At the end of 2019, I spent 2 months in Tallahassee, FL prepping & shooting a narrative film called White Fire; It was 2 years in the making, about 4 weeks of pre-production, 3 weeks of production, 79 scenes to shoot, and 4 guest bedrooms I'd stay in at friend's houses. Here we are, 2 months after completing production and I’m just now getting my thoughts out. It's probably taken this long because A) I'm lazy... and B) I apparently can't focus on anything for longer than 15 minutes... besides the Star Wars Clone Wars animated show I just binged (which is freaking awesome btw).
During production, some people would ask me how things are going, how I was doing, etc.. And I didn’t really have an answer because I was in the midst of copious amounts of problem-solving, all through the end of shooting. But now I’m able to look back and appreciate the experience for what it was and what our whole team was able to create. And it was quite the team exercise, as are so many indie productions. I'm going to discuss some broader thoughts that may apply to any filmmaker, as well as some DP-specific concepts that I deduced.
"Uh, what Did you actually shoot?"
White Fire is a narrative film that chronicles the true story of a 13 year old’s year-long battle with a rare form of bone cancer. Corey Crumpacker, the writer/director wrote it about his brother Jake, so it was an emotional subject matter that was obviously very personal to him, and we got to dive into how his whole family rallied together to fight cancer along with Jake.
White Fire technically isn’t a feature film, with an estimated runtime of around 30 minutes, but it was feature-scope. We had 79 scenes to shoot in 12 days of production; with prep and pre-rigs and off-days, production was around 3-weeks long. For an indie budget thing, we were shooting for the stars with our scope. As production neared, I kind of felt like a squirrel about to walk into a monster-truck rally. Complex lighting setups, rigging cameras to vehicles, hospital beds, car rigs, turning an old grimy ICU hospital room into a modern & sleek children’s hospital room, applying bald caps to child actors almost every day, coordinated steadicam shots with extras, etc..
Juggling (you'll understand this heading later on)
Any passionate filmmaker is going to go into a project like this with a tremendous amount of ambition. I have a very strong distaste for anything mediocre. But you learn quickly that most things won't turn out exactly how you envisioned it that one time you were lounging around and had a dope thought of massive artistic proportions that is going to win you tons of awards and have lots of people in awe of your creativity for years to come. There's varying levels to achieving success on a project like this, where people are away from their friends & families for weeks, stuck in a small city without time to do anything outside of the film.
Some of the considerations:
Is the director's vision being carried out?
Is the director getting enough time to get the performances he needs?
Are you allocating your team’s energy appropriately, and to the scenes that really matter?
Are you treating people with respect on the job?
Are all the collaborators having a positive experience?
Are you masquerading all the panic & sweats you’re getting from hoping that your master plan works?
Does the talent feel insulated from the sheer mania going on in your head?
These are just a few of like a criteria of 100,000 things to think about. I heard someone once say that a cinematographer on an indie isn't really a Director of PHOTOGRAPHY, they are actually a Director of Juggling. There's time constraints, talent constraints, & in each scene, seemingly against all odds, you have to get the minimum amount of coverage to have SOMETHING in the can. Time is your biggest enemy. Sometimes when we started falling behind, I was thinking in my head “screw the artistry, I just need to point the camera at the scene and hit record.” This is obviously a massive simplification, but plenty of times Corey & I would look at each other, then look at the clock, then look back at each other and know that it was time to just “point the camera at the thing that’s happening” instead of going with the original plan that would take twice as long. I kind of feel like I'm not the only person that has thoughts like this, but perhaps most people don't really want to admit it. Or maybe I just don't know what I'm doing.
Through our discussions, we had such an understanding of the script that we were able to sort of go on auto-pilot, throw out the shot-list, and feel out those scenes. Sometimes it wouldn’t even be that much of a departure from how we originally envisioned it, and sometimes it would. But it was important for us to know where to cut corners, and where to really focus our crews's time and mental energy. Because every human has a limited amount of said mental energy so there’s no value in using it all up on a scene that isn’t THAT important in the grand scheme of things. When I'm lighting & framing I'm aware that I might need to sacrifice in the near-term to benefit in the long term. Not every scene is going to be a winner, but taking a loss on one scene could make the next 5 scenes great.
The complexity of a gut feeling
On the other hand, you have to know when to pause the inertia of the day that you've built up because deep down you know something isn't quite working and you should take a few minutes to figure it out. There's one notorious scene that Corey & I think back on & wish we handled a bit differently. We blocked & lit it, I framed up the wide shot and thought "ok this feels a little odd, but I'm sure once we get into the scene it'll shape up how we need it to." By the second take, I was sorta thinking 'woah, what in the heck is this... eh it'll probably be fine I guess." Later on, it turned out Corey & I were thinking the same thing. Had we just taken 5 minutes to step aside & figure it out, I think we could've gotten something better, but this is the mental game we have to play as filmmakers and determine when our gut is telling us something really important, or when it's just nagging us about minuscule details. For a perfectionist, there's always something nagging, and I'm constantly running them through a filter to see what ultimately matters.
Not to say that the details aren't important; they certainly are, but when there’s so many elements that make up the bigger picture, it’s difficult to find time to look for these small details that give a piece a cohesive level of nuance from scene to scene. I think the overarching metric of success on an indie film is how you answer this question: When you’re in the heat of battle, do you consistently feel like you made the best decisions you could have?
As a DP, I do have a fair bit of influence on how the set feels. The vibe is largely determined by how I manage my own expectations and what I'm willing to accept as a "shootable" image, coupled with the vibe of my departments and how all of the other departments work in unison in each scene. And the reason I say "my own expectations" is because I know I'm my own worst critic, so I'm confident that I can deliver on everyone else's expectations, but I want to feel like I'm improving. The constant computations going on in my noggin about how we can make the image even better, shouldn't ever create negative connotations about the set. And since people have told me that the set ran like clockwork and there didn't APPEAR to be much drama, this seems be a huge victory, unless they're just being nice. If something isn't ready to shoot, a DP has almost full reins to put their foot down and say "heck no, we're not ready". But the decisions they make has the potential to impact 30-40 people in an instant, so emotional-intelligence is useful.
I have so many thoughts about this experience and lessons learned and this article probably only covers like 2% of my actual thoughts, but hopefully it can provide some insight on the mental game that goes on during a production like this from day to day, scene to scene, and setup to setup.
P.S. I've attached a couple UNGRADED, straight-out-of-camera frames just to provide a little preview for what we created.