by Cyle Gage
Cinematographer, Sexually Frank
I like running gags. Long-running, painful, inside jokes. Especially ones that are too grotesque to be spoken in public. It’s no surprise that I like to surround myself with people who can stomach those jokes, or at least tolerate them by competing with worse ones. That’s the kind of camaraderie and mutual anti-respect you need to successfully make a real movie.
It’s not even necessarily about being friends. Really, the only thing you need is people who have spent a lot of time together and know each other enough to be tolerable. If you can sit next to them for eight hours a day at a job and you don’t mind going out for a drink afterwards, they’d be pretty okay to have on set. If you can work well with them under any kind of time constraint or stress, they’d be priceless to have on set. You need to actually respect them, and have them respect you. That takes time. Nothing more complicated than that.
Frankie Frain and I sat next to each other in an office for a few summers, sharing the same jokes, blasting the same 80s hair metal. We’ve worked together for maybe… five years? Something scary like that. We became friends quickly, but the foundation of that friendship is both an equal admiration for the same dumb things as well as the ability to disagree on everything. There’s nothing Frankie and I enjoy more than a good disagreement. One of our shared beliefs is that people standing around agreeing with each other sucks. That’s the foundation of a good working relationship: the ability to disagree, loudly and proudly, and know we’ll be fine. It’s that kind of friendship you need for movie-making to be easy and efficient. Really, it’s the key to any form of collaborative endeavor.
Notice that I’ve said nothing about skill sets or experience or even the desire to make movies. Personally, I hated film, and I largely still do dislike the process of making movies. I like going to the movies, and I like well-made movies, but I don’t see them as something magical or standout or particularly more interesting than any other form of expression. Having gone to a college which gets most of its revenue from its film students, I’ve been exposed to most of the movie-making process. I was not a film student, but I was surrounded by them constantly. Even dated a few. Few things revolt me more than the idea of being on one of those film sets.
I should mention right now that this is not intended to be read by anyone who really wants to “make it big in Hollywood”, because none of this will apply to you. Learn to suck dick, then go to Los Angeles. That’ll help. Learn to hand out business cards and repeat your name five hundred times. Don’t read the rest of this if you think you’re going to get rich making movies by the time you’re 30. Or even 40. If you want to make dumb, Michael Bay-esque explosion-fests or gory, cheap-thrill shit, then it’s easier to learn chemistry and be the only guy on set who knows how to make C4 or convincing fake blood than go straight to LA and try to direct any of that shit. That’s not to say any genre of film is better or worse than any other, because they’re all equally worthless (and worthwhile).
Frankie makes movies that he likes, and that’s the whole point. Sexually Frank is, explicitly, the revealing of uncomfortable sexual truths among a group of friends. That’s the kind of stuff we love talking about any old time. When writing the script and while directing, the common question was “how do we talk about these weird issues in ways that aren’t going to confuse or turn off an audience?” Because the movie could’ve been heavy-handed, dramatic, and/or boring if we handled it incorrectly. Instead Sexually Frank is dramatic when it needs to be, kept light-hearted with comedy, and driven home with absurd ideas like toes going into butts. The making of the movie felt like a group of people who don’t really know what they’re doing exactly, but all have the passion to do whatever it takes to get the movie done. That concept is more valuable than anything or any one person.
When starting out, I didn’t know how to shoot a movie or record audio or color correct or anything, but those are just skills. They should not govern whether a movie should be attempted. It is my belief that anyone can learn skills like these if they want to and are willing to put in the time to do so. Like making any art, it might also take a lot of practice shoots and a few failures. Or a lot of failures. Nobody goes to film school and immediately knows how to pick up a 70mm-stock camera and shoot like Kubrick. In fact, after four years in a film school, you probably still won’t have any clue how to really wrestle with marrying story and cinematography. At best, you’ll know someone who’s good with a camera, and someone who’s good at writing and/or directing for the screen. Hopefully you should recognize what you’re interested in and be able to gauge your progress in its study. You won’t be anywhere near perfect, but the passion better be there to continue learning.
Over the course of filming Sexually Frank, I learned how to actually shoot a movie. There’s a huge gap of experience between the first shot I ever recorded on Day One and the last shot on Day Eighteen. Over the course of around eighteen days of shooting, an average of 8 hours a day, I went from “can frame a shot, maybe” to “decent cinematographer”. And it didn’t happen over eighteen straight days; it was eighteen days stretched over a year. A series of weekends here, a couple days a month later, maybe another couple of days three months later, et cetera. This gave me time to review what I’d done and receive feedback from people who knew better than me. Feedback is useful even from people who have no idea how to shoot a movie, but had seen enough movies to know something was slightly wrong with the camera framing.
Knowing good people, especially having them on set, was key to my growth as a cameraman. It’s worth more than any amount of money spent on equipment. You should throw most of your equipment away if you think you need it. Of what I shot for Sexually Frank, all of it was on a Canon 7D, a lot of the time using sub-$50 old lenses, with a homemade shoulder rig that cost about $40. Yes, the camera costs a lot of money, but it wasn’t mine. It was the audio guy’s. Besides, $1,800 for a Canon 7D (at the time) is much cheaper than a $15,000+ “professional” digital film camera. And the cheaper camera actually produces a better picture in a lot of situations with much less fuss and overhead. Even more so, the people who are going to be watching your movie probably won’t have any idea whether you shot it on the cheap DSLR or the uber-expensive Sony EXS9000 Whatever-o-tron.
Instead of obsessing over shot-types and lighting, hopefully your audience will be enjoying a solid story with good characters, made by people who obviously cared a lot about making the movie. The amount of love and time put into a movie is far more evident than any sum of money. I’ve seen kids spend tens of thousands of dollars on their dumb class projects, demanding the highest-end cameras and lighting equipment, only to have it all wasted on primadonna actors and poorly-written story, held together by a crew who are all there because they either thought it was cool or they needed the class credit. Nine times out of ten, that kind of set is a busy-hive of the super-stressed and the clueless, few of whom have any idea why they’re actually there by the end of it.
The best advice I can give is that you should stop thinking you know what you’re doing. In fact, don’t be concerned whether something is right or wrong. Most people enter filmmaking with grandiose, boring expectations for film greatness and high art experience. If you’re making a movie for any reason other than personal ones, you’re not taking the job seriously. Do you like being on set? Working with people who also like working with you? Good. None of this should involve great sums of money or the need for special people. Pretend you have no money and actually examine what will be lost.
That crazy $5000 lighting kit? Why did you need it? To simulate daylight? Why not shoot in the fucking daylight then? Last I heard, that shit was free. You need a thousand dollars for an actor’s time? Is it the lead? Can you not extend casting another month to try to find a solid non-union person? You know that union people will only work for X hours a day, will require food, and will want you to cover their travel expenses. Probably for a shitty, contrived performance. You saw a location five states away that fulfills all your dreams for this movie? Too fucking bad, your dreams aren’t realistic. They’re dreams. Rewrite that script to take place somewhere closer to home. Besides, if your story is largely hinged on the lighting or the locations, you might have a shitty story. Make sure there’s a balance of priorities between “getting it done” and “what’s worth wasting time on”. More importantly: are you paying for all of this? How much are you willing to spend? Do you want to have to listen to someone else’s expectations when you take their money for your movie?
Sexually Frank‘s budget was as close to zero dollars as we could make it. We were not afraid to spend money, but with a little more effort we usually could find a way to not have to. Social capital gave us huge gains: knowing the right people who already had easy access to equipment, or having friends who had worked with Frankie previously and were happy to act in another silly movie. That having been said, on-set expectations had to be lowered. If an actor bailed, we couldn’t do much about it because they were free. We had to be able to adapt. I even ended up acting in a scene (thankfully it was cut), leaving Frankie to try and do camerawork. Likewise, when Jon, our audio guy, couldn’t make it to a shoot, I had to do audio, leaving just Dan as sole cameraman. Playing fast and loose is a part of the experience.
Cinematography, in order to be good, should be free. The “hard part” does involve lighting, but that’s not what makes it good or bad. Can you frame a shot, to show intention, to show vulnerability or domination, to compliment the actor or scene rather than distract from it? A good cinematographer should never be noticed. If the audience is too busy being annoyed by a bright flare in the shot, they won’t see the expression on your actor’s face. Conversely, if you don’t have any light on your actor’s face because you think the goddamn sliver of hair-light above him is so important, you also will lose your audience. Your whole job as the cinematographer is to capture shit on film, nothing more. Did you get the shot? Can I see it, understand what I’m seeing, and move on? Great. From there, you can try making things interesting.
Don’t be afraid to trust your instincts to start with. In fact, if you’re like me and have watched a shitload of movies, your instincts will probably be halfway decent. Your eyes will know what a medium shot is without requiring the vocabulary. You’ll see when an actor is poorly lit, or when they blend into the background, or when their head suddenly gets cut off while they’re moving around the scene. If anything, you should stop trying to think so damn hard about what you’re doing and let your eyes control your hands.
Camerawork has the most to do with watching people, or rather, it has to do with facilitating the watching of people. The audience enjoys being able to relate with the people on screen. How do you accomplish that with the camera? Usually it’s pretty easy: focus on the eyes. Where is the actor looking? What are they avoiding looking at? Focus on the face. Do you shoot it with the actor looking into a lot of open space, or looking at the edge of the frame? These are questions that can’t be answered, really. They’re dependent upon the situation, they require a feeling. But it’s not difficult to process and it’s not a sacred art.
Our primary storytelling with Sexually Frank was character-driven, so we needed the camerawork to compliment that. We focuesed a lot on the actors’ eyelines and their faces. Specifically being able to see an actor’s eyes prominently enough in the frame that the audience could follow where they were looking and their reactions to other characters. In a dialogue-heavy film, this is crucial to being able to follow the feelings of the characters. The most complex lighting involved answering the question: “can we see the actor’s face and see where their eyes are looking?” and “does the reverse shot of where they’re actually looking match up with it?”
It takes time to learn how to do this, but a lot of it is instinctual. You’ll have to learn to shoot differently if you want to be filming explosions and car chases, but the foundation of character-driven storytelling is simple to discuss but difficult to master. The first shot I did was the cafeteria/work scene, and my initial framing was to get all three of them sitting at the table in a centered medium-wide shot. It was passable, but overall didn’t help the audience know what was going on within the minds of the characters. One of the last shots I took for the movie was Jess’s face at her kitchen table as she watches Frank leave after they have a disagreement. The sunlight (free!) on her face is great, and being able to watch her eyes gives us a direct connection to the guilt she’s feeling. It was a long road from that first shot to the last.
After a short while, if there’s trust built between you and those you work with, a shorthand will form. Communication will become easy. You might not learn the “professional” film kid vocabulary, but you’ll figure out a way to discuss shooting before having to actually shoot. Be upfront and honest with everyone (especially yourself) about your time spent shooting and what could work better. Understand that you can always use more experience; you’ll never be perfect. Not a single great director, cinematographer, or artist in general has ever really been perfect. Nor was their aim to attain such an impossible goal. Have fun shooting shit, and hopefully you’ll get something watchable out of it. If you don’t, you can always come up with something else to shoot next weekend.
Myself, Frankie, Dan, Jon, Nina, and all the other cast and crew of Sexually Frank, by the time filming was over, had shared a huge amount of dick jokes and 80s music. We’d had fights on set, but never ones that amounted to delays or hurt feelings. I took over the role of cameraman AND audio guy simultaneously a few times in a couple scenes. I even “directed” a couple takes just because Frankie had left the room and everybody wanted to be doing something. (I think maybe one of them ended up in the movie.) We had so much energy and fun, we were ready to keep shooting for another eighteen days if we needed to. All it takes to attain that kind of drive and excitement is a positive atmosphere, a good foundation of friends, and a funny idea for a movie.