Finding the Frame: Alice Brooks, ASC
Alice Brooks, ASC is the award-winning cinematographer behind some of the most recent musical hits like In the Heights and tick, tick… BOOM!, working alongside icons like Jon M. Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Brendan Sweeney of Filmmakers Academy sat down with Alice to discuss her career and latest work on the film industry podcast, Finding the Frame.
Watch Finding the Frame with Alice Brooks, ASC
What Inspires Cinematographer Alice Brooks, ASC?
Alice finds inspiration in paintings, photographs, and music. In fact, she joined the LA County Museum of the Arts which has a museum service council.
In college, Alice had taken art history classes but found it even more rewarding to attend classes that focused on the art that was curated by the museum. “To actually really see the paintings in real life versus in a book was incredible.”
On the other hand, Alice doesn’t love watching movies when prepping for movies. Sometimes she watches older movies, but nothing in the past 10 years because of something a colorist once told her. The colorist said that when coloring movies, they realized that nearly every one looked the same. That’s when it occurred to Alice that she was only doing what was the latest trend. Rather than replicate the latest “hot” movie, she prefers to concentrate on what’s right for the story that she’s visually telling.
For Alice, her journey as a filmmaker began at a young age.
From Childhood Actress to Aspiring Cinematographer
“Fantastic,” is how Alice describes her childhood. Where other kids went to ballet or gymnastics after school, she would go to auditions. “I got to be part of things that were just bigger than the world around me,” says Alice. Between the ages of five and 10, she appeared in nearly 40 national commercials.
At the time, Alice always gravitated toward the camera people. During a commercial for Prodigy, an early internet product, Alice was with two other child actors in front of a computer. They played video games on the computer while the filmmakers set up the lights. Suddenly, they told Alice and the others that they could go home. Crushed, she assumed she was fired. However, when they saw the commercial, she realized that they had a reverse shot on the computer as if they were interacting with the internet instead of the games. They looked like they were having a fantastic time! That’s when Alice realized that there are interesting ways to tell stories with the camera.
When Alice turned 10, she and her family relocated to Los Angeles from New York City. For the next five years, she continued to audition but she didn’t book as many jobs as she once did. Conversely, her sister worked regularly and appeared in many TV series. So, after school, Alice would go to whatever soundstage her sister worked on and do her homework in the dark. As she watched the filmmakers, she thought the lighting was magic.
It was after an audition for the Sandra Bullock film, While You Were Sleeping when Alice’s life changed forever.
She auditioned seven times for the role of the sister and when she reached her last audition with the director, she knew in her heart that she didn’t get the part. Afterward, Alice and her mother walked on the beach in Santa Monica while they waited for rush hour to end. While on the beach, Alice told her mother that she no longer wanted to be an actress. Instead, she wanted to be a cinematographer. At that moment she looked down and spotted a little gray and white feather. She picked it up and carried it all around the world as a reminder of the moment she declared her dream.
Now a member of the American Society of Cinematographers, Alice grew up inspired by the cinematography of Caleb Deschanel. More specifically, it was two of the films that Deschanel lensed that stood out to a young Alice – The Natural and The Black Stallion. Alice noted that the films were her “go-to movies for many, many years.” Now, the imagery of those films is what continues to inspire Alice to this day.
Developing Her Cinematic Eye
In high school, Alice essentially lived in the darkroom developing her film stills. She even had her own key. At the time, her sister was on a TV series called Cracker: Mind Over Murder, shot by Roy Wagner, ASE. During that time, Alice took it upon herself to study Roy’s work.
“I hadn’t seen anything like what [Roy] was doing on TV before,” recalls Alice. “It was very dark, lots of these long Steadicam shots, and some things that started on the second floor and came down to the first floor or vice versa.”
Meanwhile, Alice wanted to attend the University of Southern California. Now, aspiring filmmakers send their reels and show video work, but back then the application process for the film school involved a two-page essay and stills to judge your storytelling abilities. Today everyone has a camera in their pocket. But when Alice first started out, like most families, she just had an old VHS camera. When she attended USC on a full scholarship, that would change.
“I got my Super 8 camera and started shooting on that first and then we shot 16 and 35,” says Alice. When she graduated, she had two short films under her belt – but realized she needed more work. Not interested in paying for grad school, she instead stuck around USC and offered to shoot the grad students’ films. At the time, there weren’t as many people who wanted to be cinematographers. So, over the course of a year, she shot nearly 30 films!
Alice Brooks and Jon Chu’s First Collaboration
At the end of that year, Jon M. Chu asked Alice to shoot his now-iconic student film and musical, When The Kids Are Away. It was this project where she bonded with the future Crazy Rich Asians director and would later collaborate on such films as Jem and the Holograms, In the Heights, and the upcoming musical film adaptation of Wicked.
Jon Chu’s student film was unlike most. It was a musical – and the first one that Alice had ever shot. Now, Alice grew up loving musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and her mother was also a singer and a dancer. So, naturally, Alice was no stranger to show tunes playing around the house. But there hadn’t been any major musicals that had captured the zeitgeist of that particular era. When Alice shot When The Kids Are Away, it was just before Moulin Rouge and Chicago.
However, they were in film school so they had knowledge of cinema, musical theater, and musical genre movies. The two key pieces to ensure a successful production was the choreographer and the Steadicam operator. The choreographer, Raymond Del Barrio, was a seasoned veteran who performed in Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.
They storyboarded some shots and maneuvered a Busby Berkeley shot over a table with the mothers cleaning and removing plates from the table.
Years later, they would do another Busby Berkeley overhead for In the Heights, except in a swimming pool.
In fact, they reproduced many shots from When The Kids Are Away for In the Heights. In the last shot of the opening number for the film adaptation of the Broadway musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, there are 500 people dancing in the streets. It was quite the leap from their student film back in 2002 when Jon and Alice had 30 people dancing in the streets.
Alice notes how she and Jon still remember the moment fondly:
“Actually, Jon – a few months ago – he was digitizing all his mini DV tapes from our time at school. And he’s like, ‘Look what I found.’ He found all of the behind-the-scenes of us on that set. And he’s like, ‘Look, we’re standing exactly the way we stand and we’re doing exactly what we do now.’ Then he had this interview with me [during a production meeting before filming] and he said, ‘Alice, what would you tell your future self?’ I said a whole bunch of things. And then I said, ‘Remember this moment – remember the moment before you’ve got 30 people dancing [in] the middle of the street at sundown.’ And then 20 years later, we do it on In the Heights, except instead of 30 people on the street, it’s 500!”
When The Kids Are Away was also the project when Alice began her longstanding relationship with Panavision. Rather than shoot on film, Jon wrote a letter to Bob Harvey at Panavision and explained that he was shooting a short film and really wanted to get his hands on the first Panavised version of the Sony F900 Digital Camera. Bob provided the camera to Jon for two weeks and it was Alice’s first experience shooting digital.
Companies like Panavision build relationships with cinematographers early on in their careers with their New Filmmaker Program. “That’s the beauty of this industry,” says Alice. There were only a couple of Panavised F900s, so to let them use the camera for two weeks was an incredible opportunity and generous of Bob Harvey at Panavision.
Recognize Each “Break”
After Alice finished what she calls her “free year” of graduate school, she rode the momentum of the success of When The Kids Are Away. She acquired an agent which was helpful for her resume – but really doesn’t help filmmakers find jobs at that stage in their careers. From there, Alice shot lots of movies around the $100,000 mark, and gradually received projects with higher budgets.
She was at Barack Obama’s first inauguration when she received a phone call from Jon Chu informing her that he had a project, which would become the Hulu series The LXD. Jon told Alice that the project only paid $100/day but it was something special. The only catch was that Alice had to be in Los Angeles in two days, so she jumped on a plane with no script or anything to go on. There was something in Jon’s voice that she trusted and so she rightfully felt that this was going to change the trajectory of her career.
The project turned out to be a wonderful experience for Alice. She describes working on LXD as a “complete playground.” The premise of the show was superheroes who channeled their powers through dance. So, they explored telling stories through dance moves and worked with choreographer Christopher Scott, who would later serve as the choreographer of In the Heights. After the first five episodes, Paramount came on board and the show’s budget increased. They shot three seasons and 30 episodes altogether. “It was probably the most wonderful special time of my life,” Alice pleasantly recalls. “And everyone who worked on that project feels the same way.”
Cinematographer Alice Brooks Lenses Multiple Genres
In the intervening years, Alice shot the fast-paced action series Tainted Love with director Avi Youabian. The two also worked together on the Walking Dead web series Red Machete where they won an Emmy, and a project for Amazon called Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands: War Within the Cartel. By this point, Alice had dipped her toes into a number of genres from action to horror. Her next stop was kids’ movies, starting with Jem and the Holograms. The film was based on the children’s cartoon from the ‘80s and the titular Hasbro doll. For that film, she would once again team up with Jon Chu.
“Jem, for Jon and me,” explains Alice, “was a concert movie. It’s five musical numbers – five concert numbers. And so, that was another way we started to play and learn about how to tell a story through song and dance.”
This launched a period in Alice’s career where she shot lots of kid’s movies, including Alex and Me with Eric Champnella – about a girl who bumps her head and then suddenly sees soccer mega-star Alex Morgan who coaches her.
The film That Alice Brooks was Destined to Shoot
Alice first met Lin-Manuel Miranda while filming In the Heights – the film was an adaptation of the musical he wrote for Broadway before Hamilton. Miranda was a producer for the film adaptation but she didn’t interact with him much during the film.
But, on the final day of filming, Alice received a call from her agent who said that Lin would love for her to read the movie he was directing and then meet with him. The name of the project was tick, tick… BOOM!
Three days after wrapping In the Heights in August of 2019, Alice hopped on a Zoom call with Lin and talked about the project. tick, tick… BOOM! is the story of Jonathan Larson, the writer of the musical Rent. The film is told in three parts. Set in 1990, Larson (Andrew Garfield) workshops his musical Suburbia (which was never made) and follows the anxieties of turning 30 without achieving the success as a playwright that he so desperately craves.
In 1990, Alice was 10 years old and just left New York City for Los Angeles. In many ways, she could identify with Jonathan Larson a la her playwright father and dancer mother. They even lived in a similar tenement apartment building with a walkup staircase and a bathtub in the kitchen. Her father’s artist friends were always at their home, and Alice remembers all of the creative ideas, the laughter, and even the sorrow. She would witness her father’s heartbreak while he tried to make it as a playwright himself. So, when Alice read the script, she knew she had to make the movie. In fact, much of her lookbook that she handed to Lin was full of photos of her own childhood.
Storyboarding and Workshopping tick, tick… BOOM!
They began prepping tick, tick… BOOM! just before Christmas and spent a couple of weeks looking for locations with the production designer, Alex DiGerlando. According to Alice, it was a collaborative process. They returned to work in January and continued prepping on paper. Then, Alice asked Lin to go through the script with her.
“Oftentimes, if a director is willing – because [Lin-Manuel Miranda comes] from this acting perspective – I asked [him] to give me an intention in each scene. The camera is another character. So, what is the feeling? What is the intention that we want to convey to the audience? And I asked for one or two words, very simple intentions. And then after we go through that process, then we sit down with the storyboard artist.” –Alice Brooks, ASE
Then, Alice creates a spreadsheet with the intentions that she gathered from the director. She typically uses these intentions to inform her decisions as an intuitive storyteller. Typically, this next stage involves the director, storyboard artist, and cinematographer. However, Lin likes to bring in more people for a broader perspective. So, he also included the AD, production designer, and writer. Then, the six of them sat around the table, and Lin and Stephen read the scenes out loud, acting them out, and then they would talk about the scenes. Alex, the production designer, used his set models and paper plans to show them the sets that they were working with. From there, the writer Steven Levenson would alter the script based on their ideas.
Alice likens working with Lin-Manuel Miranda to making a stage show:
“There were several things that like came about in these storyboard sessions. And I attribute this kind of working environment to the way you make a stage show. And that’s the world Lin has been in for the last 20 years where you don’t have to know all the answers right away. You get to try things on.”
The storyboard artist would draw the storyboards and send them to the filmmakers and then they could provide notes and the artist would make the requested adjustments. They essentially workshopped the movie with storyboards.
Lin-Manuel Miranda Embodied the Spirit of Jonathan Larson
It was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s passion that inspired Alice during the making of the film. Larson’s story was very personal to him as he first saw Rent on Broadway when he was 16 years old. That’s when Lin realized that he can write musicals from his own voice and perspective with music that he enjoyed.
“This was a story he was so, so passionate about,” notes Alice of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “and that passion just filled everybody up. And we all sort of started falling in love with Jonathan Larson through Lin’s eyes.”
Today we all frequently have cameras turned on us, whether it’s for social media, documentation, or even traffic lights – but that was not the case for people of the early ‘90s. Luckily for the filmmakers, Larson’s friend had a beta cam and she filmed him constantly. The filmmakers had eight hours of beta cam footage of Larson from the mid-80s until his death. Lin would fast-forward through footage and point out details so everyone knew exactly who Jonathan Larson was.
Filming in Jonathan Larson’s Real Apartment
The filmmakers were able to nearly replicate Jonathan’s apartment. That’s because two weeks before his untimely passing, he feared that his apartment would catch fire due to a gas fireplace that was illegal in his apartment. So, he went around with a friend’s beta camera and taped every single item in his apartment. His friends also kept his things. So, the keyboard and all of the paintings on the walls were his. Even some of the wardrobe that Andrew Garfield wore, like the blue flannel shirt, was Jonathan’s.
The only difference was that Jonathan’s bedroom didn’t have a window. He gave his roommates the window rooms so he could get more rent. However, Alice wanted him to have a room with natural light.
The Camera and Lenses of tick, tick… BOOM!
The film was shot with the Panavision Millennium DXL2 on Panavision G-Series anamorphic lenses.
For any movie, Alice tests lots of cameras and lenses and then projects them. According to Alice, sometimes she has a strong feeling about what camera lens she should use while other times the director has a preference. Even though this was Lin’s first movie, he was hungry to learn about the process. So, he joined Alice and she pointed out features of the cameras and lenses without leading him. That’s how they eventually landed on the Panavision camera and the G-Series lenses.
They chose a large format camera because they wanted to feel intimate with Jonathan. They sought tight, claustrophobic shots and the G-series lenses provide a really good close focus for anamorphic lenses. That allowed the filmmakers to get tight with him in the small set areas.
The schedule was also tight so Alice didn’t want to fly away walls. However, she felt the feeling of claustrophobia and closeness to Andrew Garfield’s character was important. On the flip side, when he explores musical numbers in his dreams, the space opens wide. Alice felt the anamorphic lenses allowed them both possibilities.
The Color Process of tick, tick… BOOM!
They finalized most of the looks with the DIT, Abby Levine, before entering principle photography. Then, after work, Alice would sometimes visit the lab and work with the dailies colorist to ensure everything was coming in according to plan.
The color of the movie changed between reality and the dream world in the film. For instance, when Jonathan and Michael (Robin de Jesus) are heading from his apartment to Michael’s new apartment, the look turns from desaturated to saturated.
For 30/90, it starts on stage during a live performance and then suddenly moves into Jonathan’s 1990 world. Lin, at this point, wanted everything to feel heightened during the musical number versus Jonathan’s normal world. Then, during the second musical number No More, Jonathan’s apartment fades into more desaturation.
To do this, the colorist Stephen Nakamura mentioned a new tool in DaVinci Resolve called the Color Warper. During editorial, all of the saturation was removed and a brown tint was placed over the image. However, it felt cheap and didn’t feel like a good version of what the filmmakers intended. Alice liked the color warper tool because it “pulled out selective colors and inversed colors in a way.” So, they next showed the results to Lin so he could weigh in and affirm whether he liked it or not. Ultimately, Lin wanted the move to Michael’s apartment to feel like transitioning into the Wizard of Oz, where suddenly they’re in Oz and everything is grand and the light is beautiful.
tick, tick… COVID!
The production began a little over a week before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“March 11, Lin and I looked at each other at the end of the day and said this was the best day of our lives, says Alice. “Then, the next day everyone came to work and the world had changed. Suddenly, it became real that COVID was here and something was about to happen. And, we were shooting at Jonathan Larson’s real apartment.”
They shot their exteriors at Larson’s apartment and on the stairwell along with some POVs. In fact, the first shot following lunch was the POV shot from his apartment window looking down at Susan in the phone booth. However, during lunch, the producers alerted them that Netflix was meeting about the pandemic. The next thing they knew, there was hand sanitizer all over the set and they were instructed to keep their distance from one another and wash their hands. It was difficult in the cramped space of the location. Discerning what was about to happen, Alice was devastated. She thought the movie was over.
“I didn’t understand that we were about to have this huge pandemic, but I was so devastated that we weren’t going to finish this movie. And then, sure enough, after midnight when we wrapped, they said everyone was going to go home for two weeks. And everyone knew two weeks wasn’t realistic. So, then there’s this period of being really sad.”
By that point, they had hardly shot anything. Then, they began doing what they dubbed, “Tick-Tick Zooms.” Once a week, on Tuesdays, they invited 500 cast and crew members to hop on Zoom calls. “At first, they began as online therapy sessions with, ‘What are you doing? How do you feel being locked in your apartment? How are you getting toilet paper?’ Things like that,” explains Alice. “And then it became trivia and games. And it was a time where we all bonded and kept the sort of joy that we had found on that movie.”
The Tick-Tick Zooms got them through the next six months. Then, sometime around June, Alice received a call from Julie Oh, one of the film’s producers. She told Alice that production may re-open their offices at the end of July. According to Alice, this was an “Oh my God” moment. She was thrilled to have the opportunity to finish their film. They were certain that the film would shut down again – but that day never came. In fact, they shot for 42 days and no one contracted the virus.
The difference between shooting a musical versus a traditional narrative
A distinct difference between traditional narrative movies and musical films comes down to audience expectation and believability. Here’s how Alice puts it: “When you go see a stage musical, everyone has bought a ticket and you’re going to see this because you love going to the theater and you love seeing musicals. You all have this collective agreement that people can break out into song and dance. But that’s not the same agreement for a movie musical. And so, the key to a successful musical is when you transition seamlessly from reality into this musical world, and how you build that storytelling language.”
Alice and Lin worked very hard on the transitions from dialogue scenes into the musical numbers. Even people who don’t typically enjoy traditional musicals appreciated the film for this very reason. Outside of Andrew Garfield’s brilliance, the filmmakers focused on the transitions and figured out how the three peaks in the 1990 musical world and stage musical all blended together seamlessly.
Alice learned about animatics from Jon Chu on In the Heights. Jon took their storyboards along with the dance rehearsal footage, which was a combination of Alice and Christopher Scotts (the choreographer), and the records from the music department. Then, he cut the scenes together and created animatics.
It was a few weeks into the storyboarding process when Alice realized she needed animatics when communicating with the gaffer, key grip, and camera operators. She remembered how important they were to In the Heights. And even though tick, tick… BOOM! didn’t have as many musical numbers, they were still especially important to the transitions.
Matching Locations for a Dance Sequence
One of the musical numbers where the filmmakers didn’t use animatics was Come to Your Senses. This is where Susan (Alexandra Shipp) is singing on the rooftop while Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens) sings the same song at a workshop. The script originally called for a split-screen but the filmmakers quickly decided against it.
They first filmed Susan on the rooftop on their first week back from the pandemic and then Karessa’s scene at the workshop six weeks later. So, they had to be certain where they would place the cameras ahead of time. The rooftop was shot on a set and the workshop was a real location. Since it was a real location, they had challenges with distance. Firstly, they had to figure out where Jonathan’s chair was in relation to Karessa at the workshop. Then, they matched it. On the rooftop, they taped everything out to try and make sure that they didn’t feel too far apart. But, then they realized that they did feel too far apart. So, they returned to the workshop space and pulled them in closer together.
They also only had a certain amount of height at the location versus the rooftop stage. So, that was why at the end of the sequence, they ended on Susan, pulling out to reveal the city; whereas, for Karessa, they end on her back. There were challenges with the camera height. Everything else was the same exact camera position.
The Nuances of Working with Talent on Musicals
Typically for most narrative films, you might get the actors for a couple of days or weeks before shooting. However, with musical films, actors must attend dance boot camp, music boot camp, vocal boot camp – and in the case of Andrew Garfield – piano lessons. Then, they start doing pre-records. At this time, Alice would sit in a corner and watch the pre-records because they gave her insight into the way the actors performed the scenes.
“That to me was really important because when you pre-record, essentially it’s the performance,” describes Alice. “Because they’re going to lip-sync – although, we do live singing too – but it gives you sort of an idea of what’s about to happen.”
They actually prepped much of the movie at a dance rehearsal space in Midtown so that they could pop into dance rehearsals. In addition, Alice attended table reads and on-foot rehearsals. In fact, in the scene when Susan and Jonathan have their big fight at the apartment, they shot it after they were cleared to return after their hiatus. However, nine months earlier during their prep in January, Alice filmed them on her iPhone at the location with no furniture and without hair and makeup. But, they chose the same exact frames which was impressive. If she wanted, she could cut the same exact scene with her iPhone footage.
Advice to Filmmakers
Alice’s advice for filmmakers pursuing their first musical film is to make the choreographer your best friend. Together, you two can design incredible shots because they understand how the dance will work in a location. You might not quite get that.
Alice explains, “When you start to get in their head, then you’re able to see, ‘Okay… we’re in this rehearsal space, but I see how you’re crafting it for the actual location.’ And then, you can start designing the shots from there.”
In addition to befriending the choreographer, Alice recommends attending pre-records because they will give you a huge leap forward in your prep process.
Follow Alice Brooks
You can follow Alice Brooks, ASC on Instagram at _alicebrooks_
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