10 Directors Who Can Photograph Their Own Films
Filming a motion picture is similar to waging war, because, like a military response, a film crew is departmentalized like a military regiment. The producer funds the endeavor; writers piece together the story and dialogue; the director brings all the elements together to tell a cohesive story; actors play out the roles, giving life to the story; the cinematographer photographs the film, bringing the visual components to life; and the film editor assembles the final product. While the roles on a film set are clearly defined, sometimes a filmmaker will wear more than one hat.
The most common dual roles are usually writer/director or actor/director. However, sometimes you have a rare and truly talented director who can direct and also serve as a cinematographer on their own film as well. While most directors are content with guiding their actors to give great performances, there have been a few directors that also photograph their own movies. We compiled a list of filmmakers who have served as both director and cinematographer on the films they have made.
1. Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock is known affectionately as the master of suspense to scores of film buffs, but this title is somewhat a disservice to the genius of his work. A trailblazer in the visual aesthetic, his work was so influential that just about every filmmaker in the world has copied his style in one way or another, with only Brian De Palma being proud enough to admit it. Hitchcock considered himself a film technician and worked briefly as a lighting cameraman early in his career.
When he started directing full time, he recounted the first time he had to wear both hats as director and cinematographer on one of his early films: “I can remember I was on one picture in 1927 when the cameraman went sick and we didn’t have a replacement, so I had to do it myself. I was doing both the directing and the lighting, and it was rather amusing because I would say to the assistant director, ‘We’re ready to go,’ and he would say, ‘Well, you haven’t lit it yet.’ I’d actually forgotten to light it, and I thought, ‘Oh, dear, now I’ve got to light it. I forgot that.’ And on another occasion, I would light the scene and say, ‘Let’s go.’ And they would say, ‘But you haven’t rehearsed it yet.’ So the ability to do the two jobs was rather difficult. I was able to do lighting, but I did take the precaution of grinding off a few feet of every scene and sending it across to the lab, which was on the lot, to have them hand test it. I mean, I wasn’t all that confident of my ability as a lighting man. But even so, it worked out quite well.”
In a 1966 interview with iconic magazine American Cinematographer, Hitchcock gave a brief history lesson on the early days of motion picture lighting. “Back in 1919 and 1920, or even further back than that, long before incandescent lights ever came, we used to light from the floor with Klieg arc lights and our general lighting came from banks of mercury vapor lamps. We used in Europe a particular lamp called a ‘swan neck’ which had a diagonal bank of lamps mounted atop a vertical bank. When incandescent light was introduced, the lamp units were used, at first, on the floor and then almost all lighting left the floor and went up on the rail everywhere. It was always high and that is when the ‘top-spot type’ of backlight came into general use.”
While Hitchcock is considered a genius director, it could be argued his greatest impact was in the field of cinematography, from his bold camera angles and choices of lenses to the deep focus he accomplished on the film “Rear Window”. Hitchcock’s films were a visual experience that could only be accomplished with a deep understanding of the art of cinematography.
2. Stanley Kubrick
Considered a god in the world of filmmaking, Stanley Kubrick couldn’t have achieved that title without having a keen grasp of all aspects of motion picture production, including cinematography. Kubrick directed and was also the cinematographer for his second film “Killer Kiss”, released in 1955, and was also planning to be the DP on his third film, “The Killing”, released in 1956.
However, the Cinematographers Guild prevented the director from wearing both hats so Kubrick hired accomplished cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who would go on to photograph such classic films as “The Wild Bunch” and “True Grit”, but the collaboration between Kubrick and Ballard would be a rocky one.
There’s a famous story of Kubrick setting up a dolly shot with a 25mm lens attached to the camera to give the scene a slightly distorted look. Ballard replaced the wide angle lens with a 50mm lens, and when Kubrick found out he ordered Ballard to change the lens back to 25mm or he would be fired. Gilbert Taylor, the cinematographer on “Dr. Strangelove”, described Kubrick as autocratic. On “Dr. Strangelove”, Kubrick insisted the lights to be built into the sets blasting from overhead, providing the fill light, and the key light came from the side.
Kubrick is well known for using practical lights in his movies, from the overhead lights in the war room for “Dr. Strangelove” to the Christmas lights in the film “Eyes Wide Shut”. He was one of the first filmmakers to abandon the slick glossy Hollywood lighting in favor of a more naturalistic approach by using practical lights throughout his films.
Kubrick also used Zeiss lenses originally developed by NASA to photograph the film “Barry Lyndon” so he could use candle lights as the primary lighting sources. He was also a hands-on director and he did most of the hand-held camerawork himself; his camera of choice was the Arriflex 35 II C, on which he shot the film “A Clockwork Orange”, and had this to say about operating the camera himself: “All of the hand-held camerawork is mine.
In addition to the fun of doing the shooting myself, I find it is virtually impossible to explain what you want in a hand-held shot to even the most talented and sensitive camera operator.” Kubrick was one of the few filmmakers that not only inspired up-and-coming film directors, but he also influenced a whole generation of modern cinematographers working in the business today.
3. Peter Hyams
This journeyman director has made some of the most entertaining films since the 70s and proudly describes himself as “one of the very few writer/directors of major films who also photographs his own pictures.” His directorial debut was “Capricorn One”, released in 1978, about a fake NASA mission to Mars. Some conspiracy theorists even claim that Stanley Kubrick actually wrote the screenplay to the movie, confessing his involvement in faking the moon landing several years prior.
Hyams started exclusively photographing his own films starting in 1984 and has made such films as “Outland”, “The Star Chamber”, “2010”, “Running Scared”, “The Presidio”, “Timecop”, “The Relic”, and “End of Days”.
For a director to be able to light so many big budget films that require complicated lighting setups is a testament to his talents as a filmmaker, and is probably one of the most consistent directors/cinematographers in the history of cinema, considering he started out his career working as a director.
4. Ernest Dickerson
Ernest Dickerson started his career in the 80s shooting music videos for Bruce Springsteen, Anita Baker and Miles Davis before photographing John Sayles’ “Brother from Another Planet”, released in 1984.
Dickerson was practically one of the few African-American cinematographers working in the business at that time; his frequent collaborations with Spike Lee would forever change both filmmakers lives career-wise. From the black-and-white indie film “She’s Gotta Have It”, to the big-budget and visually stunning film “Malcolm X” starring Denzel Washington, Lee and Dickerson had made some of the most culturally significant films of the 80s and early 90s.
Dickerson’s directorial debut was the cult classic “Juice”, released in 1992, starring the iconic rapper Tupac Shakur. He has made the biggest impact as a director working on some of the best shows on television, such as “The Wire”, “Dexter” and “The Walking Dead”. Dickerson is a director who can not just rehearse the actors, but can instruct what T-stop should be on the lens.
5. Doug Liman
Best known for directing the movie “Swingers”, released in 1996 and starring Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, and introducing the world to Jason Bourne by directing the first installment in the franchise, “The Bourne Identity” in 2002, and serving as an executive producer on the other Bourne films as well.
However, it was the small indie film “Go”, released in 1999, where he also served as both director and cinematographer on a film. The film has kinetic style, and Liman uses the photography to capture that energy. His other films, from “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” to “Jumper” to “Edge of Tomorrow”, prove Liman is a go-to director in Hollywood who probably has considerably more input on the visual look of his film that other journeymen directors working in the business.
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