I received a phone call in late March 2015 from Patrick Maxwell, Writer-Director of "The Choices We Make." straight off the bat it sounded like Patrick had a great project lined up. Something I'd want to get involved in. Meeting the filmmaker from Headline Films soon after, it was apparent to me his vision was as clear as day. Straight away, I was bombarded with visual references from films like "The Piano," "The Last of the Mahicans" and pretty much anything from the works of DP Christopher Doyle. I can't imagine any better way to, right away, gain my complete attention.
Once reading the 20 page screenplay, and chatting about it's content and the story Patrick was trying to convey; I signed on as cinematographer.
In early pre-production, we covered a vast array of contextual references which combine as one to create the visual style and look of the short film we were going to make. From the texture of "The Place beyond the Pines," the colour of "Killing them Softly," the compositions of "Drive," and the camera movement of "The Piano." We had a lot of great ideas.
For the look we wanted, myself and Patrick knew this film screamed out to be captured on 35mm film. Specifically the desirable colour and texture Kodak Vision3 500t 5219. We explored this avenue, but production was based in Dublin, Ireland. And what was of paramount importance for us was being able to watch Dailies to assess what we were capturing was true to the story. It was a low budget short and employing Dailies services from the labs in London was simply not feasible for us.
Failing our first choice, I opted for an Arri Alexa Plus shooting internally at 2k prores 4444. In the experience I have had with Digital Cinematography, the Alexa look is the closest image that delivers an organic feel, similar to that of 35mm film. For Dailies, I worked with my DIT, Marco Conte to trancode low res files with a baked in 500t 5219 negative LUT from Emulsionz. This would give us an image to review that was as close to our original intentions as we could get.
For glass, Patrick and I discussed a couple of options. But with much discussion we knew that the Cooke look was exactly what we were going for. So I spoke to Kevin from Panavision regarding what was available to us. We ended up with a lovely set of Cooke S4 Primes ranging from a 16mm to a 135mm. And because Patrick and I wanted the scenes to play out majorly on long lenses, Kevin hooked us up with a doubler aswell; giving us a maximum focal length of 270mm. Tough stuff for Focus Puller, Mike Gilbert. And it didn't help that my shooting stop was wide open on T2 throughout when rating the camera at it's base of 800ASA.. But nah, he nailed it! I used an 1/8 BPM in the mattebox, simply to take the edge of the digital sharpness and to slghtly bloom the highlights that I believe most traditional film stocks do naturally. I used a set of IRND's to control exposure as well.
I was fortunate enough to team up once again with Dolly Grip, Rob Kelly. Armed to the teeth with a Chapman Peewee III, we were able to achieve some gorgeous dolly moves. Something that is most impressive on Rob's part, is the snail paced tracking required for some low key dialogue scenes. Myself and Patrick wanted to introduce these subtle tracks around characters to add drama and tension to scenes which would otherwise be still and lifeless. I also find, saying on the dollies pneumatic wheels is a very efficient way to work and frame up shots. So I tried to side with that option wherever we could.
The script called for a healthy amount of day exteriors. I faced a constant battle throught the five days of production against the clouds. Shooting in late May provided us some very harsh sunlight mixed with unpredictable cloud coverage. It was always going to be a 50/50 chance decision at the start of the day deciding which to shoot for. But we did alright.
When shooting for the sun, I did my best to influence the blocking so that the cast were backlit or given a 90 degree key. Then I would have gaffer Dani Wall and spark Laurent Murray erect large silk frames for diffusion. I'd use simple large pieces of polyboard to lift faces and 4x4 floppys to add negative fill. And bobs your uncle.
The film's major character developing scenes take place in the mist of a car wash. So for the most part, I employed a handy gadget in front of the lens called a rain deflector. Powered by the camera, it contains a plain of glass . This left me assured that if a spec of water hit the glass, we would not loose the shot or performances of the cast.
For the interiors, we a got a little more adventurous. I wanted to go four a real low key, urban look for inside the St Theresa Flats. Which is the home of one of our leading characters. I had this image in my head of a very warm interior, with sodium vapour street lights spilling into the rooms through the windows, instead of the conventional blue moonlight.
So Jason from Teach Solais hooked me up with a totally awesome dirty gels package, including rolls of Rosco Urban Sodium and Rosco Chocolate.
I used 1k fresnals gelled with the urban sodium through each window. Then I had the boys throw cone shapes of the Rosco Chocolate on each practical lamp. We then used this as our base. We would utilize 650's bounced off poly for keys motivated by the practicals. Then added negative fill to maintain a deep contrast ratio of around 5:1. What I saw myself doing often was bringing in smaller fresnals like 300's or peppers as detailers or if I needed a rim light to separate the subject from the background.
A huge contribution to the look of this film was down to the work of our producton designer, Dec Windsor. He spent a long time in prep painting the walls of our interiors due to our reference images, he was able to get the colour scheme we sought after.
I do admit that in the heat of the moment I may have gone a bit overboard with the darkness but on the day it felt right. When I see the rehearsals and see the darker tones in the performances, I cant help but bring in more negative fill! A few of the lads were coining a few Gordon Willis references when reviewing the monitor.
A fun scene to shoot was a Night Interior in a Laundrette. In the script, the laundrette was closed for business and our character was just finishing up for the night. I wanted to step away from the intense sodium this time around and went for a 2.5 HMI through a 1/4 silk frame outside . What was most challenging was, we had to light from above because the opening scene in the sequence was a establishing track shot from one end of the store to the other. So lighting stands would have been in frame. Unfortunately the panels on the ceiling were bolted shut, so we rigged two 650's with snoots on dimmers to a large polecat, supported by two c-stands on either end. It was an impressive rig in the end wich left us with these moody pools of light that the cast would wander in and out of. It was cool. I was very happy with how it turned out.
I could go on for pages and pages about how we achieved the look of this film. But sure where is the fun in that. Can't give away all our secrets. The film is currently undergoing post-production and will receive its grade in the hands of myself and Patrick. Be sure to look out for it in the festival circuit next year.
As always, I would be as useless as a paperbag in the rain without an amazing team around me. I want to take the chance to sincerely thank them here. They're all masters of their trade, truly.
- Mike Gilbert - 1stAC
- JJ Sullivan - 2ndAC
- Marco Conte - DIT
- Dani Wall - Gaffer
- Laurent Murray - Best Boy Electric
- Rob Kelly - Key Grip
- Dara McKeagney - Best Boy Grip
Camera Package from Panavision Ireland, Lighting by Teach Solais Lighthouse.
Also amazing props to two top-notch producers, Carla & Delwyn Mooney for makin it ll happen.
Thanks for reading folks. More to come, including my first Feature film.
BTS Photgraphy by Cormac Dunne