We’re pleased to introduce Frame By Frame, a new series here on Shadow And Act featuring guest posts and in-depth conversations giving insight into the art and business of film and television. It’s a project we’ve been working on for a while now, and are excited to present to you in the coming months.
Specifically, we’ll be hearing from those who work mostly outside of directing – those who shoot, edit, design, score, produce, represent, and otherwise handle much of the content we’re seeing today. Our first installment features rising Director of Photography Daniel Patterson.
A graduate of Morehouse College and New
York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Daniel Patterson has shot over 30 film
projects including several that we’ve covered on this site – Darius Clark Monroe’s compelling documentary Evolution of a Criminal,
Tahir Jetter’s web series Hard
Times, Shaka King’s 2013 Sundance
comedy Newlyweeds, Rashaad
Ernesto Green’s 2011 drama Gun Hill Road, blair doroshwalther’s upcoming documentary Out in the Night, and Spike Lee’s highly anticipated
crowdfunded film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, which will premiere at ABFF this
Currently on location in Brazil for Spike Lee’s Beats of the Beautiful Game short film, Daniel made time to catch up with Shadow
And Act about his career and the craft of cinematography.
Regarding inspiration, he lists Arthur
Jafa, Malik Sayeed, Bradford Young, Ellen Kuras, Cesar Charlone, his longtime collaborator
Justin Staley and his native South Jamaica, Queens as cinematic influences.
On how they’ve rubbed off on him:
Cesar was amazing to work with on Sucker
Free City. I borrowed from his never
quit attitude. He is 60 plus years old, but you’d never guess it by his
energy level. On City of God, he moved the camera beautifully. Ellen inspires me
with camera movement… Ellen and Malik share DP credit on He Got Game. I love the
elaborate camera movement in that film.
Mississippi Damned is my
favorite film that Bradford Young has DP’d. I love the level of naturalism he
explored in the light in that film. My aesthetic is naturalistic. I borrow from
AJ shot Daughters of the Dust.
Justin inspires me to push the limits.
“Working with Spike has been humbling and eye opening. Spike is a master of the craft of filmmaking and arguably the best American filmmaker.”
On how he got started in cinematography:
As a kid, I wanted to be a psychologist.
People have always fascinated me. But the first film I shot was at Morehouse College. I thought that
directors shot their own films, so I wrote a short and shot it.
My first cinematography teacher was Ron Gray at New York University, Tisch Graduate Film School in 2004. Ron, along
with the other cinematography professors encouraged me to be a cinematographer
because of class exercises I shot. At NYU, I learned the fundamentals of
On how his experience at NYU shaped his
At NYU I met talented filmmakers who I
continue to work with now. NYU is the most respected institution for filmmaking
in the world, so it helps to have the highest degree offered in film production
from the first film school the country. NYU shaped my perspective too, of
course. I learned how to not take no for an answer and figure out a way to get
your film made – be savvy.
On working with Spike Lee:
My first time DP’ing for Spike was on Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Eleven years
prior, I interned on 25th Hour. After 25th Hour, I PA’d on Sucker Free City and Inside
Man, both directed by Spike Lee. Working with Spike has been humbling
and eye opening. Spike is a master of the craft of filmmaking and arguably the
best American filmmaker. Working with Spike, I’ve learned how to better manage
time. He works on multiple projects at once, as does my brother Darius Clark
Our relationship has evolved positively through
us working together and delivering on projects. When we work together, I think
we have a good time and I get to collaborate in telling powerful stories. Teddy Bridgewater, then the latest Eminem video, and now I am answering
your questions from shooting with Spike in Brazil.
As we collaborate more and more, I get
better at my job and I get a front row class in directing. It doesn’t get any
better for me.
Shaka King has spoken about spending
months working with Daniel to design the shots for Newlyweeds. On working with
Shaka, and the process of preparing for a film:
Shaka King inspires me.
You gotta have a plan before you shoot a
movie. Everyone makes films differently. I like to shot list with directors. I
also have shot many documentaries, so I can be improvisational on the fly.
Filmmaking is like cooking – the right
ingredients, at the right temperature, for the right amount of time. Everyone
has different tastes. You gotta be flexible. Shot listing, storyboarding,
improvising, I like it all. I pride myself on being flexible.
On Evolution of a Criminal, Out in the
Night, and the needs and challenges of documentaries:
Those docs prepared me for narrative
films, how to light and frame quickly. How to operate a camera well with
limited takes. Both docs required dedication, persistence and patience.
Sometimes the people in the documentary don’t feel like being followed with a
camera, and sometimes people get killed right after you’ve filmed them.
Documentaries take an emotional toll on you, on me. They are also rewarding. I
love that I shot those documentaries because I am part of the culture being
On tips and techniques for shooting in
Cinematography is about your taste. You
have to like what you are shooting. If something feels distractingly bright,
try to flag it, or change your exposure. Know the limitations and strengths of
your camera. Scout, scout, scout and then scout again. Know what is possible in
I learn every day about the lies these
camera companies say to sell their products. My biggest tip is to do
you and work on an image until you are happy, or until the director
says, "Let’s shoot." At the end of the day, you’re working
for her or him, or them.
I love available light because of my
documentary background. If you learn how to shape natural available light,
budgets don’t matter as much. It is all about scheduling and having a great AD
like Mike Ellis, best in the
business. Working in confined spaces, Geoffrey
Erb (RIP) taught me to use the corners. Work with all skin tones how you
like – black, brown, pale, whatever… there is no right answer, and in my work
I think that is evident. I try and change it up, keep it fresh. Remember your
negative fill, for black bodies.
Daniel says he has no preferred camera,
but points out lenses and memory as being invaluable on set:
Our best tool is our memory.
But in terms of
equipment, I’d say lenses are essential for DPs. Learn different ones, use
different ones… educate your tastes.
In addition to his work as a DP, Daniel
has also directed an award-winning short with Justin Staley called Stag And
Doe, and plans to continue directing:
Stag and Doe won ABFF a
few years back. That is the only short I ever sent out anywhere, regarding
festivals. I am very critical of my work. I will direct again. DPing has
influenced my directing by me stealing tricks from the various directors that
I’ve worked with.
On the shot he’s proudest of capturing:
There’s a shot in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, a low angle close up on our lead, Stephen Tyrone Williams. He has on a
light blue/grey suit, the sky is bright behind him, and he is dark-skinned like
me. I’m proud that we only used b-board to light him. I’m proud of the simplistic
lighting that me and my longtime gaffer Justyn
Davis came up with for this film. He trusts me. I trust him. When there is
trust amongst collaborators, the final product has a great chance at being
I especially love that Justyn and I are
independent, and along with [production designer] Kay Lee, we were able to shoot the feature in 16 days, a day faster
than our original plan of 17 days. The entire crew made that possible.
On the benefits of cinematography:
I love what I do because I am an
independent contractor. I can work anywhere and some of the stuff that I have
shot, I still do not believe, and you wouldn’t either. It has taken me many
places over the globe and given me room to grow. These experiences have helped
shaped who I am and I love what I do. The stuff that I’ve learned, the people
I’ve met in basically all industries… priceless.
On what’s next:
Jusu has an amazing feature film coming up called Free
The Town that I will shoot in Sierra Leone. I also shot African
Booty Scratcher and Say Grace Before Drowning with her,
which both premiered at ABFF.
Many thanks to Daniel Patterson for his thoughts.
For more on Daniel Patterson’s work, visit danielpattersondp.com and prepschoolboys.com.