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If I Am Not On Set, Do I Still Exist? How A DP Works When She’s Not Working

If I Am Not On Set, Do I Still Exist? How A DP Works When She’s Not Working

Last month I had lunch with Mira Steinzor, who I affectionately referred to in my tweets as “DP Jr”. Besides talking about different cameras, how to manage crews and clients, we discussed how to handle your days in between jobs. I remember having the same question when I graduated from NYU. Unless I was physically on set, it appeared to non-freelancers that I wasn’t working. Nothing could be further from the truth. Freelance artists hustle in our sleep. My day rate could equal someone else’s weekly salary yet I’d feel guilty if I didn’t appear to be working every day. I’ve gotten over that. Besides the fact that even on my worse shoots, being a DP has never felt like work (read: struggle), I now appreciate that there is a lot that we do off the set that directly relates to becoming better filmmakers.

A non-film person (I keep making the distinction because freelancers get it) told me they didn’t realize I work as much as I do until they read my Shadow and Act posts. A number of things contributed to this. I promote myself but certainly not as much as I could. My commercials and many of my documentaries aren’t listed on IMDB. Several of my jobs require Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) so I don’t discuss those. I had a job last year that I was extremely proud of, mentioned my job on Twitter and was immediately reprimanded by the Producer for my tweet. I had not signed a NDA but the experience left me weary of what I was allowed to say. Many jobs die in pre-production. Others are never completed. Many that are completed don’t get distribution, don’t give footage for our reels, the list goes on. It takes a few years working in film to realize you are not cursed, this is just the nature of the industry.

DP Jr asked what was my typical day. Obviously a day on set and a day in prep flow differently. Everyone has a clear idea of what a day on set looks like.

Depending upon the budget level you work in, the type of media (tv, film, doc etc) and your role on set, what is considered a typical day will change. One of my favorite twitter accounts to follow is Darryl Humber aka DollyGrip. He doesn’t tweet a lot because, as you’ll see from his blog Dollygrippery, he is always working. However, he gives an excellent and honest insider view of life as a well respected dolly grip. Two other blogs that I found through him that give different perspectives on film life are The Anonymous Production Assistant’s Blog and Blood, Sweat and Tedium. Confessions of a Hollywood Juicer.

First I’ll share a “typical” (really no such thing, but play along) pre-production day and then go over my typical “no production” days.

I’ve always wanted to work for ESPN. I love shooting sports and totally love how that network embraces diversity. She isn’t aware but I’ve also always wanted to work with producer, Diane Houslin (Ssh. Don’t tell). I got to do both this summer. On the “typical” day in question, Diane, line producer Tsia Moses, my awesome director Lana Garland and I flew down to Miami. After the usual car rental, hotel check in, we met up with Maurice Williams, our AP and Miami contact for lunch and to go over tomorrow’s shoot. Over very delicious fish tacos, Tsia and I went over my equipment needs. We had completed two ESPN shoots in NYC and our fun “challenge” was to get the same or better Grip/Electric and Camera packages in Miami under the same budget restraints. My own “challenge” was I had to give my final order immediately but wouldn’t have access to our locations until later that day. I knew which items helped me move faster and which lenses the director loved. I also had lights, grippage and expendables I relied upon for locationswith unexpected challenges. Those items had to stay.

I made equipment substitutions and eliminations. I made sure I was still covered and that Tsia still got the numbers she needed. (However, I got a wonderful surprise the next day. Tsia worked some magic and actually secure more than I asked for. I was so delighted, I took photos of the truck. The other wonderful occurrence was my crew. It can be nerve wracking working with a local crew and meeting them the day of the shoot. We’ve all heard stories of the Angry Gaffer or Chauvinistic AC. My crew in Miami was superb. Professional, creative, quick and fun. A DP S/O to gaffer Gabriel Alcala, grip Joey Evora and assistant camera Adrian Alvarez.)

We had our tech scout after lunch. We went over equipment loading, staging, where to place our celebrity talent (Gabrielle Union) and host for the show (Bonnie Bernstein). I came up with my lighting scheme and confirmed the desired look, lenses etc with Lana. She had already shown me several videos that represented the look she wanted (reference material! DP Squeal of Delight!). We had many conversations about the look and energy she wanted for the B-roll. Although we were seeing the location the day before the shoot, I felt clear as to what Lana wanted and confident we could execute it. After our scout, we returned to the hotel. I meditated by the pool for a bit and then met up for dinner. After dinner, I watched a film and promptly passed out.

What about my “no production of any kind” days?

I meditate pretty much every morning and evening for 30 minutes each. I also try to do yoga a few times a week. The film industry is thick with frustrations, rejections and “misunderstandings” (also referred to as lies). Both meditation and yoga help me to manage my stress, find joy in the small silly things and remember that DP is what I do, not who I am. Yoga has also greatly improved my handheld operating and stamina.

Somewhat related, I also enjoy volunteering. Focusing on others releases stress. The organizations I love involve art, children and offer schedules that work with my insanely inconsistent film schedule. They are My Own Book, Fresh Air Fund and Free Arts for Abused Kids.

At some point during the day, I watch at least one film that I’ve never seen before. My Twitter friends know this as my #nfotd or “New Film of the Day”. The practice began in 2009. I was DP’ing a Bollywood inspired feature film for director, Arun Singh. He was educating me on Classic Indian/Bollywood films and recommended many films to watch. I had also befriended a ridiculously smart and visually savvy friend, Radhika Rai who gave me plenty of contemporary Indian films to watch. My exposure to and knowledge of Indian films was limited, so I promised myself to watch at least one a day. After a few weeks, I opened the practice to any film I’d not seen. The benefits of #nfotd can be another article. Briefly, they increase my visual vocabulary and options I can offer my directors. How do I find films? Netflix, Hulu, TV/Cable, the library (you can reserve DVDs), film screenings, screeners, theaters and YouTube.

We all have many artistic loves. For me, I also enjoy painting and photography. I’ve been painting in oils since I was 15 and have had a few exhibits. I try to attend as many art exhibitsand museums as possible. Last year’s DeKoonig show changed my life. I highly recommend everyone in NYC consider an Artist Membership at MOMA. It gives you unlimited access to the museum and all of their amazing film screenings for an affordable price.

My photography impulses come in spurts. I think I took over 700 photos in 5 days the last time I was in Nigeria (and turned it into a book). I met actor/singer/songwriter Derrin Maxwell while shooting the film “No Problema”. I saw him perform on stage, loved his music and had visions of being Annie Leibovitz circa the early Rolling Stone years. I announced (as I often do) I would be the “Band Photographer”. I followed him around and shot stills at his gigs. I also announced to Queen Esther, another very talented singer / songwriter that I would shoot the cover for her “What is Love” CD. I’m thrilled by how it came out.

Of course, anything we do creatively strengthens our film muscles. I’ve also started “pinning” paintings and photographs (and film clips) that inspire me. At the moment, it is my favorite way to archive reference material. I also keep accepting writing assignments which is odd, as I am “not a writer”.

Anyway… I love the people I work with and call them friends. I spend a lot of my time in between shoots hanging with film people – appreciating art together, traveling, grabbing lunch or a cocktail. Sometimes we talk shop, often we don’t. I get a lot of job referrals through friends. It’s part of what makes my career enjoyable. Non-film people call this networking.

Lastly, I teach film production classes. I’ve taught seminars in Belize and Nigeria several times. I got a lovely write up in American Cinematographer Magazine for my work in Nigeria (the article is on my site). In both instances, my classes were in conjunction with their film festivals. That’s a great way to give to the local community who may not be able to partake in film screenings and parties. One of my favorite experiences was being a guest lecturer at Columbia University Psychiatric Dept. A Behavioural Scientist and myself broke down the film “Carrie” from our perspectives. It was amazing how her scientific background and my knowledge of film theory/ analysis came up with similar conclusions about the film. This is my second year teaching Film Production at City College and have found the experience equally wonderful.

Photo above by yours truly. I’m loving the resurgence of skaters in NYC.

View Cybel’s work at MagicEyeFilm.com and chat film with her at @CybelDP

This Article is related to: Features