When I was coming up the ladder, I really hopscotched through the whole technical side. I started as a grip truck driver, skipped from a grip truck driver to a key grip, then jumped from a key grip to a gaffer. I found myself hiring all these people around me that were 40, 50, and even 60 years old, and sometimes they’d question my experience because I was so much younger than them.
What’d I do?
I grew a mustache.
And this mustache was my way to disguise my age. Now, most people look at my pictures and say that did nothing for me, but it was something that I did to say:
“Hey, you know, by the way, I’m not like this peach fuzzy young dude, I have some hair on my face, and I’m here to kick some ass!”
That only went so far, and you really had to work to gain that respect from your peers and from your employees. I found the quickest way to do that was to show them how good you were. That’s what started to gain immediate respect.
A Film Crew That’s Always Innovating
You come in with new ideas that might be very unconventional or they might not have been done before.
The last time I was in New York, I was working with a gaffer that I’ve worked with for, oh my god, I’d say 10 – 15 years. We see each other sporadically every time I go to New York, probably 3 times a year, and a lot of times he’s unavailable. This past time, he said that once again, like every time he works with me, it just inspires him to be better.
He asks me, “So how do you want to light the green screen?”
I’m like, “Two Cineos.”
He’s like, “What?! The thing is 40 by 40.”
I’m like, “Yeah, don’t worry about it.” We put these green panels in there…”
And he goes, “What green panels?”
I said, “Yeah, there are these green panels, you put them in front of the Cineos, and BAM!”
And sure enough, two Cineos, spaced nine feet away from the green screen, 15 feet in on one side, 15 feet on the other, and BOOM!
This thing illuminated the green screen. I had it at 30%, and at 640 ISO I had a 2.8 1/2.
Then, I was using all these Pars and Lekos that he never used. They were LEDs that I could change to any color, and do any pattern.
The Gaffer and I are about the same age, but the idea is the same: You come in and have yourself buttoned up, you have yourself very organized, and you have a really clear plan. That’s what they’re looking for because a lot of times you find people that are in this business and they might be very jaded, they don’t want to do things 2 and 3 and 4 times.
Now that’s funny because, on this job, we did things 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8 times! You’d see the level of New Yorker attitude start to build very quickly, Haha. It wasn’t so much that our director was not telling me what he wanted. It was that I had a lighting list that I had submitted, and they kept on trimming and trimming and cutting to the point where I basically just gave up. I was like okay, this is the lowest that we could do.
Obviously, when we got there, it was so low that it was very difficult to light the sets. So we had to be constantly trying to do it in different ways, and we had to order most of the gear that I had cut back. This is the process in this movie industry; it’s crazy as heck. We eventually get to exactly what I had submitted, it just took us a day and a half and a lot of pain and a lot of struggling to get there.
All Kinds of Artists in Your Film Crew
A lot of people just love doing the job that they do and they don’t want all the responsibilities and the stress that comes with being a director of photography. Respect that and who they are.
The amount of stress that is put on us as an artist is pretty remarkable. We’ll keep on pulling from this New York example because so many things went wrong, and so many things went right on this job!
The assistant director came up to me and we had all these actors, one of which is a very famous actor from broadway, and we had to do this close-up with the lion suit. He’s in this huge outfit and prosthetics that go onto his face that takes four hours to put on, and he’s holding a Samsung tablet.
This was the shot that the client absolutely wanted. Well, this actor is walking out the door at 6:00 PM because that’s what his deal is, and it’s 5:52, and we have to get the over the shoulder.
Obviously, the director wants it in two different lighting setups so that we can use it on the other spot, and then the AD comes up to me and he says:
“Just so you know, he’s walking out the door at 6.”
He’s basically telling me that if we don’t get this, the client isn’t going to pay one of my best friends, whose production company I’m working for, who’s flown me out from Los Angeles to be able to do this spot. They’re not going to get paid. And it was like, ok, just add some more stress to that pile that is already lingering all over me. Meanwhile, I gotta add risers to the dolly to get an over the shoulder, and you see the grips just sitting there, screwing the riser on
one – turn – at – a – time.
The AD looks at me and just rolls his eyes and I’m like, “It’s ok, you know, and ok roll this baby,” and Pierre, my operator, gets on there and I go “full stick on that thing!” and he goes over the shoulder and the light quality wasn’t really good, and the actor walks in ready to go and it was just too flat, and I’m like, “alright, kill that overhead!” and the director’s like, “I love the reflection of the lion in the Samsung tablet,” and I’m like, “the reflection isn’t powerful enough. Fire up those par cans on the side!”
I’m runnin’ around and I’m tilting them up because they were tilted down, and fixing other things, and the gaffer’s trying to follow me and beat me to the thing, and I’m tilting everything around and I’m like:
It’s like 5:58, and sure enough, we get three takes of him doing these different lines and expressions, and he was out the door by 6. That happened.
The thing is, having a fun atmosphere around is something that’s very important. I joke a lot, and I joke in very sarcastic ways, constant banter, on set ripping each other apart and somebody makes something, like a mistake like trips or something, you just keep on throwing him under the bus all day, but as a light-hearted joke.
I had this electrician where it seemed every light he touched would break.
He became “Stone Hands” for the whole movie.
We never just called him “Eric.” He was always “Stone Hands.” It was all in good fun.
You keep it light. I kind of do this as a stress reliever as a DP because if I just hunker down and am very quiet, I just feel like I’m going to explode. I need to use this kind of humor where the crew and I just banter back and forth and try to keep it as light as possible.
Collaborating with Your Film Crew
The other thing is remembering every one of their names. It’s going around and introducing yourself to who your crew is, knowing their names, and trying to address them by their name every single time. Before we rolled on our first setup, I walked out into the middle of the stage and said:
“I just want everyone to hear that this Grip, Electric, and Camera team has pulled together against all odds. With equipment debacles, and everything that’s gone down, and we have gotten this thing all together, and I’m just tellin’ you, this image looks absolutely amazing! I can’t thank all of you enough for what you have done. Thank you.”
Everyone’s like, “oh thank you, thank you”. It’s the little things like that are very important to really unite the team. Then they’re all of a sudden saying, “wow, this young guy, man, he really understands what’s going on here.”
Respect them as well, these guys have been in the industry for a long time, they’re going to have some really good ideas too. It shouldn’t be your way or the highway. It is worth seeing what their ideas are and respecting that and trying it. Sometimes it’s gonna work and sometimes it’s not.
Production Office Example
I was sitting in a production meeting on this recent movie “The Babysitter” for Warner Bros and New Line, and the key grip is sitting right next to me during the production meeting. He goes, “You know that shot when Cole comes back through the house? Wouldn’t it be great if he went through the front door and saw all the furniture back in?”
He just threw it away and said that, and I go, “Bob has got a great idea,” and then I address the director, “McG, imagine if our Cole character walks through the front door and before he left the house it had no furniture in it, or it was all pushed off to the side, and all disorganized and everything, but when Cole comes back into the house again, all the bodies that were laying around are all gone, all the blood that was flying around is all cleaned up, and all the furniture is perfectly back exactly where it was before this night even started,” and he goes,
“That is a great idea, that is what we’re doing.”
And I go, “Well it was Bob Babin’s idea and I’m telling you, it’s brilliant.”
Everyone’s like, “Ah, great idea, Bob!” This is leadership, this is taking somebody, and not just taking their idea, but actually giving them credit for it. I am constantly giving my team kudos for awesome ideas.
On Set Example
We did this really extreme close-up yesterday and they were moving all over the place and cut. And I’m like, “Joe, that was amazing focus,” and he’s like “Hey, thanks,” and then the dimmer op designs this really cool effect with all these blinking lights and everything that looks just like television.
After that take, I go to Eugene and say, “That was amazing, thank you.” It was loud enough so that everyone is able to hear it. If you just pull them aside, you don’t get the reverberation amongst your crew. This is all about leadership building and standing apart from the pack. It is something you just have to take the time to do. The other thing that I do is thank them all at lunch.
I find them, either in the lunch line or while they’re sitting down, or right when they call lunch. This is so important to do, it is something that they least expect, kudos at lunch. Now, I always try again to scurry around after we wrap and find everyone at the end of the night. Always making sure to look into their eyes, shaking every one of their hands, and thanking them for delivering their very best. This is the way that I have really tried to lead my crew and inspire them.
Why I Take This Approach
I remember when I was young, I had so many DPs that never thanked me. So many jobs, I couldn’t count them on 50 hands of people, where the DP just never came up and said “good job”, or “great day,” or anything. I think if you take that time, it’s something that gains tons of respect with your peers and with the elders that are much older than you. It makes for a great set.
So let’s just go and recap this: keep it light on the set, have fun but at the same time exacting. We’re here to have fun, right? But boy, we have a serious job, we have to stay on schedule, create great art, and keep things moving.
Know Their Name
This is very important; to know each person’s name. Thank them when they do great, and when you do; thank that individual loud enough for other people to hear. Thank the crew before lunch and thank them at the end of the day. Shake their hands and look into their eyes, and try to introduce any of the new people that might be new to the director, so they feel like:
“Wow, this guy called me out and brought me over and introduced me to the director.”
Try to keep it as light and airy and efficient as you possibly can.
This is the core of being the Director of Photography, and with the experience I’ve had, this is the stuff that’s going to really take you from wherever you are and raise you way ahead of everyone else.