What is the collective noun for Lighting Cameramen? Something posh and French no doubt, like a "cardre" of DOPs? For Lighting Cameramen, or DOPs (Directors Of Photography), are a breed apart; slick and cliquey by reputation, like pilots in the RAF. They speak another language, using the arcane terminology of f-stops and ASAs while commanding large men in huge trucks to move heavy industrial equipment around in the name of beauty.
Tarkovsky called cinema "Sculpting In Time", John Boorman called it "Money Into Light". It's an art form that deals in two fundamentals: LIGHT and TIME. And the DOP, directing men up ladders, with one eye on his spot meter, is in sole charge of committing these elusive, eternal elements onto tiny squares of emulsion that travel through the camera mechanism at 24 frames a second. It's an absurdly responsible job shrouded in mystery and technique. The DOP is, if you like, the gatekeeper to the whole possibility of cinema.
"I RAN INTO A WHOLE CLUMP OF THEM"
Of course an intimate social drama shot on digital will require a different approach to a huge historical epic shot on 70mm. Sometimes the camera department must make themselves inconspicuous, invisible almost, but the centrality of the DOPs' role is never in doubt. I have been lucky as a director to work with some of the best, none more so than John Mathieson on Trauma. Rarely, though, have I been in the presence of more than one of them at any one time. And then, last weekend in Edinburgh, I ran into a whole clump of them. All in one go. Hence my need for a collective noun.
John Mathieson and I were to do a Q&A session for the Directors Guild on Saturday. Arriving on Friday night, our first stop was a strange vegetarian bar where two DOPs had already congregated. One was Anthony Dod Mantle, renowned for his digital photography on Dogme films and latterly for Danny Boyle (28 Days Later). Another was a young Argentinian, Natasha Braier, whose work I was also familiar with (Laurence Coriat's beautiful short film Being Bad). We duly introduced ourselves to each other and went to see Anthony Dod Mantle's Q&A.
Much of the session was taken up with describing Lars Von Trier's unique working methods on Dogville and its recent sequel, Manderlay. How the director was obsessed with ideas and patterns. How he had a rig designed so that he could shoot all the scenes himself, with lighting that worked from 360 degrees, with a black floor with markings instead of sets on Dogville, then a white floor on Manderlay. Here was a director working at the cutting edge of the medium forcing his DOP to adapt and respond in new ways. It was a fascinating window into the world of a man whose films I have always found demanding, if not sometimes totally alienating.
We were all then invited to a party at the home of Seamus McGarvey, an Irish DOP who has settled with his family in Edinburgh. Seamus I knew a little because he shot Butterfly Kiss, my friend Michael Winterbottom's first feature. He is also the youngest DOP ever to receive the coveted BSC after his name, and his recent work only reflects this achievement (The Hours, Enigma, High Fidelity). More important than all of this, however, is the fact that Seamus and his wife Phoebe really know how to throw a good party. When we got there yet another DOP of much renown, John De Borman, had already installed himself! (John shot The Full Monty as well as most of Gillies MacKinnon's films.)
There was much banter and little talk of f-stops or ASAs amongst the assembled throng of DOPs, who seemed thrilled to be meeting each other. Here were the boys (and one girl) from bomber command relaxing off-duty, and it was great to be in their presence. But there was expectation in the camp. Seamus had been out to the off-licence to buy more beers because the arrival of yet another - almost mythical - DOP was imminent, one whose reputation as a DOP was only rivalled by his reputation as a drinker: Chris Doyle.
"FILMS TRY AND ATTAIN THE SIMPLICITY OF MUSIC"
If Tod Mantle's experiences with Lars Von Trier on a cold stage in Denmark had been pushing the envelope of the DOP's work in one direction, then Chris Doyle's in the Far East shooting Wong Kar Wai's films on sweaty locations with no script was pushing it in another. Here was an Australian gypsy who had lived in obscurity in the East until Chungking Express introduced the rest of the world to his vibrant palette and distinctively free shooting style (soon to be seen in the upcoming Jet Li martial arts pic, Hero).
When he finally arrived at the party, it was obvious that here was a unique character with great energy and charisma. And yet his work is so delicate and refined - with an almost spiritual serenity to it at times - that, behind the hard-drinking maverick image, one detects a diligent and sensitive artist.
The next day we watched Chris Doyle do his Q&A to a packed cinema. He had not slept and had an ice bucket full of Budweisers by his side, so his wild man image was intact. His approach was eclectic to say the least, projecting specially made film haikus onto the screen while he talked in a Zen-like way about colour and life. It was sometimes hard to follow his meandering trains of thought, but he said a few things that seemed truly wise. For example, that all films try and attain the simplicity of music.
Certainly, he was a tough act to follow, and John Mathieson and I felt very British and reserved when it was our turn to take the stand. And yet each talk, including our own, confirmed one thing: that filmmaking is primarily a process, and despite the technique and technicalities involved, it is equally reliant upon relationships and the serendipity of circumstance. Half science, half magic; as much about accident as design.
To find out Marc's detailed thoughts on Trauma, read our interview. He also talks about filmmaking and his movie love/hates in Shooting People. Trauma is released in UK cinemas on Friday 17th September 2004.