Month: August, 2011

The Gaffer’s Quandary

A night exterior for a car commercial, shot by Guillermo Navarro with the help of his trusted, long-time gaffer (and one of my mentors) David Lee.

There are generally two apprentice paths to becoming a Director of Photography. The most popular route is in the camera department, where one advances through the various camera assistant and operator positions before becoming a DP. The other, slightly less common route is in the electric (i.e., lighting) department, where one begins as a lighting technician and eventually becomes a gaffer, the cinematographer’s principal advisor on all things lighting.

There are pros and cons to both paths, and the DP’s experience level will inevitably be stronger in one area than in the other. Directors of Photography who come up through the lighting department, for example, sometimes have to learn how to work efficiently with camera operators. Camera assistants, on the other hand, have unparalleled access to the DP and to camera equipment, but no opportunity to learn first-hand how to actually light a set. This leads to a strange quandary for new cinematographers who come up through the camera department: as the DP they are generally assumed to be the lighting authority on set, but often have little or no practical lighting experience.

The smartest freshman DPs in this position recognize their weakness and hire an experienced gaffer to compensate. Others make the mistake of trying to prove expertise they don’t yet have, often micro-managing the very crew members they brought on to advise them. This puts the gaffer in an awkward position: though he is committed to helping achieve the DP’s photographic goals for the project and usually knows better than anyone what lighting is necessary to do so, he is often ordered by the DP to set lights that he knows are not the ideal choices for what they are trying to achieve. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this happen: a new DP without lighting experience panics in the face of a big lighting set-up and starts calling for specific lights that make absolutely no sense. When these lights don’t achieve the desired result, further panic ensues.

There are dozens of factors that go into every lighting decision: What kind of effect do we want? How much power will it require? How many lamp operators will be needed to set it up? How long will it take them to set the light? How many other lights also need to be set? What kind of grip support will be necessary? Even when the DP knows that a certain light will provide the effect he needs, there is no way for him to know about all these other variables.

So what’s the solution? In an ideal scenario, the DP involves the gaffer in the creative process during pre-production. The DP shares his photographic goals and references with the gaffer early on, keeps him abreast of how they apply to each scene, and works with him to shape the look. This requires a certain amount of trust, of course, and it can be difficult for a DP to make that leap of faith when working with a new crew. And there are risks for the DP, as not all gaffers are able to engage creatively at that level. But to treat a creative gaffer merely as a technician is to overlook a tremendous photographic resource for the project.

The best solution? Hire a gaffer you can trust, and then trust them.

Failing Forward

Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.

– Thomas J. Watson, Jr.

A recent shoot that went poorly has me thinking about how important it is to embrace failure in one’s pursuits. Two anecdotes come to mind, the first one personal:

For one of my very first jobs out of film school I worked as a PA in the camera department on an independent feature. One day the camera loader didn’t show up to work and a discussion ensued about whether I could step up and fill his shoes (this was back when all features were still shot on celluloid). I had loaded film in school and, like most recent film school graduates, I was positively bubbling with hubris. When the first assistant cameraman inquired about my experience he wanted to know whether I had ever flashed a magazine (i.e., allowed light ruin the film during loading). I responded proudly that I had never once made that most horrendous of mistakes, and I was sure this answer would put me into his good graces. Instead he shook his head and said that he couldn’t hire me. “If you’ve never flashed a mag, you haven’t been loading film long enough to be any good at it.” I was furious, but he was right. He wouldn’t hire be because I hadn’t yet failed, and this for me was an important lesson: experience is the name we give our mistakes.

The second anecdote is from Thomas J. Watson, Sr., the former president of IBM:

Recently, I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him.

My shoot went poorly for a hundred different reasons, some of them outside of my control, but some of them decidedly my fault. I might not ever work for those filmmakers again, but I will definitely never make those same mistakes on future shoots, and that makes the whole ordeal an incredibly valuable experience.

I don’t want to hire people who don’t make mistakes; I want to hire people who have made lots of them. Colossal mistakes that have cost productions gobs of money. Failure is the only way to succeed.

What’s next?