Tuesday, April 24, 2007

confessions of a green d.p.

tonight feels like a 'summer night'. and it's started acting like one, too. some good techno is the ideal counterpart to such times.

a few weeks ago, i was working as the loader on a little horror movie we were shooting up at the rocky point haunted house [which, i come to find out, is one of the best haunted houses in the contry]. one day, as i was hanging out in dr. frankenstein's laboratory, i got a call--the kind of call you never actually get:
'hi jeff, this is brian. i'm directing a movie in a few weeks and i'm wondering if you'd like to shoot it.'

* * * * * * *

i thought had to work and sweat and network and then you get the chance to shoot a movie. i didn't think people just called you out of the blue. and yet, as i look back as i write this, i realize that maybe i was actually working and sweating and networking, all without realizing it.
and while inside of me i was jumping up and down and couldn't stop thinking 'ohboyohboyohboyohboyohboyohboyohboyohboyohboyohboyohboyohboyohboyohboyohboyohboyohboyohboyohboy', i mustered up a yes-i-think-i-can-if-can-fit-it-into-my-schedule reply of 'i'd be happy to'.
i then spent the rest of the day balancing the bafflement of 'dang, i'm dp-ing a feature' with illusions of granduer, feeling that i was now the next big thing to blossom in the film world, that the american society of cinematographers could prepare a seat for me at their next convention, and that i would have to make time in my schedule for the parade in my honor. then i realized that i'm shooting a small low-budget movie and that many of my friends have done much bigger projects and still do not own their own tigers....

...all the same, i was ecstatic on the way home, singing loudly to the radio [which seemed to take my requests] and shared my joy [many thanks, lj]. equally fun was finally being able to call up my friends from school and offer them real, paid work on a real live movie.

on friday we picked up the equipment. we have a tiny little truck with a handful of equipment, barely more than an oversized student project, and i felt like a kid in a candy store. having a truck, packed with equipment that i personally selected, was almost intoxicating. talking with some other people there, i met a guy who, upon hearing that i was the 'director of photography' on a feature, began pitching himself to me as camera operator. i was very kind and gracious, gave him my information, and can't help but wonder what he'll think when he looks me up on imdb and sees several credits of 'loader' to my name....

yesterday was our first day.
i hadn't been nervous all weekend, but pulling up to our first location, the weight of leadership began to rest upon me. one of the hardest things was the initial awkwardness of working with the other crew. our gaffer was a good friend of my from school, someone whom i'd worked with on many projects, and it was nice seeing him. what was weird was that our key grip, despite being a good friend, was a good 15-20 years older than me and i've only worked with him when i was a 2 a.c. i did a commercial a few months ago when i ended up taking a camera and shooting some 'b roll' inserts; asking him to set up a light or stand even then felt a little strange: 'um, do you think you could maybe move that light over here if you have some time?' being the d.p. with him as my grip took some getting used to--his quiet and humble nature almost made it harder. even my camera assistant was a friend who, just last week, i was working under.
and so i spent several moments throughout the day thinking about leadership; about finding a balance between giving people their space and autonomy, yet also realizing that part of leadership is leading, going forward and walking ahead, directing the way to go. and often there is no one 'right' way, but the mantle of leadership entitles one to simple choice--where you choose is where we go.

in addition to pondering over and dealing with the 'director' part, the 'of photography' aspect occupied the rest of my mind space. there's the inherent pensiveness of 'what if this doesn't look' very good? with momentary exceptions, i haven't really done this since i was at the byu, over two years ago. sometimes a scene just seems to light itself beautifully. other times, it feels like a bad cowlick--no matter what you do, it just doesn't look right.
while i haven't been shooting since school, i have been watching and learning, and it's paying off. [having a broader arsenal of 'brushes' since college helps, too]. there were times when i would look at a scene and be quite happy, and other times when i would be at the limit of what i could try with the time and resources available and think, 'well, it looks like a 'jeff' scene'. for the director's last movie, his cameraman wasn't someone who was a 'cinematographer' so much as he was a 'moviemaker', and so i think the attention paid to the camerawork is higher, but, for better or worse, i never really feel comfortable until the director and crew are exclaiming how freakin' amazing the shots look.

when i wasn't musing about the philosophy of leadership, i was musing about the philosophy of lighting. like so many other things, the skill and difference is in the details. an average person with a camera shooting a landscape would get an image 90% identical to a professional cinematographer. but that 10% makes all the difference. being able to see where 'good enough' and can become 'even better'; where a shadow could be lessened, where a little gold light could be bounced, that is where the subtle but significant changes are. looking back on my own work, the shots i am most proud of are those where i saw space for a detail--a little light placed down the cliff, acting as the glow from the city lights below, the light hidden in the hummer's sun visor; and on monday, we were at the peaks ice arena, where the light is prett even and flat and generally usuable. put i had our grip just 'float' a small, soft light off camera, so that the light on their faces was a little brighter on one side. they didn't 'need' it, but once it was there, they looked better.

ice. yes, my first day as a professional d.p. we shot a hockey game scene--maybe i was inspired to take the hockey class my last semester at school.... out there on the ice [on skates] with the camera was interesting, and we shot several small moments with blocked scenes; actors scoring, checking, getting revenge, etc. but we also needed some general shots of the game. so the director called both teams together and had them do a full on scrimmage, first warning them to watch out for me.
i'm confortable enough on the ice, but when i'm trying to also shoot a movie and dodge hockey players [whose minds are on the puck, not the camera guy], i begin to wish i could use more than 10% of my brain. i got some good shots of the game, and had a few close calls with some focused players. as i was coming around and following the puck rather well, even getting a little ambitious, a player crashed in front of me and i couldn't do anything about it.

falling over him, i was glad that my cinematographer instincts were still sharp: 'i heal; the camera doesn't'. my arms were out, because that's what we do when we fall--we want to brace ourselves. unfortunately, in my hand was the camera. instict overrode instict, and i tucked the camera in toward me, meaning i landed on my bent wrist.
when the flash of action was over, i was lying on the ice and wondering what condition the camera was in and what the was that i saw go spinning across the ice when i landed.

the spinning object was the battery, and the camera seemed to be fine. yes, i was proud of myself. my wrist still hurts [just a nasty bruise], but the cheers that came from the section full of extras as i stood up did wonders.

my mom makes 'to do' lists each day, and crosses things off as she does them. she once told me that if you do something that wasn't on your list, put it on the list so that you can cross it off, too. i am putting 'shoot a movie on ice skates' on my list of life goals and am crossing it off.

[for those of you wondering, yes, i still wear my 'ninja cinematographer' headband]

1 comment:

Em said...

Jeff I strongly suspect you are particularly well suited for leadership opportunities. Primarily because you have a disposition that does not lend itself well to self-absorption, so you stay focused on what needs to be done.... in a "forget yourself and go to work" sort of way.

And even if you do "arrive" at the owning-a tiger level on IMDB and such, you'll still be looking and reaching for ways to be better.

All things I like about you.