Cinematographer Alexis Zabe captures a colorful innocence in director Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, which follows the summertime story of a six-year-old girl and her young mother, who live in a budget motel near Disney World.
Zabe had previously worked with Baker on a short film, where the “communication worked really well.” “I really enjoy Sean’s openness. He has a really great balance between being true to his vision, and at the same time, open to what his support team has to offer. It’s a beautiful way to work: very creative, very free, and at the same time very focused.”
Zabe and Baker didn’t use visual references in the traditional sense. The Little Rascals was a contextual and dramatic reference, where the kids are being kids “within the context of poverty and the great depression,” similar to the economic hardship the residents of the Magic Castle Motel experience in this film. Charlie Brown was a visual reference in that “you’re seeing the whole world through children’s lives, and the adults become like arms and legs.”
They approached the film from the innocence of the children’s point of view. “Children don’t see a poverty-stricken strip of businesses that are gone or forgotten with the new resorts that have been developed. They see an amusement park, with castles, wizards, and huge ice cream cones,” says Zabe. “They’re not judging. They don’t have the fears we do as grownups. There is beauty in everything.”
Reality was the main inspiration for the look and feel of the film. “While we wanted to keep one foot in a children’s fantasy world, we did want to keep the other foot well planted in reality,” says Zabe. They worked with real locations and real elements, by “picking and choosing the places that kind of helped us tell the story in a better way.”
For the Magic Castle Motel scenes, Zabe was influenced by the way the motel’s guests were living, and lit with this reality in mind. Many of the residents, known as the ‘hidden homeless,’ are living from week to week in motels like this. They would have their curtains completely shut all the time with the air-conditioning on because of the heat. “You don’t want to let the sun in because the room will overheat in two seconds.” “Literally, every time you go into a room, it’s pitch dark in there, and then you have that sunlight piercing in through the curtains.” So he lit the motel room interior scenes from that perspective.
Florida’s Caribbean color palette was the main visual inspiration for Zabe, but “just ever so slightly enhanced” by bringing up the colors. For the day exterior scenes, he used a Tiffen Enhancer filter, which makes everything look a little rosier while making the sky bluer. The filter worked well to “separate the children from the background.” With all the green light reflecting from trees and grass, the “skin tones became a little green as well. With the Enhancer filter, the little kids popped out and separated from the background,” giving it a “subtle magic vibe.”
Shooting 35mm film contributed to the look. “We wanted to keep it a little bit milky and fantastic,” explains Zabe. “I tried to shoot wide open. I really wanted to blow out the harshness of reality to make it more of a painterly dream kind of landscape,” in addition to isolating the focus. They shot with the Panavision Millenium XL2 camera with Panavision E-Series anamorphic lenses. Kodak 5203 50D was used for day exteriors, 5207 250D for day interiors, and 5219 500T for night interiors. Shooting on film “does change the set dynamic; it does slow the set down. But it’s also an advantage; it helps us be a little bit more paused, and it helps you focus. Sometimes shooting digital is too rushed.”
After doing some testing on location, Zabe decided to use the Arriflex Alexa Mini for night exteriors. They didn’t want the scenes to feel digital, so they tested digital grain applications. Ultimately they decided to print “all the digital footage onto film negative, and then rescanned it back into digital,” making the transitions between film and digital look “a little more seamless.”
Zabe preferred to shoot with natural available light whenever possible, but did have a small lighting package to supplement. He had “a couple LEDs, a couple of Kinos, and an Arri M18. It was very minimal, and I really rarely brought them out.” “We did not want to invest our time in lighting. Once you start lighting, you lose angles, and you don’t have the freedom or flexibility to pan, turn, twist, change or react to what’s happening in a more agile and free way. I don’t like cluttered sets. If I don’t have to light, I won’t.”
Essentially, they had “35 days to shoot a 57-day schedule,” according to Zabe.
As a result, they couldn’t do many takes, which took a “certain degree of just letting go of control.” “Sometimes you have to just do it, embrace it and go with it.” For the most part, they shot very few takes, but when working with the kids, they would “let it play out for 1000 feet,” and that would be “our one 10 minute take.”
The footage was scanned in New York, so there was a two-day delay in watching dailies. Explains Zabe, “I wanted to see what the information was, how the lab was responding, how the skies were responding, how the contrast was responding, and I knew I could work on the rest later in grading.” Zabe had already defined the basic color and contrast style with the dailies colorist during testing.
Zabe and Baker had a shot and style intention, but “weren’t dogmatic about it.” One shot might “work better handheld, one might be more of a Steadicam shot,” or another might work “better as a lock off, and just let things happen in and out of the frame.” They tried to find the best narrative elements to tell the story. It was more important to be “proactive and reactive” with the actors than to follow shot lists. “We approached every scene in a very organic way.” “We would do the blocking and then kind of figure out the best way to shoot it.”
Zabe and Baker wanted to distinguish the style of the final scene at Disney World from the rest of the film. “It was important for it to look different, not completely, but different enough that it could be slightly jarring,” says Zabe. To achieve this effect, and they couldn’t afford permits to shoot at the amusement park, they shot the scene with an iPhone on a gyro. Baker had previously used the same technique when shooting Tangerine.
The scene appropriately has a cartoon-like feel. Zabe explains the effect is partially because the iPhone has a fixed stop of T.2.8, and so the phone’s camera “compensates exposure by adjusting the shutter speed, so it might be changing during the shot.”
The team employed a mostly local crew, although the loader and 1st AC, experienced with 35mm film, were flown in from L.A.. Working with a local crew brings “jobs to the local economy,” says Zabe. “I think it’s important in maintaining your relationship with reality. You need to have the locals there so you can feed off of them.”