How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Shoot

How do you approach the shot making process when working with a director on a film project?

When most young directors say they want it to have a very improvisational feel, generally it goes: ‘Fuck you./No, fuck you./No, fuck you./No, fuck you.’ And then someone pulls out a gun.
— Tim Roth

I’ve reflected quite a bit on this lately, and found that I don’t really have an answer. There are endless opportunities to decide what you do (and what you don’t) show the audience, and my task is to help the director narrow it down to the one choice that fits the project best. Of course there is no such thing as the one right choice, but there are plenty of awful choices available. And no two directors with similar preferences, neither in style nor in communicative preferences.

It is also difficult to articulate the subtleties in cinema, because there aren’t words or metaphors which describe many of the emotions you are attempting to evoke.
— Conrad Hall

An early experience, photographing a short film and then watching the final edit weeks later, is that none of the amazing setups I convinced my creative partner to shoot have made it into the actual film. Every book on cinematography I’ve ever read have stressed this, but I’ve still made the same mistake countless times. If the director doesn’t understand why we’re doing it, it’s a major waste of time and energy. Communicating about something as abstract as a mental vision of an image is a big challenge, but the times when I’ve been able to craft a wonderful shot in tight cooperation with the director, are the times when I’ve usually seen it on the big screen afterwards.

Behind the Scenes on short film "Experiment", shot by Patrik Säfström and directed by Robin Jensen.

As one of the editing teachers of my school so wonderfully puts it: “The language of film is really quite simple”. Every image needs to drive the story onwards, or it’s just a distraction that will disappear once the director is left alone with an editor. (And rightfully so).

I never want to feel like the way that I see it is the only way. Sometimes mistakes happen and that’s better than what you thought the scene could be. You allow room for the possibilities.
— Steve Buscemi

Another realization I’ve made is that however well planned and coordinated I am with my director, nothing ever plays out the way I thought it would on set. Something unexpected happens, a better solution becomes apparent, there hasn’t been a single project where the original plan was a perfect fit. I’ve narrowed it down to two scenarios, the one where we try to force the scene to unfold the way we planned, and the one where we pick up on what is happening and adapt to it. The first one has most of the time turned out to be an awkward solution in the film. Pre production is a wonderful creative time when I try to get inside the head of my director, and shape fragments of inspiration and ideas into a sense of mood and style, but production is where the actual film unfolds in front of the lens. And as my teachers in cinematography keep stressing, you have to be perceptive and adaptable. But in my opinion also bold enough to follow through on the original vision of the film, when required.

The fine balance between what we planned to do and what the situation is telling us to do is maybe where something interesting happens. In any case my director is my best friend, and if the film is shit, I’d feel better knowing that we kept an open mind throughout the process and made the crap together, as a team.

We mystify the art of moviemaking, but it’s not a mystical science. You take a good screenplay, put a group together and you hammer it out.
— Bill Paxton