Best Practices with Cinematographer Dan Kneece

Dan Kneece speaks at LAPPG about Shooting Short Schedule Features.

We’re so thrilled to have the chance to talk best practices with Director of Photography and Steadicam Operator extraordinaire, Dan Kneece. Many of you have seen his work on films such as Blue Velvet, Muholland Drive and Jackie Brown and some of you know may recognize his face from our LAPPG meetings where he’s been a member for a few years now as well as a presenter.  Dan has worked with some of Hollywood’s most well known film directors including Quentin Tarantino, Joel Schumacher, Wes Craven and David Lynch.

So let’s jump into the production side of things with some of Dan’s best practices and advice for working in this field.

 

Dan Kneece on Jackie Brown with Quentin Tarantino. Photo by Darren Michaels

Los Angeles Post Production Group: What do you think someone starting out in the field should know about filmmaking?

Dan Kneece: The business wants to categorize you, so once they know you in one classification, it can be difficult to change to another. Choose wisely as you will be there for a while. That said, don’t try to start at the top. If you do, you are cheating yourself of the opportunity to work under masters and learn. Contrary to your current beliefs, you don’t know it all.

LAPPG: Are there certain things someone should do before they start shooting?

DK: When you walk into a location don’t mess up what’s already there!  Turn on the camera and look at the location before you start lighting. You may be pleasantly surprised. Encourage the director to have a private rehearsal so you can see how the actors play the set. Then have a crew rehearsal for marks. Afterwards the actors go to makeup while you light the set.

LAPPG: What is an important trait for all cinematographers have?

DK: A cinematographer should always be story driven. The script is the foundation of the film. Everything you need to know is in the script and your job is to serve it.

LAPPG: What advice do you have for running a camera crew and making sure production runs smoothly?

DK: Hire people better than you are and let them do their jobs. Empower people. Don’t micromanage. If you do, you cheat only yourself.

LAPPG: What are your tips for working well with a director?

Dan working on Lost Highway with David Lynch. Photo by Suzanne Tenner

 

DK: Always remember you are not making your film. You are making the director’s film. That is the reason you are there. You both have to be making the same movie. Otherwise you are doomed for failure.

LAPPG: What are some strategies you use when you have to shoot a feature on a tight budget?

DK: Serve the script to the best of your ability with the resources and time allotted. Your only priority is to capture the performances, hopefully without burning too many bridges along the way. It takes very little to make a film. First you need an idea, people to execute that idea and a camera. If you have that you can make a film. It’s very simple really. You can make a film for no money at all if you have these elements. Everything else is luxury.

Dan and Gregg Thompson using the Panther Roller Plate Dolly. Photo by Ojan Missaghi

LAPPG: What is on your Pre-Production Checklist?

DK: I decide on what we need after talking with the director and producer so we know what is required and what we can afford. Always be ready to do it another way if your first thought does not fit with the thoughts of others. I don’t usually make lists unless there is something very specific. My camera package is similar most times, usually a body and primes, head and sticks, the usual stuff. For dramas this is fine. For fantasies things get more elaborate, but less is more in my world.

LAPPG: What do you think about when framing a shot?

DK: Does what I do serve the script? How does this shot tell the story? How does it move the story forward? The script tells you what you need to do, what the movie should look like, what the feel of the film is. Do not betray that. Your duty, your loyalty lies there.

LAPPG: What are some down and dirty tips for Steadicam operators?

Dan with Panavision’s Steadicam version, the Panaglide, on The Public Eye.

DK: Don’t fall down.

If you do fall down, break as little as possible.

When you fall down, if you have to choose between damaging equipment or yourself, sacrifice the equipment.

LAPPG: Any tips that a DP should keep in mind when they get to a location? 

DK: The ability to look and realize what you are seeing is very important. Many times what you find when you arrive looks beautifully natural in a way that will be hard to recreate without much work. The downside is it doesn’t stay that way so you have to work quickly. If you lose it, it will never come back so think about how you are going to match the close ups when it’s gone and shoot the wide shot first.

LAPPG: What advice do you have for solving on-set problems?

Dan with Pam Grier on the set of Jackie Brown. Photo by Darren Michaels

DK: Keep an open mind and think quickly. Be flexible.

LAPPG: How much influence do you have in terms of color and how the final image looks?

DK: Only half of a Director of Photography’s job is done when the cameras quit rolling. The other half is in the Digital Intermediate. This is the biggest challenge for the DP today, to convey the importance of having time in the DI suite alone with the colorist so the look of the film can be realized. When that point is reached, then bring in the director for input.

 

[Editor’s note: To see highlights of Dan’s visit to LAPPG where he spoke about “Shooting Short Schedule Features”, please click here for our YouTube Channel.]