CLAi the film and video production company in San Francisco, San Jose, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Specializing in videography, video editing and color correction for corporate videos and documentary films

The Director of Photography & Cinematographer

What makes a great Director of Photography? A DP must have the ability to conceptualize a shot and it’s part in a sequence and story, determine how it can best be captured, and then communicate that clearly to the rest of the camera, lighting and gaffer team - or just go ahead and shoot it himself where lean and mean is the nature of the project.

Of course, it’s essential to have an innate feel for composition, lighting, color, motion and focus.  However I take that as a given in any professional who has been working in the same role for many years successfully.

When you have a high degree of expertise across several disciplines it can invite the question are you are actually a master of none and just a generalist?  I consider myself to be very lucky as I’m an excellent Director, Cinematographer, Videographer, Editor and Colorist. I have made my living doing the first three of these for over twenty years, adding color grading in the last few years as a natural extension to my work as a DP.  This breadth of skills makes me better at handling the many diverse demands put on the head of the camera department and right hand of the Director.

The nice thing about camerawork is that it isn’t a discipline where you can talk a great game but an unknown risk until you actually deliver. A decent selection of shots is going to tell anyone who sees them whether you have the eye or not. How these shots perform to create a program is going to demonstrate whether you are able to get shots. These shots must not be only attractive but also tell the right story and do so effectively.  That’s good news for both of us because it means that you can run the little camera reel at the bottom of the page and make your own decisions. Along with this, the videos on other pages of this web site, and I don’t have to keep writing!

The Tools

One aside, Chris Layhe and CLAi have been known as a heavyweight RED production and post-production player in the San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles areas for the past eight or nine years – from the very earliest days of digital cinema cameras and post.  We still shoot with our own 6k RED Dragon camera and mass of add-ons, and bring in the 8k RED Helium when required, and will continue to do so, as well as fostering our great relationships with other RED users in the RED community.  

But in those last nine years other cameras have come along that have similar capabilities, in some cases better, and they are simply the right choice for some projects.  Recognizing that, along with changes in the way videos and films are created today, I have moved away from only owning RED cameras and their post-production systems, and added brands like Arri Alexa to my in house arsenal. 

Our Equipment page tells a fuller story, but after a mass of interviews with others in the industry and our current and potential clients, we came to recognize three scenarios. 

Interviews and narrative shooting of people in controlled situations, where part of the brief is to make them look as good/natural as possible. Shoots of a wide variety of situations, particularly documentary and corporate film, where quality and flexibility of image is key. Shoots where speed and access are more important than ultimate image quality.

My goal is always to be able to bring in the right gear for every project as either a DP leading a full camera team or a solo Cinematographer and Videographer, and to own what is necessary to ensure quality and availability, and flexibility on budget. The solution is to have three levels of equipment available in-house.

For narrative and controlled interview based projects there is nothing that can beat the Arri Alexa camera line up, and so we invested in the full size Arri Alexa Plus shooting in ArriRaw for the ultimate in post-production control.  I like to pair this with RED PL lenses for “straight” shoots and Leica lenses for ones where we can add character – and we have full sets of both of these.  While many Arri cameras are not full 4k sensors, we can achieve this frame size with the combination of  ArriRaw and Arri’s own “invisible” RAW to 4k software.

For general shooting, and pieces where large image size is a must or where very high quality slow motion is needed, I turn to our RED Dragon camera system and shoot up to 6k frames in REDRaw.  This can be combined with our RED PL lenses, Leica primes, Sigma Art/Nikon zoom set of lenses and others – and stripped down to fly on gimbals and sliders.

For those smaller shoots where ultimate quality is not so important as speed we have a variety of camera systems to do the job. Most of these record in camera and also to our Odyssey 7Q+  4k RAW recorder/monitors. We have one of the fabulous Canon C500 for 4k ProRes or CanonRAW recording, and/or ProRes 4:4:4:4 2k in camera. We have a RED Scarlet for 5k REDRaw shooting. We have a couple of Sony A7Sii bodies, also capable of 4k with the advantage of tiny size and minimal weight.  And, of course, a whole bunch of GoPro cameras for position shots and dangerous shots! 

As you can tell, for me the key is to shoot in RAW with a wide gamut range to get 14 to 18 stops of latitude from my cameras, and we have all of the bells and whistles to enable any type of lighting, sound and audio to be recorded in house or using our hand selected crews.

Director Of Photography

The DP, DoP or Director of Photography title is a constantly evolving one . It can be someone who is essentially a one man band videographer on a basic run’n’gun shoot. Or it can be the commander of a crew of 30+ who may never touch a camera or light.  I can work the position from either of these extremes, coming from the image/photography side of the discipline more than the lighting electrician side.

I work as a DP on both digital film and video projects, and views my role very much as the “protector” of the look and action. This involves turning a shared vision with the director into reality.  With the extended vision that comes from a deep understanding of the edit and the grade, and how the raw footage fits into the final image equation.

As one of the bold few who ventured away from 35mm film into digital cinema production back in the mid-2000s, I have owned and shot with UHD, 4k, 4.5k, 6k and now 8k broadcast and digital cinema cameras for many years.  While 1080P HD video is still the delivery format for most productions this techie knowledge is invaluable in getting the very most out of these new systems, and in understanding how the post-production process will affect the final image and ways it can be used.

CINEMATOGRAPHER

The difference between a cinematographer, a DP and a videographer? To my mind it is about the way the control of the image role plays out – a DP is as responsible for the lighting and camera motion as he is for the camerawork. But often I like to work with a really good lighting director, or LD, who handles the lighting with the gaffer crew, and a good key grip and his crew who handle the camera motion, leaving me to concentrate on the camera and shot composition. I see the videographer role as much more akin to a camera operator, with no responsibility for directing action, making calls on detail or controlling takes… a task that often falls to a good DP or cinematographer when the director is working away from the talent.

Of course, like the DP role, this is something that I do in both the digital film and corporate project worlds and it is one that I particularly enjoy – as it often means getting back to the simple purity of “moving” still photography on small crew natural light projects, which is a beautiful thing!

The Camera Reel