32 Lessons Learned by a First-Time Cinematographer
My closest friends and I had long entertained the idea of making a movie together. All of us either worked in or around the film industry in some capacity, or at least had a strong interest in it. We often discussed writing and shooting our own short film like it was some kind of pipe dream, the through-line being “yeah, wouldn’t that be nice,” — complete creative control, oversight throughout all aspects of production, and a perfect sandbox to learn about the black boxes that exist in all of film’s many departments which rarely interact on a feature film set. We saw making our own short film first as an opportunity to work on something of our own from start to finish, and secondly as a chance to take some chances and mess up without dire consequences, which is often the best way to learn.
I eagerly volunteered to be the director of photography. I had worked very little in narrative film, which requires a specific process I was mostly unfamiliar with, and only once directed photography before, on another friend’s short with a casual run-and-gun approach to cinematography. I felt like I had sufficient experience to do a good job, but was green enough to learn from every single step of the way.
So I started doing my homework. I needed an experienced hand to take mine and guide me through the specifics of what the hell I was doing. What exactly does a shot list look like? Do I have to draw a storyboard? How do I know what gear I’ll need? What are my responsibilities as DP in pre-production? Where the hell do I begin? And on and on.
Wait a minute, if this write-up operates on the pretense that I’m offering advice of some kind, shouldn’t I know what I’m talking about? It’s pretty clear so far that I’m no Roger Deakins. Let me lay out my reasons for writing this. First of all, this write-up is a debrief meant to help me learn from my experience. So first and foremost, it’s for me. Then, I think if I can learn from my first experience in cinematography, then maybe others can too. So I’m posting this hoping it might help someone else in more or less the same place I was, getting started on shooting their first short, not knowing where to start or what to expect.
A little context, quickly: there were four of us on the core creative team of this film. One director/co-writer, one co-writer/actor, one producer/jack-of-all-trades, and me, the DP & editor. We were friends long before the shoot and fortunately remain so after. Because all of us were more-or-less in the same boat — making this film because we wanted to learn more about the filmmaking process—we tried to maintain patience with each other as we navigated the novelty of our roles, twisting and bending things to see how they moved and behaved, and sometimes they’d snap back in our face. But then we’d learn not to do that anymore, and try something different. This made the process much more enjoyable because I felt comfortable trying things out, and we all felt a degree of creative ownership over the final product.
As I read through the script, I jotted down ideas and pictured the scene in my head. But how do I take the edited image I have in my head and make it happen? How do I capture that shot in that way? How do I shoot this scene? What kind of camera will we need? Should I bother making a storyboard? These are the questions I was asking myself, and I couldn’t find much beyond general advice online. The books I had — cinematography textbooks, mostly — provided comprehensive technical reference manuals, but didn’t really walk me through the specific questions I had about shooting my first short, the step by step process, taking prior knowledge and experience for granted.
Weeks went on and we locked script, casting, and production dates at various brunch/production meetings. Meanwhile I was gathering piecemeal information from myriad sources to weave a complete understanding of what I was doing, and how to do it well, while trying to keep my friends’ confidence in my ability to shoot this thing.
In retrospect, I consider the shoot a great success and a tremendous learning opportunity, so I decided to collect what I learned and put it together in this document for posterity. My biggest takeaway: a film set is entropy squared. Things are constantly in the process of going off the rails, no matter how well planned you are. It’s your ability to think on your feet, adapt, and problem solve on the go which makes your production successful or not.
Without further ado, here’s what I learned from DPing my first short film. Again, bear in mind that I’m no seasoned veteran cinematographer, so these are notes from my perspective as a first-time and, as of this writing, one-time cinematographer with some prior experience behind the camera and on set. If you’re reading this as a more experienced DP, you may scoff at my naivete, but that’s kind of fun to do, isn’t it? If you have suggestions or advice, do let me know, as the first point of this from my point of view is for me to learn and get better. So a grain of salt, if you will.
- Your shot list is your backbone
- Work closely with your director
- If you can, visit your locations ahead of time
- Shot list 101: Start with coverage
- Going beyond coverage
- Curate your shot list
- Make a gear list
- Think about lighting
- Consider daylight
- Think about set-up times
- Think like an editor
- Make a storyboard
- Plan your shoot days to the minute
- Leave room for sudden inspiration on the day
- Always have a designated, organized spot for your gear
- Make sure everybody knows what they’re responsible for, where everything is, and how they can help
- Speak up
- It’s okay to be frustrated on set, but don’t lash out and don’t be passive aggressive
- Lighten up
- Communicate with the director
- Have a script and shot list on hand at all times
- Before each scene, go over the shooting plan and order with the director, producer, and crew
- Playback is important
- Know when and what to delegate to your crew (if you’re lucky enough to have them)
- Make yourself open to questions and concerns
- Praise your crew when they do a good job, and accept responsibility when you mess up
- Filmmaking is a long series of fixing things that don’t go as planned
- Keep an eye on your battery level and data usage
- Establish a pre-take checklist ritual to get your gear ready
- Rehearse your camera moves ad nauseum
- Humour your focus puller
- Your shot list is your bible but don’t take it as gospel
1. Your shot list is your backbone
You’ve heard this before I’m sure, and there’s a reason it’s so important. As cinematographer, the shot list is your script. It’s a living document that will carry you through production and also help the editor organize footage in post. Everything you do in pre-production and production will come back to your shot list — scheduling, budget, gear, crew, everything. What the document looks like doesn’t really matter, so long as it has all the information that’s pertinent to you getting
- the shot you planned
- in a timely & organized fashion
- as predictably as possible
- with room for inspiration
What information you need on your shot list is up to you, but think of it as your reference sheet. A solid shot list will make your day go by much smoother and you’ll come off as a total pro. Especially if you don’t have an AD, people will look to you to know what shot comes next, who’s involved, what needs to be set up/torn down, and so on. I used the following info which worked well for me on set:
- Shot name — for slate. Try to keep these consistent. Slate format: Scene number, shot letter (A — Z, then AA, AB, etc), then take # on the day — ex: Scene 1 Alpha, take 4 = scene 1 shot A take 4.
- Shot size — wide, medium, CU
- Lens — based on shot size/composition/lighting considerations, take an educated guess at which lens you’re likely to use for that shot — most helpful when lens changes take time, like if you’re using primes or a stabilizer which requires balancing between lens swaps. Allows you to group shots based on lens if that is how you prefer to shoot.
- Shot description — ie John throws the banana at the stop sign in disgust.
- Shot type — is your shot panning on a tripod? Static? Stabilized on a Ronin? Does it involve a snap zoom? Should your focus puller be getting their focus points set? Shot type helps you anticipate which gear you’ll need on standby for set up
- Lighting — what lights will you require to set the scene the way you want?
- Sound — does your shot require sound, or no? Most will, but some (likely your cutaways) won’t.
- Set up time — How long will it take you and your grips to set up for the shot? If only this were easier to estimate, especially with minimal experience. Point is, account for it. If you aren’t sure, guess, but guess on the generous side, because time goes away fast when you need it on set (and in life…)
- Set up # — This is a trick I learned from one of those how-to guides. Once you have most of the technical information for your shots, see which ones you can group together to reduce unnecessary set ups and tear-downs of lights and gear. This will save you a migraine. If you have four shots on a Ronin which takes 30 minutes to calibrate, you might want to do them in a batch and call that one set up, for example. Or if you are using a jib for four or five shots, see if you can group them together so you don’t have to tear down and set up a jib four or five times. Of course, what counts as a “set up” varies and incorporates set dec and costume changes and things like that as well, so consider these too when you’re grouping your set ups.
There may be other information you’d like to include. I don’t think there’s an exact science to this: just try to picture yourself on set preparing for a shot — what information would make your job easier? Remember that you may not have all of this information at hand right away to sit down and type out. Your shot list will likely develop over time, as these variables all affect each other, as do the script, locations, and budget.
2. Work closely with your director
Involve your director as much as they’re willing in making and curating the shot list. Your job as DP is to bring the writer’s and director’s visions to the screen. To do that effectively, you must get inside the mind of the director and work closely with them to get an idea of what tonal and visual ideas they want to communicate. It’s then your job to take these ideas and translate them into tangible images. The director I worked with was eager to work with me on the shot list and we came up with some interesting and challenging shots together that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own.
If you don’t have the pleasure of working with an already close friend like I did, I’d advise trying to establish an early creative rapport that shows you’re open and willing to hear them out about their ideas, while also speaking up about your ideas. Here’s where a little listening can go a long way. So can candour. The director trusts your technical expertise to inform the shot choices, so you have a say in what’s possible, or how things may be best shot. A large part of your job is creative — hopefully you’re not hired simply because you can operate a camera. So use your eye for composition to consider and offer shot suggestions.
3. If you can, visit your locations ahead of time
You won’t always have this luxury, but if you have locations set far enough ahead of time, try to visit them with your director and think about your shots in the space. Think about where you’ll put your gear, where you’ll put your lights, and look at outlets/breaker access, so if you blow a fuse, you can fix it and keep going fast. This is also where you’ll find out whether you’ll need a generator or not. Your locations will be determined mostly by the script and your locations manager, but on a short film you may have some say in the final decision based on factors under your consideration (lighting and composition, namely). If you can manage it, try to be involved in location selection. You’ll likely also find that once you see a location, it informs your shot list, because now you’re not picturing an imaginary space, but an actual physical location. And if you do get to visit locations, take pictures, of course.
So much of your film’s look and feel will come from the physical spaces in which you choose to film it. Locations are at least equally important as many of your gear considerations; an Arri Alexa can only make the inside of a garish, fluorescent community center look so good, especially with no control of lighting. With no or low budget, your locations pretty much come down to luck and grit. Ask around. See where you can save. If you’re struggling, there are options like This Open Space which is basically Airbnb for commercial spaces, and for indie productions. When it comes down to it, your location is essentially a character in your scene. Choose it wisely and don’t overlook it.
Some things to consider when scouting a location:
- Lighting — what time of day is the scene? How much natural light do you have to work with? Where will the sun be when you’re shooting? How many lights will you need?
- Outlet & breaker access — where will you plug in your lights? If you blow a fuse, do you need to wait for a super to come to show you where the breaker is, or to provide access? How much power can the circuit handle? You don’t have to be an electrician to do these rough calculations.
- Space — How much space do you have? Will you have enough room for all your gear and crew? Can you modify the space or does it have to stay as-is? (this is more a concern for production design but it concerns you as well)
- Noise — is there a busy road outside? Does a flock of crows have their weekly crow conference just outside the window? Are there neighbours who are loud or will be bothered by production-related noise?
4. Shot list 101: Start with coverage
When you begin making your shot list, start with the essentials. That’s your coverage. In other words, the bare necessities of the scene. If you were in an absolute rush and could only get a few angles, what would you absolutely need to edit together a coherent scene? For a basic dialogue scene in which one character enters a room, you might need a wide establishing shot (to establish space and geography of the scene), then get your two over-the-shoulder shots, and maybe close-up coverage of each character for the conversation. These five shots might constitute the bare bones of the scene, enough to edit something together, and hey, it’d probably be at least good enough (especially if the acting sells it).
Consider your essential angles first:
- Establishing shot — a wide that shows the scene and establishes the space
- Over-the-shoulders—following the 180 degree rule
- Close-ups—especially useful for moments of emotional change in a character, highlighting their reaction to something
- Cutaways—shots of things referenced by the characters in the scene, mentioned in the script, or otherwise establish a sense of space and environment
These angles alone will more often than not get you your bread and butter for a scene; enough to edit something together that works. You can still play with composition in the confines of coverage alone, so these shots need not be bland or boring. Think of them as a starting point.
One method of determining what coverage you need is to “line the script” — get yourself a physical copy of the script and for each scene, draw a vertical line for each angle you need and extending between the parts of the scene you need them. Do this for each scene and you’ll be off to a great start.
5. Going beyond coverage
Once you have basic coverage, you can get creative with your shots. Think of the riskier or more interesting compositional shots you can get. This is where you can start to think of interesting compositions or camera moves that might complement the mood of the character or scene. Write any of your ideas down in your shot list. Don’t just think of the conversation the characters are having. Think about the atmosphere, the world around them. Filming a scene involves capturing the feeling of a scene or an environment. How can you use your camera to do that?
Can you picture the scene in your head? This can help a lot with coming up with shot ideas. When you read the scene, try to visualize it as if you’re watching it in a movie theatre, or whatever context works for you. What shots do you see? Write them down. Draw them. Then think of how you can make them real. It’s important to remember, virtually any shot you can imagine is possible to get if budget is no factor, and budget doesn’t limit you as much as you might think. Oftentimes a little ingenuity and DIY skills can get you a long way. During the ideation phase, don’t worry so much about how you’re going to get your shots, just write them down as they come to you with no thought to their feasibility until later.
One more quick note about this, which applies more broadly to any creative pursuit. In his book Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar, describes the practice of “not killing ugly babies.” At Pixar, they hear a lot of ideas for films. Some of them are obviously great right away, but that’s the minority. Most of them need development. Some need a lot of work to become great. These are “ugly babies” — ideas that at first seem underwhelming or underdeveloped. Catmull urges not to kill these ideas at first, but to give them a chance to grow up and develop. For your purposes as a cinematographer, this means allowing your wildest shot ideas to develop before nixing them. If you have a crazy concept for a shot, pitch it to your director as earnestly as you can. If you’re passionate about it, it’s probably worth pursuing. It’s these risky shot ideas that take a film’s cinematography to memorable places.
6. Curate your shot list
The first scene I shot-listed for our short was a simple scene in an apartment, where the main character wakes up and calls her sister. It’s a short scene, about thirty seconds long, and I shot it from enough angles to edit it together a hundred different ways. In other words, I overshot the scene. I was indecisive in the shot-list phase and ended up with way too much footage that took way too much time to shoot. Fortunately it was a good way to learn, as we were familiarizing ourselves with new gear, but if I were to do it again, I’d cut or combine more than half of the shots we got.
Don’t fall into a trap of having way too much coverage. It’s easy to overlook this when it’s all in a spreadsheet, but on the day even one or two shots too many can overwhelm your cast and crew and begin to eat away at valuable time. It also makes you come across as indecisive. For each and every shot on your shot list, ask yourself whether it’s superfluous. Some of them will be. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot and cut out essential footage, but you may find that some early coverage ideas are covered even better in a subsequent idea you wrote down as a separate shot. Amalgamate shots where you can.
Remember that a big part of your responsibility is making a bold creative choice. The director is by definition directing the film left or right, creatively. As director of photography, well, you get it. When you make a bold choice to go one direction, you effectively leave another behind. “Two paths diverged in a yellow wood…” Yeah. It’s tough, but by making these choices steadfast you’re creating a stronger film.
A quick side note: The mentality of digital is to overshoot rather than undershoot, because data is cheap, and it’s better to have too much footage than not enough. But that’s not necessarily true all the time. Digital may have liberated us from the limits of film, but it’s also made us vulnerable to chronic indecisiveness. At the risk of idealizing a bygone era, in the days of film the medium itself was valuable. They often couldn’t roll on rehearsal, and couldn’t get an additional take just for safety. A DP had to not only possess an incredible understanding of technique, but had to demonstrate creative decisiveness because shots couldn’t often be taken just for safety. So I’d suggest adopting the film mentality to some extent — be decisive and treat your card space as valuable, even if it’s cheap.
7. Make a gear list
From your completed shot list you can extract an accurate gear list. For each shot, ask yourself what gear you’d need to achieve it, and whether you, a friend, or someone you can hire will have the experience necessary to operate that gear, or if you have the time and money to spend learning it. Much of your film may be shot on a tripod, but if there are any camera moves, determine whether they’re dolly moves, jib/crane moves, or whether you’ll need the versatility of a gimbal or glidecam.
Also write down which lens you’ll need to achieve each shot (this may take experimentation). Will you be shooting in low light? If so, you’ll need fast lenses, a camera that can work well in low light, and/or lights—all depending, of course, on your budget. Will you be shooting in bright daylight? If so, you may need a flag kit and ND filters and no lights at all. Write all of this gear down in your gear list and cross-check it. Now you can start calling in favours from your friends who own their own gear and pitching your gear budget to your producer. What will you rent? Where from? Is it available to rent? What about weekends? How far ahead do you have to book? Who owes you a favour? Who makes the down payment?
Also, if your producer is doing their job, they’ll probably ask you if you really need that light kit or those cine lenses or that expensive camera — ours sure did. They want to save money and gear is usually the first place to make significant cuts. Stand behind what you really think you need and make clear what you’re sacrificing by foregoing the dolly, the follow focus, the cine lenses, or the better camera. Make clear what you absolutely need to get certain shots. You will take wins and losses here, but when it comes down to it you are at the behest of your budget. Also look at DIY options. Some of them are really good. In general, you’ll have to weigh the gear the shot list calls for against the gear you have/can afford to rent and make compromises.
Determining what gear you’ll need:
- Camera — Don’t get too caught up in this, because your budget will likely make your decision for you. Think of what you’ll need from a camera, like low-light sensitivity, specific sensor sizes or resolution, lens compatibility, maneuverability/size, etc. Generally speaking, pricier cameras give you more control over your image, and vice versa. While your camera body does matter and make a difference, consider what amount of control you need based on your shots. You may not always need that control, sometimes you will. We shot on a Sony A7s II, which did a fine job, and a friend gave us a deal on the rental. You can shoot on a crummy old Nikon if you own one and don’t have a budget and it’ll be fine. Don’t get too caught up in the sexy camera game. REDs are great but don’t blow your whole budget on one because it won’t save a bad script or poor composition. Better to learn on something you can afford. Besides, there are better places to spend your money than a fancy camera body.
- Lenses — I think lenses make more of a difference than your camera body. When deciding on your lenses, consider primarily the desired look and feel of your shots and the amount of light you’ll be working with. Pricier lenses will generally give you better performance in low-light and greater aperture range (“faster” lenses), along with increased sharpness/reduced aberration. You’ll find, as with most gear, there are diminishing returns for most purposes as you get higher on the price ladder. If you can work with a set of entry-level prime cine lenses, like Rokinon’s, that’s a great place to start (you don’t need cine lenses compared to photo lenses, but the biggest difference is a smooth manual aperture ring, length, compatibility with follow focus setups, and the use of T-stops instead of F-stops—all of which come in handy when shooting video). All that said, if all you have is your 18–55mm f3.5–5.6 kit lens and no budget, so be it. You can work with it.
- Stabilizers & mounts — How are you going to move your camera around? Think about the motion of your shots. If some of your shots move around side-to-side or forward-and-back, you’ll need a dolly or a slider. Up and down, you’ll probably need a slider or, better-yet, if you can afford it, a jib. If you need freeform movement like for a one-take shot, you’ll need a handheld stabilizer like a gimbal (Ronin, Movi, etc) or a Steadicam, and probably a wireless follow-focus as well. If your film is entirely static Wes Anderson-style, you’ll save a lot of time and money because all you’ll need is a tripod, but your film may suffer by feeling static and stilted if not done right. Quick sidenote: camera movement will likely add a level of production value to any short. Of course this is first and foremost a creative decision to complement the script, but I find when used sparingly, subtle movement adds dimension to a scene and generally makes a film feel more “alive”. If your compositions feel boring or stuck, try playing with movement.
- Lighting — This is a big one and you’ll need to experiment. Draw lighting diagrams for your shots and scenes. This is equal parts creative and technical. Or maybe it’s mostly technical. When in doubt, a three-point set up (key, fill, and hair lights) is usually a great place to start. Think of motivated lights within the scene — lamps, chandeliers, sunlight, moonlight, candlelight, etc. Sometimes the source itself cannot provide enough light or control, so you need to amplify it with an artificial source. Think about these ahead of time if you can, and if not, it’s a reason to be armed with a basic lighting kit on set when in doubt. Think also about your modifiers: flags, gels, and diffusion, primarily. Sometimes, like on a bright sunny day, these alone can suffice to properly light a scene.*
- Grip gear—There are lots of odds and ends and bits and pieces that you’ll need on set as well. C-stands, light stands, pony clamps, clothespins (“C47s”), gaffer tape, masking tape, zip ties for cable management, sandbags, all that stuff. Many rental houses will have grip packages that will include most of these odds and ends, or will be able to put one together for you if you ask. Some of these may go unused, but they’re cheap and often come in handy.
*But remember the sun will move and change lighting over time, which is why feature films with a sufficient budget will replicate the sun with a bright HMI ($$$$), allowing them enough time to shoot the scene without the light changing).
8. Think about lighting
Here’s a pretentious-sounding tidbit of film wisdom: light is your paintbrush. If you have no tools to control your lighting, like lights or modifiers, you’re severely limited in how you can construct your shot. For that reason, it’s generally a good idea, when in doubt, if you can afford it, to have a basic lighting kit on set. Sometimes even the best planning can elude an unanticipated fill in a certain room, or a scene shot later in the day because of delays that now requires artificial light.
As DP, the camera is only one of your tools. Light is the other. If you don’t have the means to manipulate light the way you want to, it can severely diminish your creative leeway on set. It’s possible to shoot an entire film using natural light and modifiers like bounces or nets, but know what you’re getting into. The Revenant shot entirely with natural light and could only actually shoot for a small portion of each day before the light changed too much for the scene.
For each of your shots/scenes, consider making a lighting diagram to help visualize lighting placement, direction, quality and intensity. Make note of the lighting you anticipate requiring for each shot so you can incorporate that into your estimated set-up times. If your scene is going to take more than a few hours to shoot and you’re relying on natural light, remember that what you shoot first and what you shoot last will likely look different. This is where artificial light can help, as you can “pause” the sun in a certain position, which extends your shooting time.
If you’re shooting in public with no permit, which is a whole other topic, know that you can’t realistically light your scene artificially. So, this is where scouting becomes extra helpful. Where will the sun be in the sky when you’re shooting? What season will you be shooting? If it’s winter, light will come and go much faster, but night will last longer. In summer, vice versa. You can get a lot done with some bounces and nets to brighten an actor’s face or reduce harsh sunlight.
For a great, in-depth write-up on lighting from an experienced cinematographer, check out this post by Matthew Scott.
9. Consider daylight
Our script called for a good number of night scenes originally. We also happened to be shooting in early summer among the longest days of the year, meaning the shortest nights. From a scheduling perspective, this is a nightmare because all the night scenes need to be done super quick. We had one scene which needed to be shot in a bedroom at night, in which our protagonist wakes up and sees something outside her window (no spoilers). We began setting up lights and camera as soon as the sun went down (at 10:00pm!) and by our last shot, someone looked out the window and said “Is it getting brighter?” It was. The sky was beginning to brighten with the first hint of dawn at around ~4:30am. By adjusting the camera settings I could minimize the effect, but it’s still going to prove to be a challenge in colour grading.
With nights being so short and day so long, our co-writers/director/actor decided to change a couple of night scenes to late-afternoon instead, which saved us a great deal of trouble and likely another shoot day or two. Lesson-learned: when scheduling your shoot, look at the time of day called for by your scenes and what season you’ll be shooting in. When does the sun set/rise? How much daylight or nighttime do you have to work with? With your estimated setup/tear down times, how many scenes can you fit into your day or night? Do you have the budget to fake day or night with lighting or blocking out windows? Realistically replicating sunlight is expensive as it’s often done with high-power HMI lights on cranes, but it’s possible to fake it in a small room without seeing sunlight directly.
10. Think about set-up times
Every time you move the camera to a different rig or need to change lighting, you’re changing set-ups. A big camera change might require an entire rearrangement of the lighting set up, balancing a Ronin, or setting up and rehearsing a dolly move. This can take a significant amount of time to do, so think of this ahead of time and try as accurately as possible to predict how long these will take. This is why I recommend incorporating and numbering your setups based on these factors. It may seem obvious, but that way you can get your shots within each set-up concurrently instead of having the embarrassing blunder of having to return to a set-up you’ve already struck because you missed a shot there.
For example, much of our short was shot on a Ronin, which is a wonderful and finicky piece of technology that you will repeatedly curse with the wrath of a thousand suns. Since I’d never used a Ronin to this extent before, I wasn’t familiar with the set-up process and all of the variables involved, so I underestimated set-up times for our Ronin shots. This delayed the shoot significantly at times. Next time, I’d a) rely far less on a Ronin for a short unless it absolutely needed it, and b) try to familiarize myself with the gear ahead of time to get an accurate idea of how long it takes to set up, and what challenges might come into play on the day.
11. Think like an editor
You may not be editing your film as I did on our short, but even so, it doesn’t preclude you from thinking like an editor. When you picture the scene in your head in pre-production, there are likely edits in place, or two shots glued together in one way or another. They may be ethereal and hard to pin down when they’re in your head, but try to give the editor something to work with.
A great example of shooting for editing is in the films of Edgar Wright. To achieve some of the highly stylized sequences in his films requires specific camera moves (snap zooms, whip pans, tilts, etc) that are then used in editing to tremendous effect. This requires specific planning and forward-thinking. These shots didn’t glue together so well by accident. If you’re working on a film where you have access to the editor, it may be worth sitting down with them and the director early on to think of shots specifically for the edit, and to get their thoughts on what kind of edits they’d like to try.
12. Make a storyboard
Some cinematographers don’t like to make a storyboard, others do. Either way, I’d recommend using one for your first film and then deciding whether you want to work with one or not. If nothing else, it can force you to think about composition and help you communicate with your director. It doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad at drawing. The point is to help solidify each shot as an actual tangible image rather than just a written description. If you find after the fact that it didn’t help, then don’t bother doing it again, but you might find it helps solidify your shot list and increase your confidence that your shots will glue nicely together in editing.
I came to this conclusion after only using a very informal storyboard in the form of scribbles on scripts during pre-production meetings. My scribbles helped me through some creative challenges in the ideation phase, but a formalized storyboard would have helped us come up with some additional shots that we now wish we had in post-production. A storyboard is almost like having a rough edit of your film before you’ve even shot it. We even toyed with the idea of recording the audio from an early table read and using that over an edited storyboard to create an animatic of the film. This is something I want to try next time to see if it will help us come up with shot ideas to work in tandem with editing before we’ve even shot.
13. Plan your shoot days to the minute
It’s not the job of the cinematographer in the industry to make a daily shooting schedule. However, if you’re working on a low budget short with your friends, as I was, you may find this falls squarely on you, since the shot list and order dictates the day. Either way, you need to think about your set-up times for each shot, and be honest and realistic about how long each will take. Don’t be a people pleaser here — your producer and director may be surprised at how long some shots will take to get. Don’t bend though if you’re certain of set-up times, and don’t let go of your set-up times so easily. You will need them on the day and be glad you gave yourself that hour to set up and rehearse your camera moves and adjust lighting. The quality of the shots will benefit from this time. If your set ups don’t take as long as you anticipated, then you’re ahead of schedule, and everyone’s happy. But with so many variables on a film set, in my experience things tend to find a way to delay “Action”.
14. Leave room for sudden inspiration on the day
All of that being said, as much as planning is absolutely vital to your success on the day, you’d be kicking yourself on set if you didn’t allow some time to humour your creative whims. Do yourself a favour and allow some room for impromptu shots you may only think of or see when you’re in the space with the camera, actors, and lighting in place. I guarantee this will happen to you at least once on set and you’ll be begging the director and 1st AD to let you get the shot. Inspiration doesn’t strike on a schedule.
Pre-production is arguably the most valuable, creative phase of your film. It’s where ideas germinate and your film actually takes place as it will be shot. It’s also free, for the most part. You aren’t paying for gear or locations or on a 14 hour day on-location trying to squeeze in 8 pages of dialogue. Pre-production is where the vast majority of problems on set can be minimized or altogether averted. You know the common saying “fix it in post”? Instead, you should fix it in pre-production. Proper planning goes a very long way in film. So, to quote the Boy Scouts of America: be prepared.
1. Always have a designated, organized spot for your gear
Now that you’ve arrived on set with all your gear and loaded it all out, take the necessary time to organize it before you start shooting. This is why rental houses sometimes offer gear trolleys. Having your gear well-organized and easily accessible on set is vital to your shoot going smoothly. Take a look around set and determine a central location you can keep all your gear that’s not a trip hazard, not in the way of any shots, and easily accessible. If more than one person needs to use the gear table at once, make sure it’s accessible from multiple angles.
One method is to tape off sections on a tabletop and label the areas — lenses, filters, charged & dead batteries, grip equipment, lights, gels, modifiers, stands, sandbags — all of it should have a home where it goes back to. Have a designated charging station and a system by which to label or organize charged and dead batteries (red/green tape work well). If you’re renting equipment, take a picture of the gear before it comes out of the box so you know what you rented and how it was organized (this will save you a headache later). If you think it might help and you have a lot of gear, print off a gear checklist to have on hand so you can ensure you don’t lose anything, and have an easy reference for what gear you have on set. Clear and reserve a space on the table for gear prep. Think of it like a well organized kitchen — you need adequate and organized storage and working space to run efficiently.
Your gear will be one of the biggest distractions for you on set if it’s in disarray. Spending energy and frustration on wondering where the batteries are, or that little screw for the tripod plate, or trying to make space to prep your gear, all take away from your concentration on actually shooting the film. A set is already chock full of tension and stress from all directions anyway, might as well do what you can to minimize that. Being organized behind the camera is the least you can do.
2. Make sure everybody knows what they’re responsible for, where everything is, and how they can help
If you’re working on a low/no budget short passion project as I was, this assumes you have good enough friends or kind enough acquaintances to volunteer their time as a grip or AC. If you do (please do, for your own sake), then just be sure that everybody knows what they’re responsible for and how they can help you. Firstly, nobody likes standing around on a set, especially if they’re volunteering. They don’t want to feel like they’re wasting their time. Remember, you’re a team leader in your position. You might want to do a grip/camera stand-up meeting before shooting to see if anyone has any questions. Walk everybody through the gear so they know where everything is and your processes for labeling batteries, etc. Make yourself open and available to questions. Oh, and don’t intimidate your team or vent your frustration on them. They’re trying to help you. More on that later.
3. Speak up
Don’t be afraid to speak up if something goes wrong. If your gear is malfunctioning mid-shot, if your battery dies (keep an eye on your battery levels), if your gimbal goes wonky, communicate this to your director who will cut. It’s usually not worth being polite and staying quiet because it wastes precious time. If you need to go again for technical reasons, tell the director and AD to ensure you have time. If you don’t have the shot for technical reasons, nobody will know if you don’t speak up, and if you don’t have the shot then you need to go again. If you’re not happy with an aspect of the shot but it’s still usable, voice it to the director and they will determine whether you have the time to do it again or if you live with it and move on.
4. It’s okay to be frustrated on set, but don’t lash out and don’t be passive aggressive
Working on set can be frustrating and stressful for everyone and anyone. The hours are long, a lot can go wrong, and there’s a lot of pressure on your head to do a great job. Especially as cinematographer, you may feel immense pressure as the look of the film rides mostly on you. All of this is true, but there is still no reason to be an asshole to people. Take a breath before you sharply condescend or retort to someone’s reasonable request. If you’re trying to focus on something and somebody is asking you a question (expect to receive many questions near constantly), just tell them to hang on a second while you finish what you’re doing, or put it down and talk to them. Remember that everybody else is trying to do their best as well, and they also face their own pressures on set. You don’t want to be unapproachable and grumpy because it drastically reduces morale and ends up affecting your final product. Practice patience and remember that all you can do is your best, and you live and learn. That all being said, you will become frustrated at some point because you’re human. Just remember to apologize if you say something you regret.
On our shoot, I found myself forgetting this at times. I was so distracted by everything — the light was changing too fast, I underestimated shoot and prep times, we were overshooting, and all of the technical distractions from all angles like trying to get the Ronin working properly and the camera and monitor batteries. I began to lose my temper a bit. I don’t think anybody took it personally, but I forgot in those moments that a deep breath goes a long way in maintaining patience and reminding yourself that you’re all just trying your best to do a good job under stressful and chaotic circumstances. Better to lean in and enjoy it than let it defeat you and make you a callous asshole.
5. Lighten up
As a continuance of the previous, though the schedule may be tight and the pressure high, don’t take everything so seriously. You’re making a movie, presumably because you want to. Movies are stressful to make, but they can also be fun. It’s not that big a deal to have to go for another take, or if the boom drops into the shot. If you keep a light mood it helps the others do the same and helps relax the set, which leads to a much more enjoyable time. If you’re going to be working all day, might as well make it as enjoyable as possible.
6. Communicate with the director
Keep an open channel of communication with the director. If you’re not happy with how a shot went for technical reasons, make that clear. Also leave the door open for the director to come to you with their concerns or suggestions. They likely won’t be as technically adept as you so remember to speak their language, and be patient if you have to explain a shot to them. The director is responsible for the actors and the integrity of the scene, so while you may be totally satisfied with that dolly move which finally went right, but if your director wasn’t satisfied with the performance, you need to go again. You may also find that speaking with your director leads to those spontaneous shot ideas you left room for in your planning.
7. Have a script and shot list on hand at all times
On our shoot, I kept mine in my back pocket. You’ll likely pull it out frequently and make notes, cross off your shots, or make minor adjustments. You can also reference any pertinent information about each shot or set up that you put on your shot list to help you set up for the next shot. Your shot list is always a living document, meaning it will continue to change and update as you go. It’s never meant to lock you down, only to liberate you. The handwritten notes and records of on-set changes to shots also provide a handy reference to the editor in post. This is technically the job of the script supervisor if you’re lucky enough to have one — but if you don’t, any notes you take will be appreciated by the editor.
8. Before each scene, go over the shooting plan and order with the director, producer, and crew
If the director doesn’t call a huddle at the beginning of a shoot day, do so yourself, at least with your essential personnel. The point is to give everyone a roadmap for the day so they know what to expect, what they’ll need to do, and any anticipated challenges or concerns. Leave room for anybody to voice concerns or ask questions. Ask questions yourself. This is a chance for everybody to ask those silly questions they’d otherwise be carrying around in their pocket all day too embarrassed to ask.
9. Playback is important
“Playback” is how the director, producer, and other core creatives on the team review the footage on set. Consider setting up a video village—a station with a monitor connected to the camera—so the director can get a clear view of the take during a take. On a budget, this can be as simple as an HDMI monitor hooked up to your camera with a long HDMI cable (though cable management if your camera is mobile can become an issue). This is the ideal setup because it doesn’t require as many breaks for playback since the director will see the take as it happens. Otherwise, If you don’t have the budget for a video village, be sure to offer playback of the last couple takes to the director, even if they don’t request it. It also helps for you as DP to see playback.
10. Know when and what to delegate to your crew (if you’re lucky enough to have them)
As director of photography, you can be more useful handing out tasks than doing them all yourself. This doesn’t mean you’re above getting your hands dirty, but just be ready to lead when a light needs to be moved or a flag needs to be set up. Your priority is the camera and the image and you need to curate it, and the crew understands that they’re your hands. Sometimes it makes more sense for you to monitor the image while your crew adjusts the lights under your direction.
On that note, trust your crew to help you. The “f**k it I’ll do it myself” mentality isn’t usually your friend on set. Sometimes it’s hard to communicate a specific request, in which case you may need to step in and make the adjustment yourself, but don’t do so with condescension. Trust the ability of your crew, and if they’re novice or inexperienced (as you yourself may be), then be understanding of that and offer to explain to them what you meant.
Relevant story: I once tried a flight simulator with a certified pilot. We were taking off and landing a virtual 747, and at one point I asked how often the pilots use auto-pilot on long flights. He leaned over and said they use it quite often, but it comes back to human psychology—how the brain optimally handles input. If a pilot is flying a plane manually with no automatic control, they’re likely to get overloaded, stressed, and make a mistake. Let’s call that using 100% of their conscious attention—it’s unsustainable. On the other hand, if a pilot relies entirely on autopilot when available, like on a long overseas flight, they’re using very little of their conscious attention, call it 0%, and prone to boredom, complacency, and again, serious mistakes. So pilots aim for somewhere in the middle—the 40%–60% range. That’s why they might sometimes turn off autopilot when cruising to fly manually for a while, for example, so they stay stimulated, but not overloaded.
To bring this back to film, when you’re behind the camera, there are many distractions and things that will steal your attention at once. This affected me on set; the Ronin and wireless follow focus stole much of my attention as they proved finicky and distracting with frequent technical meltdowns and battery swaps. There are so many things to think about and quick decisions to make, all under the pressure of a ticking clock, and in our case, quickly shifting sunlight.
Delegating tasks to your crew spreads the load and ensures you don’t get overloaded and end up making costly mistakes or encountering decisional gridlock because there is just too much to think about. If you have one crew member double up on battery duty, then all you have to do is keep an eye on your battery level, not wonder where they are or whether they’re charged. Try to focus on operating the camera and allow your crew to move lights and modifiers based on your direction instead of always doing it yourself—that way you can focus on the image and not be distracted by grip-work. There’s a reason that departments on a film set are so compartmentalized; every task is so specific and involved that it’s hard to spread yourself over several and do a good job at each.
Also: take breaks now and then.
11. Make yourself open to questions and concerns
As an extension of the previous, if you can maintain a certain level of stoicism behind the camera and keep an open, approachable persona, your set will run much smoother. People shouldn’t be afraid of asking a question if they’re uncertain of something. Your crew should have no qualms about approaching you with a concern or asking for clarification. If they are afraid to do so, that is at least partially your shortcoming.
12. Praise your crew when they do a good job, and accept responsibility when you mess up
Don’t be known for your reprimands or you’ll become unapproachable and miserable to work with. If your focus puller nailed the focus on that last take, give them a high five. If the boom op held the boom up high out of frame the whole time after messing it up last time, let them know they nailed it and compliment their stamina. This will just help keep up morale on set. If you need to correct something someone is doing wrong, be helpful about it, and don’t make a show of their mistake in front of everyone else or try to embarrass them. Take them aside and point out what they’re doing wrong, why it’s a problem, and how they can do it better, with an air of helpfulness.
We all mess up sometimes; gaffers, grips, directors, actors, extras, boom poles, and, yes, cinematographers. Forgive them, forgive yourself, and try again.
13. Filmmaking is a long series of fixing things that don’t go as planned
On-the-fly course correction and ingenuity are two of your best friends. You will undoubtedly be confronted with challenges, technical or otherwise, that may make or break a scene. The more technology you’re working with behind the camera (especially rental gear) the higher the likelihood of a technical failure that might mean scratching a certain shot. This means you’ll have to think on your feet and be ready to accommodate these failures. These are largely outside of your control and all you can do is adjust and move forward. You’ll have to be decisive and creative when these conundrums arise and treat them like a challenge to be solved.
Quick anecdote: While prepping gear the night before our first day of shooting, I realized that our follow focus didn’t come with lens gears (oh no!). Without lens gears, there’s no way for the follow focus motor to grip and spin the focus ring on the lens. With so much of the shot list relying on the Ronin and, therefore, the follow focus, I couldn’t fathom how we were going to shoot the next day—in just a matter of hours. I spoke candidly with the director and told him the situation, and we commiserated until two in the morning, considering all our options, when we decided to postpone that morning’s planned 7AM shoot to the afternoon, hoping we’d figure it out.
It felt ridiculous to postpone the shoot because of something so small, but I didn’t know what else to do until I gave it more thought. Without gears, I’d need to find another way to get the follow focus to grip the lens—the only way I could think of was through friction. I had a tub of elastic bands at home, so in a Hail Mary attempt, I wound some around my focus ring and around the follow focus gear, and much to my surprise and delight, it actually worked, despite being a bit finicky. We used them for the whole shoot without any major problems.
14. Keep an eye on your battery level and data usage
This seems obvious, but if you’re unsure whether you can make it another take because of power shortage or card space, call for a battery or card change. It sucks when a great take is ruined by an avoidable technical issue like a dead battery. Also, make sure you have enough batteries (at least three for your camera), enough chargers, and a designated DIT to regularly make backups of your cards. This is another reason to have an organized gear station on set, where batteries and spare cards can have a designated space. Also, a labeling system to indicate which are empty/full or charged/dead will save a lot of time and frustration (red and green masking tape work well for this).
15. Establish a pre-take checklist ritual to get your gear ready
Before pilots take off, they go through an extensive checklist to ensure everything is in working order and ready to go for a flight. Fuel levels, check. Wing flaps, working. Instruments, check. This prevents catastrophe. While a film set is a bit less live or die (though it sometimes feels that way), many mishaps can be avoided by simply taking a moment to go through a checklist. Make a habit of going over your settings. Check your frame rate, shutter speed, ISO, and even aspect ratio or frame size. Who knows, maybe the last time the camera was rented it was set to 720p 60fps and not changed back, or you accidentally hit a button that changed your picture profile or some other setting.
Also, have a white piece of paper on hand and check for dust on the lens or sensor before filming. I made the mistake of not doing this, couldn’t make out any debris on the small LCD monitor on the day, and only in post noticed a couple asshole specks of dust right there near the center of some vital shots. This embarrassing blunder could have been simply avoided by cleaning my sensor and lens before shooting that day, or checking the shot against a white wall or piece of paper which would make the dust more visible.
16. Rehearse your camera moves ad nauseum
If you have any complicated camera moves (tracking shots on a gimbal, dolly moves, jib moves, etc) make sure you’ve budgeted time to rehearse them, and use that rehearsal time wisely. Whether you roll on rehearsal is up to the director, but you need to make sure your path is clear, that you’ve set up your focus points, and that the actors know their marks and where you’re going to be. You probably won’t nail a tricky camera move the first take, but you’ll make your chances a lot better if you take the time to practice ahead of time. Speaking of…
17. Humour your focus puller
If somebody volunteers to be your focus-puller, they’re a brave soul. Focus-pulling is one of the trickiest jobs on set. It takes a lot of experience to get good at hitting the focus points and reacting to real-time camera movements. They may need a couple extra run-throughs of the movement to get their focus points set. It’s worth allowing them this time to ensure you get, as our producer would say, “iceberg lettuce” focus. Crisp.
18. Your shot list is your bible but don’t take it as gospel
You may find that when you set up a shot you’ve written on your shot list, it just doesn’t look right. Maybe the lighting is different than you thought, or the placement of the actors has changed, or a light broke and now your wide angle doesn’t work. You need to improvise. It’s okay to adjust a shot on your shot list on the day. Just make sure that before you do this you think about the edit — be aware of the axis, for example, and your coverage. Don’t mess up the geography of the scene. However, there is usually room to play around with your shots a bit to get it right. It’s different when you actually see the shot in front of you vs. imagining it ahead of time.
On our last night of shooting, we wrapped most of the cast and crew before filming our last scene, which only required a few hands on deck. We had a wrap dinner to unwind a bit, and we were totally pooped from the whole weekend of filming with so little sleep. But we still had one scene left to shoot. We were all a bit on edge and too exhausted to be completely alert. We hesitantly got back to work to shoot the last scene, and as I set up for the first shot—a wide—something didn’t feel right. The framing was atrocious, the lighting was bad, the composition just sucked. The director and I just looked at each other in bewilderment. Neither of us knew how to get this shot to work, but we both hated it. We did what we could but eventually just settled for a take and moved on. We might as well have nixed it—the shot sucked. Sometimes you have a shot on paper but in the real world it just doesn’t work. You might not have time for it, you might be way too exhausted to make it work, or it might just not play out as you had imagined. If you can adapt to make the shot work, that’s ideal. Sometimes, though, the best solution is to accept that it’s not working and move on.
I hope that this write-up provides some insight into the process of shooting a short film from beginning to end, and that it proves useful to somebody who’s getting ready to shoot their first short. In the end, your first experience will teach you more than any list of things someone else learned, but by heeding some of this advice, hopefully your production goes more smoothly than it would otherwise.
If you’re curious, Sanctuary is currently in post-production, and should be ready for online release in early 2018. I’ll come back and post a link when it’s available.