photo credit: The U.S. Army
Filmmaking is war.
Armed with paper tape, the foot soldiers of the camera department march forward at the command of the director of photography — their general making the tough choices from the trenches.
Back in the capitol city is the political producer, networking and playing a diplomatic game of chess with the logistical enemies.
And like real war, filmmaking is chaos. Plans get disrupted or intel is mistaken and the way commanders handle these unexpected occurances isn’t always the same.
When the director, the director of photography (DP), and the producer all want different things, who do you take commands from?
The Director is My Boss
The director is the head honcho. The big cheese. The person calling the shots — literally.
So are they your boss?
Well, the director is everybody’s boss. They’re the creative head of the film and it’s usually their singular vision that drives the film set.
They set the tone of the set, the pace of the work, and even dictate what the plan of attack for the day is.
The director is one of the few people involved from the very beginning of a project until the very end of it and because, in essence, it’s their movie, you’re on set to serve their vision.
If the director wants another take, you have to get the slate ready again. If the director wants you to remark an actress, you’ll be on your knees tabbing some fresh camera tape. And if the director thinks you’ve buzzed too much footage, well, you’ll probably end up looking for another job.
The director is your boss in the same way the CEO is the boss of every employee at the company. They are the figurehead of the set and steer it towards an eventual outcome, but they rarely are dipping down into the low ranks of below the line crew to ask for specific tasks to be done.
The Producer is My Boss
If there is anybody who is attached to a project longer than the director, it is usually the producer.
And if you’re wondering, “Is the producer my boss?” let me remind you of something: the producer is the one cutting the checks.
They’re the ones with access to the coffers, signing their name on the bottom line to make sure a budget is balanced with your rate included.
The producer also exists in a sort of creative purgatory. Their immediate duties require a more logistical approach to the filmmaking process, but their power of the purse enables them to make certain creative decisions — resulting in a tense push and pull between them and the director.
But let’s not forget: besides paying you, the producer is also the one who likely gave the OK for you to get hired. And because it’s their project and film set, they can usually ask for a lot of stuff to be done from the crew, even if they don’t know better.
Shackled by the stereotype of a Hollywood jetsetter wasting time on a Bluetooth cell-phone, I feel producers often get the short end of the stick. We usually don’t give them as much credit as they deserve for working their butts off.
Producers enjoy a certain level of seniority on sets because they’re the filter for the money and a major player in the production.
So whether you like it or not, they’re your boss because they hired you, pay you, and it’s their movie, too.
The Director of Photography is My Boss
“I can’t work out whether the DP is really Crew or Management.” - Oliver Stapleton, BSC
Often newcomers to the film world are confused by the duties of the director of photography.
You can’t blame them. The camera department has a unique hierarchy of power. While the director of photography is indeed in charge of the camera department, they’re also assigning work to the grip and electric crew members. As a result, it’s usually the first assistant camera who takes the reigns for camera.
This kind of working relationship has the DP tip-toe the line between colleague and boss. Between crew and management, as Stapleton says.
There’s no doubt about it though: if you’re in the camera department, the director of photography is your closest boss.
Even though the producer pays you and the director controls the set, it’s the director of photography you work with, for, and alongside most directly.
With almost every single job I’ve been hired on, I had to talk to the director of photography before I was given the “OK” to step on set. Because they have to manage three departments at once, their level of trust in the people they hire has to be greater than normal.
So, the director of photography marches in front of the camera department, often operating the camera themselves and dictating where it goes and what it does.
And there’s no denying that you must take commands from them.
Where Do Your Loyalties Lie?
In several ways, all three of the people in these positions of power are your general in the battle of shooting the scene.
But when there are conflicting interests, who do you remain most loyal to?
Is it the director because they’re the highest in the chain of command? Is it the producer because they write the checks? Or is it the DP because they’re the ones you work closest with?
I’ve always been interested in this debate having been involved in a few inter-departmental scuffles. I have always sided with the DP, but usually because I agreed with him, not necessarily because I drew a line in the sand.
So where do you stand? Who’s your boss? Who’s your general? Let me know your choice in the comments!