Want to know a secret nobody tells you until after you’ve got a few jobs under your belt? Here it is:
Nobody cares about your opinion unless they ask.
And even then, they might not really want to hear it.
On numerous occasions, I’ve watched newbies make the mistake of either sharing too many of their thoughts, sharing too little, or just plain saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
The art of giving your opinion treads a fine line between brutal honesty and delicate lies, but if you can walk that tightrope with ease, you’ll foster a stronger working relationship with whoever is asking.
So here are five steps for whenever the director of photography (DP) walks up and asks you, “So what’d you think of the shot?”
Step 1. Reciprocate the Question
Your first reaction when you get asked for your opinion should always be, “Well, what do you think?”
Most of the time people ask for an opinion because they need to compile their own thoughts. Someone once told me, “You never really know anything until you’ve written it down.”
I’m a firm believer in that and that it extends to speaking too. By explaining your ideas, you’re forced form a coherent argument from the intangible chaos that is the human brain.
Flipping the question around also helps by…
- Giving you an indication of how firm they are on their original plan
- Allowing you time to form an opinion if you didn’t have one already
- Showing you have an interest in finding the best approach — not just yours
You’d be surprised how often you’ll never have to share an opinion if you ask this question right back. Most of the time, the person asking will answer it themselves.
Step 2. Inject Your Opinion as Conversation
If reciprocating the question doesn’t help the person solve their problem, it’s time for you to share your own thoughts on the matter. Doing this tactfully is important to maintaining a healthy professional relationship with the DP.
Basically, you want to be so sincerely honest they will respect your opinion while also being judiciously inventive with how you phrase it.
The way I often handle that is to fit my opinion in as part of the conversation I started with step 1. You don’t want to come outright and say what you’re thinking, but build and gather thoughts from where the conversation already was.
As an example…
D.P.: I like the way the shadows fall off on the side of her face, but do you think the highlights are hot enough?
You: The shadows do like nice — I’d keep them. But you’re right to worry about the highlights, I think there’s something that can be done there.
You don’t want to come straight out and analyze every single part of the frame (unless you’re specifically asked) because they might not have problems with what you have problems with. Address their concerns in an honest way that moves a conversation forward instead of you coming across as telling them how to do their job.
Step 3. Offer Alternative Approaches
One thing that has always bugged me about asking others for their opinion is when they criticize without offering solutions.
I remember sending out a survey for this site awhile back and getting responses back like “needs to look better.” When it comes down to it, that response is neither helpful nor genuine. Instead it comes across as obnoxious and useless.
Before you open your mouth to share your opinion, always be ready to provide alternative solutions or at least help guide the conversation towards it.
If you just come out and say “the lighting isn’t very good,” you’re not helping anyone and I bet you’ll never get asked your opinion again — if you still have a job, that is.
Step 4. Explain Which Alternatives You Prefer
To further extend your critique, give reasons for why you would change what has already been done and why your new method is preferable.
The more specific you can be, the better. Let’s look at two examples and you tell me which one is more helpful:
- I’d knock down the backlight a bit. It’ll look better against the background for her character.
- I’d knock down the backlight a bit so she’s flatter against the background — her house — which her character is unable to escape from anyway.
- You should blackout those windows so it doesn’t clip.
- You should blackout those windows so it doesn’t clip and that way you can have more even light throughout the room.
You don’t have to know all the answers, but you should be able to give some reasons for the DP to consider. Even just an inkling of a reason is better than nothing. The idea is to propel the conversation forward towards an ultimate decision.
Step 5. Be Willing to Let it Go
Sometimes you’ll get asked your opinion and the DP will never use it.
It could be because they disagreed, because they didn’t want to know in the first place, or because they wanted an ego boost instead of an honest critique.
But that’s OK: Just let it go.
There’s nothing wrong with your ideas not being used. Think of it this way: it wouldn’t have been your decision in the first place, so nothing has changed.
In short, don’t get annoyed if your opinion is poo-poo’ed on set.
Bonus Tip: Stay Within Your Boundaries
You weren’t asked how you’d light the entire scene. Or whether the script is an Oscar winner. And you probably weren’t asked how you think the lead actor is handling the pressure of carrying the film.
So, if you weren’t asked, then keep it to yourself. Those kind of thoughts are what going out for drinks with other below the line crew are for. You can let loose, bitch, moan, and laugh about all the shortcomings of a days work.
Basically, answer what you’re asked and then stop. If you’re asked more, answer more, but never take a question as an invitation to start running the set. You can leave overstepping boundaries to the executive producers! :-P
How do you react when you’re asked for your opinion on set? Do you shy away from answering or are you blatantly honest? Which do you think DP’s respect more?