Cinematographer David Procter has built an expansive career shooting commercials, music videos, TV series and feature films. An alumni of the Berlinale Talent campus, he began his career working on documentaries. Over the past decade, he has earned six Camerimage nominations for his visuals on three documentaries (Red Sands, The Corridor, Solace), one feature (Bypass), and two music videos (Dermot Kennedy’s Power Over Me, DJ Shadow’s Nobody Speak featuring Run the Jewels). His credits also include the Netflix Original The Innøcents, the TV movie Make Me Famous, and Disney’s Black Beauty, starring Kate Winslet & Mackenzie Foy.
He spoke to RED Digital Cinema about his choice of cameras, lenses, workflow and VFX for his projects.
QUESTION: You’ve explored a lot of different cameras and lenses; how would you describe your style?
Procter: I would say, fundamentally, every decision I've ever made has come from the script and I believe every project requires a slightly different approach. That's led me to explore a wide variety of glass – modern lenses, vintage glass, anamorphics. I think that the diversity of work I've undertaken in my career is reflected in the diversity of the inspirations I've had for each.
If I had to pinpoint a style, I would say a recurring trait in my work is the marriage of older glass with new technologies. I came up through the transition period from film to digital, and I found that using older glass took the edge off digital, as resolution and sharpness grew. I always liked the imperfections of older lenses and the character that they bring, whether it be a flare, or chromatic aberration, etc. I find imperfection interesting.
What are some of the challenges you face when shooting commercials?
With commercials, it’s often a very short turnaround. Sometimes you get a last-minute curveball from the agency or client. For example, on a very technical car spot, lit with multiple projections, the client decided that they wanted the car to look like a pack-shot at all times. So, all the dark ideas we'd been developing went out the window. I suddenly had to balance complete darkness for projection with environmental light for the cars. A lot of pre-visualization planning was involved in building the locations into a 3D program. No singular approach works with every vehicle so you're always adapting. Commercial work is where you must often pull out all the toys – time-slice, motion control, high-speed, for example.
Shooting spots is also very experimental. What often happens to us as cinematographers is that you may create this innovative technique, but when you see the final edit it’s not even in there. But it’s a lot of fun creating those shots and you draw on that experience throughout your career.
You’ve also shot music videos, features and episodics. What’s different about your approach to this type of work?
I definitely draw from my commercial work and even my documentary experience. I’d say music videos, sometimes, and features are more stylized. Music videos can be a fictional, dramatic reconstruction with some overdramatized elements when the narrative calls for it. The bottom line is that you've got to work within the production’s limitations, especially because there is usually little time on music videos.
So, the first thing I figure out is how much time I’m going to have to light a space where we are shooting. If it’s 15 minutes, I have to figure out how to make it work. This is when collaborations with good directors are crucial – they understand the technicality of what we are doing as cinematographers, and you have detailed discussions about what can work and what might be problematic or too time consuming.
How do you balance your look between lenses, cameras, lighting, filters, and other aspects?
I try to understand what each singular element is doing. So, if you're going to be using a lot of haze, you may not want to be using a lot of ProMist filtration to soften it further. You want to make sure that you're not choosing elements that fight each other. You must have an idea of what it is you're trying to achieve with the lighting, the composition, the LUT, the filtration, the choice of lens, how much depth of field you want, your shooting stop, and how much character you’re getting from that lens. This is important because some lenses will give you a vastly different character from wide-open to four-five stops closed. Confirm that all those factors are moving you forward in the right direction for what you want to achieve.
Tell us about the video for DJ Shadow’s Nobody Speak featuring Run the Jewels, which was nominated at Camerimage.
This was an amazing collaboration with director Sam Pilling. Believe it or not, we shot this entire video in one day. It was an amazing script and the political and social commentary was thrilling. We had a fantastic track with great artists and were shooting in a stunning location, but it was particularly challenging.
Prep time was focused on figuring out how we could achieve the narrative and light it. We had to move very quickly from setup to setup. The space is seven stories high with 360 degree, 7-meter-high windows on the ceiling. We shot from sunrise to sunset and then through the night. I needed to light in a way that wouldn’t’t be affected by the changing ambient light, however, I knew I couldn't completely blackout everything because there wasn't enough blackout material in Ukraine. The building was covered by my lighting and grip team who worked relentlessly through the day, constantly moving to fight the sun coming in.
We wanted to create an aesthetic that felt plausible. It was integral that the piece felt like it could be some form of United Nations meeting, so we aimed for naturalism with a soft but directional light from above. Because of the speed at which we had to work, I decided to try and have no lamps on the floor and did all my lighting from above. I used textiles and bounced sources to maneuver quickly and utilized the architecture of the space itself to help me light it. I also used a balloon up in the middle to help maintain ambience. It was great fun, but very physical as well because it was a single camera shoot.
What advice to you have for future cinematographers?
“Don’t think you need to know everything as a cinematographer – you’re brought onto a job for how you see things and your approach to the narrative, and not just your technical knowledge. Lean on your departments and technicians, and don’t be afraid to ask questions because their knowledge runs deep.”
David Procter participated in a live, interactive interview as part of RED’s Behind the Look Virtual Cinematography Series on DATE. The above Q&A is an excerpt from that conversation.