I just finished shooting the feature film, “Queen of Glory” directed, written and starring Nana Mensah. This was the first time I worked with a Director who was also the lead in our film. Not only was Nana the lead, she was in every scene.
If I have the opportunity to shoot for a Director/Lead Actor again, these are five tips I will definitely adhere to:
1. Create a Visual Shorthand – if you’ve been following my articles, you know how much I love pre-production and pouring over reference material with my directors. This is even more important if your director will spend the majority of production in front of the camera. During prep, Nana gave me over 10 films to watch or rewatch that emulated the style/tone she was going for. I countered with more film references and photographs that I thought would support her script and aesthetic. Once on set, if Nana said “like the Big Lebowski shot” or “what we liked in Darjeeling [Express]”, I knew what to do next.
Aside: when it comes to reference material, my director and I will often formulate the look of a film based on established works of art. The colors of this painting. Mixed with the camera movement of that film. But with the lens choices of this photographer. But maybe you, the Director or the Production Designer would rather create original works of art to serve as a visual reference. See Akira Kurosawa’s amazing storyboards for “Ran”. Or read about Production Designer, Dante Ferretti’s work on “Gangs of New York” and his recent awe-inspiring show at MOMA, “Dante Ferretti: Designing for the Big Screen”.
2. Rules of Your Visual Language. Once you and the Director have narrowed down your reference material, your likes and dislikes, the “rules” will be self-evident. I won’t give away all of our secrets yet, but each of the films Nana liked treated camera movement in a similar way and approached color in a similar fashion. In prep, you and your Director should come up with a list of rules for your film. For instance: only use the color purple to signify death or an eyelight to foreshadow “not guilty” (a personal favorite from the genius film “12 Angry Men”).
If you lose a location, lose a few hours and need to reimagine a scene on the spot, this list of agreed upon rules will cut short discussion on what needs to be done next. This predetermined set of rules is also a safeguard preventing the final film from emulating your, the DP’s, taste over the director. See my previous article on how those same rules will be supportive in post production.
3. Second Set of Eyes on the Monitor. Our producer, Jamund Washington, was almost always by monitor protecting Nana’s vision as it related to direction, writing and performances. Even if you, the DP, have a strong background in directing and actors, that additional person keeps the film from drifting into a film you’d personally like to direct. The Director can ask a personal friend, co-writer, 1st AD, Scripty, Acting Coach or a Producer to stand watch.
4. Stay in Your Lane. Resist the urge to offer unsolicited comments about performance. This is not always easy. Film crews love to problem solve and help make a film better/darker/funnier etc. But too many voices offering their “two cents” creates an unhelpful and unwanted cacophony on set. If other actors have questions for you about their performance, steer them towards the Director or whomever is keeping watch by the monitor. On the set of “Queen of Glory”, I tried to keep my comments about blocking and acting only to what was affecting camera and what I thought would give us a more dynamic frame.
5. On-Set Camera Tools to Inform the Director. Playback was an invaluable tool. Relying too heavily on it eats up time. This is how we used playback efficiently: Whenever all departments felt we had a successful take, we showed it to Nana for her feedback and an “ok” to move on. Or if a scene/shot was developing in a way we thought wasn’t aligning with the script, and it was faster to demonstrate (playback) than discuss what wasn’t working. Then Nana could don her Director’s hat and make the adjustments she saw fit.
The Artemis Director’s Viewfinder App was another invaluable tool. I pride myself on instinctively knowing where to put the camera and which lens to use. But taking photos of the monitor or playing Nana’s stand-in so she could evaluate my choices was inefficient. I eventually surrendered to my 1st AC’s (Jason Chau) suggestion to use the App. It was a quick and easy way to show Nana our different lens options and speed up our set-up time. Besides, I like to limit how frequently my ACs move the camera..
Earlier this year, we lost a great and extremely influential Cinematographer,Gordon Willis. He shot eight of Woody Allen’s films and is probably the best example of a Cinematographer creating a signature look for a Director/Lead Actor. A little reading from the archives: “5 Tips from Master Cinematographer Gordon Willis”