Five Things to Ask When Hiring a DP

Originally posted on Cinema 5d.com HERE

Hiring directors of photography in television, film, commercial and industrial productions is a headache, and I challenge you to find a producer that doesn’t agree with me. There’s a reason this industry tends to be tough to break into; nobody likes hiring, and everyone tends to stick within their networks because the risk is lower. These five questions will help you find the right DP for the job. 

Hiring is a high stakes game in entertainment. Everyone wants a job and not everyone has worked over a decade to climb to the position they are in. People like jumping rungs, even when they’re unequipped to be there and are afraid to be up so high. Every producer dreads being asked the question, “Where did you find this loser?”

Gauging a director of photography’s actual talent and ability to mesh with the team is tricky because of how diversified the type of content being produced is nowadays. A DP with a background in doc/reality may not be the right fit for your feature film. But what if the film is a handheld-heavy project with a short shooting schedule in a véritéstyle? How do you know if they’ll work well in a small team, travel-heavy shoot?

Because this is a hire-who-you-know business, many ops and DPs end up shooting projects in a similar style again and again. This is mostly true in docu-series and reality television. Look at the Netflix series Chef’s Table and tell me those DPs can’t run a narrative. The proof is in the pudding: go to the reel, look at the lighting, observe the composition. Are you affected by the execution of the photography in the same way you want the audience of your current project to be affected? Then you’ve found a candidate.

Thankfully, we have online tools to identify talented DP’s such as Production Beast and StaffMeUp, and even unions now have some staffing resources. But, what happens when you want to weed out the less desirable candidate? Welcome to the interview process.

5 Questions to Ask a Potential DP when Hiring for Your Next Project:

  1. How do you like receiving feedback? Receiving notes or feedback on your work in any industry is hard, but especially so as a DP. For set cohesion to really work, all departments need to be able to take feedback or criticism professionally. One of the number one personality traits that will bring you back to recurring gigs again and again is the ability to take a note, make the change and make it quickly without attitude.
  2. Tell me about your biggest challenge on location that didn’t have to do with lighting. Don’t let them get away with answering this with a lighting challenge because everyone has had a lighting challenge. This question is about true problem-solving and the answer is usually illuminating for the interviewer. The best answer here will usually give you a glimpse into their leadership or mediation style.
  3. What projects would you like to be shooting more of? I usually ask this one to see how close my particular project is with their five-year or even life goals. People tend to continue learning and building themselves towards a particular goal, and remain a little more stagnant in their knowledge of other areas. If you’re looking for a DP with lots of action experience, but his answer is something like, “I’d like to shoot more macro photography of insects”, then this may be a good indicator that this DP is not as passionate and therefore not as particular in an area where you need them to be.
  4. Why do you want to be involved with this project, and what have you heard so far? The best DP’s are planners, and a good planner will do at least basic research and know some of what they are walking into. Heavy improvisation in the field is a morale killer for the G&E department, and will mean a lot of large lights being setup and broken down without ever being turned on. Make sure you are adding a planner to your team.
  5. What do you want to learn from shooting this project? I love this one because it reminds the interviewee that it’s okay not to know everything and to be willing to step outside his or her comfort zone. With every project I’ve ever shot, I’ve tried to push a particular skill or try something that isn’t firmly in my wheelhouse. If a DP has something special they’ve been wanting to try, and you can help make that happen, it might also tame other instances where a Director wants something simple and a DP wants something gorgeous.

Picture: Graham Sheldon

Obviously, the easiest way to find the right candidate is to compare their hopefully honest resume with your particular show. Trying to staff up “Deadliest Catch” for Discovery, you’re probably headed in the right direction with a DP with lots of ocean-borne shooting experience, but rarely do we get candidates with resumes that match 1:1 with our projects.

Lots of money is at stake and at least a career or two, so set yourself up for success in the hiring process.

What do you think? What great interview questions do you find effective? Tell me below!