My next picture was with a director named John Stockwell. After signing onto this project I came to realize that John’s style and sensibility would change me forever as a cinematographer. We both felt this needed a fresh look: something that was not your ordinary coming of age love story, but something that also had weight and reason. The script has elements of Romeo and Juliet without the death factor. It has the “boy from the wrong side of the tracks meets rich girl” thread, and the way that John wanted to go about shooting it changed the way that I block and light to this very day. Lighting an area so that actors can feel free to move and react to each other was key to John getting the best performance out of his actors. This was my challenge. I needed to let them be free. Then my photography would be the same, not documentary but fresh and quirky, reactionary, volatile, subtle, emotional, chaotic, crazy and beautiful. This was our mantra: be like a teenager and we will succeed. I had been looking at many movies made about the beach scene in Los Angeles; they all had poppy colors, intense blue water, and sun drenched beaches. The Palisades was not like that, at least in my mind. When I drive down PCH in June, there is a massive marine layer that doesn’t burn off until 11am. “How about the real, natural look of the Palisades?” I thought. John was into it. We went for bald steely skies, the gray-blue color of the Pacific and kept a hyper-white tone throughout the whole film. I had done many tests to best achieve this look photochemically and I chose 5277 film stock (that had just come out at the time). It was a stock that was designed for television commercials and gave more latitude in the Telecine process. A digital negative did not exist at this point. All color correction had to be done photochemically. The film stock was rated at 320 ISO. I wanted a hyper-white, flary look that felt like a teenagers will, so we did tests where we overexposed the footage. When the camera tests came back the one that was rated at 50 ISO looked absolutely amazing. We had also tested 4 different lens sets and the Panavision Primo’s held the flaring just to the edge of the cliff, where the Cooke S4 Primes, the Cooke Pancros and the Zeiss Ultra Primes fell off of it.
Now we had our cocktail: 2.5 stops overexposing a film that was supposed to be exposed normally and for TV only. I was one of the first cinematographers to shoot with this stock on a feature film and I was up for the challenge of managing an emulsion that we were taking right to the breaking point. Many of you have asked how I react to changing light on the day of production, as well as how I light differently for close ups. I am going to kill two birds with one stone and address both of these issues.
It is so important to choose your locations wisely. Take the time to find the locations that work for the story, the emotion, but also for the light. The tunnel leading out to the football field at Palisades High was visually stunning, but did it work for the story and the emotion of the scene? Both John and I wanted this scene to have an uncomfortable intimacy. I said, “What about this tunnel leading to the football field? It makes sense story wise.” Carlos (Jay Hernandez) is heading to practice after doing detention that Nicole (Kirsten Dunst) was responsible for. He is in a hurry, and she is on the run to apologize. They meet in a very uncomfortable, echoey chamber where their first fight takes place. They subsequently fall in love. The vast space that surrounds them helps to make this a very serious and intimate scene that I felt was the perfect fit for their emotions. The wide shot at the end with them holding hands silhouetted was the image that stuck in both of our minds when we scouted it in pre-production, so we needed to backward engineer the scene to get to that point. Two teenagers starting to fall in love with totally different backgrounds: this is what we wanted to achieve with this location. The background for Carlos was backlit and flary which achieved an angelic aura – visually this said that he was full of life and promise. Nicole’s background was cold and cementy. The gray walls suited her controlled, depressed life with her step-mother that included little ambition or worth.
Starting with the wide shot: We had to film another scene in the morning so our plan was to get there right after lunch. That was perfect timing because that is when the sun looked best on the stairs in the background. With the sun so high on the stairs, the scene took on a beautiful light/dark texture. We put the camera on a dolly and boomed up to reveal Carlos and Nicole walking down the stairs and stopping in the middle of the tunnel for the conversation. I lit this with 2-12K HMI’s bouncing into a clay coat 12 x 20. A clay coat is a bounce that is slightly gray and works very well when you have actors with pale skin like Kirsten’s. Ultra bounces or foam core are very kicky. This has a very smooth field when bouncing lights off of it. This was just enough light to hold the over-exposed detail in the stairs and keep them dark and semi-silhouetted. Here is the lighting plot for this:
Especially with a 5D platform, balancing daylight interior scenes with exteriors is a must. It is quickly apparent that you are shooting HD when the outside blows out in a very burning, tearing, clippy sort of way. Film takes that overexposure and blooms it because it doesn’t have the hard edges of HD – so to make your 5D, 7D, 1D footage shine, you need to take the time to balance the inside with the outside, unless you are going for a stylized look, in which case you need to embrace that whole-heartedly.
When I light for a close-up, I try to use whatever was lighting the wide and then manicure to best suit the mood and feel. They were entering a dark tunnel so the feel had to be down, not brightly lit. For both Kirsten’s and Jay’s C.U’s I brought the clay coat bounce around a little more frontal and then double diffused the bounce with a 12 x 20 Half Soft Frost. This gave the light a creamier feel and it felt like the ambient light that was spilling in from the end of the tunnel. Looking back at my photography and what I know now, I would have taken the light on their faces down about another 1.5 stops. They feel a little over-lit to me. This is the learning process you go through with the art of cinematography; trusting yourself and knowing how far you can push it. This film was for Disney and I knew that the studio did not want it to be too dark because the latitude that we had with our overexposing cocktail was incredibly reduced.
Look at Kirsten’s direction. We were running out of light and we needed to get this as well as Carlos’s direction before the sun came screaming into the tunnel. We had started with a hot toplight hitting the stairs and when we went in for the C.U. of Kirsten the sun had moved and the overhang of the tunnel had flagged off the stairs completely. I quickly asked the grips to grab 2- 4 x 4 Mirror reflectors and they bounced the hard sunlight across the steps so that I could have a little contrast in the B.G. It did not match at all, but I used the ability of depth of field and the medium and tight close-ups to hide the background to the audience.
When we turned around for Jay’s direction the sun was perfect. It was back lighting the trees and gave him an aura around him, with the sky slightly flaring the Primo glass. Then, this led to the wide reverse angle where Kirsten and Jay are silhouetted against the setting sun filtered through the trees.
This look was achieved because we were shooting in the right place at the right time. We were able to calculate what the right time would be by using a sun tracking program called SunPath. This software is truly amazing – you cannot live without some sort of sun program as a cinematographer. It gives you a huge advantage on planning your schedule in pre-production and on the day of production. I also use the iphone app Helios, which is $29.99 because it is the best app. Sun Seeker is not good even though it is cheaper – the price is its only benefit. It is easily influenced by the earth’s gravitational pull when it should not be.
Calculating and tracking the sun with an app or program is one thing, but you need the precise tools to make things happen. I use the Suunto Compass and Inclinometer set, or you can get a combo. Now Helios has a built in compass and inclinometer but I find that using the separate physical devices is far superior.
There is something important that I want you all to notice. John wanted Carlos and Nicole to slowly start to fall for each other during this scene. We wanted to tell the story visually as well as having the actors’ performance do the job. We started off wide and stayed away from any close-ups until the end, when Carlos says, “don’t play me.” At this point we go in for the C.U. This brought an intimacy that had been lacking for the first time, then by cutting wide for the hand holding and not going in for that C.U. of the hands (which seemed forced on the day), we let the audience breathe. Aaahhhh!!
Stay tuned for Series Number 4, where I talk about shooting at twilight for 4 days straight on Drumline.