Through the eyes of a DOP

Ben JoinerDirector of Photography (DOP) Ben Joiner has worked on everything from dramas to Top Gear expedition specials.

Talking to The Knowledge, Ben takes a break from looking through his viewfinder to tell us which jobs are the most challenging.

How did you become a DOP?

I became a DOP via a fairly traditional route. I did a film studies degree in the UK, then went to film school in Vancouver, initially with the aim of becoming a director but found the creative possibilities of the camera side of things more interesting.

Then I returned to the UK and worked my way up, from camera trainee, loader, focus puller, to DOP.

What are the main challenges of your role?

The main challenges are to implement the director’s vision for a project from script to finished product. Depending on the budget, time, mix of personalities involved and politics, this process can have varying degrees of success. When it's good and the elements all come together, it’s really rewarding. Some of my favourite projects have also been some of the hardest to prep and shoot.

On a day to day level, it’s running a camera and lighting crew on set, creating camera and lighting lists and liaising with production to make sure everything runs smoothly.

You need good people around you: good focus pullers, good camera operators, good camera assistants, good gaffers, good sparks and good grips. I like to feel part of a crew where everyone can offer something.

What’s the most challenging programme you’ve ever worked on?

From a purely environmental angle, the Top Gear Polar Special (2007) was the most challenging. It was incredibly cold and despite two weeks of advance arctic training, we didn't really have a clue whether we could actually drive to the North Magnetic Pole or not.

It was a proper adventure - scary at times and a good test to both the people and the gear. A long time was spent on shifting sea ice, coupled with 24 hour daylight - we all went a little crazy on that one. When I look back I'm still amazed we did it. I’m pretty proud of the final film.

What’s the most memorable job you’ve worked on?

The dramas I’ve done [such as Thunder Road, The Summit and Paranormal Witness] have been the most rewarding as you really go on a journey with a crew and come out with something at the end. Sometimes it's good, sometimes not so good, but I really like the camaraderie and creative endeavour of a drama crew, and seeing what all the departments are capable of.

It's also a great challenge keeping a consistent visual approach and lighting style, extended over a longer format piece.

All the Top Gear specials have been memorable too. Some have been more enjoyable than others: The Vietnam Special (2008) was a great film but was an extremely tough shoot. The Africa Special (2013) - amazing in every way.

Speaking of the Top Gear special, were there any particular challenges filming in Africa?

We were very lucky on that one as we had great local fixers and a decent budget and the Top Gear production team really did a great job in prepping the shoot, working out the journey, the logistics of our camps etc., so it all went very smoothly actually. It was my first trip to that part of Africa and I was amazed at how happy people were to see us and how friendly people were.

From a camera point of view, the rough roads and dust were brutal on the gear and it was a constant process of cleaning and maintenance to keep things going. Our Sony F800s held up well though and we had no problems with them, just grip gear and mounts getting pummelled by the roads.

Are there any tips you can share with any camera crew readers planning to film there?

Consider taking spare camera bodies in case, and plenty of cleaning and maintenance consumables. We were often very remote and a long way from any resupply or the chance of getting stuff flown in.

Oh, and make sure you have enough crisps and drinks in the car before you start handing stuff out to the kids - you can never have enough.

How is your job changing?

I think the role of DOP is changing somewhat with the arrival of digital technology and the filming possibilities that arise from it. It's important to try to stay current with all the different cameras, and digital processes and technology available. Try to use them all at some point to see what works for you and what might be suitable for a specific project.

I've learnt so much from speaking with DITs [digital image technicians] and editors about whether footage I have shot has worked or not in post. I think the role of the modern DOP is much more collaborative and integrated now with post-production than it was when I first started out.

There are so many possibilities now and I think it’s a great time to be a DOP as there are so many cool tools and devices for us to use - from apps to GoPro’s and Alexa’s. It’s a very exciting time.

What key skills do you need to become a DOP?

First and foremost, you need an innate ‘good eye for a shot’ and the ability to interpret and execute a script or visual idea with a director. This often involves the key skills of patience, diplomacy, courage, humility and stamina. And choose your creative battles wisely.

Also, one question I ask myself when taking on a new project or not is ‘would I watch it?’ That has served me pretty well over the years. If you are about to commit a month of your life being away from your family you need to feel - at least at the point of entry to a project - that it will be a rewarding and interesting production to be involved in and that the finished film could be worth watching.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to become a director of photography?

• Prepare yourself for a long journey. You don’t become a DOP overnight, and mentally it can be tough, especially when you are starting out and trying to get regular work and opportunities to shoot.

• There is a lot of hard work involved making contacts and building a reel.

• Be current with cameras and lighting equipment and try out new technologies as much as you can.

• Try to get a trusted crew around you that you want to work with and who want to work with you.

• Help other people when you can as you never know when you might need that big favour.

• It’s a creative and learning process that never really ends during your career.

If you could meet a version of yourself right at the start of your career, what’s the one piece of advice you would give yourself?

One thought that has served me well is: “there’s no shot worth dying for”. Also, never eat anything bigger than your head….

Fancy giving an insight into your role in the TV, film or commercials industry? Got any tips to share with our readers? If so, then drop us an email