In my experience as a DP there are 2 types of Production Designers; the ones that design for the film, they understand what the camera sees and how it works. The second type of designer understands what the producer sees and is designing for them, unfortunately this usually doesn’t translate well into what the camera is going to see.
I was fortunate to get to start my career shooting on Hollywood sound stages working with PD and Art Directors with hundreds of years of combined experiences, I learned a lot from them on the craft of filmmaking. The business has shifted to shooting in warehouses in rebate states, making Atlanta, Georgia look like San Bernadino. California. For "The Founder", Michael Cornblith, our exceptional designer who’ve I collaborated with 4 times, not only had to make a period film on a shoestring budget but to do it in a part of the world that doesn’t resemble Southern California, the irony of shooting Georgia for SoCal is heartbreaking.
In my situation I work with the same directors on many pictures so I may have had discussions with the director before the picture been financed and many times weigh in on whom I think would be a good Production Designer for the project. In today’s world films fall into really 2 categories, are they big budget studio pictures or smaller location pictures, each one requires a very different approach. Studio pictures now require much longer prep and usually involve not only the Director, PD and DP but usually the VFX supervisor weighs in heavily as well because these types of shows usually involve set extensions and pre-visualization. Location films have less moving parts, you own what you shoot everyday, the PD and the location manager are key, they are scouting during prep rather than having a team of designers working on sketch up. When I come aboard locations have been found and I make sure that the spaces can accommodate the kind of staging that the picture needs. Budgets on location shows are usually less that studio pictures, so the closer the practical location fits the bill in the script the better.
Analog Film stills look better than the best digital image but the digital cameras because of there increased sensitivity have allowed us to utilize locations that in the film world might not have been available due to the extensive pre-rigging needed. On a digital show we can now walk into most restaurants and provided we all like the existing lighting pretty much start from there. The real trajgedy is that just when film was at its best, digital came in and took over based on the concept that it was cheaper, not better… I am very aware of color, and usually the PD and I are on the same page because the material is really telling you what it should be, we are both there to service the story. It is my job to help bring the PD and Directors vision to the screen, I know how colors will be represented by how the light hits them, and I try to make sure the PD understands what my approach to lighting is going to be. A blue wall hit with warm light becomes a shade of gray not a shade of blue. Day Exterior locations can only be approached from this mantra: Time of day and Direction. That is the only control there is for day time shooting, short of flying huge shade rigs off of large cranes, and to me that is admitting defeat, the moment that is the call you are in the wrong location. I tend to like walls darker than skin tones, it’s much easier for a DP to add light then it is to take it away, that is true in any situation. Now add a digital camera to the party and it’s doubly true, what’s makes digital cameras great in practical locations also makes it very difficult to achieve true blacks. Getting an Arri Alexa to go black in the shadows is much more difficult than it is with a film camera. With digital cinema I tend to go a shade darker on the gray scale than I would on analog film a matter of course.
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