Federico Rea is an experienced Director of Photography who has just completed his first short film as Director, on which he was also DP. He talks to us about his experience balancing the two roles.
When you are a freelancer you are constantly waiting for an email, text, call or a Facebook post to see where your next paycheck is coming. During that time I've always been open to working on low/no budget short film projects if I believed in the project and it was something that I could see moving my career forward, but I found myself getting sent a few stinkers that, if anything, would have been a step back in my career. So I began to write my own.
I’ve always had many ideas but my problem being a DP first and foremost is that I have beautiful imagery in my mind but no story to back them up.
Growing up we all remember our grandparents and parents telling us the same stories over and over again, and you feel obligated to listen to these each time pretending that it’s the first as you don’t want to offend them. After four failed attempts trying to write fiction, I remembered a story my father told me… countless times.
Battered Dreams is a short film that was inspired by my father’s experience when he moved from Italy into a new country in the 70's. It's all set in a 1970's British fish & chip shop where a young man called Santino chips potatoes while hoping for a better life. His dreams of fame and fortune are constantly trampled upon while working long hours and under a very strict boss, but one night he gets his 15 minutes to shine.
Like many other migrants, back then as well as today, he moved in the hope of making a better life for himself, whilst fulfilling his dreams; something that he only could have dreamt of if he had stayed in a small town in rural Italy.
The opportunity to make this short film came about thanks to my producer, David Baumber, for whom I have been working for the past year at Wailing Banshee. He liked the story and supported me in good faith!
I chose to be both DP and director on this project. As a DP you are focusing on telling the story through images and light; as a director, you are trying to tell the story through the characters and emotion. Actors are challenging - directing them is a full time job in itself!
Being a DP, you are working with your crew to capture the story. In pre-production, after the final draft was locked, I studied the script and then made the shot list I wanted. From this, I drew the storyboard. Going through this process three times, I made sure that I had envisioned each and every shot before we even started filming. In balancing both jobs of DP and director, I had a trusted team and especially an extremely reliable grip, who knew exactly what I wanted to film before we even went on set.
Carrying the responsibility of two posts is not easy. The main practical difficulty I found was being forced to leave the set behind to speak with actors to direct their actions and expressions, while camera set ups were being done without me. Juggling the two was challenging indeed, but not impossible.
There was also some benefits to having my DP experience, as being familiar with all the equipment, I knew on the day and in advance if I could achieve a certain shot without wasting time. For example, in the opening scene we have one long shot that travels through the chip shop. I knew with the equipment I had available I could achieve the shot. Sometimes directors want a shot like this where they haven't shared in pre-production and as DP you must think on your feet to get it.
Being director and DP for Battered Dreams came with its own set of lessons. No matter how well you have prepared, it’s still a tough taking on two big roles. This is why having a supportive and trusted crew is fundamental. Writing a story that is confined in one location, made it easier for camera and lighting set-ups.
I don't want to say that I wouldn't DP/direct again but hopefully this will open more opportunities for me as a Cinematographer. Undertaking both roles, and overcoming the problems encountered, has helped me to develop and understand the difficulties involved. My passion for film means I'd happily do this again with the right team behind me, although I might need a holiday afterwards. Also I think DPs should direct something that is their own work to show there creative ability. It shows directors and producers that you have an imaginative mind and as well as a technical one.
If you are a DP and are thinking about directing your first film, remember to keep it simple. Use one or two locations, as it will reduce your set-up time and give you more time to work with actors. If you are thinking of going bigger with more locations and more camera set-ups, find a DP you trust and let them do their job, you concentrate on directing.
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