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From the Lens: Breaking Down A Script As Director Of Photography

Director of Photography Nathan Blair explains how he breaks down a script when first tackling his role as DP.

Editor's Note: Meet Nathan Blair, Director of Photography on my short film, Impasse. In working with Nathan, I learned an enormous amount about screenwriting and how to ensure my writing vision would translate successfully in the collaboration process. Join me in welcoming Nathan to the ScriptMag family, sharing his process of interpreting a script with our readers in his new monthly column, From the Lens.

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By Nathan Blair

Meeting a filmmaker to discuss their next film project is always such a strange and exciting moment. They’re like bizarre little “calls to adventure.” There’s no telling what kind of person I’m about to engage conversation with, or what weird little challenges are attached.


Nathan Blair behind the lens

A filmmaker recently contacted me to discuss the possibilities of hiring me as Director of Photography (DP) for their short film. When I asked about their script, they offered a very general response:

“It’s a film about a guy that goes through a life changing experience... what else would you like to know?”

I felt this was not really enough information for me to make a smart business decision. How could anybody decide to take that job? That’s like posting a classified ad that reads “waitress needed for a restaurant that serves food in America.”

What else do I need to know? The answer is: Everything!

Everything should be in the script, and the production team can use that as a common ground to start up a conversation surrounding the production.

When I’m not on set, I’m usually breaking down scripts, or researching for a variety of projects I’m involved in. I think a common misconception is that a DP is simply a technician, but there is far more to the role, and it all begins with the screenplay.

So, how do I look at screenplays?

To be honest with you, at first glance I always check the page count and formatting. I don’t want this to make me sound pretentious in some way. Believe me, I’ve worked with screenplays that would make a professional screenwriter vomit, and that’s OK with me. The thing is, these clues are just a couple early warnings about how experienced the filmmaker is, and how intense the project might be. Sometimes despite these signs, the project could pan out very smoothly. Most times, it doesn’t.

When I first read a screenplay, there are three key elements I take note of:

1) Tone.
What’s the overall tone of the film? In other words, do I imagine this film as bright, or dark? At this point I try not to start immediately thinking of details. This is a very general decision-- the first one I make.

Still shot from 'Impasse' - John T. Woods and Jennifer Fontaine. Directed by Michael Bekemeyer

Still shot from 'Impasse' - John T. Woods and Jennifer Fontaine. Directed by Michael Bekemeyer

To determine this, I often think about the genre, and the characters I’m working with. When reading the script for Jeanne Veillette Bowerman’s Impasse, in the first scene, a line read “She shifts her face to the side, revealing eyes whose soul has long departed.” It was a pretty clear indication of a dark tone! It prompted me to start imagining each scene as a dark image. Yet, the realism of the story, and the dialogue within it, told me to hold back from making it too edgy, and allow it to look naturally gloomy rather than a stylized effect.

This little detail is the first step to my creative process, because it’s probably the broadest stroke I can make. Similar to a painter choosing their undercoat, I must first choose my tone.

2) Special Requirements.
These could include Steadicam, areal helicopter shots, green screen effects, and so many more tricks of the trade. Sometimes I know right away that a scene will require special equipment or personnel.

When reading The Refrigerator (written by Michael Molina), I drew a big circle around the line “Howie puts his hand in the refrigerator. It DISAPPEARS.” Obviously, there would be some special technique involved here unless we cast a wizard. What was helpful in this scenario, was that Michael capitalized “DISAPPEARS” specifically to make my job easier. By doing this, he was telling me there was an effect I needed to take note of. (Read about my experience lensing The Refrigerator here!)

Highlighting these special requirements in a film prepares me to discuss any logistics with the production team. It also tells me what I’ll need to research if I haven’t had prior experience.

3) Time. 
What’s the timeline of events within the story? Does everything happen in one day, or is it all drawn out to weeks, months, or years? This detail is important, because I’ll need to visually portray time in the film. If time passes slowly, then I should think about very still and long shots. If time passes quickly, then I should consider adding motion to the camera. If the film begins in the Spring and ends in the Fall, I should think about using different color schemes to portray those seasons.

This brings me to the artistic analysis of a screenplay. I’ll often jot notes down all over a script as I carefully dissect it. I note the emotion of each scene, and find creative ways to portray those emotions through camera or lighting techniques.

Certain colors, compositions, and camera movements can suggest a lot. Sometimes these choices relate to basic human instinct, while other times they’re more about artistic interpretation. I like to use these elements to manipulate an audience’s emotions at certain points in a story. (I mean that... in the least creepy way).

A good example of this impressionistic style of filmmaking can be found in Gladiator, lensed by John Mathieson. In the first battle, Mathieson chose to shoot at a shutter speed of 8 frames per second to give an impression of what it’s like to be completely exhausted and disoriented in the chaos of a battlefield. Meanwhile he used a shutter speed narrower than 180 degrees, so that when swords were swung through frame they created what he called “a multi-bladed effect” which accentuates the aggression of a sword battle.

You could apply these types of decisions in a number of ways, and this is what I usually spend time scribbling across pages as I read. For instance, sometimes a character should be portrayed as evil, so I might keep them in the darkness in an appropriate scene. On the other hand, the goal may be to mislead the audience and I might go against this convention. Maybe a character has fallen in love, so I might make a note to keep the depth of field shallow in order to soften the world around them.

impasse shot

Jen Fontaine of 'Impasse'

At this point, I know what I want specific moments to look like, what colors I want to use, what compositions, etc... It’s now time to make decisions on how to achieve these looks. This is the point where I can finally make very technical choices. For instance, if I’ve noted that there are lots of night exteriors, I might suggest using an Arri Alexa because of it’s excellent low light performance. If I’ve noted that it’s supposed to be a very hot environment, I might want a lens filter that tints the image orange or yellow (my favorite right now is the Coral series).

These are mostly artistic decisions, and as with any art, there are many ways to create something that’s effective. My methods and my style choices work for me, but another DP will probably feel comfortable working differently. Regardless of your approach, it’s important to understand the tools and techniques you have at your disposal, and to be sure you’re on the same page with the rest of your collaborative team. This is the number one reason I put all this effort into breaking down a screenplay. I want to fully understand what I am trying to create, so that I can clearly articulate that to my teammates.

After brainstorming my artistic interpretations of a screenplay, I’ll chat with the film’s Director about their vision. Sometimes of course, my ideas can be very different from what they had in mind. In this case, we’ll either come to a compromise, or I’ll always defer to them as they are my boss. This discussion determines what I call the visual style -- the general guide that I use through the entire duration of a film production. Read about my use of visual style to lens Impasse, in a blog post I wrote for Adorama.

This is my process of breaking down a script as a DP. It’s a process that requires me to completely immerse myself in a writer’s work, and use the technical knowledge I constantly absorb to translate it to the screen.

Do you have any useful tips or techniques about breaking down scripts?

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