Tell me if this sound familiar?

My phone rings. I’m excited. It’s a call from a television director I admire but have never met.

TV Director (TVD): Hey Cybel. I’ve always wanted to work with a female cinematographer
Me: Great. I’ve always wanted to work with you
TVD: I wrote this little script. It’s a passion project
Me: Uh-huh
TVD: And I’d love to collaborate with you on it!
Me: Uh. Huh.
TVD: I can’t pay but it would be fun. I really love your eye…

Unfortunately, the words “passion project” and “collaborate”, when pitched to the Cinematographer (substitute music supervisor, wardrobe etc) are often synonymous with “work for free”. I don’t want you to cringe when you hear these words. Just pivot and process the opportunity differently. I recently recut my Cinematography reel and every film on it involved passion. Most jobs do. But the budget dictated the shape of the collaboration and my responsibilities that came with it. Here are three levels you are likely to experience as an independent film DP.

Collab Level 1. The Passion Project. A legitimate Passion Project should fuel everyone’s creativity. Not just the director’s. Too often the director uses the passion project film as a calling card for bigger budgets or better opportunities. He/she brags about the crew they “got to work for free”. The crew, however, is rarely brought back for the bigger budget film and often gets stuck with the reputation “does great work without pay”.

This is what a true Passion Project looks like:

Stacey Holman and I shot her film “Lumiette” a few years after graduating from NYU film school. We were both huge “In the Mood for Love” fanatics and wanted to craft something that explored that passion. I was also a hardcore Harris Savides fan. I had just read about his work on “The Yards” and wanted to do my own experimentation with film stock Kodak 7277. At the time, I would have never dared to underexpose and push process a film on a paid gig. But this project was different.

Stacey had some film stock in the crisper. She cast Erica Ball, an actress and friend, whom she had always wanted to work with. Greg Pak, another film school friend, lent us his Krasnogorsk 16mm camera. Stacey’s friend, Andre Sutherland, had a car. So he played an extra and my “dolly” for the night exteriors.

I asked Stacey to reflect back on the experience: “One thing that we had great chemistry in doing was ‘Hey, I wanna shoot (fill in the blank) and try (fill in the blank)’ and we did it. What’s funny is that this was all done on film, a very expensive medium! Most of all I remember the freedom of shooting this on the spot, figuring it out and hoping it would work out…which it did.”

Some rules for collaborating on a passion/freebie project:
* Go in knowing what you’d like to learn. For me it was underexposing and simultaneously push processing a film stock
* Research. I read up on “The Yards” in American Cinematographer Magazine. You can read magazines, blogs and watch camera test videos on YouTube
* Enthusiastically work with whatever equipment you have and uncover an aesthetic within those limitations
* Learn from other departments
* Give everyone the freedom to try, fail and try again
* There are no guarantees that the final film will work or that you’ll get a copy, so have fun and pimp it for all of its social media potential

A word to directors: if you can’t pay your crew, give them creative control. Let the DP decide how it should look. Let the editor decide the final cut. It might be crazy. And it might be magical.

Colab Level 2. Micro/Low budget. Last summer, Nicole Franklin and I shot her feature film, “Title VII”, in eight days. There was a budget – but did I mention eight days? With money comes structure and different collaboration guidelines:

Create the Visual Style Together. You and the director should conceive of a visual that supports the narrative first and is respectful of the budget. After reading Nicole’s script and seeing the main locations, I really wanted to shoot “Title VII” in black/white. The script had some film noir elements and I knew black/white would bring out the aggressive nature of the main locations. I was ready to pitch my black/white idea … but Nicole had already come to the same conclusion from the director’s perspective. I’m sure she covers this in her “Film a Feature in Eight Days” seminar.

Share Your Favorite Visual References. I’m a lover of black and white photography and showed Nicole a number of my favorites. I probably sounded like an optometrist. “Which is better? A or B?”. Collaboration meant I provided different options and she decided which was best. The Photo Book is a good book to bring to your first meeting with a director. My new go-to for visual references is Magnum Photos.

Contribute Your Resources. Prior to my joining the project, Nicole had already secured a Sony F5 and Cooke lenses for the shoot. I was not ready to embrace the limitation of shooting a feature in eight days with one camera. I knew Sony was very supportive of female filmmakers. I had attended a FIG (Sony’s community of female video creators) event and reached out to them. I told them about Nicole’s film and that I had an all female camera department. They wonderfully facilitated our getting a second F5 and two RAW recorders.

KitSplit is another beloved resource, especially when working on documentaries. If you don’t own gear or just need a particular lens or accessory, it’s faster to find the best deal on Kitsplit and have the producer cover the cost. Far easier than explaining equipment insurance or how to compare rental quotes to a new or overwhelmed producer.

On Set Cheerleader. There’s no other way to say it. Part of the collaboration process on a micro/low budget set is wanting the director “to win”. That means doing your part to create a positive environment so they can work. If any problems occur, present the problem with possible solutions. Nine times out of ten, if you look out for your director, they will look out for you.

Collab Level 3. The Jobby Job. A few words on what collaboration looks like when you’re getting paid your full rate and working for a corporation. Although I don’t need it to enjoy my work, it’s still there. I’ve shot a lot of content Centric/BET. One of my favorite pieces was for the Black Music Month Showcase featuring performer, Suzy Q. Like many television gigs, the network dictated which cameras I could use and my technical specs. In pre-production, I was given clips of other shows to match. During the shoot, all of the operators had on comms (headsets), so we knew we were getting the required shots.

Stay On Brand. For any decision not already made for you, make one that benefits your boss/the brand. My choice in light fixtures was limited but colors were not. I asked my lighting designer to stick to the color palette in the Centric Logo. The choice cost nothing. If my bosses didn’t like the approach, it was an easy choice to change on set.

Collaborate with Your Crew. I never micro-manage my crew but am always open to their creative suggestions. You may have been a hot shot highly paid DP for five years but your Dolly Grip has been doing this for twenty. If he/she has an idea for a better constructed shot? Listen. If your 1st AC just came off of a different show and recommends a filter? Try it.

You can see my work at CybelDP.com and chat film @CybelDP.