We are mortal enemies. Sworn enemies. Two sides of the battlefield. Two corners of the ring. In one corner, the asshole 1st Assistant Director stands with his/her army of loud and often obnoxious minions designed to move work along effectively and quickly. In the other corner, a pretentious DP stands with his/her army of particular OCD minions designed to work precariously and meticulously. The two represent the GOOD, FAST, CHEAP (Pick two) triangle and their needs are often counterproductive to the other’s.
So how the hell does a movie ever get made without it looking like a scene out of Braveheart?
The AD/DP relationship may be the most important one on set. Directors often pick their DPs, so their relationship is pretty set from the get-go. DPs very rarely get to pick who the AD is, although they sometimes request a specific type of AD that they know will work with their style. Sometimes, it’s vice-versa, and the AD suggests DPs that fit the director’s vision the best. Mostly, though, on the indie level, we are two separate entities who have never spoken before or have only seen each other’s name on a shared facebook contact.
DPs also often forget that they are MANAGEMENT. Since most of them never worked in the production department and either came up from the grip & electric department or the camera team, they’re not used to being looked at as a leader on the set. Some of them cannot deal and never DP again, some completely rise to the occasion, and others… well, they just get abusive. The AD keeps them in line, especially if this is their first rodeo. But we keep them in line by showing them the means of management. Like ADs, DPs are the department heads for several departments. Sometimes managing a crew that size is overwhelming and you lose yourself in the process.
I look at DPs as lead actors. Immensely talented, immensely creative, and oftentimes, immensely difficult. I don’t mean that in a negative way. DPs, like good actors, have a process that works for them to do their jobs and do it well and that process commands respect and attention. Unfortunately, it sometimes creates an imbalance in the production. Their attention to detail may be incredibly amazing and perfect on all fronts, but it can be time consuming and sometimes very expensive in terms of the overall production. If you’re Hollywood, that’s not an issue. If you’re an indie feature (and if you’re reading this blog, most likely you are), sometimes you simply cannot afford that.
ADs help good DPs get their best shots across and make wise decisions in regards to the shotlist and timing. Unfortunately, you will need to make compromises. A lot of indies run for a total of 18-25 shooting days. On a script with 110 pages on average and a budget of $50,000 to $300,000, you’re looking at quite the ambitious shooting schedule with not much room for overrun or experimentation. There is a balance that absolutely needs to happen with the quality and with the reality of the project. If your AD & DP are on good communicating terms, there’s a fighting chance for your script, your budget, and your schedule. If there isn’t, you end up with a film half-finished beautifully and the rest is obviously rushed and half assed.
Prioritizing the shotlist is a majorly important step for ADs & DPs to make to keep both schedule and quality on the same level. Sit down with the DP and figure out the priority shots versus the bonus shots or the not-so-glamorous shots. Make sure you give them their beauty shots, don’t take away everything until you’re looking at WIDE MASTER - MED 2-SHOT - CU - CU - INSERT, that’s a pretty boring formula for most genres of movies. Make sure the DP has their chance in the sun and give them a few big dollies/steadicams/cranes each day. But make sure they know these pretty important shots have timeframes and if we start losing time with them, we will lose bonus shots or not-so-priority shots to make the day and not have to reschedule.
Good DPs who have strong relationships with the AD may argue about their shotlist, but they know the compromises that need to be made and will rise to the challenge, looking at it as a creative solution instead of an annoying problem. Some will eliminate the “boring” shots entirely by creating one or two big multi-point dolly shots from different angles. Some will go entirely on the steadicam to create constant movement in a 2 5/8th page dialogue scene. Some will think of interesting static shots that say more than “this person is talking” and eliminate the need for additional shots to get the point across.
Good DPs also understand that having a movie beautifully half-shot is a waste of time. It’s not even a reel piece. And it certainly will hurt a DP’s reputation on the indie level to leave productions unfinished or with only half good shots and a big bunch of rushed crap. They understand they are managers and need to manage not only the look of the shot, but the time it will take to get that look and be reasonable. They know it’s important to keep an open and honest communication with the AD.
DPs also need to understand that most crews on the indie level are hardly making their day rate and very rarely are compensated overtime or meal penalties. The more we work an underpaid, exhausted crew, the more shots will suffer, accidents will occur, and camera & lighting equipment will be damaged (all of these things decrease the quality of movies, regardless of budget). The AD/DP relationship becomes important here too since the AD can keep the DP in line by pointing out when crews are starting to make sloppy mistakes, or if taking too long on one set will put us into an unpaid overtime with a forced call the next day, resulting in less sleep/recharging for the crew. It’s important that ADs present a reasonable timeframe for lighting/camera set ups and request blocking/camera rehearsals from the DP often to make sure we’re all on the same page and not wasting time on an unwanted set up.
It’s not always going to be roses for ADs and DPs on set due to the very nature of our positions, but if you sit down and look at what we have in common, we can find that understanding and create the balance an indie production needs to not only look good, but be on schedule. ADs and DPs can hug it out. They can even be friends when the crew is not looking.