Digital divides d.p.’s in roles, pay

Post-production pay goes to proven vets but others forced to work for free or sit on sidelines

Cinematographers sometimes work for no pay.

As post-production of films has shifted from photochemical processing to image manipulation in the digital intermediate (DI) suite, d.p.’s have been devoting growing chunks of time to post-production. The problem is, their compensation hasn’t always kept up with the extra hours.

One d.p. found himself sitting in a digital suite twice this past year, helping out with post on films he’d recently shot.

“Everyone else in the room was being paid and I wasn’t,” he said. “The editor, the colorist, the post supervisor — everyone except me.”

The d.p. spoke anonymously for fear of being “considered a complainer and casting aspersions on the producers I’ve worked with,” but his plight is common among d.p.’s these days.

DI work has divided d.p.’s into haves and have-nots. Many volunteer their labor because their reputation is on the line. “We’re artists and trying to make the film the best it can be,” one said.

But other, high-profile d.p.’s routinely get compensated. Roger Deakins, now shooting Sam Mendes’ “Skyfall,” the latest Bond picture, has been paid for his DI work ever since he filmed the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou” a dozen years ago. The same goes for Robert Richardson, who’s in the middle of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.”

“This is a hugely important subject for d.p.’s,” said Steven Poster, prexy of the Intl. Cinematographers Guild. “It’s been brewing ever since DI came in because of the extended period of time we (now) have to work.

“(When) we used to take a short amount of time to do a print, there was no consideration of paying us. It was a courtesy — two, three or four days, a couple of hours a day.”

Poster added that most d.p. contracts don’t stipulate compensation for DI work. When studios agree to it, they do so only in side letters, which usually allow for two weeks of additional work at half pay.

“The top third of working d.p.’s at the studio level get paid for DI routinely,” said a below-the-line agent. “We try to get it on every deal but we’re only successful on certain ones.”

The agent said the studios use side letters in order to avoid setting precedents, but the letters “might as well be precedential because everyone uses them.”

Everyone, that is, except for Sony Pictures, which “has kept its finger in the dyke” and steadfastly denied such pay, said the agent.

In an email, Sony declined to comment. Five other studios contacted for this column did not return emails.

Cinematographers believe studios are short-changing themselves by resisting d.p. input in post. They argue that doing a DI allows the d.p. to reduce certain costs during production, when there’s always pressure to cut shooting time, and that the d.p. is the most qualified person to make decisions about the image in the suite.

“Anybody can sit with a cappuccino and make color-correction judgments,” said Michael Goi, president of the American Society of Cinematographers, “But only the d.p. knows the quickest way to adjust all the elements that went into that picture. If you don’t involve the d.p. in the process, it’ll take longer.”

“Not to ask the d.p. to be involved is insanity,” said Richardson. “The shooting process is now influenced by the DI world. If you know you’re doing a DI, when you’re on the set you might choose not to correct a color, or change the brightness of a wall, which you can fix in five minutes in post. I don’t understand why a studio would question that.”

For Deakins, it’s as much a matter of principle as money. “I would flat-out refuse” to work on a film where I wasn’t paid for DI work, he said. “There’s been projects where the studios said they won’t pay me to do the DI, and I said, OK, well then I won’t do the film.”

However, the “haves” acknowledge that not every d.p. has the luxury of always saying no.

“If I were first starting out I’d probably be inclined to do the DI without compensation because I would want the picture to look as good as possible,” said Richardson.

The bottom line, says Poster, is that “d.p.’s add value to the process and are important to its outcome. And the project will be better monetized if it looks good.”


Montana Artists booked producers Tony Mark on John Stockwell’s “Code Name Geronimo” and Rob Ortiz as UPM on Andrew Niccol’s “The Host”; line producer Angie Vlaisavljevic on Brad Parker’s “The Diary of Lawson Oxford”; d.p. John R. Leonetti on James Wan’s “The Conjuring”; production Designer David Sandefur on Eric Brevig’s “William Tell 3D: The Legend”; and editor Gib Jaffe on C.B. Harding’s “Complicity.”