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Sundance Cinematographers

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By Mary Ann SkweresNowhere is there greater proof that compelling cinematic pictures can be shot within the limited time and budget constraints of indie filmmaking than at the Sundance Film Festival. This year’s clutch of films (at least those that I saw) demonstrated not only an enhanced command of cinematography, but an awareness of the creative opportunities provided by new technologies and an ability to go to the edge, stretching the emerging tools of the contemporary filmmaking. Several cinematographers, working with different mediums and diverse techniques, shared their experiences with Below the Line.LoggerheadsArtfully framed through the lens of cinematographer Oliver Bokelberg, whose prior work includes The Station Agent, Loggerheads (entered in the American Dramatic competition) is a highly personal story of adoption and search told through intertwining story lines—three perspectives on the same emotional event. In early brainstorming, writer/director Tim Kirkman and Bokelberg chose to distinguish the three stories by thinking of the different characters in terms of color and lighting, to better understand them in relation to their own space. In keeping with the soul-searching themes of the film, the point of view of the camera was to “establish a voyeuristic sense of observing, looking at self,” describes Kirkman.Preparation was the key to success on the film’s 20-day shoot. Kirkman and Bokelberg spent a lot of time scouting locations in North Carolina, where the story is set. Bokelberg built his shot list for the film from snapshots taken during the scouts, arranged into a storyboard. Because a sense of place was important to understanding the characters, a slide show accompanied by music was played for the actors in preproduction. According to Bokelberg, by the time production began he knew the image so well, the shot was very clear. Many of the shots in the film exactly match the storyboard snapshots.Bokelberg shot on Super 16. To achieve the blow-up to the 35mm screening format—from an original 1:66 native size adjusted to 1:85—he chose a DI process over an optical blow-up. To start the pipeline, the negative was transferred to digital HDTV format as a one-light. It was color corrected on a Thomson Spirit then brought back to 35mm film as a one-light on an ARRI laser film recorder. Tests were performed along the way so that Bokelberg could monitor results and retain important details. Despite the increasing popularity of DI, Bokelberg is very cautious of using it. The choice to use the process for any filmmaker is not only a money issue, but also one of making sure that the lab charged with doing the work is capable of achieving quality results. Bokelberg was pleased with his collaborators at DuArt. He found that the film looked better than the original with the DI than an optical blow-up. The advantage of the process for him was “what you get on the negative.”This was the first time Bokelberg shot in the South and he says the experience was excellent. He was especially happy with the skilled, mostly local crew put together by coproducer/UPM Les Franck and the rental house Joe Dunton & Company, which provided his equipment.The Girl From MondayCinematographer Sarah Cawley-Cabiya, whose previous work includes the thriller Oxygen, uses technology to create a kind of abstract expressionism on The Girl From Monday, a stylized sci-fi tale of friendship, sacrifice and free love in an unchecked consumer society. It’s her third time working with indie writer/director Hal Hartley, known for his dramatic-comedic social commentary and experimentation techniques. The pair met at film school in the ’80s.The immediacy of the video medium was attractive to the filmmakers, especially the ability to monitor shots and move quickly on. A major creative decision was made to lower the shutter speed to 12, which created a very stylized streaking effect to movement within the frame. Color filters were also tested and used as an element. The team was very familiar with the New York locations, which aided them in compiling a shot list before production, a critical move due to a brief 12-day shooting schedule under brutal winter conditions. Cawley-Cabiya kept 35mm shooting discipline on set, using different colored tape for actor’s marks, slating all takes and always cutting the camera after takes, not just rolling into the next take. “Procedurally it didn’t fall apart like many DV projects do,” explains Cawley-Cabiya. “I think that’s very important. It was very precise.”Cawley-Cabiya’s challenge was to find a video look that the director liked, which would blow up to 35mm film with as little altered as possible. The film was shot on low-end consumer mini DV, the Sony VX2000 using 25fps PAL. It would have been impossible to achieve the final look with NTSC, she says. To reach the final 35mm format of the film, Cawley-Cabiya collaborated with Swiss Effects, a Zurich-based inventor of blow-up technology. Tests at various shutter speeds were sent to Switzerland for blow-up, and check prints were returned to New York until the desired look was achieved.Love, LudlowShooting his first feature of note, cinematographer Ruben O’Malley’s fluid camera seamlessly captures the manic energies and colorful palette of Love, Ludlow, Adrienne Weiss’s film-directing debut from the play by writer/producer David Paterson. The film was shown as part of the American Spectrum.O’Malley was hired by Paterson, and it was he who suggested Weiss, a theater director and teacher at New York University, as the film’s director. Weiss had extensive experience with actors and has taught directors how to work with actors—a critical requisite for the director of such an actor-driven film.To come up with the lighting design for the film, O’Malley looked at films, photographs and even books of postcards with Weiss, taking note of the images that the director connected with visually. Although it was impossible to block the scenes on set before production, the DP attended rehearsals for the actors. “Some of the rehearsals were crazy,” he says. “I walked in and they’re screaming at each other. It’s like walking into someone’s house in the middle of a huge argument.”This vigor spilled over into production, but being a performance piece, O’Malley never wanted to dampen the energy of the actors. When the camera rolled it would be like the actors were unleashed. Takes were different every time; the actors would not hit marks. O’Malley’s challenge was to have the camera at the right place at the right time. He responded to the actors, adjusting his camera techniques to their performance, following them around the set. Working under these crazy conditions, O’Malley credits his crew for their outstanding work: gaffer, DeWitt Davis, 1st AC Kit Pennebaker, 2nd AC Matt Mendelsohn, post production coordinator Craig Seti and loader Claire Price.Love, Ludlow was shot on super 16. Colorist Martin Zeichner did an incredible job on the dailies transfers, so close to the final look of the film that O’Malley admits, “our dailies are almost exactly what’s on the screen. Good dailies make everybody feel better about what they’re doing.” The dailies were transferred directly onto a hard drive at full resolution and edited on Avid. Final color timing was done in the Spirit suite and finished on HD for screening.

Written by Mary Ann Skweres

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