Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Creative Triangle

Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Creative Triangle

Article excerpt

Cinematographers, production designers and directors form a creative triumvirate that has evolved over the last 100 years. How has that discussion traditionally been conducted and how can it be improved?

The three-way collaboration between director, cinematographer and production designer is nearly as old as motion pictures themselves. But few people outside the industry understand what the trio does individually, much less collectively. Even insiders have trouble understanding the exact nature of this complex working relationship. "All I know from talking to people in all three of those positions is: If they're not in harmony, the film is in trouble," admits noted author and film critic Leonard Maltin.

"Usually, the director of photography will be hired in the last weeks of preproduction only to waste the first week of prep getting up to speed with creative and production challenges that have been in limbo because this team director, director of photography and production designer - have not had the time to together visualize the solutions necessary to bring the story to life," says Daryn Okada, ASC, president of the American Society of Cinematographers.

"Basically, those are three of the principal and the earliest components to come on to really deal with the visualization of the story," says Thomas A. Walsh, president of the Art Directors Guild. "It's a triangle of sorts, but we're all there to service the director, obviously, and the script. That's not to say that the costume designer or any other of the creative collaborators and contributors aren't of equal importance, but they usually come on at a later stage. The cinematographer and production designer are probably the most responsible for disseminating the vision to all of the other contributors, so there's a unique partnership between the three."

The dynamic of the relationship varies from artist to artist and project to project, but there is one truism that holds for almost every film: The production designer is the first person hired on a film after the director, to scout locations and work on initial set designs. "The production designer is usually privy to all the nightmares that directors go through - whether their picture is going to be greenlit, whether it's dependent on budget or whether it's dependent on casting," says director Michael Apted, president of the Directors Guild of America.

The cinematographer, on the other hand, is often absent for much of the preproduction process. "It's always a problem when the cinematographer is not there, because it's very hard to get the final design without having a camera and light," says production designer Alex McDowell, chair of ADG Technology Committee. "Sometimes you're just forced to make arbitrary decisions about what it looks like through a lens and where light is going to come from in the set. I often like to get into Photoshop and do accurate paintings of what [the set] looks like, so the director of photograpy can get involved before we tie ourselves down."

Says Okada, "When a producer is experienced enough to hire the cinematographer in the first stages of preproduction - even if that time is non-consecutive meaningful creative decisions can be set forth. Those understandings early in preproduction results in using that time to efficiently solve technical and budgetary challenges with a more accurate vision to the story. …

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