inspired directly by the story (which is different than genre). Sometimes it's just about making things look good in relation to the genre.

    Consider something like Glass where the director and set designer used colors to signify the heroes and villains, while The Dark Knight didn't use subtle visual cues like that. Meanwhile, The Dark Knight is generally considered the better movie. There could be many cases of movies that use visual cues to signify plot, but it doesn't always make them better movies. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't.

    So again, all I'm doing here is making a generalization that story doesn't have to directly affect the choices of a cinematographer. This is even more true I feel for corporate and doc work than narrative work.
    Last edited by Eric Coughlin; 03-28-2019 at 07:02 PM.


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    Quote Originally Posted by CharlesPapert View Post
    .... I think the key is to strike a balance ... Some directors are looking for a DP that presents themselves as a fellow artiste and don't respond well to what they perceive is a technician. Others are more workmanlike about the process. ...
    Yes. Everyone operates in a different head space. It can be helpful to have an appreciation of these different types (Myers Briggs theory for example) so that when you run into someone who seems difficult to communicate with; not in the same head space; hard to work with; knowing these different types can give you an appreciation for them and allow you to better deal with them. Even though we all live on the same planet, in our minds, we are clearly not on the same planet, and understanding how to deal with that can help a lot.


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    I completely understand Eric. The Godfather movies had that stupid orange show up in the scene. It was supposed to be significant .... but to who? The only person who knew its significance was Francis. Did anyone of the millions of people watching the movie have any clue that the orange meant something? Even if they did, what's the point? How would that affect how you shot it?

    While I understand your rant, you're definitely taking it too far for me. Even if it's just talking heads, the lighting depends upon the story.


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    I don't want to speak for Eric, but when I read the post, I took Eric's point not so much as an indictment on storytelling within cinematography but rather as a complaint on when criticism is directed at those whose primary role in the storytelling process is an engineering task that focuses on following the directions and orders of the key storytellers.

    I think the best DPs (or crew members of any kind) are those multi talented folks who truly catch the vision and care about how their more technical tasks work in tandem with and support the story. Cinematography is storytelling through visuals, and there's a reason the best directors keep working with the same DPs. It's important. It's a both/and.

    Practically, as a hired out DP on many projects, any storytelling ideas you may have are generally over ridden by the producers or directors. If I were personally to hire out a DP for a project, I'd be shopping kit, experience, and technical know how to execute MY vision. Clearly, to execute MY vision to screen, a good DP has to have a good sense of the storytelling process and the nature of visual storytelling, otherwise, they wouldn't be a good DP at all.

    But it does seem somewhat counter productive to shut down legitimate gear focused questions from working, technical minded DPs on the premise that they should focus more on story and less on gear/technical issues. I mean, as a director, I'd be hiring a DP for their gear and expertise in technical issues, so....

    TL;DR - it seems there's a little bit of a both/and here, no?


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