Who is Thelonious Monk, you might ask?
Just behind my personal favorite – Phineas Newborn, Jr. – he’s the greatest jazz pianist to walk the earth (Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Vince Guaraldi and Dave Brubeck, please forgive me!).
If you’re not familiar, Google him and then…listen.
Monk was an amazingly bright, talented cat. As you’ll see, his theories apply to cinematographers as much as they do to any musician. Despite the brevity of the observations, there’s a great deal to unpack here. This thread will continue for awhile, so be sure to come back for a full accounting.
And this’s not for students only. It’s for everyone who thinks they know something about making movies.
Now, to the wisdom…
Just because you’re not a drummer doesn’t mean that you don’t have to keep time.
Replace the word “drummer” with the name of any other craft and you’ll get the drift. We’re all part of a team. Just because you’re not a boom operator doesn’t mean you don’t have to cooperate (keep time) with the sound department in order to get the job done. This applies across the board and also suggests a certain mastery over what you do. Fall out of sync with your collaborators and the whole effort goes to pieces!
Pat your foot and sing the melody in your head when you play.
Stay centered. Don’t get caught up in the moment and remember what you’re trying to accomplish. Think of the script as the score, the story points as the melody. And that’s where the bullshit comes in. Yeah, we have to stick to it. But not to the point where it inhibits creativity. Just as with music, you often make your best contribution when you depart from the established structure in some way.
Stop playing all those wierd (sic) notes, play the melody!
That said, when you choose to step off on your own, don’t just do something crazy or outlandish because you’re able to. That would be mistaking movement for progress. Make sure to keep your improvisation relevant to the greater effort otherwise you’re only fooling yourself.
Make the drummer sound good.
Our job is to not just make the movie look good, it’s to make the director look good. We do that by supporting them in every way we can. Directing is often a lonely pursuit; the more effective we are in helping that individual is the more we ultimately help ourselves. According to the demands of certain days, this edict might expand to include most anyone else on the crew. Hopefully there are others who are thinking of us in the same way!