Making a project come together is as much about achieving the vision in your head as it is about working with what is around you and elevating your material and situation to the highest level possible. Finding that balance between what is in your head and what is physically infront of the lens is something that nobody can teach you - you have to figure it out for yourself. I have found that the best ideas can come from anywhere and my biggest pleasure in my work is when an idea comes from somewhere you never predicted (perhaps an accident) and it turns out to be far better than anything you could have imagined. When that happens it feels like god is on your side.
It is important to create an environment that lets these moments reveal themselves, but it is also important to know when to put your foot down and say "I respect where you are coming from, but if you and I are going to complete this project together we are doing it this way." If you have the attitude of "my way or the highway" with every little decision your work will suffer and nobody will ever work with you again. In some cases though, you need to be ready to risk it all in order to stand your ground.
Here is a real world example of what I believe to be a hill worth dying on.
Last fall I was hired to direct a commercial for The Boy Scouts. The budget was small, but it was a great opportunity to write and direct some excellent creative for a (mostly) great organization.
I knew we would not have the budget for outdoor lighting, but this is a situation where we could compensate for a low budget by spending more time. Instead of doing a 1 day shoot we planned the shoot over 3 half days with a smaller crew. It was all about being at exactly the right place at exactly the right time so we could capture that beautiful back-lit photography no studio could ever match.
We were using real scouts instead of actors. This choice was made because we needed to show kids performing tasks with confidence and proficiency (no need for any heavy dramatic performances). Who better than real scouts? On my third trip out for location scouting I was informed that the scouts would only be available from 11:00am-4:00pm each day. Any DP's reading know that this is exactly the time you do not want to be shooting outdoors if you can help it. I told them that those times would not work for the production, and they told me I had to make it work because of a dozen or so very good reasons why getting the scouts at those times would be impossible.
I was stuck. This spot was written with a very aspirational feeling and I knew that bad / flat cinematography was not going to inspire anybody. Nobody has ever stopped their car and gotten out to take in the beauty and wonder of the afternoon but I know plenty of people who have dropped whatever they were doing to take in a stunning sunset.
I calmly told them that I understand where they are coming from, but if they want me to to direct this spot with this budget than we are shooting from sunrise to 10:30am and again from 4:00-sunset (basically the exact opposite of what they were offering). I made it very clear that this was a deal breaker for me. They took pause and went away for a couple of days during which I had no idea what would happen.
I got a phone call and found out that they had moved mountains in order for us to have the requested shooting schedule. They were not happy at the time, but in the end they thanked me for being a thorn in their side because they got some of the best work the BSA has ever done.
In an alternative universe, I could have put my foot down and gotten thrown off the project. But here's the thing. That would have been a victory too because it is far better to spend a little time on a job that would have turned out badly than spending even more time to finish a project that nobody will want.
Elevate at all cost.
Boy Scouts "I Can" :30
Boy Scouts "I Can" :30