A Day in the Life of a Director of Photography: Jody Lee Lipes of HBO’s ‘I Know This Much Is True’

Article Image
Photo Source: HBO

On any film project, directors of photography are the visual glue that helps create a cohesive end result. From managing technical details with cameras and lighting to translating the director’s vision onscreen, their expertise is one of the most crucial parts of the filmmaking process. 

For Jody Lee Lipes, working as a DP is never the same twice. Every project, from “Manchester By the Sea” to his most recent work on HBO’s “I Know This Much Is True,” holds challenges that are often as unexpected as the joys. 

Talking to Backstage, Lipes delves into the nuts and bolts of cinematography, the best kinds of attitudes to make long days on set go by quickly, and why it is just as easy for cinematographers to get typecast as it is for actors. 

What does a director of photography do?
A DP’s job is different on every project, but basically they are responsible for the look of a film - a big part of the way it feels. There are two major departments led by the director of photography: camera and lighting. The camera department includes camera operators, focus pullers, camera assistants, digital imaging technicians, and loaders. The lighting department includes the gaffer and the key grip, and all of the various positions under them. So a DP works with a director to decide the camera format, aspect ratio, camera placement, camera movement, lenses, and lighting. Sometimes a DP is really the creative force behind many of those choices, and sometimes the DP is just executing the director’s specific ideas.

How did you become a DP?
I took a video class in high school and felt comfortable with a camera. That led to film school at NYU, and working in the gear and repair shop all four years at Tisch [School of the Arts] to help earn my way. While I was in school, I had the opportunity to work as a film loader and electrician on a feature film called “Palindromes,” directed by Todd Solondz and photographed by Tom Richmond. Seeing how a real movie was made was probably the most significant part of my education at NYU. 

I supported myself by working as a wedding videographer, and soon after I finished school I was lucky enough to get a job as the DP on a very low budget TV show called “The Whitest Kids U’Know.” So the last non-film job I had was in high school, working in a restaurant. I don’t consider myself a technical person, and I think a DP’s background can be very varied. Sometimes a DP can just be someone with good ideas.

What does a day in the life of a DP look like? 
I started work on “I Know This Much Is True” the first week of January 2019. My prep time was about three and a half months. During this time, my son Jude was born, we made locations decisions, discussed visual effects issues for the twinning element of the show, decided on a format (35mm in this case), chose lenses, put together the camera and lighting teams, began scouting with the technical heads of the camera and lighting departments, made equipment orders, watched a lot of movies for reference, had thousands of meetings about schedule and various things, and just hung out with and talked to Derek [Cianfrance, the director] a lot. 

The people I interact with most on set are the lighting department, camera operators, focus pullers, 1st assistant director, actors, and most of all, the director. I’m involved in thousands of decisions every day including what the shot is, the lighting, the schedule, the color of the wallpaper, the texture of an actor’s wardrobe, makeup consistency, the editorial consequences to what we are getting on set, the visual effects needs and countless other issues.  

A DP—and the entire crew—should always be open to changes at every moment. Without the ability to depart dramatically from the plan, there is no room for creativity. Some of the most interesting things that happen on film come from an actor’s instincts and at the highest level of filmmaking, we are just getting out of the way so a performance can be captured rather than inhibited. I also feel that it’s my job to understand the tone in the room, and what I can do to help an actor. 

In collaboration with the director, we might try to make sure that take number 1 is the most technically perfect because a particular performer is best right out of the gate, or we might try to just kill time by rolling on the same set-up for hours because we know a particular actor gets truly great when they are exhausted. I also try to pay attention to performance as much as possible so that I can understand what take or takes we are trying to build a sequence around. I also get a sense of whether we may be moving on before it’s announced so that I can save valuable minutes by preparing the crew for what's next.

“Getting typecast as a DP is just as easy as it is to get typecast as an actor. ”

“I Know This Much Is True” was the most challenging film I have ever done because of the scale, the technical challenges of twinning, and the shooting schedule which was 115 shoot days (twice as long as any production I had been a part of in the past). Our days averaged about 14 hours from call to wrap. I would get to set about an hour early every day so I could sit and think in the space, or get ahead of any issues I could see coming on that day by changing a lighting plan or giving the assistant director a heads up about any concerns I had. So with driving, that’s about 16 hours a day, and then I would go home and watch hours of dailies (in fast forward) because we were shooting on film and there is a little bit of guesswork when it comes to focus, color, and exposure on celluloid. So from when I left to go to work to when I finished reviewing and making notes on the dailies was generally 17 or 18 hours.  

In post [production], I am responsible for the color correction and weighing in on visual effects as they relate to the look of the show. Some directors include the DP in the editorial process and take their feedback on the edit as well. 

How do you decide who to hire for your team? 
On this project, we tried to create a very malleable environment for Derek and the actors. We needed a crew who were comfortable being extremely small like a documentary team whenever possible, and very large when dealing with complicated twinning sequences with massive lighting control. Patience, expertise, great creative taste, and a good attitude were really the most important factors on this crew. Changes can be very frustrating to a technician because it often means a lot of work being thrown away and done over again, and it can be hard to roll with that for the sake of the project. It was probably the best team I have ever worked with. The idea of shooting with no rehearsals, no marks, with very little consideration for consistency from take to take can be very liberating to some actors. However, on 35mm film with very, very shallow depth of field for the focus pullers, it is a tremendous challenge. Our A camera 1st assistant, Aurelia Winborn, is a true master. Without someone at her level, we would not be able to work the way Derek wanted.   

What’s the process like for getting a job as a DP? 
Same as any other job. Directors look at what you have done before, your reputation, and want to meet with you before deciding if you are a good fit. Generally, agents are involved.

On this job, Derek and I met on an Apple commercial about six months before this show got going, and he told me he really liked the way I worked with the non-actors on that commercial. I think for Derek, creating an environment for his actors is the most important thing, so my focus on that was a big deal to him. 

What advice would you give an aspiring DP?
Do what you think is good, [because] you will only get hired to do more of what you already did and it is easy to get trapped doing something you don’t love. I have been lucky in that I have been able to make many different kinds of films, but getting typecast as a DP is just as easy as it is to get typecast as an actor. 

What are some of your favorite moments of great cinematography?
The [directors of photography] Gordon Willis and Harris Savides are two of my favorites of all time. If you are flipping through the channels and one of their movies comes on, you can feel it in your stomach.

For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!