Independent Filmmaker's Guide
July 14, 2020
Work Better With Your Cinematographer
One of the most impactful artists that help create the aesthetic of a film is the cinematographers. They have direct access and impact to the look of the film and therefore must have a thorough working-knowledge of all things lighting, lenses, camera, and composition In addition to that, they must also be able to communicate seamlessly with multiple departments. Not to mention an understanding of film history and industry trends. In today’s episode we talk with three cinematographers about how they work to combine technology, collaboration, and crew management in order to create the look and feel of a feature film.
So, work better with your cinematographer. Our interview below is edited from our discussion on how.
Igor Kropotov: I think the jump from going, especially, at the beginning of the career and jumping from something like music videos or short narrative content and then getting into feature films is actually quite a difficult one. Because it’s like this catch-22 where people are looking to hire a DP that has done features before. But if you’ve never done a feature, it’s really hard to get hired on a film. I think the jump usually comes from people that you’ve previously worked with, especially, people that are transitioning from those music videos and the short narrative content and then making a feature film. And having worked with them previously, you’re most likely going to get hired on their first film if you’re in good connection.
Jendra Jarnagin: I actually don’t remember how I got my first feature. It was quite a while ago, and I did not know anyone on the production team prior to getting hired. I might have had some acquaintances that referred me but I had shot a ton of shorts, I had been out of film school for a long time. I was working as a gaffer and electrician. I’d worked on Sex and the City and Law & Order. I had a lot of experience just shy of having done a feature. I think when I was referred and when I interviewed for that job, they could tell I was ready to shoot a feature. It was a small enough feature that they weren’t necessarily looking for people with much bigger credits.
Steven Pierce: How about you, Helge?
Helge Gerull: First feature I did came through the camera department. I had a little stint in the camera department through seconding and firsting. And then I was firsting a low budget feature, and they needed some second unit shots and like, “Sure, I’ll do it.” I shot some second unit shots one day and they came out great so they asked me to do the next one. That was it, and in that world where not much is on the line you don’t have the studio, so you don’t have a lot of money invested from anyone there. I think it’s easier to get your first job that way. It was all fun. There was nothing, no politics, nothing, just shoot, point and shoot and talk about it, and it was a good experience all the way around. I, actually, remember on one of the first projects like that I was working with a known operator, Michael Ferris, he’s a famous operator that I don’t think is active anymore. He, at the time, he just came off of Waterworld for like months and months and months, and we were doing this movie. He came out to help out just for fun, and I think he worked for free just to meet a new DP and help out his friends. He said, “Hey, man, just take it all in, enjoy this because this is the fun you won’t have the bigger the projects get.” It’s true, it was all fun and games and trying things out, and look at what does this do and applying all your theories without any hesitation and any fear. Which now of commercials or features, even indie features, it’s like a medium.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, no, I’ve heard that before. They’re like sometimes the earliest films of people’s careers are sometimes their favorites because there’s the least amount of power involved from studios or investors or whatever. But here’s a big question for all of you. If you could go back now and redo that first feature, what would you do differently? What do you think you could or would change?
Igor Kropotov: Jendra, you actually saw my first feature film. That was the screening that you came to, that was the first film I ever shot, which is funny.
Jendra Jarnagin: I remember liking it, yeah, I remember liking it.
Helge Gerull: I would probably say it’s not necessarily in the creative because it’s almost the learning experience of shooting film where you don’t know what you’re really going to get until you see it. Even that still happens now when people shoot film unless you’re so used to a certain emotion and you know the setting then you might know the contrast and all that. But even Annie Leibovitz would say when I shot film, she didn’t know how it would exactly come out. It’s always a moment once you have the film developed. On that, on the creative, I would say, probably I wouldn’t change much because there were no-
Steven Pierce: Yeah, there’s more technical stuff?
Helge Gerull: Yeah, it would probably be, on my thought, it would probably be today I would be safer.
Steven Pierce: Interesting.
Helge Gerull: Because it was a car chase, I remember, and I have camera hanging out of the trunk. Somebody, a PA is holding me so I don’t fly out of the car while we’re flying down some street in Palmdale. We have a little window, there’s no trucks coming, crashing into us and the guy says, “Hey, you might want to think about the rest of your life, it’s not about this one shot.” I’m like, “Well, this is done.” He brought me back down to reality, which today, I would probably do it to make sure that I would still be here for my family at the end of the shoot day and-
Steven Pierce: Yeah, of course.
Helge Gerull: … be safe and get the best shot possible. That would probably be that, be more mindful and have more of an overall point of view and viewpoint.
Steven Pierce: Was that the PA they gave you that reality check/ The guy that’s holding you from flying out?
Helge Gerull: I think it was a PA, literally, in the trunk holding my pants so I wouldn’t fly out of the trunk. I even hear that, I read about this script was telling the story, Michael Bay was doing one of his, I think it was The Island, and literally he was saying, “If I don’t hold on to the guy, he would fly out and die.” I think it’s, I guess, that mentality gets you certain shots but being constantly living on that edge so closely, especially, if you work a lot might be certainly more thoughtful today in my approach.
Steven Pierce: Totally. What would you guys change, Igor, Jendra?
Igor Kropotov: I think that the safety factor is actually is quite an important point. I think that shooting my first feature film was also quite unsafe with a couple of things that we did. I think like doing the first film, you’re so fired up. You’re so ready to just do almost whatever it takes to get that shot and to get that footage, and you’re running on adrenaline most of the time so you might forget about safety.
Steven Pierce: Jendra, was that your experience too?
Jendra Jarnagin: No. I did learn those lessons early in my career. I remember hanging off of a big, I don’t know, wheat silo or something. It’s like a sophomore in film school over the edge to get someone climbing up the ladder towards me. I’ve always been sort of fearless and pretty confident with my balance. It really was a foolish thing to do, it was a completely unnecessary and dangerous. I will identify with your being in the moment and you want to get the shot and you’re committed to doing your best work, and so that clouds your judgment about what you’re actually doing to your physical safety. The irony is I did have enough self-awareness that I would never put anyone else in that position. I would never ask anyone in my crew to do that, I would be more aware of what I was asking someone else to do. But my making the choice to assume the risk, I think we all have to learn that and hopefully we learn that in retrospect looking back to be like, “Hey, that was really foolish,” and not because someone got hurt.
Helge Gerull: It was interesting that, creatively, it might not even add that much. It’s more the adrenaline driving you and creatively it might actually there might be a better way to do it safer. Which is the interesting part, when the adrenaline kicks in your life, it’s like, all of a sudden, the tunnel vision kicks in and nothing else matters. But, I don’t know, sometimes it’s a good thing.
Steven Pierce: Here’s a good question, next thing. Now you’ve advanced a little farther, you’ve each shot many films. What attracts you to a film? Is it the director? Is that the script? Is it both? What does it take for somebody that when they offer it to you like that, I’m into?
Igor Kropotov: A great question.
Jendra Jarnagin: For me, I think probably for most of us, I’m going to guess, is the script. Then, first and foremost, because I think you read the scripts before you even get a deeper lengthy meeting with the director. Unless you know them previously, you don’t even necessarily know what their take on the script is until after you’ve read it and then it gives you something to discuss. But, for me, I’m looking for something that I haven’t done before that excites me in some way. I’ve realized that I’m attracted to edgy stories and dark or weird or strange or I’m really fascinated by subcultures. If there’s a film that has content about the last feature I did called Asking For It is about a group of female vigilantes who enact revenge on men who’ve done bad things to women. They have like this tight knit unit as a group that is a shared philosophy, but they’re outsiders. Then it’s like what makes those people tick and what drives their choices is something that I realized that whenever I have a script that follows that pattern, I’m not saying all vigilante stories, but something about subcultures is something that I always find interesting and fascinating.
Steven Pierce: Interesting.
Jendra Jarnagin: Not that a film needs to have that, it’s just something I’ve realized recently since you get asked that question a lot like what material are you drawn to? I remember my previous agent had received the script and wanted to know if I wanted to read it and the people in their office had done some coverage on it. I was like, “Well, what do you…” I think I was short on time to read it and get in the interview. I was like, “Well, before I even read it, what do you think? Do you think I’m going to like it?” She’s like, “I don’t know, it might be a little too vanilla for you.” Meaning stories, I read a lot of indie films that you read them and you’re like, “Who cares? So what? Why is anyone going to be interested in this story?” With there so many stories out there competing for an audience and most indie films don’t have distribution. I’m at the point in my career where I feel frustrated and held back that most of the films that I’ve shot no one has ever heard of and no one has ever seen. I think I’m a little sensitive to that to be like, “If I’m going to invest my time in this, is anyone going to see it?” I think a lot of that comes down to the material like is this a fresh take on a story that we haven’t heard before that people are going to find this interesting and do I find it interesting?
Steven Pierce: That’s interesting, like the subculture thing, super cool. What about you guys? What attracts you?
Igor Kropotov: I think, what Jendra was saying, I think the material has to exist, it has to be on the script and has to be written. But I think what I’m looking for is a strong collaboration with the director and their vision. Sometimes it’s tough because people are looking to just hire a camera person that can execute something in a traditional way. But I think sometimes with the script and your team, you can find a way to execute in a more interesting visual way. I think that’s what I think I look for and that’s what attracts me with the story. Because I think any single story, especially, when it’s just in script form can be interpreted visually in so many different ways. That one specific way which is really cool and exciting is what I look for. Something different.
Steven Pierce: Here’s a great follow up to that, though, what are red flags? When you see an indie film script come across, what’s a red flag to you? Something you immediately like, “I’m not sure this is going to be for me.”
Helge Gerull: Yeah, the interview that you go usually it’s with producers, the director, or whoever is because I remember doing one and they asked me like, “This is all great. We’d love to do it. What happens when the shit hits the fan? What do you do?” Things break apart and people are running around and what’s your M.O.? I said, “Well, I just look up in the sky and take a deep breath and smile.” They love that and I got the job, great. It turns out the table’s turned and they turned out to be the crazy people on the job where it was… I think being able to read into the situation looking forward is key. That’s why people work with each other again and again, I think, because they know what they’re going to get and you can plan for it. If you’re hired as a new person or you enter an environment, a working environment, a creative environment even more so, which is very dangerous or can be, you don’t know where you’re going to stand creatively or any of the above. It can be you might not be able to deliver what you hire to do because of this constraints of… I don’t think it’s necessarily indie that doesn’t necessarily just indie, it’s across the whole platform. Even I’ve heard DPs say they work on $100 million film and they say it’s the same challenge I have every day if it was a $5 million film. The time, the time of day, the location, the actor’s schedule. In a way, indie is not that different in a lot of aspects. It’s just maybe smaller scale, and it really depends on the project.
Steven Pierce: I really want to talk about scale here in a little bit, but before we go there, any other red flags that jump out for you Jendra and Igor?
Jendra Jarnagin: Starting with the scripts, I think you need to know your tastes, and I’m really turned off by stuff that’s way too on the nose. If people are just there’s no nuance, there’s no subtext, people are speaking, the characters are speaking in a way that is completely unrealistic to the way that people talk because they have to over explain everything, I hate that. Any scripts that are too on the nose is just almost an instant pass for me. Just being like stylistically not my thing. I don’t like scripts that don’t have a good ending. The story is just going along and then it just stops. I find that very dissatisfying, and I think creatively if that’s your style of filmmaking, that won’t be a deal breaker for me, but it might be something I don’t like. I have learned to ask the questions like still take the interview and ask the questions because there have been times where I’ve almost passed on a movie about grit that they’re planning on changing those things.
Jendra Jarnagin: I had one film that was like a director for hire. But at the time I got the scripts, it had been written by a writer for hire and the director had hired a bunch to fill and I didn’t know that at the time that I booked the meeting. There were things I really like about the script. Then when I took the meeting, the director rattled off all these things that he was going to give notes and do a rewrite, and they were all the things that I’d objected to. That was a good lesson to be like, “Okay, at least, continue the conversation.” A creative red flag for me is just to look out for creative compatibility. If someone says that they want the entire film to be handheld, no exceptions, like that they’re looking for a full documentary, Vérité style to the film, I am not your DP. I have learned like the interview is not about trying to sell, to try to get the job at any cost or say what you think that they want to hear to get the job, it is a mutual-
Steven Pierce: Relationship.
Jendra Jarnagin: … out of like, yeah, are you a good match? If someone hires me to do something that is completely against my aesthetics, my beliefs, my creative instincts, then I’m going to spend the whole time trying to please them and not be true to myself for my own vision. I do think it is our job as DPs to be chameleons and to align our vision with the director but you have to believe in their vision and you have to like their vision. It is not something that is against every creative bone in your body. I’ve learned if someone wants an all handheld film, I am not the right DP for you.
Steven Pierce: How much is that a collaboration? This is a good question too, within indie filmmaking, how much do you expect the director to bring in? How much does that turn you off? How much control do you want to have? This might be different for each project, but what’s the collaboration factor like for you as the director?
Helge Gerull: On this one project, I remember a great interview. Afterwards, it was there were three producers on the project, which also is a red flag, big Red Flag. Two of them were asking or taking me to the side after and said, “Hey, so it is the director’s first film so we do need your help and we got to help out a little bit and tag and pull here and there.” Which that’s the biggest red flag you can imagine because it means a political minefield.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, there’s a separation between already creatively before you get in involved.
Igor Kropotov: Like there might be a mutiny at any point.
Helge Gerull: Oh, exactly, and sure enough, it was the script advisor, I think, turned into the director most of the time. That was a good learning curve to see that red flag and then act on it. Even there might be great elements but it’s hard to sometimes see the red flags and act on them properly. That’s the tough part of it.
Steven Pierce: Do you like directors that bring in everything fully prepped, they know the style, they want to shoot it, they have really, really strong visions about the lighting and the composition and the way they wanted the camera to move or do you like somebody to come in with a more idea of performance and story and let you plug in?
Igor Kropotov: Yeah, I think I’ve collaborated with directors that have a little bit of both. There’s a director I work with, quite frequently, who has a very strong theater background. I’ve done many projects with him at this point and I think a lot of his focus goes, when we’re filming, goes towards the actors and how to get the best performance out of them. Leaving most of the visuals to me, at that point, which has worked well in the past and I think that I generally do my best work that way. Everything is planned ahead of time, there’s a whole shot list for the feature film, but there’s some sway and adaptation as any day on set goes. But it’s always creating the movement and the blocking of the actors and then allowing the camera to play with that. But it’s also very nice when directors will have a clear vision and you know the direction that they want to go, especially, how the piece is going to be edited. That’s a huge help. Because sometimes people will lean very hard on you to make those decisions and that’s where it becomes tricky because it’s tough to make those decisions for somebody else.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, but so even in that realm, though, if even if they have a good staging and they know the way they want to do it, do you always have enough time on an indie feature to really get to play with what it wants to fully be? Or does it end up being Cinéma Vérité plus? Where you end up lining it’s lap and then having to shoot it just because of the schedule?
Igor Kropotov: No, it can be, you can run through a scene with a director and they say, “Well, this character goes here and then the other one goes over there, and then the third character goes that way.” Then, all of a sudden, they’re all spread out all over the room and they’re facing different directions. All of a sudden, these 15 shots that you’re going to do is now somehow turning into 40 because, all of a sudden, you’re trying to figure out where to place camera to grab each person’s reactions, and so on and so forth. I think that’s the point where you step in and you go back to the scale of what you’re actually doing and the scale of the project and have to step in and be like, “Listen, we need to scale this back otherwise we’re never going to make our day.” Sometimes you have to do that. Then that’s where the AD and everybody comes in and helps facilitate that.
Jendra Jarnagin: I have an opposite preference. I have worked with directors at both ends of the spectrum as well as everywhere in between. The spectrum being from they’re only concentrating on the actors and want the DP to bring everything on the visuals to directors who are incredibly visual and specific and knowledgeable and have a clear visual vision of their scripts. I find that I do my best work working with the directors who do have a strong vision. I can certainly pull it off and support the other directors but then I’m more likely to, because of this whole scheduling thing, I’m more likely to fall back on what I know will work and my own habits and creative habits and-
Steven Pierce: It becomes less of a challenge, it becomes less of-
Jendra Jarnagin: … preferences. But then the challenge is how I grow as an artist. The challenge is how I do my best work when I’m being pushed because a director wants something a certain way that that is stretching me to bring it to them that I’m now tired. That provokes more out of the box thinking. Oftentimes, because of the schedule, and we’re all fighting, the schedule that if you’re trying to do something bold and visual, you want to be in alignment with the director that the producers and the ADs are going to allow the time and respect the prioritization of time. That is what the director wants versus you’re actually trying to fight against that. Where you’re trying to fight for the time that you need to get the shots the way that you want them, were your… I don’t want to say operating in a vacuum, hopefully, your director trusts you and has your back. But if it’s coming from the director, then the producers, the AD, everyone respects that. If it’s coming from the DP and the director doesn’t really seem to care that much, then I think it’s more of an uphill battle to execute the kinds of shots, the kinds of lighting, the kind of coverage, whatever it is, that you’re trying to impart for the visual style of the movie.
Steven Pierce: I think a great thing to jump onto that is, what is the schedule like? What I mean is if you’re making a micro budget feature or you’re making more typical indie budget features so something that’s sub $500,000 and something’s that’s more in the 1 to $3 million range, what are some schedules that you have done that have you deemed been successful and what was good and then some that failed? You know what I mean? What have you done? Have you tried to do the 18 day feature, the 15 day feature and it totally failed? Have you ever had the luxury of doing a 28 to 35 day shoot? What was the difference? That’s what I’m curious to see how that worked for you.
Helge Gerull: I don’t know, I have to say I don’t really see a question there, a specific question rather than general scheduling approach. But, generally, the schedule is always a challenge. But, also, I think it goes back to a collaboration. What ego? What you were saying I feel can apply to this question is, well, where you do the blocking and you start out with 15 shots initially and then, all of a sudden, it’s 30 whatever. I think, creatively, it’s so important to be on the same level with your director or even the AD so you’re not by yourself, you’re fighting by yourself because that doesn’t work. It goes against the project as a whole. But then you can be creative and maybe say, “Well, this is where the actors would like to be. Let’s adjust our creative. Let’s do it as a wide shot or shoot somebody who is talking from behind, or find creative solutions that will push you into a place that you might not have been before that you were uncomfortable exploring.” But now you are because your partner has pushed you there and then-
Steven Pierce: I feel like I’m interested in like have you ever done a schedule that you was like, “This was too tight. This was too tight, we pushed it too far. We needed X amount more,” and what was wrong with it? Was it just a matter of days? Was it because they couldn’t work with just a master shot?
Helge Gerull: Probably the realistic timeframe on moving crew, moving equipment, and daylight, I would say. Then being too ambitious maybe with camera movement, because a lot of times I would say it’s camera movement. Sometimes, actually, now thinking about it, there was one shoot day on the recent project I did where that, actually, the writer did some rewrites overnight and it wasn’t a camera intensive day at all. It was most like on a slide or whatever and you can adjust an open house with big windows. We ended up over and we didn’t get the last bit of the scene because one of the actors wasn’t able to learn the lines on time. It ended up in the editing, the director said, “Well, we actually didn’t need that angle anyways, it works great without it and nobody will ever know that we didn’t get what we scheduled out to do.” In that instance, it had nothing to do with creative camera director, whatever, it was, literally, it was a writing issue I guess where-
Steven Pierce: Oh, sorry. I was just going to say I think I’m interested to know what has been your experience with under scheduling, and how has it affected your work?
Jendra Jarnagin: I did a film that was quite big for how small the budget was. We had a lot of stunts, a lot of action, and the principle cast was a group of seven people. I think we only had 20 days to shoot and we kept fighting for a second camera and we kept being told that we couldn’t afford a second camera. We had to make some really hard decisions about coverage to try and deal with group scenes with seven people. The director who was the writer had to rewrite several things to be more simple to fit into the time that we had to shoot it. We just kept trying to make the case to the producers and that the AD was in complete agreement with us that our schedule was not realistic for the amount of content, and basically, how big the action was, etc. We ended up adding a full day of shooting and we ended up adding a second unit day. There’s still a lot of compromises there, and hopefully, in the end, that the people won’t realize that when they see the movie. That it’s still a good movie that we made the best choices that we could with the circumstances that we were in. It just, the whole time, it just felt way harder than it needed to be which made it frustrating.
Steven Pierce: Did you end up feeling satisfied with what you were able to accomplish in most of the scenarios in that?
Jendra Jarnagin: Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Overall, with the movie, I will say yes, but there were days where it was very deflating to make it to the end of the day and just feel like you hadn’t been able to live up to the potential that this movie deserved because of the circumstances of the schedule and the inability to budge on that. The people holding the money, it’s not that they wouldn’t listen, it’s just like, “Yes, we hear you, there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re already overextended, make it work.” That was disheartening.
Steven Pierce: What about you Igor? What has your experience been with the short days?
Igor Kropotov: I think any project, time is the biggest asset that one can ask for and one can have, just a little more time. If it’s scheduled as an 18-day film, you walk away and think, “Man, 20 days would have been perfect.” Or if it’s a 20-day film, 25 would have been perfect, and so on and so forth. A poorly scheduled film puts a lot of unneeded pressure on production, and especially, the cinematographer. You constantly feel like you’re rushed and you compromise a lot. I think, ultimately, it damages the work and damages the film in the very end. That’s one of the things that I always try and push more for. But I do think that there are ways to mitigate a schedule for a film. It depends what film you’re trying to make. If you’re trying to make an action film and then you have only 18 days, that’s quite a difficult task to achieve. If it’s a lot of sitting down dinner conversations and you’re shooting three pages a day for 18 days, then that’s you can do that. It really depends on the type of project. I would say the plague with indie films, the indie film pandemic is not having enough days to do the proper work that you’d want to do.
Steven Pierce: Just let’s see if we can boil it down to a rule of thumb, like what do you typically get? How many days do you expect whenever you get booked on a feature? Both in prep and on set? If you see that number, this one doesn’t scare me.
Jendra Jarnagin: Prep is a completely different conversation. I feel like we should-
Steven Pierce: Well, that’s where we’re going next.
Jendra Jarnagin: … save that for it’s own topic because that will like they’re totally different answers.
Steven Pierce: Fair enough, so let’s start with on set.
Jendra Jarnagin: Anything less than 20 days is going to be really fucking hard. Can we curse?
Steven Pierce: Yeah.
Jendra Jarnagin: Okay, no matter what, trying to make a movie in less than 20 days is going to be really hard. If you’re doing 18 days then that probably means you’re doing six day weeks. Six day weeks are really hard because you can’t recover on your weekend. You can’t do it, you can’t turn around your schedule from nights to days because you don’t have weekend turnaround. I’ve done movie, I’ve done a feature in 15 days, we only had one half hour of overtime the entire shoot. But we had two cameras and we had the best location combination scheduling that I’ve ever seen. We had one week in a multi-club nightclub that served for seven or eight different bars and clubs over the entire scene. We just loaded in once, we stayed there for a week. Another week we were in a house that served three different characters houses. Then the other week we did any day by day location work. But without that location selection, that movie would have never worked in 15 days. It was a comedy. Yeah, it totally depends on content like Igor was saying. but the Tribe movie, which was an action sports drama, that ended up being 25 days because what we were shooting was a lot of camera movement and car rigs and we had to build our own fake triathlon finish line situation. We shot during a live trial, it was just a complicated movie with a lot of moving parts. Even, though, the budget was small, it just needed a lot of shooting days. We had stuff in the water, we had stuff in rivers, we had stuff in pools, it was just complicated. Then I shot another movie in 10 and a half days that all took place in one apartment. That didn’t have any overtime either. But a movie, a feature film that all takes place in one department, it’s not the most interesting visual movies that I’ve ever-
Steven Pierce: Jendra, can I have you say one more time, just another week we were in a house that served as multiple houses? Your internet broke up.
Jendra Jarnagin: Sure. Just, literally, say that one line or do you want me to give that section again?
Steven Pierce: No, just that one line.
Jendra Jarnagin: Okay. Another week, we were in one house that served as three different characters houses. That was really helpful as well.
Steven Pierce: Great. Helge, Igor, is it 20 days for you guys too?
Helge Gerull: Sorry. I would say probably collaboration, truthful collaboration if that’s all in tune, you can do anything. I think, usually, the problem arises out of somebody expects this and then the other person expects that and then you run into challenges you can’t meet. If everybody’s on board, everybody knows it’s X amount of days, maybe 10 or 20 or 30 and everybody adjusts accordingly. Maybe creatively or economically or emotionally and physically. I think you can do anything. It’s if everybody’s on the same page and they approach it the same way, I don’t see a red flag there.
Steven Pierce: I think let’s talk now, let’s move into what I think everyone here would agree is the way that you make a film, no matter that’s a way you make a film, whether regardless of how long you have, or how much money you have is your prep. How much prep for an indie film do you need versus again-
Jendra Jarnagin: More, more.
Steven Pierce: Exactly.
Jendra Jarnagin: The answer is always more.
Steven Pierce: What do you feel like you must… rather than viewing it as days, how does it work? If you hired on as an indie film DP, are you hired for a set amount of days or are you hired for a set amount of prep weeks or a set amount for your prep? How do you guys do that?
Helge Gerull: I feel like I-
Jendra Jarnagin: I could totally hog this conversation so I’m going to back off and let someone else say something before I take over.
Steven Pierce: I will say, I have a lot of stuff I still want to get through and I don’t want to belabor us but if we can try and keep your answers like a few sentences without crushing yourself.
Helge Gerull: Okay, I’ll jump in then, I would say a week. I’m just going to throw that out there. Productive prep for a week and I think also what would be important to have the crew on as much as possible to have your keys on as early as possible is a huge help. To have a gaffer, the AC, and the grip come on as early as possible, I think is a huge plus. But, otherwise, it would also, I think, depend on the creative approach of the film.
Steven Pierce: Of course, yeah.
Helge Gerull: Because if it’s the one apartment or if it’s an action film or how many locations I think is a big item. If you have multiple locations and you need to scout them, hopefully, with your keys and then make notes so you can be there at the right time of day, you know how much time you have. I think it all depends on that if the easier the script or the creative approach, probably less prep I would say.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, of course. I’m sure that there’s always going to be a give or a take. I think just rule of thumb wise, what is prep that you felt that was too short or the ones you thought was adequate?
Helge Gerull: I would say one experience I had, I think, was about a week of prep but no keys, no crew, which was not productive whatsoever. They would, literally, the first shoot day they don’t even know what’s up and down the left and right. I think to have everybody on the same page before you start shooting is an important step.
Steven Pierce: What do you think, Igor?
Igor Kropotov: I’ve definitely done prep, which is about two weeks, but I usually try to push for about three or four weeks of prep. The last couple of larger projects that I did, we were able to work out of an office space with the rest of the production team and gives you access to everybody there at the same time. The assistant director’s doing the scheduling in the other room and then you work with the director in the shortlist and you have your keys at the disposal as well. I think location scouting and seeing locations that do work, and then some that don’t work is also a huge factor in that. What Jendra was saying, I think more times better but when you’re really focused and you have the rest of the crew around you is very productive.
Jendra Jarnagin: If someone tried to hire me for a feature and only had one week of prep, I would turn it down. I cannot work that way. The norm seems to be that you get paid for three weeks of prep, and then a lot of DPs are, of course, you’re committed to anything that you’re putting your energy towards. Do you end up putting in more unpaid prep or soft prep or pre-prep prior to when your paid prep starts? That like three weeks out is the full steam ahead, the entire production, the line producer, the production designer, like everybody. Anything less than three weeks, basically, I feel like three weeks is not enough. I would like to have four or five. I realized that that’s not always possible, but that would be more satisfying to me. On top of that, I would love to have the lead time to know that I’m hired, that I’m going to be starting prep. Prep starts on, or paid prep starts on X date. But that I know I’m going to be doing that movie so that I can start to not just get my affairs in order to be ready to be fully present and committed with no other distractions in my life for that period of time that I get all that shit out of the way. But I want to start that relationship with that director in our free time, the unpaid prep, the soft prep. We watch movies together, we start looking at visual references. We have discussions about who we are as people, what are our preferences are. Just getting to know each other on a human level. There’s no time for that once you’re in that three week full steam ahead go and that’s something that I’ve felt was missing on films when I just got hired at like you start on Monday. Like prep starts on Monday. It’s like, “Shit, I wish I had time before we were scouting locations to get to know this director better.”
Steven Pierce: Building on that note, I think that’s great and that’s honestly exactly what I think we’re going for is like what do you all look for? What do you find to be successful for you? What have you found to not be successful and why? Those were great answers. Talking a little bit about within that vein, now let’s talk about crew. How much crew size do you find, and again, it matters. There’s, definitely, you could be on something where it’s just an AC and you and then something just is like a law of average, just in the middle, where do you find your sweet spot with how many people you need to do your job?
Helge Gerull: Keys plus two.
Igor Kropotov: Yeah, I feel like it alternates, it’s usually it’s three and three is good, but sometimes in larger days you’ve scheduled for that ahead of time as well and then you have additional people coming in or a semi pre-reading crew. Somebody arrives two hours before call and they start, things like that. I think you have to plan ahead and plan ahead for more crew on larger days, but then have your core crew be with you the whole time that know how everything works and that they’re team players the whole time.
Steven Pierce: What kind of package are you… Now, we’re getting really variable, but what I’m trying to do is boil down to what have you seen and what have you found you could do your job with? Then what did you want to as far as lighting package? We’ll talk about camera and lens in a second. But whenever you get a lighting package and they say, “This.” I’m like, “Shit.” Whenever I get a lighting package and they say, “This.” I’m like, “Okay.” How much involvement do you get in picking it usually?
Igor Kropotov: I think one of the things that I tried to really avoid is some productions will try and push to almost have you do a daily breakdown of the lights that you’re going to need on that specific day. If it’s something specific like you’re doing something large and you need really big units on a certain day, then you can book them for day 19 or 18 of shooting. But it’s really, really difficult, especially, when you’re in it and when you’re filming, you’re not going to remember that you need the 10k HMIs tomorrow. But that’s when a good gaffer and good keys will have that coming up, and they’ll be aware of the schedule, and they’ll have those units available. But I think that having a strong lighting package that you know you have at your disposal the whole time is really important. You might have sky panels one day and then not have them the next day, it’s a little bit of a monkey wrench at that point. Because the producers want to pay them as you get used to it, and then you rely on those units and you have to remember at a certain point that these are all the units that you have and not second guess what you do have in the truck or not.
Steven Pierce: You’d got like a nighttime exterior at the end of the week, and then next week you pick up and you’d be interior apartment and you think in the indie film level, it’s probably the best to just have the same package to approach both with a couple of just fill ins here and there?
Igor Kropotov: I think there’s, also, the one thing about feature films that I always continuously remember as I’m working on them is that there’s so much flux while you’re filming it. If you don’t finish a scene in one day and you’re still at the location, you’re in the location three days later, you’re going to pick up that scene three days later. But not having those units three days later because they got returned just is makes for the huge problem, I think. Does that make sense?
Steven Pierce: Yeah, it totally makes sense.
Jendra Jarnagin: I would agree with that in that just like everything about being a DP, you need to choose your battles and you need to think towards what’s efficient. I would pick a base lighting package that is flexible enough to cover most of the scenarios that we’re planning on encountering throughout the shoot. Then like Igor said, if you have some outlier setup, some location that requires a large quantity of things that it doesn’t make sense to carry that full time or some bigger units that are too expensive to carry full time, then you would day play that gear for those particular scenes or those particular days. But, otherwise, I’m looking for stuff that, nowadays, with the sensitivity, the cameras stuff that can plug into the wall, primarily, that we’re not necessarily carrying on a small film. We’re not necessarily carrying big generators full time, we’re only getting those when absolutely necessary. LED lights are more expensive, but they’re very versatile and flexible, so that you’ve got to figure like I probably want at least a handful of these because of how fast they can be, how versatile they can be that they’re worth paying for one sky panelists 60 and one set of quasars or something. But you can’t afford all of the LEDs all of the time because they cost too much. Excuse me, cost too much.
Steven Pierce: How much does the location play a part? Whenever you’re like as far as found light and time of day and when you pull that together, how much are you taking that into account assuming that you’re going to have this base lighting package that’s going to Swiss Army Knife almost everything?
Helge Gerull: I think the location is the biggest item of all. It can replace your lighting completely. Especially, I always ask what post budget they have and how much post there is going to be? That also will influence my lighting style. The Revenant is a great example. It’s $150 million movie, but still every single face was rotoscoped in that film for the DI, and it looked like it was some on the exterior scenes were lit because of it, but they weren’t. It was just a high end very expensive DI process. I think if you know your post and if it’s going to be even hopefully a DI artist that you know and you know what they can achieve, I think you can adjust your lighting accordingly and you can get away with more stuff.
Steven Pierce: I’ve learned that also, for myself, with the things I’ve directed that if you pick the right location, you just saved so much effort. You now have your art, your production design. all of it has something to hang on rather than trying to force things and build it because just too much construction for an indie film.
Helge Gerull: Yeah, and even and time of day. I heard Robert Richardson talk the other day and he said the biggest thing was the sun and that the sun tells me when to shoot and which direction to shoot and it’s so true. In the location, you’re more restricted because your angles are restricted than outside. But I think time of day and location is most important, even more so, more important than lighting, or even camera. Well, maybe not the optics, but I think location and time of day is the most important item, yeah.
Jendra Jarnagin: I always try and remind people when we’re assessing locations, like let’s say you have choice A or choice B, it’s like you got to look at the creative concerns, the practical concerns and the financial concerns. Like, “Okay, this location costs more but we don’t need a pre-light, or this location is cheap, but we are going to need three additional man days, a swing truck worth of additional lights. You’re going to have to paint it, you’re going to have to rent it for longer.” A lot of times, there’s so many factors that go into the location selection and it all comes down to cost but I think it’s important that that’s part of our job. We’re not directly responsible for the budget but we have to say like, “This is what it’s going to take to shoot in this space.” It’s like we either have allotted for a little money set aside for day player gear and manpower and this location is going to burn it all up or you’re going to need to allocate more or take that out of your location fee because this is smaller. Sometimes I’ve even volunteered to give up some money in my lighting budget to give it to the art department because I know that they’re out of money and I don’t want to shoot some ugly fucking space that is going to be a pain in my ass.
Steven Pierce: On that note, now let’s talk a little bit more about camera and lenses and then I think we’re starting to wrap up after this. Camera and lenses, when you’re picking your camera, is there brand you prefer to? Do you go through how you’re going to rig it and what it’s going on? Like what is your guys go to?
Igor Kropotov: I think it depends, I think that I’ve done a project before where we shot HQ 4444 but some of the things, some of the scenes that were heavy on the computer graphics, we had to shoot raw just for a little bit of that latitude. I think that, I mean, do we want to talk about camera brands?
Steven Pierce: We’re not sponsored by anybody so don’t say it if you don’t want to limit yourself, but I don’t think Red’s going to exactly listen to this and never work with you again.
Igor Kropotov: Well, I think, generally, I think that there’s a lot of really good cameras on the market and I think that if you really know how to use lighting and composition to your advantage, you can’t really just be stuck up on the best camera on the market. Because if it’s going to break the budget completely of the film, and if it’s going to take away money from the art department and from the locations, it doesn’t matter if you’re shooting on the newest, coolest thing with the best lenses out there. Because it’s not sufficient enough to make a film. It’s not going to make your work necessarily appear good. I think there’s a lot of factors to consider with indie filmmaking and whether it’s one expensive camera or you’re going to be better off having two cheaper cameras, but make the day and have more coverage and succeed really.
Jendra Jarnagin: I agree with that. I think it’s important to take a right tool for the job approach and that part of our job as DPs is to know the strengths and weaknesses of the various camera systems so that when we look towards, “Okay, this project has these parameters. These are my priorities. Either this camera or that camera is going to be the best choice for that.” If we can’t afford that because we’re getting a really good deal from this rental house but they’re like, “Okay, well we’re out of ALEXA but we can give you a Red, or we can give you two Reds but we only have one of the…” To know when it’s worth being flexible to be like, “All right, if we’re going to get a really good deal on that, then I can get the lenses that I want or I can get another electrician.” It’s, again, choosing your battles but I’m not a camera specific person, I’m more of a flexible person and I would use and have used a Fuji XT-3 or a Sony a7S. It’s like an insert camera for a certain situation. I had to get really low underneath someone in a music video so I used my Sony XT-3 with an external recorder, instead of having to build. I was shooting on a Venice, so I would have had to have built the platform way, way bigger to accommodate the bigger camera. It was just like, “Why don’t I just get a little tiny camera and get under there?” The colorist couldn’t tell the difference. You need to know when you can get away with that stuff and when you can’t.
Helge Gerull: Yeah, I think, to that point, I think in the indie world also, I think it’s sometimes where you are and what’s available, kind of what you were saying, Jendra. I did this film in Puerto Rico, and initially, we thought ALEXA’s and it was when the ALEXA-M was still the great handheld camera. The production came back with an argument saying that, “Well, anything that’s on the island, we’re going to get a 90% tax credit.” There goes anything that’s not available on the island is basically out of the running because I was saying, “Hey, I have this great relationship with this cameras in New York, they can ship it.” And they’re like, “Well, 90% tax credit, is that going to be applied?” “No.” We ended up using whatever the local cameras had. You adjust and it turned out great. You find your creative angle within those challenges and everybody was happy in the end.
Steven Pierce: Are you looking at aperture whenever you go into an indie film? Are you looking for something that’s going to have a prime that’s like 1412 or are you cool with Zooms? Because there’s a cost factor to each of those?
Igor Kropotov: I think you have to look for lenses that speak to the character of the project and accentuate the story that you’re trying to tell. I would say lenses are single handedly perhaps the most important thing, and if you can exchange a more expensive camera system for a cheaper one, but get better optics, that is definitely like an avenue that I feel a lot of us end up going when people start squeezing from budget. Yeah, I think lenses are extremely important.
Helge Gerull: What’s interesting about that, I agree, but also there’s a couple of very well established DPs that go completely the other way. It’s an interesting story. One is Dariusz Wolski, very well established, beautiful visuals. When he started working with Ridley Scott, he just started shooting Reds and just as sharp as possible. Zero story influence on optics, and even people would press even the director, Ridley Scott, and ask him, “So what’s going on? There are no anamorphics, all spherical you’ve done the last five movies. Everything is most of it is deep focus, super sharp?” He’s like, “I tell the story and I like it.” That was it. I think, I don’t know, it’s a tough one because you can… maybe it depends on also where you are creatively as a DP and your collaborator, the director and where you want to go. If it’s of importance, some people, most people I think they use lenses as a huge vehicle to tell the story. “Oh, this character and that character and let’s do a crop over here. Let’s do anamorphic in this scene and spherical here, it will transport the viewer.” I think there you can almost get lost in it, but it’s weird. I go both ways where sometimes I go down that road and it feels great and I’m not sure how many people feel it later, and other times I find myself shooting it deeper focus. Maybe more of middle of the road crisp and modern, you could say, and it works as well. I think you can go any way and it all works. I think it just depends on what your creative space is at the moment.
Steven Pierce: Right. Jendra, where do you fall on that?
Jendra Jarnagin: I fall more on the, I think, that the people being obsessed with lenses the last few years is overrated. I think that the differences between various lenses can be incredibly subtle. I think that people putting all of their attention on that is not necessarily the right place for certain projects for you to put your energy, at least, for me. I have some projects where the lenses were incredibly important to me. Those are usually projects where the lenses are really weird. I’m like go big or go home in that regard. If you’re not doing something with lenses that are completely strange and out there, then all the other ones are very similar. It’s like the difference between shooting on Super Speeds versus Cooke S4s versus Master Primes. It’s like I don’t know that many people are going to see the difference. Unless you are doing something very stylized with lens flares, then there’s the kind of flare that you get from those different lenses are very distinctive. But if it’s not a flarey a movie, or like my last film I used really obscure vintage anamorphics called Crystal Express from either the 60s or the 70s. Because they look really strange and I wanted a really strange look. But, otherwise, I think the attention that you put into lighting, into production design, into camera movement, into composition, has a much bigger stamp on your visual story than the subtle differences between one flavor of lenses or another.
Igor Kropotov: I think just to add on that, I think that there’s a different set of factors to consider when you’re doing a feature film or an indie film than your commercial work or your music video work. Because, ultimately, that image that you’re capturing is hopefully going to end up on a big screen and everything on a theatrical screen that is 40 feet or whatever looks very different than it does in your computer. Picking lenses that have a lot of character, like the normal anamorphics and you love sheen and close to wide open, you put that up on a big theater screen and those lines, they completely fall apart. But they do work for something like Vimeo or something that people are going to consume either on their phones or on the computer. I think that different projects call for different lenses, not just through aesthetics as well, but sometimes they want sharper lenses for computer graphics. You have to shoot those like an F8, F11, or even higher just so they can make those adjustments and comp stuff in. I think there is a lot of variable factors to that.
Steven Pierce: What are your websites or IG handles if people wanted to follow you? What are you working on next? I’m just doing plugs now, anything you guys want to plug? Let me start there.
Helge Gerull: Extortion. Look for Extortion. It’s this movie I did in Puerto Rico, great marine drama action film. Has Danny Glover in it, and we’re about to do part two as soon as the pandemic allows us to. What else? There’s a great dialogue piece called You Are Here that I’ve recently done with a Danish director. If you guys remember Celebration from way back in the day, the first dogma film or the film that kicked off dogma, the dogma movement. It’s much more modern and sophisticated than that. But he has those intentions and it’s a great, it’s a great narrative piece in underlining how crazy those Danes are.
Jendra Jarnagin: Your website and your Instagram probably?
Steven Pierce: Yeah, let’s do that, yeah.
Helge Gerull: My website, helgegerull.com, which is H-E-L-G-E-G-E-R-U-L-L.com. Actually, my Instagram handle is a lot of fun. I do a lot of still photography as well for Twitter which is helgegerullphoto. It’s #hellagegerullphoto. It’s H-E-L-G-E-G-E-R-U-L-L photo. A lot of fun stuff there.
Steven Pierce: How about you, Jendra?
Jendra Jarnagin: My website is Jendrajarnagin.com, J-E-N-D-R-A-J-A-R-N-A-G-I-N and my Instagram is JendraDP.
Igor Kropotov: We all have crazy last names, no?
Helge Gerull: Yeah.
Jendra Jarnagin: Yeah.
Igor Kropotov: Yeah, and you can find me on just igorkropotov.com and it’s the same name for my Instagram handle.