Recently, my film Fathers and Daughters was released in select theaters across the US and is now available to buy on iTunes and Amazon. It is a very heartfelt story about life, love, and loss. For the Dads in the group that have daughters, make sure you bring a tissue box. While I was color correcting, I went through 4 boxes.
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This article is an in-depth exploration of how, why, and what I create. This series is not just about cinematography. It is about directing, blocking, editing, production design, mood, shot lists, and pre-production planning. The pearls of wisdom and chunks of GOLD are layered throughout this ongoing series within the Inner Circle where I take you virtually on set with me. Location scouting pictures give you a glimpse of the canvas before. Then, you will see all of our creatives paint on that canvas. I am sure that you will agree that while surfing the world wide web, this knowledge doesn’t exist anywhere else. The article below represents 1 day out of the 20 that are available for purchase.
This was an independent film. There was not a lot of money to work with. So, I had to really embrace natural light, practical light and go with the concept that less is more.
Sit back, whip out your laptop, and dive into what it is like to work on set with me. This article will help you understand my limitations, my compromises, and my collaborations, while also showing you my failures and how I quickly think on my feet to succeed. The power of investing in yourself is far more rewarding than a new piece of gear that will be obsolete in 6 months. These lessons are not time sensitive or limited by the newest technology. Enjoy!!!
This was the kind of day that you look at and say, “Oh, my God, how are you going to make this as a cinematographer?” We started with scene #125: Katie’s apartment living room. Cameron invites Katie to his mother’s birthday party in Greenwich. We move on to the next scene #146: Katie can’t sleep after the fight with Cameron. Our next set-up is scene #170: Katie calls Cameron. She can’t speak and so on. Take a look at the shooting schedule for Day 10 at the end of this post and you will see what I am talking about. We had to complete nine different scenes, which required nine different lighting setups. All of this needed to be done within a 10 to 12-hour day and we started on a split because we had to have night for night.
The first scene to tackle was in Katie’s apartment living room. Aaron Paul, who plays Cameron, and Katie, played by Amanda Seyfried, are lounging on the couch. We did a beautiful push-in as they deliver their dialogue.
The cool thing is that the director, Gabriele Muccino, likes to shoot with as many cameras as possible to get that “lightning in a bottle” – the performance. He always called actress Amanda Seyfried “the wild horse” because she never gave you two performances the same way twice, but you’ve got to be able to be there to tame the wild horse. You do that by shooting multiple cameras. We had a wide shot on a dolly that we pushed in to a tight two-shot. Then I had a MōVI over Cameron to Katie and then over Katie to Cameron. It was hidden by a chair in the wide shot. Our long lens over was just out of frame on the left on the wide shot, and we were able to grab these three shots, which were very important to Gabriele.
Here is the wide shot that we pulled off pushing in on the MōVI. This is all from the flat Canon RAW files.
Here is the CU with the second camera grabbing a 100mm Cooke S4 mounted to a second MōVI Handheld.
Using a single camera might be wonderful to you as a cinematographer doing your absolute best work. You’re able to manicure the light to precision. The problem is that it might not be the best work for the director, and it might not be the best work for the actors. So I always try to put the director’s hat on before I put the cinematographer’s hat on. I ask myself, “What would be the best case scenario for our director?”
If the director feels like the best way for him to get the performance is with three cameras, then I am going to set it up and block it so that it delivers the most beautiful light and the best-case scenario for three cameras to capture this scene absolutely brilliantly. That is how I approached our three-camera scene on this day.
Here is the lighting schematic for this scene. I wanted the light to look creamy. They were in love, hanging out on a lazy Sunday afternoon. You had to see that look in her eyes, slightly scared, wondering if she is in too deep. Is this moving too fast? What is she going to do? Meet the parents? HOLY CRAP!!!!
The lighting on Cameron was a mix of the 250-watt bulb in the practical, along with the Lite Gear LED strip lights that we mounted to the back of the lamp shade. This is a great cheat and something to always have in your lighting toolbox. To get the right level of talent with a practical light, the lamp shade often goes super hot and overexposed. With this approach, you can have your cake and eat it too.
You can adjust the level of your practical to where it looks good and then add the LED strip and bring it up to the level that it is required to expose your talent’s face. In this case, with Aaron Paul’s character Cameron, it really needed this assistance so that he did not get sucked up in the hot windows.
I love how this looks and that CU on Amanda, WOW. She looks so beautiful with that wonderful warm backlight from the practical and the LED strips. See, shooting three cameras can be very fun, and challenging. You need to really pull out some tricks to hide stuff to make it work.
After we completed that scene, we moved on to scene #146, where Katie can’t sleep after her fight with Cameron. I shot in it a very Todd Hido-esque style. I had her on the bed and closed the curtains to barely a sliver. That sliver of light is the only thing that keyed her.
I let the Canon C500 just dig into the shadows and bring out the wonderful nuances. It was the simplicity of literal daylight. The curtains are your flag, your snoot, creating this little pocket of light and everything else falls off into the darkness.
In the next scene, Katie calls Cameron, and she can’t speak. This was a very interesting shot. It was day, and the director wanted us to be able to push in on her in her underwear and for her to then immediately get up and start getting dressed. We pushed in on her; we wrapped around. We saw her go into her closet, armoire, and into her dresser. She is putting on her clothes, putting on her boots, and we’re swirling all around with the MōVI.
I lit it with just a top light source so we wouldn’t cast camera shadows on Amanda while we were spinning around twice in this whirlwind of a shot. Then Katie exits frame, and we hang on her jacket. All of a sudden, she comes back in, grabs her jacket, and exits frame. That was the sequence.
Now, it is night and Katie can’t sleep again. She’s looking up at the ceiling. The director wanted this very ominous kind of shooting style where we had a very full body profile of her lying in bed. We had a top-down shot with a 50mm close-up of her looking directly overhead. We had a longer profile shot on the side. The director wanted to be looking at these headlights playing on the ceiling.
She can’t sleep, she looks up, and all of a sudden, this weird dance of light happens. When you just do a headlight gag and you pan it, it’s very one-dimensional. To make this more dynamic, we got a golf cart and rigged two ETC Par Cans to it. We used 575-watt halogen spots, and we splayed them out a little bit on a Junior Triple-Header. We ended up having one person drive the golf cart, while another person panned the lights. They stayed on the windows a little longer and gave this beautiful dance of light across the ceiling.
Next, we see Katie getting it on with a guy. We kept that same kind of lighting. We started out very close on her hand that was gripping the headboard. We slid down her hand, down her arm into a close-up of her crying as this guy was having sex with her. It was very spooky in a way that was very dark. Gabriele wanted everything to be very silhouette-y, but we wanted to see the emotion and the tears on her face. We had a sodium vapor light coming in from outside. I put a picture frame on the nightstand, which just reflected whatever was kicking off of that sodium vapor into her eyes. It was very subtle, and it created this really oblique pattern. No mirror, nothing, just literally using a picture in its frame.
What was so unique was that the picture frame was a tile mosaic, which created all of these weird reflections, which became the light for her face. This scene was one of my favorites to light. It was all about emotion, her not wanting to do this. She is just scared and really doesn’t know how to love. The small area of light really resonated with her emotion, like a mini spotlight seeing the tears falling as the man that she really doesn’t love or want is taking her from behind.
Now take a gander at the shooting schedule for this day. It was a monster, but my amazing team pulled it off beautifully.
Copyright Info- Movie: Fathers and Daughters, Studio: Voltage Pictures, Director: Gabriele Muccino, Date: 2015
This is just 1 of 20 days, each of which I’ve broken down into in-depth articles just like this for our On Set With Shane Fathers and Daughter Bundle.