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5 Tips For The DP Whose Director Is Also The Lead Actor #DPNotes

5 Tips For The DP Whose Director Is Also The Lead Actor #DPNotes

I just finished shooting the feature film, “Queen of Glory” directed, written and
starring Nana
Mensah
. This was the first time I worked with a Director who was
also the lead in our film. Not only was Nana the lead, she was in every scene.

If I have the opportunity to shoot for a Director/Lead Actor
again, these are five tips I will definitely adhere to:

1. Create a Visual Shorthand – if you’ve been following my
articles, you know how much I love pre-production and pouring over reference
material with my directors. This is even more important if your director will
spend the majority of production in front of the camera. During prep, Nana gave
me over 10 films to watch or rewatch that emulated the style/tone she was going
for. I countered with more film references and photographs that I thought would
support her script and aesthetic. Once on set, if Nana said  “like the Big Lebowski shot” or “what
we liked in Darjeeling [Express]”, I knew what to do next.

Aside: when
it comes to reference material, my director and I will often formulate the look
of a film based on established works of art. The colors of this painting. Mixed
with the camera movement of that film. But with the lens choices of this
photographer. But maybe you, the Director or the Production Designer would
rather create original works of art to serve as a visual reference. See Akira
Kurosawa’s amazing storyboards for “Ran”. Or read about Production Designer, Dante
Ferretti’s work on “Gangs
of New York
” and his recent
awe-inspiring show at MOMA, “Dante
Ferretti: Designing for the Big Screen
”.

2. Rules of Your Visual Language. Once you and the Director
have narrowed down your reference material, your likes and dislikes, the
“rules” will be self-evident. I won’t give away all of our secrets yet, but
each of the films Nana liked treated camera movement in a similar way and
approached color in a similar fashion. In prep, you and your Director should
come up with a list of rules for your film. For instance: only use the color purple to signify death or an
eyelight to foreshadow “not guilty” (a personal favorite from the genius film “12 Angry Men”).

If you lose a location, lose a few hours and need to reimagine
a scene on the spot, this list of agreed upon rules will cut short discussion
on what needs to be done next. This predetermined set of rules is also a
safeguard preventing the final film from emulating your, the DP’s, taste over
the director. See my previous article on how those same rules
will be supportive in post production.

 3. Second Set of Eyes on the Monitor. Our producer, Jamund
Washington
, was almost always by monitor protecting Nana’s vision as
it related to direction, writing and performances. Even if you, the DP, have a
strong background in directing and actors, that additional person keeps the
film from drifting into a film you’d personally like to direct. The Director
can ask a personal friend, co-writer, 1st AD, Scripty, Acting Coach or a Producer
to stand watch.

4. Stay in Your Lane. Resist the urge to offer unsolicited
comments about performance. This is not always easy. Film crews love to problem
solve and help make a film better/darker/funnier etc. But too many voices
offering their “two cents” creates an unhelpful and unwanted
cacophony on set. If other actors have questions for you about their
performance, steer them towards the Director or whomever is keeping watch by
the monitor. On the set of “Queen of Glory”, I tried to keep my comments about
blocking and acting only to what was affecting camera and what I thought would
give us a more dynamic frame.

5. On-Set Camera Tools to Inform the Director. Playback was an
invaluable tool. Relying too heavily on it eats up time. This is how we used
playback efficiently: Whenever all departments felt we had a successful take,
we showed it to Nana for her feedback and an “ok” to move on. Or if a
scene/shot was developing in a way we thought wasn’t aligning with the script,
and it was faster to demonstrate (playback) than discuss what wasn’t working.
Then Nana could don her Director’s hat and make the adjustments she saw fit.

The Artemis Director’s Viewfinder App was another
invaluable tool. I pride myself on instinctively knowing where to put the
camera and which lens to use. But taking photos of the monitor or playing
Nana’s stand-in so she could evaluate my choices was inefficient. I eventually
surrendered to my 1st AC’s (Jason Chau) suggestion to use the App. It was
a quick and easy way to show Nana our different lens options and speed up our
set-up time. Besides, I like to limit how frequently my ACs move the camera..

Earlier this year, we lost a great and extremely influential
Cinematographer, Gordon Willis. He shot eight of Woody Allen’s
films and is probably the best example of a Cinematographer creating a
signature look for a Director/Lead Actor. A little reading from the archives: “5 Tips from Master Cinematographer Gordon Willis

As always, I ask readers to share
their advice and experience in the comment section.

See my work and past articles at CybelDP.com and chat film with me at @cybeldp

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