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
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.