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How Directors Collaborate With Cinematographers

How Directors Collaborate With Cinematographers

You may wonder why there are some directors who maintain the same visual style throughout their entire filmography, while other directors have a catalog of movies with a mishmash of aesthetics. Likewise, some cinematographers stick to their signature style, while others mix up their style depending on the director, script, or genre they’re working with. So exactly how much influence do the DOP and the director have on how a film ends up looking? 

In this article, I’ll attempt to answer that question by looking at the traditional roles of the director and the cinematographer, analyze directors with a set visual style vs a fluid style, and look at case studies from popular films to see examples of how different directors collaborate with different DPs.


How Directors Collaborate With Cinematographers


Role Of The Director & DOP

Part of the difficulty of assigning a definitive label of who has visual creative control on a film comes from the fact that filmmaking is a collaborative process. No cinematographer, or director for that matter, can claim sole responsibility for all the images in a film.

Visuals are created through a combination of working with a director, a production designer, a grip, a make-up artist, a focus puller, a gaffer, and many more. Each person on set has their own little imprint upon creating the images which we finally see on screen.

To simplify things however let’s go over a list of some of the traditional roles assigned to a director and a DOP, then look at what roles they tend to collaborate together on.

# A director’s job is to take a screenplay and to translate that into a fully formed film. This requires a large skill set. They usually have control over: casting actors, controlling the overall tone or mood of the movie, crafting performances from the on-screen talent, controlling the edit, and making key storytelling decisions.

# A DOPs role is traditionally more technical. They control: selecting technical gear within a budget, overseeing the technical setup and shooting of scenes, and delegating how each scene is lit. Some aspects of visual storytelling which directors and DPs typically collaborate on include: storyboarding or shot selection, camera movement, production design, the framing of each shot, and the color grade.

It’s important to note that none of these roles are set in stone. Directors occupy a spectrum between those wanting to control the cinematography versus those who do not. Some directors like to take a very hands-on approach, even going so far as to operate the camera themselves or to dictate exactly what brand of lenses must be used.

Other directors are only focused on performances and storytelling and let the cinematographer decide everything else. Realistically, most directors fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, where they are concerned with crafting a particular look for the film, yet leave it to the expertise of their cinematographer to achieve that look.


Set Style Vs. Fluid Style


Just as some DOP’s adopt a specific, trademark style, others can change their approach completely depending on what the story is. The same is true of directors: some maintain a set style, whilst others are more fluid in how they create images across different films.

An example of a director/DP duo who have maintained a set style over various projects is Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle. Most of their films are set in the vividly colored neon world of Hong Kong. Throughout their work together they have utilized similar stylistic techniques such as: shooting at a low frame rate and step printing frames, using rough, visceral handheld camera work, and embracing practical lighting.

An example of a director less bound to a singular visual style, who has taken a more fluid approach over his career is Martin Scorsese. He’s worked with many different DOP’s, each with their own lighting style and cinematic approach.

He’s used different stylistic techniques and, as technology has changed throughout his career, he’s embraced this change visually, using every medium from black and white 35mm film to 3D digital capture. Generally speaking, I think that when there’s a strong, lengthy working relationship between a director and a cinematographer, a visual style will begin to form naturally.

Conversely, a director who bounces from cameraman to cameraman between projects may find that their films have less of a singularly coherent visual style. Of course, this isn’t always the case. With this in mind, let’s look at two case studies of different directors and analyze how they collaborate with their cinematographers.


Case Study: Coen Brothers

Although known primarily for their work with Roger Deakins, the Coen brothers are a duo who have worked with different DPs over their career, usually when Deakins has been unavailable due to a scheduling clash. They’ve worked with other DOPs such as Barry Sonnenfeld, Emmanuel Lubezki, and Bruno Delbonnel.


Let’s compare No Country For Old Men, shot by Deakins, and Inside Llewyn Davis, shot by Delbonnel, to see how using different cinematographers can result in two stylistically distinct films.

I think the Coen Brothers are a good example of directors whose visuals fall in the middle of the spectrum. They carefully control the selection and movement of every shot in the film by storyboarding the entire film in pre-production before the first day of shooting. Lens-wise they also know what they like.

They like shooting on wide-angle spherical lenses, particularly a 27mm. So, when Delbonnel arrived to shoot the project, a large part of the cinematography had already been planned by the directors. If this is the case then why does Inside Llewyn Davis look so different from many of the other Coen Brothers films shot by Deakins? A lot of it comes down to their different lighting approaches.

Delbonnel is known for creating extremely soft, single-source light. “My signature is a source with double diffusion, and sometimes I do triple diffusion. Then, I add a little fill inside, or not. If I do, it’s very soft, and it’s usually a [polystyrene bounce] or something simple. I rarely use hard lighting.”

Deakins on the other hand tends to create many planes of contrast across his images by using multiple fixtures to create different pockets of light and shadow. Unlike Delbonnel, Deakins blends using both soft light, with gentle shadows, and hard light, with defined, sharp shadows.

Another difference between their two styles is how they treat the grade. Delbonnel worked with his colorist, Pete Doyle, to achieve a cold, desaturated, pastel look. He sucked some of the saturation out by removing the blue channel from the RGB curve so that the skin tones would still retain some life.

Across all the images he also added Delbonnel’s classic ‘bloom’, diffusion effect, which suffused the highlights with a soft texture, giving images the feeling that they were shot on old, uncoated vintage glass.

Deakins’ approach to the grade was a bit more conventional. He prefers a sharp image, undiffused, with good levels of contrast and a filmic saturation.

So, the Coen Brothers maintained the core feeling of their style by controlling the shot selection, framing, and camera movement, yet by using different DPs the look and quality of the image in the two films were clearly influenced by the respective styles of the cinematographers who shot them.


Case Study: Zhang Yimou

While different DPs working for the same director can produce different styles of images, some directors work with different DPs yet are able to maintain a very similar visual style throughout their work. Zhang Yimou is one of those directors.

Let’s compare two of his ‘wuxia’ genre films, ‘House of Flying Daggers’ shot by Zhao Xiaoding and ‘Hero’ photographed by Christopher Doyle.

Zhang’s early ‘wuxia’ films are known in particular for their rich color palettes. Both films have lush, precisely controlled production design, where everything, from the costume of the characters down to the color of the exterior locations is carefully considered.

Although some scenes include a mixed palette, many of the scenes in these two films are designed with a more monochromatic, singular color palette. Unlike the Coen Brothers case study, the lighting approach taken by Zhang’s DPs are similar in both films. The color in his films comes from the mise-en-scene, or design of the setting, rather than from the lighting, which is well exposed and soft, with few shadows, and naturalistic in nature.

Even the choice of gear by the two cinematographers followed a similar pattern. Both were shot on Super 35 with Kodak film stocks on Cooke prime lenses and zoom lenses when necessary. Both films use a lot of long focal lengths which compresses the background, creates a shallow depth of field, and isolates the subject.

The operation of the two cameras also follows ‘wuxia’ cinematic conventions. They pan and tilt on a grounded fluid head to follow the action and keep the actors in the frame as much as possible. A lot of the framing, such as the use of high, top-down angles, and central framing of characters, particularly in close-ups, seems to be influenced by Zhang’s cinematic taste.

Some directors are therefore able to maintain a similar cinematic style between films despite collaborating with different cinematographers.


Last words

There’s a good reason that many famous directors have formed long partnerships with their DOPs. The more you work together as a team, the stronger the bond of trust, familiarity, and like-mindedness will become. As cinematographers, our job is to be fluid and comfortable enough to take different director’s visions and replicate them visually.

Creating images with a director should always be an exchange of ideas: whether you’re suggesting a wardrobe color, a new shot, a focal length, or a specific lighting style, always remember that you’re being hired as much for your visual perspective as for your role as a technician overseeing the camera and lights.

Building a strong bond with a director through prolonged conversation will help you to better understand their artistic preferences and what kind of role they want you to occupy. Some of the most experienced directors and DOPs that I’ve worked on set with reach a stage of communication where it becomes unnecessary to talk generally about what needs to be shot, as they know exactly what the other’s cinematic preference is without even having to even say it.

In this case, creating the look on set is a matter of refining the vision rather than attempting to find it in the first place. This is a great position to be in as a DOP on set, where the general vision for the film is already figured out between you and the director before the camera rolls on its first frame. hopefully, if this article provided you some value then let me know in the comment section below.

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