Where Does a DoP Begins and a Director Ends?


So many filmmakers work almost exclusively with one Director of Photography (DoP) on all of their movies. Their partnerships are so long standing that it makes us all wonder how big of an influence is one to the other’s work. Let us take Wong Kar-wai, for example. I could give him exclusive credit for the emotional insights in his films but not the visual mastery. He has worked with Christopher Doyle almost exclusively. Doyle worked with other Directors like Zhang Yimou for Hero and M. Night Shyamalan for Lady in the Water and held his own.

There is also Steven Spielberg who never parted with Janusz Kaminski since working together on Schindler’s List. The difference Kaminski made on Spielberg’s films cannot be ignored, not even if your try.

The Director is the lone entity in the movie that can take dibs on any aspect of the filmmaking and whatever comes out on the screen is assumed to have been his vision. However, the Cinematographer is the eye that looks at the movie from the outside but operates from the inside. He brings in a certain objectivity the Directors does not have.

Given all these, who really deserves the credit? Where is the line drawn? Who’s who? And who made what?

It Depends

That answer sucks, I know but it is very true. Primarily, it depends on the:

• working relationship of the Director and the DoP
• the working style of the Director and the DoP
• the physical and time limitation

DoP Frank Griebe worked with Director Tom Tykwer on six movies. Run Lola Run is perhaps the most memorable and also the most physically demanding. There, we witnessed Lola (Franka Potente) running towards her destiny. The movie explores three different outcomes by allowing Lola to run three times in identical patterns but with varying details. What was supposed to be a 20-minute dash turned into a 80-minute film.

Griebe was given a technically-detailed script. That meant the script was very specific on the vision, details of the location, essential props on the scene, and others. He had extensive pre-production with Tykwer and they boarded every scene. That means camera angles and framings were a collaborative work. Tykwer provided Griebe a general vision for the look, they decided on the color and lighting. Griebe said, “Tom and I started about six weeks before shooting. We talked a lot about ideas, about the look and the colors.” Even before shooting began, they already decided on what cameras to use, the colours and what kind of equipment to use. The whole thing was collaboration.

However, the shoot was an altogether different matter. They had 30 days to shoot and “not a lot of money”. They shot in Berlin in the summer but summer in that part of the world is relative and it wasn’t a particularly good one. All the adjustments fell on the shoulders of Griebe. Lola was to run three times in the same route, Griebe had to make adjustments on the spot to achieve the same color, lighting and framing he agreed with Tykwer.

Griebe also had to adjust to Potente’s speed. He used a 35mm camera strapped to his shoulder while he rides a special motorcycle rig but Potente was too fast so he changed to a four-wheeled motorcycle with a site.

He also decided on what camera to use when they wanted to shift to a digital look. He used a very old video camera because he liked the grainy look and it provided a greater contrast with the 35mm used in majority of the film.

Director Without The Words

Christopher Doyle would probably be in everyone’s Top 3 if not Top 1 Best DoP of all time. He is over 50 and he is still rocking us all with movies like 2046, Downloading Nancy, and Ocean Heaven. He claims that a Cinematographer is similar to the Director in that you must have something to say but unlike a Director, you must say it without words.

He believes that the entrance of audio in cinema destroyed cinema. The internet and MTV are further destroying it by extremely hastening the visual maturity of the audience. They allow the exposure of the audience to too much too often but he also thinks they [audience] do not know what they know. With the overflowing influences and images, they are yet to compartmentalize and systematize all these information.

In this day and age, a cinematographer’s job is to narrow down and lock the visual side of the film to elements that will convey the message to the audience. The Director will look into all angels of the film to convey the message but a cinematographer can only use visuals. When the Director gives his vision, it’s an overall vision. A cinematographer needs to take that vision and break that down to small elements.

A scene could be nothing more than a conversation of two characters who are plotting out how to kill someone. The director wants to communicate, maybe, doom, tension, and evil. A cinematographer will look at how the light from the window illuminates the smile on the characters’ faces that is in direct contrast with the darkness that swallows their legs and feet. The writer can say there is no story there but the contrast of the darkness and the light tells a story. It tells the audience we don’t know what’s beneath the characters, we don’t know if they are firm and steady or if they are falling together in a unified speed, we don’t know them fully…

Yes, the Director has a vision and the film is his vision but it is the cinematographer’s job to strengthen that vision to limits that are dictated only by the cinematographer’s skill.

From Tones to Symbols

Steven Spielberg found Janusz Kaminski through Diane Keaton. Kaminski did a project with Keaton and Spielberg is one of those who watched it. Spielberg approached Kaminski for a pilot of a TV show Spielberg was working on. Spielberg liked it as evidenced by his decision to get Kaminski for Schindler’s List. It is easy to see how much of Spielberg’s movies came from Kaminski. Just compare all movies he did before Schindler’s List to all the others he did from Schindler’s List onwards and you will see the difference in the look.

Spielberg’s early films were all warm and soft while the latter works were all sharper and crispier. Kaminski opts to highlight every detail instead of burying other elements to highlight specific sections in the scene.

Unfortunately, there is no science to what Kaminski does. He does not follow a formula and he cannot articulate how he comes up with the image in his mind. He just does. He sets the tones, works on the angles, work on the framing, and work on the symbols that will be used in scenes. He is lucky to have found a partner in Spielberg that trusts him so much to allow his creativity to keep flowing even during the shooting.

You have already predicted the answer to where the line is drawn between the DOP and Director. It’s is blurry and relative. The ultimate answer is ‘it depends’. But one thing is for sure, the Cinematographer cannot rely on technical skills alone. You need a vision first and foremost and then you need a Director that will collaborate with you enough to allow your vision to come into fruition.


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