Born to DOP

The role of the di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy in a fea­ture film is out­lined by Luke White dur­ing his dis­cus­sion with cin­e­matog­ra­pher Dun­can Cole

The Shed - - Film-making -

I first met Dun­can Cole about four years ago when I started work­ing at King­size Stu­dios and he came in to shoot a TV com­mer­cial. Since then, he has be­come a friend and one of my favourite clients. Cole has the magic com­bi­na­tion of be­ing hugely en­thu­si­as­tic about any job he takes on and be­ing a com­plete tech­ni­cal geek. We sat down to talk about his role as cin­e­matog­ra­pher — aka di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy (DOP) — on the new film Born to Dance, as well as his ca­reer in gen­eral.

In his book Out­liers, Mal­colm Glad­well writes that it takes around 10,000 hours of prac­tice to mas­ter any given field. This the­ory pretty much ap­plies to Cole, whose film school was mak­ing mu­sic videos in Welling­ton in the late ’90s. He shot around 200 of them, mean­ing that, by the time he tack­led his first fea­ture, in 2003, he’d han­dled pretty much any sit­u­a­tion a short-film pro­duc­tion could throw at him. Mak­ing mu­sic videos is a triedand-tested path for film-mak­ers that has been trod­den by the likes of An­ton Cor­bijn, Michel Gondry, David Fincher, Michael Bay, Spike Lee, and count­less oth­ers. They pro­vide ex­cel­lent ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with mi­cro bud­gets un­der pres­sure. They are also not gen­er­ally nar­ra­tive based and can be pretty for­giv­ing of any screw-ups.

Work­ing as part of a film pro­duc­tion dif­fers from most stills shoots in that you are part of a big crew and time is money — things sim­ply must stay on sched­ule. A lot of a cin­e­matog­ra­pher’s re­spon­si­bil­ity is keep­ing things on track and quickly han­dling any prob­lems that may arise. A good DOP must not only be well pre­pared, with a well-formed plan, but also have the knowl­edge (and the level head) to be able to roll with what­ever un­ex­pected chal­lenges come at them.

When a DOP signs up to shoot a film, their first job is to read the script and make notes, scene by scene, of stylis­tic di­rec­tion, light­ing, and com­po­si­tional el­e­ments.

“You need to lose your­self in the script; you end up liv­ing it for a few days,” Cole ex­plains. Af­ter this, Cole spends time im­mers­ing him­self in the genre. For ex­am­ple, Born to Dance has sev­eral night-time car in­te­rior scenes. Rather than the ob­vi­ous Taxi Driver (which ac­tu­ally has ter­ri­ble light­ing), he re­watched films like Jim Jar­musch’s Night on Earth and Ni­co­las Wind­ing Refn’s Drive, which are visu­ally stun­ning.

If you know Cole, you’ll know that dance isn’t re­ally his thing: “Friends laughed when I told them I was shoot­ing a New Zealand hip-hop dance film.” In fact, he’d never seen a dance film be­fore — not even Flash­dance or Dirty Danc­ing. Cole’s out­sider in­ter­est and en­thu­si­asm worked in his favour, though, as he im­mersed him­self in watch­ing all the block­busters of the genre and set about ad­dress­ing the tech­ni­cal and cre­ative chal­lenges.

This is a fresh, young film, and, to en­gage the au­di­ence, it was es­sen­tial that the look stood up to other big-bud­get films of re­cent years. It had to look shiny, rich, and ex­pen­sive at a frac­tion of the bud­get of films like the Step Up se­ries. While fight­ing films are gen­er­ally driven by fast, showy cam­era work, the cam­era gen­er­ally hangs back in dance films to al­low the scope of the group per­for­mance to hap­pen within the frame. The feel of this movie is all about the light­ing. Like most DOPs, Cole is hap­pi­est when craft­ing big beau­ti­ful light­ing set-ups.

“If there weren’t peo­ple telling me to hurry up, I’d spend days tweak­ing and per­fect­ing the light,” he ex­plains. There are no tricks or hardand-fast rules for beau­ti­ful light­ing. Un­like pho­tog­ra­phy, the tal­ent moves around when you’re film­ing, mak­ing for a whole dif­fer­ent set of con­straints. The light­ing should be con­sid­ered and fig­ured out, but you need to be open to chang­ing things at a mo­ment’s no­tice. “Use your eyes and go with what feels right,” Cole ad­vises.

There were lots of op­por­tu­ni­ties to play with light­ing and vis­ual tricks dur­ing the film’s fi­nale, as they changed out the stage light­ing for each dif­fer­ent dance crew in­volved in the scene, in a high-pres­sured four days of shoot­ing. For ex­am­ple — the ‘bad guys’ were lit with a cold wash for the wide shots and ul­travi­o­let light, which gave the per­form­ers glow­ing teeth and white out­fits.

A large part of Cole’s work is mak­ing TV com­mer­cials, which he en­joys hugely. The process is quite dif­fer­ent to mak­ing a show or a fea­ture, as the end prod­uct is go­ing to be 30 sec­onds rather than 120 min­utes long. That means that time and re­sources are gen­er­ally al­lowed to craft and pol­ish ev­ery shot. But TV com­mer­cials are chang­ing. I haven’t watched TV in al­most two years. At home, I watch Netflix or Neon or, very oc­ca­sion­ally, a Bluray. Ad agen­cies and film-mak­ing pro­fes­sion­als pre­dict that more and more view­ers will do the same, and the tra­di­tional for­mat of TV com­mer­cials must evolve. How­ever, rather than be­ing wor­ried about this change, Cole is ex­cited to be work­ing in a new era of ad­ver­tis­ing. There are so many new av­enues for mo­tion in our on­line mo­bile-en­abled age. The lat­est gen­er­a­tion of suc­cess­ful ad­verts is en­gag­ing and of­fers value or en­ter­tain­ment to the viewer as a re­ward for their pre­cious time.

On-de­mand TV is also af­fect­ing the way dra­mas are made, with view­ers binge-watch­ing en­tire sea­sons in days rather than over months. Cole cites the fan­tas­tic dra­mas that have come out of Den­mark in re­cent years, such as Bor­gen and The Killing, as an in­spi­ra­tion to New Zealand, which he thinks will be­come a fan­tas­tic and glob­ally sig­nif­i­cant pro­ducer of qual­ity drama. As a fan of great films and TV, I hope he’s right.

You can find more of Dun­can Cole’s work on his web­site, dun­can­cole.com.

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