How to Make a Director of Photography Your Best Friend
As a producer, the relationship with your DP is a critical one. Here’s a guide to creating production magic with your DP on set.
My production experience spans lifestyle and how-to TV, doc-style shorts, live-action scripted TV specials, and prime time competition shows. The Executive Producer and Head of Production, at this point, knows when a set has a top-notch crew. The seeds were planted early in my career that the most important relationship on set for a Producer is the one with a Director of Photography.
Note: For those of you reading along, the sets I work on aren’t film sets or union sets. But, the spirit of this article should still apply to how you can approach working with your DP.
They Love a Plan
- Before you get to set, fill in your DP about the project thoroughly. They love a good script. Talk it out ahead. Discuss the gear, and how you want to shoot the story. Don’t leave it up to your Line Producer or Production Manager to do a debrief. You know the story.
- If you need to scout and you can afford it, take your DP. Take the pressure off and do as much with her before you get to shoot day. Your team can carve out time to talk out concerns and what’s working while scouting. She knows how to work with daylight, and where and what time you can shoot, especially if you’re outdoors. She’ll be happy to get ahead of the shoot day too (and get paid), and have a sense of what she’ll need to pack. Sometimes photos and videos aren’t enough.
- Make that shot list tight. If you know the script, you know the shots. It’s okay to have more B-roll than you may be able to accomplish. Prioritize the must-haves. Anything extra will be bonus!
Create the Vibe on Set
Show up on set ready to deliver clear direction for what you want. When you’re prepared and have a clear understanding of what you need, the flow with your DP will evolve organically. A great DP will show up ahead of the call time. He’s ready and excited to work and create with you. Remember, from the pre-pro call to your collaboration on set, communication is critical.
- Set the tone, that’s your job. Everyone wants an easy-going set. It doesn’t mean you aren’t working hard. Make it enjoyable no matter what needs to be done for the day.
- Be sensitive—he’s an artist too. You want him off sticks, but have you noticed he’s been handheld since 9am? Be mindful of the physical impact of filming and the strength required.
- A pro-DP wants and cares about your feedback. They want the praise and they want to have input. Give them both. When you have a difference of opinion, keep it professional. If we didn’t vibe, it simply wouldn’t go well for anyone. Remember, it’s about the product. Stand firm in your direction, but be kind and stay cool. This matters as a leader on set, as well as for your reputation.
- Look out for your DP, down to the tiniest crumb. A hangry DP isn’t cute. Feed him well! It may sound like a small detail that you’ll remember, but catering is king. Give him and the crew enough time to eat. Let them decide if they want to get back to set earlier. Keep him hydrated and caffeinated, if he needs it.
It’s a Wrappity Wrap!
The more compassion and respect you show the DP, the greater the synergy between you until the moment you (COVID-style) bump elbows and wrap out. The manifestation of a solid collaboration and deep connection is your gorgeous, smart footage that’s ready to head to post.
- Make sure you’re covered on set if you have no one AD’ing for you. Go over your shot list and make sure you have everything with the DP. She doesn’t want to leave set knowing you’ll be disappointed later.
- The DP and the editor should have each other’s info in case there are any questions for post. An intro before the shoot is even better.
- Please, for the love of production gods, make sure she has enough support to wrap out in time. Touch base to be clear about timing so you’re not dinged for OT tomorrow.
- Call a post-mortem to go over what worked and didn’t work.
When you find a talented DP, you’ll never let them go. And, they’ll always prioritize you and the magic you create together!
Cover image via Gorodenkoff.
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