As with many successful filmmaking collaborations, cinematographer Eric Steelberg has known director Jason Reitman for a long time. They met in high school through a friend and discovered a mutual interest in film. Staying in touch over the years, they began making short films together in college, then graduated to features with Reitman’s award-winning film Juno. Up in the Air, is their latest effort together.
The film presented unique challenges. Production shot in five cities—Detroit, St. Louis, Omaha, Miami and Las Vegas—keeping key people, but picking up local crews in every city. “It was a good experience,” explains Steelberg. “The crews were excited, worked hard and were willing to learn whatever they needed to, if they needed to, but it was difficult. The success of a shoot relies on a well-oiled production machine, which happens after time spent working together. As soon as we figured out each other’s working styles, we would leave and go to another city. We were constantly starting over. It was like five mini-shoots instead of one big one, but we got it done and maintained the quality.”
The process between Steelberg and Reitman is based on the emotion of a scene and what is right tonally. To determine the visual style, they talk about the film in length. They do not think in terms of shots, but rather consider character intent and the arc of the movie. Occasionally they reference magazine photos. The only film they referenced early on in discussing the wedding scene from Up in the Air was their own film Juno.
“Jason and I have the good fortune of having worked together for so long. We really know each other, so we can communicate a lot without talking,” reveals Steelberg. “Generally we have brief conversations. I can run and develop an approach without having a lot of fallout. We challenge each other to come up with the best idea for the tone of the film. It’s very collaborative. We always go back to what is the best for the film.”
Steelberg and Reitman avoid anything gratuitous that might distract people from the story. Through transparency in the technical filmmaking “the audience can more easily connect to the story.” According to Steelberg, Reitman had a recurring theme though out the filming saying, “It’s got to feel real.”
It was logistically challenging to shoot in airports, but the company filmed with little compromise. Steelberg is proud of the production’s accomplishments, getting most of what they needed for the story, including filming in real security areas with TSA employees. The wedding sequence was also approached unconventionally. The team threw a real wedding reception with the actors as guests, which they captured on HD with three cameras. “I knew if we did it that way, we would get better performances,” admits Steelberg. “It would be better for the story. And it would feel more real.”