What a First-time Director needs from his Cinematographer.

By the time I got my feature film directorial debut with a legitimate feature motion picture, I had been working full-time in production as a producer, director, videographer, grip and editor for many years. Despite all of that experience, and the fact that I had just produced a feature film that was now in theatrical release, I was still labeled as a “first time director”, and suddenly all of the rules changed. One of the biggest struggles I had in that first feature film directing experience was ceding control of so much of the film’s visuals to my cinematographer.

The pressures on a director during the production of a feature motion picture are beyond enormous, with the squeeze coming from the top-down in the form of the producers and investors, as well as from the bottom-up from the rest of the cast and crew. While a good 1st AD will deflect and manage the bulk of demands from the cast and crew, the last two people in the world that should ever be at odds with each other are the director and the cinematographer. When those two key personnel are not operating in unity, a lot of problems can emerge.

More times than not in the “directorial debut” scenario, the cinematographer will have more experience shooting features than the director will. For this reason alone, a cinematographer needs to remember that a director has chosen him or her as a mentor and safety net as much as someone who can make the movie look like a movie. The first-time director needs gentle reassurance from the more experienced cinematographer that they will make it through the process, and that he or she is solidly in the director’s corner. In short, the cinematographer needs to be the director’s number one ally.

AmReel Misc 14
Cinematographer Tony Hettinger

During principal photography of my feature directorial debut of “American Reel”, we were setting up to shoot one of the key scenes in the film between David Carradine and Mariel Hemingway. When I explained my scene blocking to Carradine – who had been very difficult to work with throughout the entire 3 week shooting schedule – he proceeded to not only argue with me over my choice of camera setups, but also to yell at me at the top of his voice, denigrating me in front of the entire crew right before he stormed off of the set. While the crew sat in stunned silence, I stood in humiliation, contemplating what words to utter next – and to whom.

When the film’s producers intervened, threatening to shut the production down, it was my cinematographer who stepped up in my defense, telling the producers, David Carradine, Mariel Hemingway and the entire crew that my scene blocking was not only right, but that it was “the perfect way to shoot this scene!” And because I had hired a cinematographer who indeed DID have much more experience shooting movies than I did, his expertise was never questioned. With him in my corner, David Carradine backed down, like a child who had just been scolded by the school principal, and even went so far as to apologize to me in front of everyone. The scene ended up being the most beautiful, pivotal scene in the entire movie – thanks to my cinematographer.

So, don’t forget the influence that you, the cinematographer – the quiet professional – have upon those all around you. Your example can set the tone for the entire set, showing that quiet professionalism never goes out of style.


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