“Trust your gut, it’s rarely wrong”:   An interview with Director of Photography Barrett de Kock

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The Westin, a branded content film (Photo by Barrett de Kock)

Barrett de Kock has worked in the film industry for ten years. After graduating from CityVarsity, he gained on-set experience by working as a PA, before moving over to lighting “the first chance he got”. This eventually led to him working behind the camera, and gaining DP experience which he immediately put to use, shooting his own projects at every opportunity.

As he explains, “Working as a set technician is wildly important because you learn more there than you ever will in film school or by trying to shoot things yourself, and you really get to understand how to use the tools at your disposal.” On the other hand, though, finding time in between this “proper industry work” to shoot smaller projects – including sports, branded content, music videos and short films – was also invaluable, because “it doesn’t just help to watch and learn things from the bigger jobs, it’s also important to implement them on jobs yourself.”

These days, Barrett is a sought-after DP with a busy schedule of commercial and other work, and he hopes to spend more time doing film and television shoots over the next few years. We caught up with him to find out his views on the relationship between location and lighting, his favourite gear and what makes a ‘good’ director.

Christopher Doyle once said, “To me there are only three people in cinema: the person in front of the camera, the audience member, and the person who is the real passage between them—the cinematographer.” Any thoughts on this comment?

I don’t completely agree with this statement. Cinematographers can’t do what we do alone, and all departments play a part in creating the worlds we capture on film. A good cinematographer is always reliant on the various teams involved in the project, from his own technical departments to the art departments. In that instance, maybe cinematography itself is the passage between the person in front of the camera and the audience member…as long as you have good sound that won’t break the illusion, that is.

What is your view on the relationship between location and lighting? Which, ultimately, is more important in your eyes?

Location probably wins, but by a very narrow margin. You can have the most amazing location that you can’t light at all (this includes natural lighting), which will give you an inferior image, but – on the other hand – you might find somewhere that you can light but the image just isn’t very interesting to look at. You need to find locations that you can both light and that look great on camera. Of course, the bigger the budget the more solutions you have to light the locations at your disposal – there’s more freedom there. When your budget is smaller you need to try and find locations that you can manipulate with fewer lights.

Do you like working with CGI? In your opinion, is it generally over- or underused?

I’m not a massive fan of CGI from a cinematography point of view, as I like to do things ‘in camera’ as much as possible, but it has opened up more worlds for us to explore as storytellers. I do think CGI is generally a bit overused, though.

In your opinion, what makes a ‘good’ camera? Any preferences in terms of size, specs, construction?

The cameras I use most of the time are the Alexas and Reds. But, really, a “good” camera is whichever one is right for the job. My go-to is almost always something from the Alexa range, unless 90 per cent of the job is CGI or VFX oriented, in which case I lean towards the Reds. What’s truly amazing about the ARRIs is the colour space; they have given me the chance to push the camera in incredible ways. I would pick good colour space over resolution any day of the week.

Any other gear you really enjoy working with?

This is one of those questions where the answer will change from season to season! At the moment, I’m really enjoying using LiteMats from LiteGear and the ARRI SkyPanel. About two or three seasons ago, when the Celeb200 came out, that was the first time I was happy enough with the light from an LED source to start using them on set, and since then they have been slowly taking over the jobs of the Kinos for me, though I still use Kinos a lot. The LiteMat I really like for its versatility and the fact that it’s so lightweight. I’ve used Dual-Lock fasteners to stick LiteMats into places I would never have been able to put another fixture with the same quality light. Then there are the SkyPanels! These machines are insanely versatile and user-friendly. The fact that your colour gel choices are just a dial away make them very valuable on any set, because sometimes you just want a splash of colour somewhere and now, with the SkyPanels, it’s just a matter of putting up one light, and then dialing in the correct shade. It also makes things easier in studio where you are rigging up a lot of top lights but need to change the mood of the colours over your shooting period. In terms of other gear, I love Cooke lenses, they remain my personal favorite, and Steadicams and Movis for the freedom of movement they offer. I do prefer the Steadicam though, their movement still feels more natural to me. There are a lot of toys out there and I do like to mix it up a bit.

From your point of view, what makes a ‘good’ director?

This one might be a simpler answer than you were hoping for, but someone who knows how to get what they need out of the talent available to them, and knows how to articulate what’s needed on set to make post-production easy. On this second point, a lot of the time responsibility will fall on the DOP to make sure we’ve shot what’s needed as well, especially if the director is not especially technically-minded, or if they have a ‘looser’ working style.

Finally, what’s been the best thing you’ve learned on set so far in your career?

Trust your gut, it’s rarely wrong and don’t be too big to take advice from your technical crew. A lot of them have more experience in their specific field than you ever will, and you should always make use of their know-how and skills.

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