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HomeCraftsNancy Schreiber shoots November

Nancy Schreiber shoots November

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By Peter Caranicas
One of the most talked-about films at January’s Sundance Film Festival was November, the second feature directed by Greg Harrison. The low-budget psychological thriller, produced by InDigEnt, stars Courtney Cox and James Le Gros. It was shot on location in Los Angeles by Nancy Schreiber, ASC using Panasonic’s DVX100 24p camera. Schreiber won Sundance’s Excellence in Cinematography award for her work.

Below the Line: Had you shot digitally before?
Nancy Schreiber: I’ve shot mostly on film—35mm, but also Super 16, Super 35 and anamorphic. Last year I did two HD movies. November was the first feature I shot with Mini DV. During preproduction we were able to take the camera to locations we were considering. You don’t usually have that luxury with 35. When we located the store where a good portion of the film takes place, we were able to take the camera there and see what the available light was like, with the fluorescents, and then I could determine what I wanted to turn off, what I wanted the change, by adding units and controlling the color.
BTL: Did the production company determine the shooting medium?
Schreiber: That’s what InDigEnt does. I knew when I signed on that Mini DV was a given. It was the first time InDigEnt used the DVX-100. Greg and I were very interested in it because it seemed much more advanced than the Sony PD-150 that so many people are using. It costs under $3,000 and I fondly called it our toy camera, but it did a great job. We pushed the limits of the camera. It has a very sharp Leica lens, and a lot of internal settings that one would find on a much more expensive camera, so I was able to control gamma, a film-like look, contrast, color—it made me very happy because as a cinematographer I want control over my imagery.
BTL: Describe your collaboration with Greg.
Schreiber: What’s terrific about Greg is that he’s very technically oriented, and a terrific collaborator, so we were on the journey together. It was quite wonderful.
BTL: What’s your view on digital cinematography?
Schreiber: I have a lot to say about it. A lot of people think you don’t have to light digital, whether it’s Mini DV or Digibeta or DVCam. That’s such a fallacy. The imagery will suffer if you don’t do lighting. Having said that, on November I had the smallest equipment package I ever worked with on a movie. It was very freeing and allowed us to shoot a movie in 15 days with lots of coverage. We used two cameras, though not all the time. We sometimes used a dolly, sometimes tripods, and sometimes shot handheld.
BTL: Any problems?
Schreiber: What I had been worried about—true whether it’s Mini DV, DVCam or HD—are the wide shots. Video usually falls apart in the wide shots. And Greg supported me in not making me go too wide on the lens. We used as long a lens as we could. It’s hard for a cinematographer seeing imagery when it’s supposed to be sharp and it’s not. This factor, plus limited contrast ratios and depth, will keep film alive longer.
BTL: What about ergonomics?
Schreiber: When Panasonic made this camera I don’t know if they knew how much it would be embraced by the professional feature filmmaking community, and one of the problems with the lens in terms of focus is that the focus ring keeps spinning 360 degrees. Not being able to lock in your focus makes it an inexact science. So we were able, with Century Optics’ amazing engineering, to put a ring on camera so there was a lens stop, and we could hit focus marks precisely without going past infinity. Century also adapted the follow focus attachment for the assistants to pull focus.
BTL: Any other issues?
Schreiber: In Mini DV, although the viewfinders are color, you really don’t know what you’re getting unless you properly set up your monitors, and attach the camera to the monitors. Had this been a film shoot that was so quick and low budget, I would have operated, because what I was seeing is what I was getting, but because it’s all about setting up the monitor appropriately and properly, I chose not to operate.
BTL: Who operated?
Schreiber: I had two wonderful operators, Jamie Maxtone-Graham, who is very experienced. In New York, when I was coming up as a gaffer he was an AC. And Marie Chao, who was once loading for me, worked her way up as an assistant, joined the union, and I bumped her up to operator on November. When we were shooting one camera, Marie pulled focus. Kelly Richards, whom I had bumped up from second to first on this film, was our other focus puller. I watched both cameras on the monitors with Greg.
BTL: Do people shoot digital to save money?
Schreiber: One reason given is that tape is cheap: “We’ll just keep running between takes.” But all of this material needs to be converted eventually, someone has to log it, someone has to use it for editing. It’s a fallacy that you can just keep the camera running. It shows a lack of discipline. Although we used two cameras, Greg was incredibly disciplined. We had the luxury of being able to pick them up, move quickly, go with the flow. We were able to shoot in 15 days with incredible coverage.
BTL: Talk about other crew on November.
Schreiber: The collaboration was terrific with production designer Tracy Gallacher and visual effects artist Lew Baldwin, who was also composer.
BTL: What about post?
Schreiber: Once the picture was locked, Greg and I color corrected at Laser Pacific with colorist Mike Sowa, another wonderful collaborator I’ve worked with on many projects. He really got into what we were trying to do with the color and contrast. Also, we were very fortunate to color correct on Laser’s 30-foot screen as opposed to small monitor.
BTL: And the audio?
Schreiber: Skywalker Sound did the post sound. You can’t believe how professional this movie is and how little it cost. Well under a million. Greg explored Dolby Surround, which many people don’t. He really worked it.
BTL: What did other crew contribute?
Schreiber: Grip Erik Messerschmidt adapted a good deal of rigging to our small-format cameras. In equipment, Cartoni/SteMan really helped us out, not only with tripod heads but a small jib arm and a Panther dolly. Gaffer Rich Paisley was incredibly inventive and creative with such a small package. He was going out and grabbing power wherever he could. Everything—grip electric and camera—was on one truck. InDigEnt didn’t use generators on their movies, but there was night work. I said, “Guys, I have to have at least a little generator,” and I finally got one. You need to light not only so that the shots aren’t muddy or murky, but also for artistic control.

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