Directing from the viewfinder.
I’ve learned that television commercials are not my thing, but when I was starting out, and first getting a taste for real production work, I had the opportunity to work as a paid PA (Production Assistant) on the new, national television campaign for K-Mart. It was the summer of 1994, and for some reason the new TV ads were to be shot at what was, at that time, the newest of the freshly-remodeled K-mart locations in none other than Decatur, Indiana. I scratched my head as much as the cast and crew from Los Angeles did at that notion, but I was grateful for the opportunity to work on a real set with a real crew and watch a real production happen. I was only 2 years out of high school, and this was a major learning opportunity for me. This was when Penny Marshall and Rosie O’Donnell and occasionally Roseanne Barr were the paid spokespersons for K-mart. It was also when Rosie O’Donnell and Roseanne Barr were still funny, but that’s another discussion.
The coolest guy I had ever met at that point in my fledgling career was Director/DP, Gil Cope. Gil looked like a cross between Sting and Brett Michaels. He had the long hair that looked cool when he had his LA Dodgers ball cap on, he wore basketball shoes and blue jeans to set, and he directed from the viewfinder – not watching a tv monitor at the back of the set. When Gil sat down on the dolly and started directing actors while looking through the viewfinder of his Arriflex BL4 on a dutch head, I thought he was just a rock star. Later, when I got to talk to him and he told me he grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska – roughly the same size as my home town of Fort Wayne, Indiana – well that just sealed the deal. I wanted to be Gil Cope.
As the years passed, I worked more and more at every aspect of my career, but particularly on my cinematography skills. It took years before I felt competent to D.P. anything more than a corporate video talking head. When I had a big project, particularly one with a budget for real film, I would hire experienced cinematographers like Tony Hettinger and let them do their thing. Tony always made me look good, and I had the added bonus of being able to tell him what I wanted to see, then watch and listen as he communicated it to the lighting and grip department. I could learn more in one day on-set with Tony than in a year of film school – and I was the one in charge.
Something that I noticed right away, however, that was noticeably different between my film set and Gil’s had to do with what I would call directorial proximity to the scene. You see, I could tell when I watched Gil direct from the viewfinder that he and the actors were almost in their own private world. They had their own thing going on up there, while the rest of us just watched from a distance. They had their own inside conversations, their own inside jokes, their own set within the set. Gil was the master of balance, too, because he could switch gears to talk tech with his camera assistant or gaffer to make adjustments to lighting, interface with the ad agency reps on-set, then return to his creative zone with the actors. And what he was getting on film was top notch. A few days into the shoot I got to see some of the dailies back from the lab, transferred to tape. I was mesmerized by how magical film looked, even on tape. I wanted to learn everything I could from watching Gil.
When I directed my first TV commercials, I had to hire cinematographers to light and shoot them because, as a video guy, I didn’t feel confident in shooting film on my own. That meant that, while my DP was behind the viewfinder, right there with the actors, I was given a small TV monitor at the back of the set and a pair of headphones. I would give the actors and camera directions, then make my way back to the back of the set, through the cables and c-stands and shot bags and dolly tracks, to where my little “video village” was waiting for me. And believe me when I tell you that looking at your beautiful scene through a black and white video tap from a 35mm film camera can only be described as sucking the life out of your creative vision. I felt so disconnected from my own scenes on my own set that I could hardly stand it. A grainy, black and white image that would go dim with the flickering of the camera shutter was all I got. For someone who came up as a camera operator, it was like putting on 5 pairs of sunglasses and a burlap bag over my head. I could barely tell who was even in the frame. In dark scenes, the picture on the monitor was so bad that I would just shut it off and go stand behind the camera.
I came up through television. Live television. As a camera operator. So, to go from being the one who is not only setting up the camera, but operating it and pulling your own focus to being set at the back of the set with a grainy, black and white monitor and headphones was like having my arms cut off. I felt so disabled, disconnected and removed from my own set that it drove me nuts. And add to that, I had a D.P. who acted like it was the biggest inconvenience in the world to share his picture with me via a coax cable that was constantly “in his way”. There were many times when I wasn’t quite sure even what my purpose was on my own set, other than to say “Action” and “Cut”. And the worst part was that my directing suffered for it, a lot. On my first feature film directing job, I was barely allowed to even touch the camera. Suddenly, with a budget and a huge crew, I was told that my place was in the director’s chair in front of the monitor, not up front with the actors where I was accustomed to being. And I hated every minute of it.
The best thing to ever happen to my directing career was the arrival of the first HD cameras and a heated argument with my D.P. over them. I saw the future, and he saw a threat to his livelihood. You see, for a guy who came up in electronic photography (in those days, the dreaded “video”) and not shooting a lot of actual film, HD cameras were sent from the heavens. For the first time ever, electronic “video” cameras could make pictures that looked just like film, but you didn’t have to deal with all of the hassles and expense of the film. Add to that, the first Sony HD cameras looked and operated just like the Sony Betacam cameras all of us “video guys” were accustomed to. The buttons were in the right place, the viewfinder was the same, and it had onboard audio. Now, a guy like me could D.P. and direct with much more confidence, because electronic cameras let you see what you’re shooting in real time, not “shooting in the dark” and waiting days for your film-to-tape transfers to come back from the lab. To me, it was my Gil Cope moment. I could move my director’s chair back to the viewfinder again – where I was used to being all along.
“Those cameras are crappy,” Tony said over the phone. “They’re nothing but crappy video cameras that make crappy video pictures. They’ll never replace film.” And with that, he angrily hung up the phone on me, ending our discussion of shooting my next project in HD instead of 35mm film. And for a brief moment I thought, “Great. What am I going to do now? I need to find another D.P.” But then it occurred to me: “Why can’t I D.P. my own films? I know exactly how to operate that HD camera. Maybe I don’t need Tony and his film cameras any more?” And with that, I returned to directing from the viewfinder, once again becoming a Director/D.P., and having full control over my visuals. My departure from film and its disconnectedness and expense was quick and complete. I never looked back.
I have to be in the scene with my actors. It’s the only way I can direct. I love to move my camera through a scene, too. And when you get your camera moves and the actors’ cues rehearsed and executed with precision, it’s like a carefully choreographed dance. It also helps immensely with my ability to shoot proper coverage for a scene. When I know that I’m seeing it first hand through the viewfinder and that I’m going to also be the one importing that footage and editing it together, I direct and shoot much more efficiently – and with much more intelligence.
Last year, I found a tote in storage full of Betacam SP transfers from my first feature film directing gig. As I popped the tapes into the tape machine, I watched in sheer boredom as this young, insecure, disconnected and somewhat foolish director, relegated to the back of the set to look through a grainy, black and white television monitor shot take after take of the same scene, with little to no variations in shot composition. Three, four, sometimes six takes or more of the exact same thing! What was I doing? I was trying to connect with the actors and the scene from twenty five feet away with a terrible picture and even worse sound. It was as painful to watch as anything I’ve ever seen, and it was all me. And I thought to myself, “Never again.”
The pressure to disconnect and “sit in a director’s chair” comes up every once in a while, but it’s always pressure brought by people who are either clueless to the process or operating with an agenda of their own. Ad agencies tend to flood your set and your creative environment with clueless people who have a perverted notion of how a set is “supposed to look”. They’re the ones who most often would put the unspoken pressure on to stand at the back, looking at a monitor, sipping a latté. Agency creatives are about as disconnected from real filmmaking as they get, which is why I won’t generally work with them any more. The other camera department attempted mutiny I endured was from a crew member on a television series pilot who I hired to be my gaffer. He secretly hatched his campaign to move me to the back of the set so that he could take credit for being the D.P. I guess he figured that going around me to everyone else on my crew was a good plan for kicking me off my own camera. It didn’t work out very well for him.
Directors – direct from where you want to direct. There’s nothing wrong with operating, and there’s nothing wrong with directing your own photography while you’re at it. Who better to operate and see that picture at its first inception than the director? I think that’s how it should be.