Tuesday, 24 August 2010

'Dark arts?': The Great DoP Debate

By Dan Parkes (Director)

'What debate?' you may ask. And I agree. There isn't one. In my opinion, No DoP (Director of Photography) = No film. However, when I released "Tip #42: Simple and effective lighting equipment" (http://bit.ly/bwtl2w) the number of hits on the blog skyrocketed. Not only that, but I suddenly started receiving increasingly unpleasant comments and e-mails including those recommending me to "keep it to yourself," saying that I think of myself as "God" and that I have been "disloyal," "unappreciative" and even 'abusive,' making a "huge public gaff," a "massive fool" with a "high bizarre value". Ultimately, it has been labeled the "Ambleton Delight Debacle" by none other than blogger Ben Blaine, called a "DP bashing" by others and a widespread call for me to delete the blog and publicly apologise.

So what was the source of all of this offence? Was it the 'magic' reference at the beginning? The blog was about only the kit (part two being about the techniques: http://bit.ly/ag5NKO) so was there something incorrect in the list? Well yes, I wrote "diffuse" instead of diffusion. And somebody pointed out I could have included "black foil, colour meters and light meters". But still not enough to justify the vitriol, surely?

Brilliant cinematographer Jack Cardiff

I was determined to track it down and found it led to a post on cinematography.com in which a certain Karel Bata created a thread entitled "Blog on why you don't always need a DP on a feature -Unbelievable". This had a link to tip #42, but no normal link -it had been cleverly renamed "NoDphere". The thread of course resoundly condemns the alleged 'no DP' blog and it is finally all dismissed as not even worthy of attention and goes on to discuss the more important issues of using the terms "camerawoman" and "cinematographer".

So was there really no DoP on the feature Ambleton Delight? Far from it! As the blog and elsewhere clearly states, we had a dedicated DoP for all the major scenes, with supplementary material being DPed by me with assistance from the camera team and assistant director -two of us are jobbing lighting cameraman, so this was never going to be a huge issue. I believe it is essential to 'paint with light' on a film -as a child the very first word I ever uttered was not "mummy" but according to my father I said 'light,' so it was clearly important from a young age! Not to mention the initials of my name happen to spell "D.P."...

British DP Roger Deakins

Is the fact that there was more than one DoP on the film the issue? A high level example of how this should not be an issue is the fact that Stephen Daldry's recent film "The Reader" had two DPs (Roger Deakins and Chris Menges) due to scheduling. Of course we are in no way comparing ourselves to such well respected professionals, but it shows that continuity can be maintained with more than one DP.

So may be the issue is that the director, in this case myself, was also DPing? Is this normal or evidence of an ego trip? Again, without ever wanting to compare myself to such luminaries of the film world but rather wanting to be inspired by them, here is a list of directors who have or continue to simultaneously direct and DP:
  • Steven Soderbergh (pseudonym Peter Andrews)
  • Peter Hyams
  • Robert Rodriguez
  • Doug Liman
  • David Lynch
  • Nicolas Roeg
  • Lars von Trier
  • Quentin Tarantino (in Death Proof)
  • Christopher Doyle (in A Way with Words)
  • Josef von Sternberg
  • Rainer Werner Fassbinder
  • Gaspar NoĆ©
  • Ermanno Olmi
  • Mario Bava
  • Philippe Grandrieux
  • Shinya Tsukamoto
Director/Cinematographer Robert Rodriguez

Stanley Kubrick also, according to rumour, DPed his films, with the credited DP complaining he ended up just the gaffer. Other directors such as James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Steven Speilberg and John Cassavetes have also been known to camera operate. There is of course the issue of being distracted from their role as director. However, if this causes such an outcry, one wonders why the acting community is not more vociferous when directors also act in their films, as surely this is an equal if not worse crime. But few seem to criticise Clint Eastwood or Woody Allen for also acting in their films, attribute it to ego or feel that by doing so reduces their efficiency as a director. Why is DPing any different?

Director James Cameron with his 3D camera

My personal take on this is that I often end up lighting and camera operating on small interview and corporate shoots and I enjoy it immensely. However for a feature I would much rather have a dedicated DoP so I do not compromise what is expected of a director on set -especially when it comes to working with actors. I also believe other DPs are more likely to do a better job!

In the case of Ambleton Delight we had extensive rehearsals with the actors so there was not a huge amount of ground to cover on set. Also the scenes in which I was both director and DP were much smaller -often 'two-handers'. And in some cases the lighting design had already been previously set by the dedicated DoP and so was just a case of replicating it. And the final product speaks for itself. There is no obvious differences between shots lit by the dedicated DP and when I was DPing. I challenge anyone to be able to point it out.

DP Christopher Doyle

But to finish, here is a most interesting point: This was tip #42. Previously we have discussed location scouting, production design, script writing, catering and many other departments. Professionals in each respective area could well have taken equal offence because we did not have dedicated crew for the entire shoot or possibly overlooked some minor detail in their role. But we have only received support and encouragement. However, as soon as we list some lighting equipment and mention there was only a dedicated DoP for key scenes we are inundated with complaints. It makes you wonder if that 'magicians code' quip was somehow correct after all. Are DPs really the "luvvies" of the crew department, needing constant reassuring of their necessity on set and determined to keep their profession a 'dark art' to ensure this? I would never have thought so, but it seems such a shame that some are intent on giving that impression.

Some useful links:

Cinematography For Directors (book):
Great Director-DoP relationships:
Also: http://www.dailyfilmdose.com/2007/06/great-cinematographer-director.html
Casting cinematographers:
British DP Roger Deakins website forum:


  1. As an aside - the images you are using on this page need to be saved in web format they are 10 times larger than they need to be. Select "Save for Web" from Photoshop.

  2. "10 times larger than they need to be"?! I think you have posted this on the wrong blog. All the above images look the correct size to me. If only the 3D camera pic was 10x larger so I could get a closer look!

  3. Dan, that url was more accurate than I had realised, because there really is no DP there. If, for example, you do not know the difference between yellow and orange gels, or even how fundamentally important that difference is, you should NOT be calling yourself a DP, let alone handing out bad advice.

    Let alone comparing yourself to Soderbergh and Kubrick...

    Here is a guide to the commonly used gels in cinematography http://www.rosco.com/us/filters/cinegel.cfm

    If you see any yellows in there your monitor needs adjusting. Like your attitude.

  4. Karel -It is quite clear who has the poor attitude here and I think it is real shame. Film making is all about team work and commnuication, yet you seem intent on belittling the sincere efforts of others and in this case the efforts of our dedicated DP. You have even gone to the effort of creating a "complete_IDIOT_here" link on the cinematography forum. Nice! It is now very clear who really is being 'disloyal' and 'abusive'. If you have actually read any of the blog you will notice that I do understand the difference between 'yellow' and orange gels and certainly do not compare myself to Soderbergh or Kubrick at all. Karel -how about being positive and playing nice instead of all your unnecessary vitriol that gives the impression of a nasty and embittered filmmaker and does nothing to support the wonderful world of film production.

  5. "...you seem intent on belittling the sincere efforts of others and in this case the efforts of our dedicated DP"

    Really? Last week you wrote:

    "...I hesitate to add this, but it seems relevant -and with all due respect to the fulltime DoP who worked hard- the shots where people have commented on the good lighting, were in fact not shot by the fulltime DoP...."

    Jeez. Pot Kettle Black.

    Here's what I actually wrote last week:

    "...It is naturally tempting for a newbie to see a DP's job as being primarily to do with settings lights. But that is only a part of it. There is the overall 'look' of the production, which means talking with the other HODs, and with you the director, about their choices. There is the choice of stock and camera. There are matters to do with colour temperature and flicker. There's all the stuff to do with camera speeds. And stabilisation. I could go on. And on...

    "It takes years to learn this stuff.

    "You say "I believe a lot of things in life look more complex than what in reality they really are.." The fact is, with lighting a feature, they really are! It's not like a short film where you can often wing it, and learn as you go. We've all done that. With a feature it's another ball game entirely. I've seen people struggle to get a feature off the ground, then cock it up by cutting stupid corners. And it destroys them.

    "But then... you've just made a 'feature' yourself, so you should know this..? Which is what makes this all a bit mystifying. Presumably you've managed to wing it somehow. Maybe you're a fast learner and have a good eye. And maybe your production wasn't particularly demanding. Maybe you're not that concerned about the look of it. Maybe you have a wickedly good script, or a great conceit (like Blair Witch or Exhibit A) that let's you get away with it. But even so...

    "Fact is, at a time when many aspiring newbies are learning the craft, and trying to 'break in', suggesting that one way to cut corners is a DIY approach to lighting (albeit on the less demanding stuff) is really bad advice. It's one thing to learn from your mistakes on shorts, but a feature is something you really need to get right at the time. It's also highly disrespectful to DPs - particularly the one you did use!

    "...my advice to noobs is to get as good a DP as you can... who will work with you from the outset to the screening of the final print. Establishing a relationship with a DP, learning to work collaboratively with them (and not just bring one in to light a scene or two), will really help make you a pro, and give your career more chance of sustained success.

    Dan, I wish you all the best with Ambleton (really!). It must have taken a HUGE amount of effort, and big big big kudos to you for getting it done! But you're wrong to suggest that people should cut corners with their DP."

    Other folk have been a bit more blunt.

    No way have I ever been attacking your DP. It is you that has done that, and you only.

    I'm outta here. Go on, have the last word...

  6. Every production involves some amount of winging it. I don't understand the controversy. If a director happens to be obsessed with light and camera, I wouldn't be surprised if s/he takes over the DP role. Indie filmmaking often involves doubling up roles: production design and art direction, director and choreographer, UPM and catering, etc. Specialized professionals in each role are usually ideal, but you do what you can with the resources you have.

  7. Thanks Sandy, I completely agree, as would many indie filmmakers I'm sure. The controvesy is really only in the mind of those like Karel who have taken some unreasonable and illogical 'high ground' and have a condescending tone that is giving the more mature and reasonable DoPs a bad name.

  8. Karel -thanks for copying and pasting a long and now irrelevant comment that has already been discussed extensively elsewhere. But it does nothing to prove I have ever "attacked" the dedicated DP and you know that, but you seem strangely obsessed about trying to prove it. And since I was also the DP on the film (and I have DPed other films) you seem more inclined to belittle me instead?...

    My above statement can hardly be called an "attack" and only a very embittered, negative mindset could concoct that insinuation. There is only one person doing the "attacking" around here, those who unfortunately use playground insults and emotive language such as "idiot," instead of calmly and logically reading, comprehending and discussing a simple filmmaking blog on lighting...

  9. Dear Mr. Rambleton,

    I guess it's better than a lighting blog on filmmaking, but maybe not quite as entertaining as a makeup artist blog on photography. Honestly though, you set yourself up for this.

    What you should really do, if you have time.. (instead of trying to give advice and opinions on cinematography and cinematographers) is give advice on sound mixing. I think they (the bixers and the mixers) would appreciate that. I wonder why you didn't feel it was important to try and do that as well. You do know it's half the movie right? Sight and Sound.. Oh, maybe it's not as glamorous? Hm.. maybe your sound guy did a real bang up job? Interesting.. Very strange how I don't see more directors holding a boom. Seems to me you should take your "advice" and go "Australian".

  10. Anonymous....

    Sound mixing will come in due time and is obviously just as important (the blog is in order of production and there will shortly be blogs on the sound and post-sound as well as many other aspects of production not yet covered such as wardrobe, props and CG).

    Our sound guy (Colin Bradley) did a superb job by the way.

    I am not sure what the references to 'how strange it is not to see directors holding a boom' but the "Mr Rambleton" insult indicates it was not supposed to be a positive one. I know I am not the only one to have spent time doing that and many other tasks around set, if and when required. Many directors will pitch in (e.g. James Cameron doing make-up on Titanic, also helped with the ice props). So your point is?

    Notice some common denominators in the negative comments on these lighting blogs... they all make unfounded allegations and clearly show a lack of comprehension and most notably stoop to immature insults and name calling. Shame really, wnen it could in fact be an opportunity to inform and inspire.

  11. Dan,

    Thanks so much for sharing your perspective and methodology here.

    Definitely seems like you touched a chord with some people based on the level of unnecessary vitriol in all the back and forth. (Some deep-rooted insecurities, personal issues w/ you, or something funky is going on there... 'cause it's way beyond the tone of anything I read in your posts.)

    I hope everyone who so strongly disagrees rather than just dumping on your sincere efforts to help filmmakers, also has extensive blog posts and articles elsewhere that lays out THEIR methodology, philosophy and on-set secrets for the new generation of filmmakers they claim to be so concerned about.

    Let all the filmmakers read both (without any bashing) and decide for themselves. Nothing to be afraid of.

    Far too few filmmakers share their full experiences or secrets with the next generation, but are quick to dump on anything outside of their own filmmaking experiences.

    I think "the masters" became so by doing, experimenting with NEW ways of doing things and benefiting from contact with professionals that are generous and open with their knowledge, "secrets" and methodologies.

    And while new and novel approaches won't always work, I would rarely dismiss them out of hand until I - at least saw the final results, 'cause that will speak the loudest.

    No doubt good filmmaking karma will follow you as you continue to be generous with your knowledge, open-minded and look out for the next crop of filmmakers coming up.

    Remember my saying "Haters are the mile post on the road to success.", so you must be doing something right here.

    Best of luck with your film


    (*I'm reposting this comment here as I accidentally posted to previous blog post. Feel free to delete the other one.)

  12. Yes. You do what has to be done to finish the film.

    My point is that filmmaking is a collaborative art. And the best directors know how to listen and surround themselves with people they trust, who do their job well. It's a team effort. Lighting isn't some mystic practice. But, when you hire a DP or any other key person on set for that matter you hire a creative voice. And that voice should be consistent to be effective. It's not just the kind of lights or where they are placed or what camera you shoot on.

    Just as a producer I wouldn't dream of only hiring the director for a few key scenes and then take over the rest of the job myself to save money. I would think if the DP was really into the project he might wave his fee(s) to see it through. Same goes for post color and output. I would hate to read here in the near future that you colored the film yourself without the input of the DP.

    An important point usually not talked about in these blogs and the thing new filmmakers should be conscious of is that you don't have to subscribe to auteurist theory.

    If you are trying to communicate and inform young filmmakers
    it might not be the best thing to perpetuate this.

    Maybe someone should have stopped Mr. Cameron from doing makeup, who knows. It's clear no one he trusted told him he couldn't write dialogue, and that maybe it would be better to hire a screenwriter for Avatar.

    Just a thought.

    as a feature composer, i find it difficult to stand-by and watch the action on this particular blog "set" but i shall add this comment:
    We all have the artistic desires and responsibility to complete our own visions including Directors who want to look through the glass, DP's who want to block the actors, all the way to the food truck workers who can actually apply good make-up.
    Get back to work everybody and remember that water finds its own level without any effort.

  14. Thanks Ant for your most insightful comments. I hope filmmakers also check out your excellent and most helpful website at www.downanddirtydv.com too!

    'Anonymous' above...that is really a very valid point about auteurist theory. I for one am not promoting this approach in the blog -as you will see in the above blog I personally recommend having a dedicated DP on set at all times, as I would have wanted. However having two DPs on our shoot worked well, so at the end of the day it can be about what works for the film and not the theory. But I will always recommend a dedicated DoP in every case.

    And yes, if only Cameron had brought in a screenplay writer for Avatar.....!!

    Leroy -thanks also, your point regarding water finding its own level is important, as long as team work and communication are there. Maybe there are directors who will end up actually DPing or vice versa.

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  16. I think I missed most of the controversy but I'm shocked it was even an issue in the first place.

    Directing and DPing are one of most the natural pairings in filmmaking. The most UNnatural being directing and booming as one of your critics have suggested. How anyone can suggest that as a retort to directing and shooting your own film is laughable.

    Since when do we bash people for taking the time and effort to share their knowledge and experiences with us? I also did not realize one is not allowed, as a director, to make one's feature the way s/he deems necessary. In this case, it seems you, Dan, have made these decisions in the best interests of your film and thus, it turned out for the better. I applaud your efforts to share with the community, wish you the best of luck with your work, and hope you will continue to contribute despite this onslaught of unprovoked and unnecessary hate.

  17. "Jealousy is a necessary hazard on the road to success."

    Yes, you did actually say "light" as your first word and I now wonder if your next two might have been "camera" and..."action!"

  18. Dan - you're not a martyr for hands on indie filmmakers and opposition - you're starting to sound like spoilt little brat children.

    STOP ARGUEING WITH PEOPLE ON THE IDIOTNET AND DO SOMETHING CONSTRUCTIVE! You could make a film about a director who does everyone else's job apart from his own and leaves a runner to direct. Or perhaps a dark fantasy film about a DP who really does employ magic to conjure light. In the end he could be burnt at the stake by angry gaffers who've been put of the job and replaced by the spirits of dead 5Dmkii owners. Those 5D owners died from broken hearts after the zero depth of field look became uncool.