Director of Photography David Libertella offers advice for emerging filmmakers.

Approaching the Script

Libertella on set

           Libertella on set

Libertella’s initial preparation for a film project begins with the script. “I read the script once through, reading aloud and paced so as to get a feel for the rhythm of the script.” He says, “I don’t begin consciously thinking about what shots or what lighting to employ until after I have read through it once and come to understand the story, the arc.”

Notetaking follows the first read-through. “I read it again and as I go through it I make notes, either in the margins or on a separate paper, about possible shots, color palettes, foreseeable problems to be solved.”

Camera Tips

Most young filmmakers begin shooting with a prosumer-level camera, such as the Panasonic DVX, long a workhorse for indie filmmakers. What does a new DP need to do when ready to film? “One of my first cameras,” says Libertella, “was the DVX, and after many years with it I can tell you to keep the gain low, and keep all your settings on manual. Manual focus, iris, zoom…the whole thing.  You can learn a lot about how cameras work in general this way.”

Lighting Without a Budget

How does a filmmaker deal with no budget for lighting? “Be aware of what you can get away with,” Libertella says. “Sometimes all it takes is knowing what time of day to shoot to maximize the available light. If you really need a light and there is no budget, go to Home Depot and get some clamp-on lights. They’re dirt cheap. Bounce them into the ceiling or a piece of showcard.”

Libertella does stress trying for one good light. “I would try to get at least one light from production. You can get a 1K or Tweenie for about $50 bucks a day,” he says. “If you keep bouncing that light and dancing it around from shot to shot and are careful about continuity, you can light with that one lamp all day.”

Color Correction

“I like to do all my correction on set,” Libertella says. “I do not feel it takes time away from the day and believe it just adds more time in post. I feel the most effective relationship between a cinematographer and a colorist is to give the colorist the least amount of work to do. I do not like spending time in the suite and prefer only very small tweaks to be done there.”  (More on color correction.)

To warm or cool a film’s overall look, Libertella says, “The most common answer is ‘we’ll fix it in post’. I prefer to correct my colors on set. Now, that is not to say you cannot fix it in post, but you must know how you are going to fix it in post before you shoot. For instance, if I shot something on film I can shoot the scene with ‘white’ light, and then set my printer lights to warm up or cool off the image. On certain digital cameras, this can be done internally by setting the white balance to a pre-determined color temperature. Another option is to use filtration.  Filters are relatively cheap, but they do result in light loss.”

The Language of Film

Filmmakers talk about a “cinematic syntax” – shot sizes, angles, movements + lighting. “You are talking about the language of film,” Libertella says. “Just as certain words in spoken language connote unspoken feelings or intentions, certain tools of filmmaking do the same. Low angles infer the subject is powerful, some dolly or Steadicam shots instill a kind of anxiety or fear as to what lies ahead.”

“It is imperative,” he says, “to learn this visual language to understand and be able to concoct films. I would highly recommend the work of Stanley Kubrick, in particular The Shining, Barry Lyndon, and Paths of Glory, for anyone who is interested developing his skills of the language of cinema.”

Depth of Field

Filmmakers often rely on depth of field to control what the audience sees. “Depth of Field is a very dependent tool of cinematography,” says Libertella. “Depth of field relies upon the focal length of your lens, your stop, and your image size. Longer lenses have less depth of field and a wider aperture also has less depth of field.”

“In regards to image size,” he says, “35mm has a more shallow depth of field than 16mm or a 2/3CCD digital camera. I feel that there are certain projects that demand a wider depth of field (Paper Moon, Citizen Kane). Almost everything is sharp in those films, and it is beautiful photography! It creates an amazing sense of depth, but it requires an enormous amount of light which makes it very difficult to achieve.”

Libertella says that a shallow depth of field is easier to achieve because of low light levels. But he feels that “it becomes an annoyance when the depth of field is so shallow it is impossible to keep all the relevant information sharp in the frame. This is where compromises must be made.”

“I prefer to keep my stop neither too wide nor stopped down so that I may achieve a realistic depth of field of the human eye, maximizing my control of what and when I show the audience information without having to light the set to an unbearable temperature.”

Hiring a DP

When a new director/filmmaker has stepped up to a bigger project or a larger budget, what would he look for in hiring a DP? “He should look for a strong DP,” Libertella says, “who is efficient, encouraging, and beyond all else able to listen and be an amicable element of a partnership. We are striving to make real the director’s vision, and a good DP should do his best to deliver that, whether he is working with a first time director or a seasoned professional.”


Every cinematographer cites artistic media that have influenced their work. For Libertella, inspiration starts, of course, with “past films from all regions and eras of cinema.” He goes on to say, “Music is very influential. Particuarly opera and classical.”

He says “I also look for inspiration in art, especially that of Caravaggio. I find it exquisitely helpful to study the sculptures of Michelangelo Buonarotti, observing the way the light models them.”

“Finally,” he says, “I would have to say the work of my late grandfather, Lawrence Checco. I grew up surrounded by hundreds of original oils and watercolors, and to this day they still adorn my home. No doubt this excess of passionate, original artwork has had an immeasurable unconscious influence upon me.”

Unique Vision

Thanks to easy access to technology and equipment, YouTube and indie films have proliferated. How would a young filmmaker have her work stand out from the crowd? Libertella says, “I think some qualities that will make new filmmakers stand out is to really develop a style that is unique to them. You shouldn’t light to an f/4 because Laszlo Kovacks lights to an f/4.” He says, “you should be lighting to what the material speaks to you. I mean, it all depends upon how you see the world; what do you have to say, you know? That’s the creative side.”

“Of course,” he adds, “on the technical side you must be proficient. This is a very mechanical job as well as creative. And finally, and this may be the most important, you must have a good attitude. Being pleasant and a problem solver will keep you on the show and get you more jobs in the future than letting your ego run wild.”

Libertella says that the biggest challenge he has faced so far, he continues to face every day. “It is the ever continuing and never ending challenge of demanding more out of yourself, to learn more, to become more in tune with the energies of color wavelengths, and the subconscious effects of angles on an audience.”

Libertella stresses, “You can never know everything in this business, and it foolhardy to believe you will, but you try to amass as much as you can and become, over time, at peace with your vision of the world.”

To see samples of David Libertella’s work, go to his reel on Vimeo.