An artist with a technical job
Along with their preferred lights, lenses and camera bags, the ability to collaborate is something many great cinematographers carry in their toolkit. David Mackie is no exception.
“One of the things that inspires my work, often just as much as the story itself, is working with other people and developing ideas,” he says. Encouraging collaboration among crew, he adds, simply makes for a better film.
“It could be technical; it could be logistic – but being open to suggestions from all crew members really does improve the product. And when they feel part of the conversation, it makes them want to up their game.”
Focus on teamwork
As he talks over Zoom, from his Cheltenham home, Mackie is about to leave for a documentary shoot in Lebanon. The subject? A group of stonemasons intent on rebuilding monuments in conflict zones.
These days he works chiefly as a director of photography and second unit director, but his experience of working as a second unit camera assistant on tent-poles such as The Dark Knight, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy and the later Harry Potter films has instilled in him the importance of on-set camaraderie.
“When you look at the scale of it all and you see the amount of effort and people that have gone into one split second– it’s then you realise that it’s about teamwork” he says. “Beyond learning about lighting cameras – my main takeaway was the man management, the politics of it and trying to keep everyone on side.”
Mackie says he’s also learned a lot as a second unit director collaborating with colleagues in post. On his most recent film Outside the Wire – released by Netflix earlier this year – he made frequent visits to the production’s on-set cutting room. “It’s hard to interrupt people on set. But going into the cutting room and figuring out which of your takes were used and which ones were not really gives you a sense of what the editor needs,” he says.
“Maintaining the vision is always the aim of what we do. It’s about putting as much work into the prep so that when you’re on set, when things inevitably change, the creative parts become ingrained, and it becomes second nature.”
Staying true to a vision
At a point in his career where he works more closely with directors, he knows how to get under the skin of a director’s vision and work up a visual strategy for a film.
“The first thing I do is listen and try and assess what the director’s vision is and then form my ideas of how I might be able to translate that. It’s not my job to come in and dictate the look for the film, but it’s all about collaboration and developing those ideas,” he says.
From that point, he says it’s a case of gathering a collection images, film references, techniques, stills, architecture, and more. “Anything that might put forward an idea of the tone and the look – then it’s back and forth with things. And that’s what inspires me – that collaboration.”
Sharing a vision with a team
Communicating that vision to other members of the crew is another challenge altogether, he adds. “The aim is always to maintain the vision. It’s about putting as much work into the prep so that when you’re on set, when things inevitably change, the creative parts become ingrained, and it becomes second nature.”
Perhaps surprisingly, one thing that helps Mackie stay faithful to the director’s vision through a long shoot, is music, with selected songs acting as a kind of mood trigger.
“I’ll be on set and lighting and I will put on my headphones and that will remind me. It works for the crew as well – I’ll play a song or a piece of music to a grip or the gaffer to explain the kind of pace we’re after.”
Dance between art and science
Mackie describes himself as an artist with a technical job. He calls cinematography a “dance between art and science.” He doesn’t deny the increasingly sophisticated technical aspects of his craft – optical engineering, lens development, camera sensors and so on – but he argues it’s all part of the same passion to tell a story.
As technology evolves it inevitably has an impact on the filmmaking process. With the film world continuing its migration to digital 4K cameras and away from film stock, he’s observed a definite shift in the way departments now collaborate with each other.
“It’s different, but neither better nor worse. It’s brought about a new style of filmmaking. The most obvious side of it is that people shoot more, but also the rushes you’re looking at on set are essentially graded footage – you are not looking at SD playback but an HD colour-graded image. This puts the emphasis back onto the prep… honing in on what you want to do before you start shooting.”
A long list of mentors
When asked about how he’s honed his craft, Mackie talks about both the technical, the storytelling and the interpersonal skills he’s picked up from top DPs. First, he cites Harvey Harrison – the go-to second unit cinematographer – whom he worked with as camera trainee on the set of 102 Dalmatians.
“From Harvey I learned a lot about analysing an image – it was his job to replicate a scene or a shot of what the main unit had done, so he would look at rushes or images and know where light sources came from, that was a real eye opener.”
On the set of The Dark Knight, cinematographer Wally Pfister taught Mackie about the truth of a story. “That idea that you needed the truth of the story for an audience to connect… They might not relate to The Joker flying through the air, but they can relate to loss or pain. It’s that little bit of documentary detail against a background of artifice that rings true.”
On Tinker Tailor Solider Spy he learned from Hoyte Van Hoytema, who, Mackie says, was as meticulous in his people skills as he was with sharing his vision for the film. “As a second assistant camera, for the DP to talk you though his mood boards and his process… was just really inspiring.”