Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

The Importance Of Choosing Who You Work With

Still Frame From "The Kid" (Look Created Completely In Camera)

Last week I had the opportunity to shoot a short film with Jeff Winograd- a director that I highly enjoy working with. Over the years, Jeff and I have worked the gamut of projects, ranging from big brands like Adidas, down to small local companies you've never heard of. And, as we joined forces last week to shoot his short, The Kid, on the 5D MKIII using the Magic Lantern RAW Hack, the experience reminded me about the importance of choosing who you work with.

While this is a business, and it is important to make a living, there are a number of intangible things that will directly affect your success and your sanity over the long haul. In what follows, I share what matters to me, and what values you should consider as you develop working relationships with others in the filmmaking profession.

Value 01: Ability For Open & Honest Communication
In my opinion, the ability to openly and honestly communicate about all aspects of a project is crucial in a collaborative field like filmmaking. Every idea, concept, implementation, and practice should be able to be discussed and challenged. It is through the process of challenging and the refining of ideas that a project can grow and reach its fullest potential. This gives the project the greatest chance for success. If anything is too sacred to be challenged, or if people are too insecure about themselves or their ideas, then more successful alternatives get left behind.

I'm not talking about arguing or disagreeing just for the sake of it. Nor am I talking about being disrespectful. What I am talking about is the ability to raise concerns and talk through viable alternatives in a healthy, rational manner, where the focus is about making the project better, not about egos or personality. Unfortunately, in the filmmaking world, there are a lot of egos, and a lot of sacred opinions. And talking openly or voicing concerns is not always welcome. So I highly value the ability to work with people who do not take the challenging of ideas personally, but see it as an opportunity to make the project better.

Still Frame From "The Kid". (Look Created Completely In Camera)

For example, during preproduction on The Kid, Jeff and I had many discussions about what camera format we would shoot his project on. We both knew that our preferred camera of choice, the Alexa, was out of the question due to budget and crew restraints. Jeff's major concern was that we would be shooting on a camera format that would allow for capturing beautiful images and that would not prevent us from festival submission, or theatrical exhibition.

My concern with any short film that I shoot with limited funds is to make sure that every dollar that is spent shows up in front of the camera. This is where I see the majority of indy projects fail. They spend the bulk of the budget on a camera rentals instead of on more important things, like production design, talented actors, and the appropriate crew. If projects such as "Like Crazy", which was shot on the 7D using the inferior codec of H.264, can be picked up and sold for $4 million, then that is a clear indication that what matters most is story and talent, not the tech.

For The Kid, Jeff and I went back and forth over all of our options, from the FS700, C100, to even an Epic package at an absurdly good rate. In the end, through our open and honest communication, we settled on the Canon 5D MKIII shooting in raw with the Magic Lantern hack as our A Camera and the C100 as our backup camera should the hack go south on us. In the process of our communication I was able to voice my concerns about using the Magic Lantern hack. If the choice would have been made from a purely egocentric perspective, then Jeff would have only pushed for the Epic package that he got at a good rate, or I would have only pushed for the more affordable C100 (I was donating it to the production). However, our dialogue yielded a better third choice- a camera package that kept our rental costs to the bare minimum, put the money into what matters (crew, talent & production design), and still recorded quality imagery.

Behind The Scenes On "The Kid". That's me on the ladder.

Value 02: Openness To Taking Risks
The second reason we went with the hacked 5D MKIII has to do with another value that is important to me in the people I work with- openness to taking risks. A short film is a great place to step out from the routine to experiment, push things and take risks. And shooting on a hacked camera does just that. It forced us to get out of our comfort zone and to deviate from the norm.

Shooting corporate or even commercial work is not the place to take risks. When a $300,000 budget is on the line for a well known brand, it is time to deliver reliable, predictable, consistent results, not to experiment. However, a personal project like this is just the opportunity to step out, push yourself, and try something new. During the entire time we spent in preproduction, Jeff reiterated his commitment to being experimental, and to pushing ourselves past what we would typically do for our paid clients.

Not only did we use a hacked camera, but we used heavy camera filtration, used some specialty lenses, and lit very minimally. I can't express how freeing it was to be on a project where I knew that we could push ourselves beyond our comfort zones- even to the point of failure. And while risk has to be evaluated on a project-by-project basis, I find aversion to any kind of risk on all projects to be the recipe for banal stories and imagery.

Behind The Scenes On "The Kid"

Value 03: Collaboration, Trust & Empowerment to make the final choice
As I mentioned in value 01, filmmaking is a collaborative endeavor. When I hire or recommend crew members, I am hiring not only their skill, but also their expertise. I trust them to make recommendations, and to advise me on the best strategy on implementing my vision. I don't want to work with people who are merely button pushers, and follow every command without question.

And I expect the same from the people who hire me. I am not a button pusher- if you want that, then there are a plethora of people on craigslist who can fill that roll. I have my own perspective on the world that directly translates into the images that I create. It is always my desire to work with people who value that perspective or style, and then trust and empower me to make the final call.

For example, on The Kid, Jeff left the decision for the camera package entirely in my hands. If I would have said we are shooting on the C100, he would have supported that. Even though we went back and forth over several camera packages, ultimately he always left the choice in my hands. He knew that I had his best interest, and the best interests of the project, at heart. So no matter what choice I made, it was going to be in service to that end.

The worst thing, in my opinion, is to be working with people who can't be challenged, or who think that their way is the only way, and then end up micromanaging you, or undermining the choices you make. For true collaboration to take place, there needs to be trust and empowerment to make the final choice.

Behind The Scenes On "The Kid"

Value 04: Loyalty
The last value that I have when it comes to working with people is probably the most important to me. No matter what the size or scale of the project, I have always committed to under-promise and over-deliver. And as a result of that, I invest a lot of myself into every project I take on. I am committed to making every project succeed to its fullest potential.

This is why loyalty is of prime importance to me. After all, when directors or production companies go out and show the images I have enabled them to create and they land new work with it, I feel it is only fair to reward those who helped them get to where they are at. I do that with my crew, and I expect that from others.

This is not to say that I expect directors or production companies to only work with me; that is unrealistic. However, I do expect success to be rewarded with more success. And, unfortunately, in this business, I have seen egos develop all too quickly. Instead of rewarding those who they have worked with before, they jettison us quickly for more prestigious sounding people. It is unavoidable. However, those situations can be minimized by carefully choosing who you work with, or at least acknowledging the potential if you knowingly work on a project with someone like that.

Fortunately for me, in the working relationships I have had developed over the years with some people (like Jeff), they have shown themselves to be very loyal. When budgets are big, or when they are small, we are able to figure out how to make it work, as we both value loyalty and mutual success over making a quick buck. And I stop working with those who are only out for themselves.


In an ideal world, every project I work on would have a robust budget, and be filled with people who embody these values. But the reality is that is not always the case. So, when the pressure is on in the heat & stress of production, and budgets are stretched thin, I'd rather work with these kinds people than kill myself for people who are less than enjoyable to work with. The money just isn't worth it...

What are some values that are important to you in the people that you work with? Is the paycheck more important to you, or the people you work with?

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!
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