Why Cinematography Usually Gets More Money Than It Should – Leaving Production Design, Costumes and Makeup in the Dust
This article is mostly written for producers, cinematographers and directors – but feel free to read it as a fellow other department head or if it’s otherwise relevant to you.
The more I’ve been doing cinematography on projects (ranging from $30k-$1,000,000), the more I’ve learned how overrated cinematographic tools are in the lower stratosphere of the industry. Some producers believe that if you shoot on an Alexa, you’ll get a great film. False – you’ll get a rich image in terms of color reproduction and have a well oiled machine do all the visual recordings, making cinematographer and camera assistants happy campers.
But when you have little money to play with, every tech circle jerk comes at an expense – and I’ve seen far too many budgets that give the cinematographer great luxuries while other departments are struggling.
As a godlike DP, this imbalance shouldn’t interest you the least – you’re here to do work and make some sick images, not to do some socialist redistribution with your fellow department heads – that’s the producer’s job. I disagree with that selfish attitude: the negative ripple effects of inflated ultra low budget cinematography budgets are not to be ignored.
Your Reel Will Only Take You So Far
When you start out as a cinematographer, director or producer in school, you’ll often get compliments on the look of a film you made. We’ve all seen so many movies and are so familiar with photography that it’s easy to say: “Wow, this is beautifully lit”. And the beginning director, cinematographer and producer will swim in compliments if the image has a refined look. They’ll be instagram-famous.
When you go to the next natural step of your career, you might do music videos or other short form content, and more often than not you will be hired based on a reel or other visual samples after you graduate. Your livelihood will depend on that refined image, and if you’re part of the vast majority of directors and cinematographers who happen to be male (like 90-something percent), then your childhood affinity to cars and other mechanics will translate to an obsession with the machines on set, particularly the camera. Oh, what a pretty little thing that costs easily as much as ten used cars. And, as many have done before, you’ll get trapped in drooling over the technology and that refined image.
Behold – the circle jerk of tech wizardry is a distraction.
When your career in narrative filmmaking continues, your clients become more sophisticated. Suddenly, it’s no longer the cowboy investor who just wants to make eye candy, no longer the amateur musician with a few grand to spare – then it’s people who have been in the industry for decades, who run small studios or have a rewards card for the grocery store in Park City. These people are sophisticated, and unless the refined image virus has bitten them too, they won’t just hire you based on a flashy compilation of images in your reel: They will hire you based on the projects you worked on, because they can see that you’re a visual storyteller. They will hire you because you made a good movie.
So, as the producer-director-cinematographer trio, your main interest should be to make a good movie, not to prioritize image quality over substance.
What Makes a Good Film?
At the core of a film are the above the line people:
- A communicative producer with a refined taste and a sense for ROI
- A visionary director with a great eye for performance
- An excellent cast of well-trained actors who care about their roles.
- On the material side, every good film has a good screenplay who tells an interesting story with characters who we care about.
So, with one of these elements missing, the “will this be a good movie” calculation is immediately to be reconsidered; smart investors know this, hence the name “above the line”.
When it comes down to it, these people above the line make certain things happen that I consider…
Ingredients of a Good Movie
- authentic, relatable characters that the audience can identify with, performed in a believable way
- an entertaining story that spellbinds us as an audience
- a believable and rich world we’re transported into
- an emotional journey we as an audience undergo
- an overall artistic quality to the movie, something that we can find many facettes of interest in
Now, the work of the film’s basic pillars is enhanced and further interpreted by the other creatives and technicians working on the film. My key words for great “below the line” work are believable and artistic. I need to believe that these characters are real, that their world is real, and that there’s more to the movie than just talking human heads. It’s the visual storytelling, the execution of the DNA of the film, that transforms the film into its final shape.
How can we make the film believable and artistic, and express this in the budgetary distribution of power? The answer I’ve seen way too often is “we want this film to look slick. So we’re gonna rent an expensive camera and rent a big lighting truck and let the DP kick ass with the artistic visuals of the film.”
This is great for me as the DP – I get all my toys, and I get to do my job as a cinematographer well since I’m sufficiently staffed and equipped despite the sub-$1M budget.
But guess what: I can light the shit out of a scene and frame it with a beautifully moving camera, but if the room I’m shooting in is bare, the character is clothed in a forgettable outfit – often taken straight from the actor’s own wardrobe – and the makeup does nothing for the character, then I’m filming a farce. I’m filming some beautifully lit world that does not exist on set and will not become real in the mind of the audience. And if the sound quality is poor on top of it, then forget distribution possibilities.
Rethinking the Camera-Centric ULB Budgeting Paradigm
What needs to happen on these films where every penny is pinched is that the little money that we have is distributed wisely to give every creative department a chance to contribute to a real world. If money is tight, I would much prefer to shoot on a Blackmagic Pocket with Rokinon lenses but have clear audio, expressive costumes and a story told in production design than to film an empty world on an Alexa with Panavision lenses.
One thing is true: A well-engineered camera will save you a ton of headaches with broken or inappropriate equipment. It will be more reliable for transmitting image, recording image and so on. But once you go really big, you go heavy, and without the right sized team, you will move slower. Bigger data means more transferring needs. You need to strike the balance of speed-quality-cost, rather than going for the most prestigious camera on the market and hoping everything else will take care of itself.
Rethink it this way: Do we need the big camera? Do we need the fancy lenses? The wireless follow focus? Can we just do it with a cheaper camera but a great camera assistant team and a decent wireless system? Sure, you won’t be able to proudly pose with the big rig and post it on Facebook to show off to your fellow film buddies, but in the end, nobody cares about the braggery – what counts is the final film.
Before anything, you need great audio. There’s shitty image quality in movie theaters (“The Blair Witch Project”, “Cloverfield”, “Paranormal Activity”), but there is never shitty audio in a movie theater – because distributors will toss your poor sonic experience as laughing stock straight into their golden trash cans. A 2-person team will nearly always be the best choice for a feature; saving on production audio (i.e. not having enough lavaliers) will bite you in the ass when you get to post.
Get a production designer with a small team who will design and decorate every single shot, who will ask questions about each character’s development and emotional state and backstory to reflect that in every single scene and tell a story behind the story.
Get a makeup artist who can stretch each actor towards the role in face and hair.
Give costume design enough money to make and buy believable, memorable costumes.
Was I clear enough about keeping perspective? Forget about all that. Cinematographers are gods.
On the movie poster, you will see characters in their outfits, with their styling. That’s all makeup, costumes and production design. Plenty of films don’t even have the DP light the photos taken for the poster. You’re gonna sell your movie with these poster elements – take them seriously, and take the stills photographer serious who will be responsible for capturing them.
People fall in love with characters, with apartments, with accessories, with styles – few people fall in love with lighting or camera angles. It’s true that the cinematographer can transform a film’s look from poor to great with lighting and camera choices alone, but it’s the balance of all these departments that makes for a great final product, not the obsession with a single department.
Once you have plenty of budget – say, more than $1,000,000 for a feature film, all creative departments can blossom and you need to be less stingy. When you have a $5M+ budget to spend, the discussion about camera choice will basically be irrelevant in the big picture, because the $20K plus or minus won’t tangibly affect the budget.
Until you get there as a producer, find a creative way to provide decent tools and balance the budget for your department heads.
A Final Word On Quality Quantum Leaps
Some producers might believe that renting that big camera or hiring that fancy location is going to drastically improve production value. While this is true in some cases, there’s one budgetary consideration that drastically improves production value on a low budget project and doesn’t cost all too much:
Budget more days for creative preproduction meetings of the department heads.
Budget for specifically dedicated meetings where all the department heads and the director sit in the same room, talking creative only. There’s plenty of prepro meetings that deal with the logistical challenges of the shoot, but there’s fewer “grand vision brainstorming” meetings in my experience. It’s when the production designer can color match with the costume designer, when visual motifs can be found together and then expressed both in hair style and lighting that the film gets a tremendously cohesive, “designed” feel to it. That doesn’t cost much more, but the bang for the buck on a production value level is tremendous.
And as a last word of advice from a cinematographer: Never let the editor do the color. Always hire a good colorist. For the finished film as well as trailer/teaser/social media clips – it will give your film that refined look that you hoped to get by renting an expensive camera.