Low-budget independent films range in production costs from a few thousand to a few million dollars. To compete in the marketplace—indeed to find any distribution whatsoever—the production values must look as high-budget as possible; good enough to tweak the enthusiasm of exhausted and moody acquisitions execs in overheated film festival screening halls. The easiest way to achieve this is to dazzle the audience by using a star in the lead role, but in the event that no star “angel” has decided to nurture the project, the job of a professional and high-budget look falls to the DP.Lisa Wiegand is an ideal cinematographer to achieve a high-end look for lower-budget films. Originally from Detroit, where she received her Bachelors in filmmaking, she came to Los Angeles and took Masters Degrees from the AFI and UCLA—years of study and preparation that resulted in an award from the ASC for her body of student work. She has been active as a cinematographer for almost a decade, and brings this experience to Little Athens, a coming-of-age drama directed by Tom Zuber, and starring John Patrick Amedori, Michelle Horn, DJ Qualls and Rachel Miner.Taking place over the course of a single day, the film follows the lives of four teenagers, all of whom make bad decisions. When night falls, the kids wind up at a party house, where things explode in their faces. To convey the sense of the characters’ crumbling lives, Wiegand shot on both Super 35 (with cameras donated by Panavision’s New Filmmakers program) and Super 16.“I shot 5246 [Kodak stock] for all the daytime stuff, interiors and exteriors. But during the sunset I switched formats to super 16,” explains Wiegand. “When we went to nighttime and the party I used 7218 [stock], shot on an Arri SR 2.” The grain and rougher look of the super 16 underscored the characters’ traumatic experiences. All scenes were shot in the 1:2.40 aspect ratio.To create an aura of mystery around a certain character, Wiegand used the Panavision Swing Shift lens system. “A character is moving out of town, so we didn’t want to see his face in the beginning, we wanted him to seem already erased from the town,” says Wiegand.She describes the system as a lens on a bellows, like that on a large-format still camera. The orientation of the front plane of the lens can be shifted, diagonally changing the angle of the depth of field, making it no longer parallel to the film plane, and throwing certain areas out of focus. Though the effect can be approximated in post, there is not the same sense of focus gradation as with a Swing Shift lens.Perhaps most importantly, Wiegand decided to use the digital intermediate process to unify the finished look of the film. “Each of the main characters’ storylines has specific colors that are accentuated,” she describes. “Because we were a low-budget production, we could control our interior scenes pretty easily, but when we got onto locations with big exteriors, it was more difficult. Using DI, we could regain control over the color palette.”An example was a scene on a baseball diamond surrounded by a fence with yellow pipe running over it. Yellow was a color not appropriate to the character in question, so it was changed to orange with DI, a process much more cost-effective than removing the pipe or having the production designer somehow disguise it. Decamired filters, blue for the nighttime and red for the daytime, were also used, but DI also helped maintain the look of a single sunny hot day by warming up scenes or intensifying the contrast, despite shooting conditions that were sometimes foggy or overcast.Ron Nichols at Level Three Post in Burbank was the colorist during the DI phase. “We used a da Vinci 2K for color correcting. We go through the da Vinci color grade to manipulate the levels and contrast, and change the colors shot by shot.” An important feature of da Vinci is Power Windows, which allow a certain segment of the frame to be isolated for color correction. “If you put an overall color correction in,” says Nichols, “you’re going to change everything of the same hue, unless you put a Power Window around what you want to change. It then allows you to change the color in that one area.” Nichols maintains that DI is a terrific and affordable option for filmmakers to achieve a great look for low-budget work.Using different formats, Swing Shift lenses, and DI are strong choices for a DP to bring to a production. But Wiegand says her stylistic decisions are all in service to the script and the director. The main thing is to be able to supply the director with alternatives that allow him to realize his vision. “I’m always able to offer a lot of different options, or shoot some tests to show a way we could go,” she says.Still, Wiegand acknowledges the difficulties of low-budget productions—less time, smaller crews. But this is made up for by the passion of people coming together because of their belief in a project. Having shot projects in both digital and film, ranging in budget from just a few thousand dollars to two million, Wiegand does not let technical or financial concerns interfere with her passion. “I shoot a movie because of the script, the director, and what the movie means,” she says.
Written by Henry Turner