From L.A. Folk-Rock to Persian Pop, Let Us Sing the Praises of Guild Members at Sundance. By David Geffner.
The Park City hills were alive with the sound of music this past January, and I don’t mean the Von Trapp family members were belting out carols on Main Street. From music-themed documentaries like Troubadours, a pitch-perfect time capsule of L.A.’s celebrated (and sometimes reviled) singer/songwriter scene in the early 1970s (co-shot by Nicola Marsh and Arlene Nelson), to the ultra-dark buddy flick, I Melt With You (shot entirely on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II by Eric Schmidt), of which every frame pounds with late 80’s college-dorm rock, the preponderance of musically-themed entries were skillfully augmented by the visual grace notes of the many Guild-shot films at Sundance.
Some debuts, like the Audience Award-winning drama, Circumstance, set in Tehran and shot by Brian Rigney Hubbard, used music as a backdrop for cultural liberation. Others, like the Stephen Kazmierski-shot The Music Never Stopped, employed the “universal language” as a vehicle to reunite a father with a son unable to form lasting memories. Local 600 shooter (and Sundance veteran) Michael McDonough helped to visualize the spiritual journey of a woman struggling with her Christian identity in Higher Ground, a delicately-shot rural drama suffused with gospel hymns. Choir music of another kind was the engine driving the razor-sharp comedy of Salvation Boulevard, a Job-like tale set in the fundamentalist world of megachurches and lensed by another Sundance alumnus, Tim Orr, in Michigan. Peter Pilafian helped to capture the enduring social passion of singer/actor Harry Belafonte in Sing Your Song, a non-fiction feature that traces the last 50 years of the American Civil Rights Movement. And the documentary feature, Rebirth, shot by Tom Lappin over a ten-year period, wove five individual stories of lives profoundly altered by the attacks on 9/11 in Koyaanisqatsi-like fashion.
If music was this year’s thematic trend, then digital capture was the technical wind that blew through town; one-quarter of the 21 Guild narrative features were shot on the RED M-X system, including Flypaper, lensed by Local 600 President Steven Poster, ASC; Margin Call, shot by Frank DeMarco; My Idiot Brother, shot by Yaron Orbach; and Letters From The Big Man, shot by Rob Sweeney in the Oregon wilderness. Director/cinematographer Michael Barnett used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II for his documentary Superheroes, which premiered at the 2011 Slamdance Film Festival.
That’s not to say indie shooters completely eschewed film. Christopher Blauvelt’s stunning work for the period western, Meek’s Cutoff, and Bradford Young’s efforts on Pariah, which won the Excellence in Cinematography Award: Dramatic, were two obvious standouts.
What follows are conversations from Sundance 2011, which was also highlighted by Snowdance, Local 600’s third annual gathering for members, friends, colleagues and supporting vendors.
Circumstance: The Sights and Sounds of a Cultural Rebellion
Recent events in the Middle East now underscore just how remarkable Maryam Keshavarz’s Audience Award-winning drama, Circumstance, is, and that’s not even taking into account the overwhelming logistical challenges of the Beirut, Lebanon-shot production. With political and cultural rebellion sweeping the Arab world, Circumstance’s story of two female teens, whose intimate (and sexual) relationship upends a middle-class Iranian family, is nothing short of miraculous, both for its sumptuous Hollywood-style cinematography, and the bracing social dichotomies that run through every frame.
Cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard met Kesharavz four years ago at the Sundance Institute’s summer labs, where they workshopped the script. Hubbard had lived in Chile just after the fall of Pinochet’s regime, so he connected with the story’s elements of illegal raves, where pop music, drugs and alcohol can run afoul of Iran’s “morality police.” Local 600 President Steven Poster, ASC, was one of Hubbard’s lab advisors, and in that highly creative incubator, Circumstance flourished. Hubbard and Keshavarz spent the next three years prepping the film, which included compiling an 80-page reference book of photographs taken on the streets of modern-day Tehran.
“My grandfather was an industrial designer,” Hubbard reflects, “who said things should be designed to work even when they fall off the table. Establishing a clearly defined look, well before production began, meant we would have a style that suited the narrative, even when [logistically] everything was falling apart.”
Challenges were aplenty; Hubbard had to accept the local crew Lebanese production company Né à Beyrouth used to facilitate the shoot. Although promised he could converse in either French or English, Hubbard arrived to find an all-Arabic speaking crew. Bucking local protocol, he insisted on interviewing Beirut’s “go-to” gaffer, nicknamed “Zuzu,” to explore how lights could be raised (to shoot the many interiors in Ottoman palaces) five stories up on the city’s narrow streets. Zuzu produced an armada of ingenious, low-tech solutions.
“Zuzu ran the set in Arabic,” Hubbard adds. “And they were all so kind to each other, even if they did tend to throw themselves into the work with so much speed and energy.”
Producer Karin Chien approached Anne Hubbell at Kodak for a 35mm 2-perf capture in 2.40:1. (Beirut’s scattershot electrical grid made digital capture problematic.) But when the Lebanese borders were closed, Hubbard opted for a local Super 16mm package.
“The problem was that we had done years of prep planning for 2.40:1, and Maryam wanted close-ups designed for wide screen composition,” Hubbard says. “I called up Maryse Alberti, who was my mentor in graduate school, and asked her about The Wrestler. She said to go ahead and try cropping for 2.40:1, in the absence of anamorphic lenses.”
The Kodak stock was imported from New York and then hand-carried out of Lebanon (nothing leaves Beirut without being x-rayed) to a representative from the Royal Jordanian Film Commission, who then sent it on via Dubai to the United States. Dailies were never an option. In fact, Keshavarz and Hubbard didn’t see a frame of film until receiving a low-resolution DVD more than week into shooting, from CO3 in Los Angeles. (Colorist Siggy Ferstl did the final color grade.) We spoke with the filmmakers in Park City just one day after they had learned Participant Media would initiate a theatrical release, possibly as early as this summer.
ICG Magazine: I can’t recall a film with so many hurdles; even by Sundance standards this had an amazing history.
Maryam Keshavarz: We couldn’t check dailies for performance, of course. But more than that, the reality was that we could never go back to any of our locations, so we had one chance to get it right.
ICG: The film is gorgeously shot, in a visceral and sensual way. How did you pull that off, given all the tough locations and lack of resources?
Keshavarz: We had a very specific plan that mirrored the narrative. As the story develops, it would be claustrophobic and dark, to convey that sense of oppression; and we always kept things just out of the frame, so it would be more about sensuality than sexuality. By using these tight close-ups, we don’t reveal much in [the main characters’] physical interactions. That’s juxtaposed by these big wide shots in their fantasies, which represent complete freedom.
Brian Hubbard: The lighting in the fantasy scene is open, while in the early interior scenes you never see the horizon.
Keshavarz: We wanted their fantasy vision of Dubai to be like Miami – commercial, glossy, decadent – everything their lives in Tehran are not.
ICG: Many Sundance films this year have used music as a main theme. Was that a part of your plan going in?
Keshavarz: I had two collaborators on-board several years before this film got made. One was obviously Brian, who helped create this very detailed reference book of how the film would look. The other was [composer] Gingger Shankar, who first started writing music cues at the Sundance Composer’s Lab, like when the scene where the girls have their first sexual encounter. The idea was to juxtapose the classic music of the parents from the 1950s, which for Iranians of that generation is very nostalgic, with the hip-hop and techno music of today. All of that music is done totally underground, and we first hear it when the girls go to the illegal house party.
Hubbard: Gingger just made everything look so amazing. I mean we’re out there shooting, not seeing footage, and doing the very best we can, of course. But then having someone that skilled to overlay and help transition cuts, scenes, shots, etc., was just fantastic, from my standpoint.
ICG: Is there a single scene that represents the challenges of this project?
Hubbard: The sheer size of the club scene was intimidating, as we really didn’t have enough extras to get us through.
Keshavarz: The challenge becomes, “How do you frame it to make it feel big and cavernous?”
Hubbard: Zuzu and I made a light out of a bicycle wheel, basically a prism out of scrap gels, to give that sense of color, which was so important in creating themes in this movie.
Keshavarz: The girls are color in a drab environment, so the club scenes are really pumped up that way, while the city outside is very monotone.
Hubbard: We re-arranged the LED lighting that was in the club where we shot. The panels are actually playing a video I made by filming my lamp, so they match the same prism effect seen before with the wheel, but with LEDs that take it to another level.
Keshavarz: You also used some video you shot of birds in the first underground club, and we had some poetry and Persian writing. We needed color, so I asked my sister-in-law to write up something meaningful and appropriate.
Hubbard: The fantasy sequence was very difficult – it was basically like shooting outdoors because the room was so bright and open.
Keshavarz: Not to mention the fact the military came on the set with machine guns because they thought we were making a porno film! It was the last day of our shoot and, because it had been a Muslim holiday, we had ten days of film on the set.
Hubbard: We had more than that.
Keshavarz: [looks at him] I don’t want to know how much more, please. They rarely shoot film there, so these guys were trying to open the can, thinking it was videotape. We had to shoot a fake scene to convince them it was not porn. We had the set all flagged, so they couldn’t see the action. But I could see the [army] boots just underneath the flags. So I’m directing this very sensual scene with nudity, looking at the actors and then the boots, and then the actors and then boots. Every time I saw the boots move, I yelled cut. It was more than a little bit stressful.
ICG: What about shooting exteriors in Beirut?
Hubbard: You need to know which militia controls which part of the city and get permission to shoot. You don’t really stop traffic in Beirut, and even when you could, they’d just honk. Our associate producer is from Iran, and we were able to match locations to the photographs we had done in Tehran.
Keshavarz: We had a great sweeping wide shot from up on the hill that looks exactly like Tehran. We had to change signage, or be very careful in lens selection because all the signs in Beirut are in Arabic, not Farsi. The letters are the same for both languages, so we could blur it out when necessary and just see the script in soft focus. People from Tehran who’ve seen the film absolutely can’t tell the difference.
Hubbard: My approach to location work is to see what is already working, and utilize that, rather than trying to force something. You work on the things that don’t cost money.
ICG: What has Brian meant to this project overall?
Keshavarz: Wow. Everything, really. It was a constant conversation about what to show and what not to show; when the secret police is in the father’s house, for example, or when they are dubbing Milk into Farsi. There’s not a lot of dialogue, so the image had to tell the story. It was a complete collaboration.
Troubadors: L.A.’s Peaceful, Easy Feeling
Time capsules are wonderful things. They preserve moments in our social and cultural histories that, through the lens of cinematic reflection, can never be tainted. They are pristine, and nothing can destroy their joyful innocence – not even a bitter rock music critic like Lester Bangs. Such is the case with Morgan Neville’s marvelously evocative documentary, Troubadours, which is guaranteed to put a smile on the faces of those old enough to remember the Troubadour, the epicenter of L.A.’s singer/songwriter scene in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and likely to inspire those born much later to start combing iTunes (and hopefully used LP bins) for a taste of what made that particular musical scene so sweet and inspiring.
The movie piggybacks onto last year’s concert tour by James Taylor and Carole King, four decades after the pair first played the eponymous Santa Monica Boulevard nightclub, owned at the time by one of rock music’s most colorful impresarios, Doug Weston. Of course, Taylor and King became platinum-selling artists during their Troubadour years. They reflect back on a creative ferment that gave rise to the likes of Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson, Warren Zevon, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, Elton John and Bonnie Raitt.
Co-shot by Nicola Marsh and Arlene Nelson, the film weaves present-day interviews from the Troubadour – still in the same location and once again home to a thriving local music scene – with archival footage from the period. Marsh’s exquisite scene transitions, such as a classic Volkswagen tooling lazily along Mulholland Drive, are the very symbol of that era’s laid-back musical ethos. Nelson’s rollicking concert footage from the present-day reunion tour bristles with the life and spontaneity that artists like King and Taylor forged in their live and studio performances. Below are excerpts from e-mail conversations with Marsh and Nelson, who as their words bear out, possess a bit of the modern-day troubadour spirit themselves.
ICG Magazine: How were the duties split up?
Nicola Marsh: Having shot four films with Morgan, I began shooting Troubadours in September. Once it was green-lit, and I wasn’t available for all the shooting dates, Arlene was brought on. I did all the vintage stuff – the car, the bar, the house, smoke, Carol and James in the Troubadour, and then a bunch of other interviews. To me it’s hard to tell what is Arlene’s footage and what is mine. It really feels seamless and I think that’s great.
Arlene Nelson: Morgan had such a clear vision of how he wanted Troubadours to look and feel that Nicola and I were able to shoot independently of each other, while still maintaining a consistent look. I shot the opening performance of James and Carole as well as Carole performing I Feel The Earth Move in the same studio she recorded Tapestry in, decades before. I also shot interviews with Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson, Craig Doerge, Danny Kotch, [music critic] Robert Hilburn, and some Troubadour club interviews, as well the conversation between Carole and James in a historic bar in downtown Boise, Idaho. They were taking a break from rehearsing their reunion tour. I shot the concert footage from that as well.
ICG: What stands out from the Troubadour interviews?
Nelson: It’s a pleasure to shoot in a location so rich in history. That usually means it comes pre-art directed, which is a bonus for a documentary. However, we weren’t permitted to use their house lights, so I brought in an 800-watt Leico for Kris Kristofferson’s spotlight for his performance on stage. Shooting bars during the day is tricky. The natural tendency, on a documentary, is to use the sunlight pouring in through the windows. But that often means a flat look that falls off very fast. I always end up blacking out the windows in a bar or club to create the moody atmosphere associated with that type of location.
Marsh: I’m glad we fooled you, because a lot of the interviews were shot in different clubs (including the Echoplex in Echo Park area of L.A.). There was a big scene with James and Carol in the Troubadour, and to make it feel more timeless, I used Super 16mm with a swing shift lens. Whenever possible, i.e., when there was no dialogue, I tried to shoot high frames-per-second. What’s interesting about shooting 16mm for a vintage look is that Kodak’s grain is now so unbelievably tight, that I wished I had pushed the stock one, or even two, stops. Compared to the old archival stock that was cut into the film, the Super 16mm looks so clean, it almost could be digital. The Troubadour was empty during the day, so I tried to light it really dark and include as many lens flares as possible to give it some sense of a hazy nightlife.
ICG: Nicola’s interstitial work in the L.A. hills is amazing. Was that film or digital?
Marsh: Oh, the Mulholland car stuff had to be shot on film, because to the naked eye so much of that scenery feels contemporary. My main goal, again, was to get as many lens flares in as possible. Kodak 7219 (Super 16mm) is pretty amazing in terms of latitude, and there is just no way you could point a video camera straight into the sun and expect it to look like anything other than a clipped video image. Although in retrospect, having seen all that archival footage in the cut, I wished I had pushed it two stops just to really get it as grainy as possible. Modern film stocks are so tight, and when you’re spending all this money to shoot film, you really want the audience to know it. I think we’ve all been taught as cinematographers that grain is bad, but I think with the advent of digital cinema, grain is making a comeback!
ICG: Talk about working with artists like Carole King and James Taylor and how that impacted your production choices.
Marsh: Having shot celebrities who are keen to micro-manage the process, I can’t tell you what a joy it was to shoot James and Carol. They had no vanity, no requests, and no hesitation to be shot from any angle in any lighting. And that is extremely rare! Morgan and I talked from the beginning about how to make [the film] feel intimate and real. We decided that all interviews were going to be hand-held and shot on (slightly) wider lenses, without fancy three-point lighting. The idea was to show them in a real environment that did not feel like 60 Minutes. When we shot [photographer] Henry Diltz, we had him go through his photos so he’d have some business. That helped to make it feel like we’d just pulled up a chair and started talking. As a cinematographer you sometimes have to swallow your ego and shoot in the places that seem the most authentic, or the places that have the best available light, and these places aren’t always the most beautiful. Ultimately, it’s about good storytelling, not impressing your fellow DPs.
Nelson: For the Boise bar scene, Morgan wanted an intimate conversation and the last thing that would contribute to that would be a direct light in their view. So we blocked out the daylight from the windows and bounced 800-watt Jokers, cross-keyed so no units were directly in Carole’s and James’ view, as they talked to each other. When Carole performs inside the studio where she first recorded Tapestry, which at the time was A&M Recording Studios (now the Henson Recording Studios), there was a large china ball lamp that was hanging from a boom. I attached a dimmer to this and went with the china ball as the key light to keep the atmosphere natural and authentic, so when Carole walked into this nostalgic location she wasn’t walking on to a “film set.” The Diva light stayed in the case.
ICG: Do you remember that era and does it hold any meaning?
Marsh: I wasn’t exactly listening to the music during the shoot. But watching the final edit, I was struck by how much this music reminded me of my sister – she was the one who introduced it to me. It brought back all these memories, that in production, I hadn’t even thought of.
Nelson: Tapestry was the first album I can remember listening to from the beginning to the end as a kid, and I will never forget my first day on this film. We flew to Boise to shoot Carole and James rehearsing with Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, and Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar for the reunion tour. We flew in that morning so the rehearsal was well under way. As we walked through the darkened corridors I heard Carole’s distinctive piano chords strike. Then the long hallway opened up to this huge, bright empty arena just as Carole began belting out the opening lyrics: “I feel the earth move under my feet, I feel the sky tumbling down.” Her raw power and inviting optimism are still so inspiring.
ICG: Talk about working with Morgan Neville, who was a three year-old toddler when Taylor and King first played the Troubadour.
Nelson: Morgan was very clear on his vision, and I think the look of the footage unconsciously transports the viewer back to the 70’s, while also still having a fresh and modern look. The aesthetic is influenced by the photography of that time, which was warm in tone and saturation, with bold light flares down the barrel of the lens. Morgan was never afraid to have an open-faced light behind instruments, and it was fun, when shooting performances, to allow the light to become its own kind of instrument, moving in rhythm with the music.
Marsh: I’ve been working with Morgan for over five years, on four of his documentaries. He has an unparalleled knowledge of music. And he’s the only director I’ve met who knows more about the subjects he’s interviewing than the subjects themselves. I’ve actually seen him correct people in interviews, “Actually, I think you released that album in 1967.” He’s amazing.
ICG: What was the biggest surprise making this film?
Nelson: I was having flashbacks to shooting Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind, which is an improvisational comedy about folk musicians. There was this intersection of real life and fiction that was going on, especially since Kunkel and Kortchmar were in This is Spinal Tap [co-written and co-starring Guest]. While I was shooting Troubadours, I was finishing up Harry Shearer’s documentary, The Big Uneasy, with producer Karen Murphy, who also worked on Christopher’s films. Discovering my seven year-old daughter loves Tapestry, especially Smackwater Jack, was also a surprise, proving the timelessness of the music.
Marsh: The lack of grain in Super 16mm! But, honestly, I look at every documentary I shoot as a completely unique experience, much more so than narrative features. Documentaries bring you into these completely different worlds; and the music docs I’ve worked on have allowed me to see how incredibly thoughtful and philosophical most good musicians are. Troubadours really made me wish I’d been around in L.A. in the 70’s.
I Melt With You: The Darkest Days
Straight up you should know Mark Pellington’s new drama, I Melt With You, is a tough film to watch. The story of four college chums (Thomas Jane, Rob Lowe, Christian McKay, and Jeremy Piven) reuniting, as they have for the last 20 years, begins in a wash of good-time nostalgia. Their weekend celebrating McKay’s character’s birthday, in a rented Big Sur house on the edge of the Pacific, is fueled by drugs and booze and the soundtrack of the lads’ best and brightest days – mid-to-late 1980s rock – like a missile shedding its boosters as it climbs ever higher toward the sun. But flying near that much heat risks flaming out. And its not long before I Melt With You takes a turn toward darkness, veering for the deepest of black holes from which none of the men, now middle-aged and beset by failures, regrets, and in one example, a pending criminal indictment, will escape.
Cinematographer Eric Schmidt had just come off the $42-million studio flick, The Mechanic, so taking on an 18-day, sub-million-dollar indie, with a crew of 10 and a handful of Canon 5Ds, was challenging, to say the least. In many ways, it was a testament to Schmidt’s long-standing creative partnership with Pellington; the men have been tooling with new formats and workflow processes for nearly two decades.
But, as the following conversation reveals, I Melt With You took their collaboration to a new level. Schmidt says the HDSLR shoot inspired an unparalleled sense of freedom, not unlike what the characters in the film long to rekindle. That may account for the daring use of color, which Schmidt says was dialed in on-set to a near final grade status (before tweaking with colorist Beau Leon at New Hat, in Santa Monica, CA) Guild members Bryan Haigh (1st AC) and John Pingry (B-camera operator) helped maximize the 5D workflow, which was done all-handheld on a variety of rigs – some tricked-out with wireless focus systems and mini-HD monitors, others as stripped down as a single pistolgrip and eyepiece.
Few will argue that I Melt With You isn’t a sad and disturbing film. But it also brims with reckless joy and abandon. No other filmmakers (or technology) could have better married capture and content.
ICG Magazine: We saw this film at a Sundance press screening in a 220-seat theatre.
Eric Schmidt: I heard a lot of people walked out.
ICG: Yes, there were some. How did it play at its public premiere, at the Eccles? There’s never been an HDSLR feature screened in a theater that size as far as I know.
Schmidt: Stunning. Thirteen hundred people sat in rapt silence and then stayed for the Q & A. I think there was some fear before the deal was made [Magnolia Pictures will distribute I Melt With You this summer], given how the reviews going out over social media were polarizing. Then on Friday [after the Eccles screening], we got a great review in The Hollywood Reporter. The lesson is, never let the press see your movie at Sundance before the public! [Laughs]
ICG: What was the lead-in to this project that gave you and Mark the courage, or confidence, to shoot entirely with the Canon 5D for theatrical release?
Schmidt: I met Mark in 1989 when I was the PA sweeping the floors on his Pearl Jam video. I kept bugging him to let me shoot, and later did the title sequence for his first movie, and some helicopter footage. I shot 2nd unit on Arlington Road, and then a compendium video for The Mothman Prophecies that went on the DVD release. Mark then got me in for the pilot re-shoot on Cold Case, and I shot the first 12 episodes. That’s when we started moving toward narrative. I shot his last film, Henry Poole is Here, and another recent pilot that didn’t get picked up called Back, which was very dark and interesting. When I agreed to do I Melt With You, I had a day-and-a-half scout and prep before jumping in.
ICG: So it was always designed for the 5D?
Schmidt: Up until three months before, we were pretty sure it was going to be shot on RED. We had done a music video last winter, on 35mm in a studio with a large crew, lights the whole deal, and our energy just went bust, so we were looking for something fresh. A month later Mark sent me a song by Alpha Rev, and I told him we should shoot that video in black and white with these little hybrids everyone’s talking about. We used the Canon 7D, and were blown away. A few months later we did another music video, in color, on the 5D and that’s when it just fell off the cliff. The originality of the framing, the spontaneous workflow, and the light sensitivity – all of it just clicked.
ICG: How many cameras did you use?
Schmidt: Four 5Ds, and then two 7Ds, which were used sparingly for slow motion. The sensor on the 5D is bigger than a 35mm motion picture film camera, so the depth of field is cut way back, which makes things really tough for the assistants as far as focus. But that sensor has so much resolution! And I could completely control the color temperature on-set.
ICG: The color palette is what really jumps out, both in the wild drug-taking party scenes, and in the more subdued moments later on.
Schmidt: We knew, depending on the scene, which way we were going to go – imbuing the shot with blue for twilight, or orange for firelight was fairly obvious. But there wasn’t any designed color arc for the movie. Those choices came out of the spontaneity of using [the 5D]. I mean, a great deal of this movie was Mark and I, with Bryan pulling focus, and that’s it. I’d hit 3200 Kelvin and say, “Hey, Mark, it’s twilight, but if we shoot in tungsten it’ll look sort of blue.” And he’d say, “Will it look like that?” And I’d say, “Yes, it will look exactly like that.” You can’t put colors together immediately like that shooting film.
ICG: You must have done some image tests or prep.
Schmidt: We flew up to the house location in Big Sur for one day and tested the Zeiss CP.2 primes wide open, the Canon USM zoom at 50mm, a Canon 1.4, all trying to figure out what focus and lens rigs we would use. At that same time, we did bracketed exposure tests. If we let the outside go to an 80 percent value on our Marshall monitor what does the inside retain if we don’t light it? If we shoot at night at 1250 ASA what happens if it’s three stops under-exposed? When we saw the test footage projected at New Hat, particularly the night and very dark end-of-day stuff, it gave us the confidence to dive in, even though at that point, we were already too far down the road to shoot with anything else. [Laughs]
ICG: Music plays a big part. It’s virtually inseparable from the narrative.
Schmidt: I have worked on 170 music videos, both as a gaffer and in camera, and Mark has done tons of videos, as well as the U2 3D feature. We both come from this place where emotional imagemaking is put to music. This movie had specific songs in the script, which would change depending on how much it cost to obtain them. [Laughs] But we had music on-set, and the party scenes are just that, minus the alcohol and drugs, of course. I had two 150-watt Dedolights where I normally would have used 5Ks or 10Ks. We had no generator or truck. Just a covered wagon – light bulbs covered with chicken wire and muslin cloth. Really low-fi.
ICG: Why do you think more people haven’t jumped in with the 5D on features?
Schmidt: Because there’s not a lot of latitude. You can shoot at high sensitivities, but there’s not much room to dig information out. The general complaint [about the 5D] has been that it’s like shooting Ektachrome. But that’s the whole point for Mark and I. We love Ektachrome!
ICG: Given that you controlled the color space on-set, how much was left at the final grade?
Schmidt: Well, this goes back to the emotionality of images and how they relate to music. Mark does final color grades of all the dailies when we do a music video, because you make editing decisions based on your emotional reaction to that image. There was no time to do dailies on I Melt With You, so while we applied all those years of telecine experience while shooting, we still needed four or five nights at New Hat tweaking the film. They use Baselight, so you can correct in P3 digital cinema, which has a wider gamma range than Rec. 709 that the 5D outputs. The P3 can emulate a LUT for Kodak Vision stock. The results are creamier and more like film, although it doesn’t really have any grain, per se. We were all blithely following that P3 channel, until Mark said: “No way. It takes away that digital rawness.” So we colored the entire movie in Rec. 709, which, again, is like shooting with Ektachrome; much tighter color space and contrast range. We absolutely did get close to color on set. But working with Beau at New Hat, and the ability to add ND vignette power windows for depth and character to the image was invaluable. Ultimately, this film is all about faces. Standing in front of someone at 50mm with minimum focus, watching them, those small emotions could really be seen with that digital clarity.
ICG: It sounds like this movie was a breakthrough, of sorts.
Schmidt: Mark and I have been striving to get rid of the artifice, and be much more real and raw in our moviemaking, and this film allowed us to do that. The workflow was so incredibly simple on the set it was almost bizarre. We would have 30-minute takes with the actors and then run into the ocean with them. It was a case of a new tool, a new emulsion really, that was perfectly matched to the material. It definitely changed our process for making movies.