Anyone who has ever experienced a long-distance relationship knows it’s no easy matter. But, what if you and your better half resided on two separate planets? HBO Max’s latest film Moonshot explores that very idea! Moonshot is a romantic comedy that follows two college students (Cole Sprouse and Lana Condor) who embark on an interstellar journey to pursue their significant others. In the Filmmakers Academy’s exclusive interview series Finding the Frame, we sit down with Moonshot’s cinematographer Brendan Uegama to discuss both his career and the film.
Watch Finding the Frame: Brendan Uegama
Below, watch the full interview from Finding the Frame, a Filmmakers Academy exclusive interview series. FA Creative Director Brendan Sweeney sits down with DP Brendan Uegama to talk Moonshot.
Brendan Uegama is a DP from Vancouver, British Columbia who grew up skateboarding, snowboarding, and shooting photography. Uegama’s interest in cinematography began when he and his friends would film and cut together videos of daring X-Games-like escapades.
In fact, his first film involved motocross. He traveled the California coast and up through Washington to British Columbia for an entire year. After that experience, he knew he wanted to be a filmmaker.
So, Uegama attended film school where he studied cinematography and worked up the ladder of short films, corporate videos, and other projects where he could make a little money and gain experience.
It was while working on a film called Are We Done Yet when Uegama met his wife. In fact, she made it possible for Uegama to meet the film’s cinematographer Jack Green, who he was dying to meet. Green was a gracious, nice person who took the time out of his day to show him the camera and lights and even asked Uegama’s opinion.
It was at that moment with Green that Uegama learned to always be gracious as a filmmaker. He realized that they are all a team working toward the same goal – to make a great film!
Launching to Moonshot
Uegama fully relocated to Los Angeles six years ago in 2016. Before Moonshot, Uegama got his first big break on the shows Riverdale, an adaptation of the popular Archie comics, and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It was during this time that Uegama was able to build his contacts and network which led to him meeting the right people in order to get offered Moonshot. Ultimately he shot three different shows within five years – with the third being Katy Keene.
You never know what project or contact will lead to a new opportunity. At the beginning of 2021, Uegama was introduced to one of Moonshot’s producers Mike McGrath by producer Sarah Schechter who put him in touch with the director, Chris Winterbauer. Following an interview in April, it was a month before he got the phone call to fly to Atlanta. Two days after wrapping the show Truth Be Told, Uegama flew out for the interstellar rom-com.
What drew Uegama to Moonshot’s script was its science fiction plot in addition to being fun and unique. Uegama was also inspired by Winterbauer’s passion for the project. He described it as “contagious.” According to Uegama, Winterbauer knows exactly what he wants and has “a good creative eye.” Like most good leaders, he’s open to ideas with the mindset that the best idea wins. They storyboarded most of the film together and Uegama wrote ideas for each scene to facilitate the collaboration and even included images and ideas for color. Then, he would pass them along to Winterbauer and the production designer Eddie Matazzoni to fuel their process. This allowed Uegama to express what he wanted ahead of time.
The prep for Moonshot was very quick – not more than five weeks for Uegama and seven or eight for Winterbauer. The principal photography itself consisted of 35 days. However, they talked about everything. Winterbauer had a system in his office with a different color piece of paper for each scene lining his office (amounting to around 100). So, when you would sit down you could identify where every scene was and it helped keep things organized during their collaboration. They would sit down every day for a few hours and storyboard, shot list, and draw out ideas. Then, during the weekends they would continue to hash out their ideas to maximize their five weeks in prep.
In the beginning, Sophie (Condor) and Walt (Sprouse) are at odds with one another, starting when Walt walks into the room and steps on the orb. However, as the film progresses and they board the ship together, their relationship blossoms. To convey this, the filmmakers used more separation between the characters at the beginning of the film and connected them more through composition and two shots as they grew closer.
Moonshot was shot on Alexa Minis and employed three different types of lenses for each act.
- Act-1: Earth – MiniHawk Hybrid Lenses
- Act-2: Spaceship – Super Speed Lenses
- Act-3: Mars – Summilux-C Lenses
In prep, while working with Castle Camera, they first considered the Hawks for everything in space but ultimately chose the Super Speeds because they delivered a unique kind of bokeh. The filmmakers also wanted to convey the difference between Earth and Mars. For Earth, they wanted it to feel clean and on Mars, it had to feel dusty. So, they reverse-engineered that concept through the lenses. They used no atmosphere on Earth, a little on the spaceship, and then went the heaviest on Mars. By using the Hybrids on Earth, Uegama felt that it gave them texture without “going smokey” so they could get it to where they liked while also allowing the actors to look their best.
On the spaceship, they knew that they would primarily work within tight spaces. For example, Sophie’s room was very small and the filmmakers realized that they would quite literally be up against the wall. So, they decided to shoot more wide open so they could get a soft background.
Uegama also loves how the Super Speeds bloom in the highlights. He finds that the Leicas (Summilux C) are the most solid lenses overall and chooses them often, including on a handful of shows, commercials, and the feature film Child’s Play. Per Uegama, they are the ideal amount of crisp without being too sharp, perfect to balance and physically work with, and they provide a creamy texture without being too cool. “We felt with Mars,” says Uegama, “that was the perfect kind of solution. And I knew that those lenses work really well with heavier smoke, as well – which I do a lot.”
Moonshot Lighting & World-Building
Moonshot parted from science fiction films like Star Wars, where it made the idea of space travel feel like a reality. One of the films that were a visual inspiration for Moonshot was Her. It was one of the first films that they discussed during their first meeting and that both Uegama and Winterbauer drew a connection. At its heart, Her is a rom-com, according to Uegama; however, it doesn’t look or feel like the average kind.
Even though the world is very close to our own, there is still the challenge of making it seem not only normal but a few years away from 2022. This was partially made possible through their approach to lighting and collaboration with Matazzoni (production designer), Winterbauer (director), John ‘Fest’ Sandau (gaffer) – and, of course, Uegama. They knew two things:
- Move quickly while being efficient in order to incorporate as much as possible in the movie so they wouldn’t spend too much time lighting.
- It looked right and felt appropriate to the world in which they were telling the story.
Uegama recalls one of the earliest phone calls that he had with Matazzoni was about placing all of the panel lights down the sides of the ship in the hallways. Matazzoni wanted to add lighting between the floor and the wall mats, and the idea developed from there.
For everything that they built, they would refer to the floor plans to figure out how they could incorporate the lights as well as what to do with them. For instance, how might they move? They came up with the idea of lights coming to life on the ship when the day turns from afternoon to evening. At that point, the ship would presumably shut down into a different mode of operation and the colors would flash from warm or tungsten lights to something cooler that would represent night or evening.
For the scene on Mars when Walt steps out of the room into the hallway with traveling light, Uegama came up with the concept during his first day in prep. They were considering ideas for what the concept of the floor would look like. The floor was styrofoam with glass laid on top of it in a small hallway. They carved out tracks into the styrofoam in the ground and laid LED ribbon. They used it in two ways:
- To illuminate the hallway.
- To guide Walt to where he needed to go to meet Kovi (Zach Braff).
Moonshot is Uegama’s biggest CG project to date. He had done some CG on Child’s Play but not nearly to the same degree. Communication was key as they produced renderings that would then be subject to more ideas and discussion. Uegama would then add his expertise in regards to lighting and communicating what he was planning to do in production. Ultimately, what made the process successful was maintaining an open conversation.
Uegama worked with Amber Kirsch (visual effects producer: New Line) and John J. Budion (visual effects artist) among many others on the visual effects team. There he ensured consistency of the lighting source and things of that nature. The team would send him proofs of about 100 shots at various times. This allowed him to weigh in and ensure everything remained consistent.
When it came down to articulating his idea to the art department or CG team, Uegama used a combination of hand-drawn images, photographs, and other resources. He used whatever means he could to communicate his ideas to them. Then, they would do the same thing back, initiating a creative back and forth of ideas.
For example, when Sophie and Walt sit in the shuttle, it starts as a dark room. Then, a simulation appears around them with a virtual Jupiter and solar system. This virtual element is also supposed to light Sophie and Walt from 180-degrees.
While lighting the scene, Uegama and his team had to figure out how to light for the visual effects that the CG team would build six months later. These consisted of incarnations of the Big Bang and Titan (one of Saturn’s moons). So, they made a QuickTime video with all of the different colors and moments of how the story would develop in a linear fashion. Then, they surrounded the set with LED screens and projected the video so the actors could watch them. In post, they would then paint them out. However, this approach allowed the filmmakers to get real reactions from the actors.
Favorite Moonshot Scene
One of Uegama’s favorite scenes to craft in Moonshot was the spacewalk. As far as the visual effects, it was the flagship look in making it feel big and cinematic. It was also a touching moment between Sophie and Walt. This was essential to the plot where they start to come together.
Uegama fondly remembers the scene as one that was fun to make. Taking place in a black room with markers, it involved a combination of wirework, a techno crane, and human-sized turntables. It took a little bit of everything, including lots of collaboration, to pull it all together.
So, their key grip, Chris Birdsong, built a turntable that was bolted to the studio floor, they placed the actors on it, and then they slowly spun them while dropping down with the crane.
When it was all said and done, they took a month in prep planning the scene. When that didn’t work, they went with Plan B.
Brendan Uegama’s Tips for Filmmakers
Uegama believes that photography is an excellent way to discover a sense of composition. It’s the way you convey the perspective of the audience in the film, after all. Photography is a useful tool that allows you to hone such skills. A large part of a cinematographer’s job is to tell a story with the image that best complements the words in the script.
What aided Uegama in his quest for success as a filmmaker in the industry was never becoming complacent or giving up. With every project, he pushed to take his craft a step further from where he was. You might not always move forward in the way that you would like, but just moving in general and staying active within the craft can have a tremendous impact. As Uegama put it, you just need to build it “brick by brick.”
As a cinematographer, it’s essential to effectively collaborate and communicate with talent, whether they’re seasoned veterans or new to the industry. Uegama tries to explain the whole idea without being overly technical about it. He prefers to talk about what you are trying to achieve as opposed to saying, ‘walk here, stand there, etc.’
Uegama first talks about the scene and explains what they’re doing whether it involves close-ups or moving in with cranes. That way, the actors knew what the camera team was doing around them.
The Bottom Line
In parting, Brendan Uegama has great advice for filmmakers who are pursuing larger projects. Stay open-minded and take ideas from everyone. When you truly love what you’re doing and are obsessed with it, it’s much more than just a career.
Whether you’re a director, cinematographer, actor, or anything in between, there’s a lot of competition. “So, you have to put everything into it,” says Uegama. If you love what you do and shoot for the moon, there’s no question that you’ll land among the stars.