No Debate

Making the political satire The Campaign was serious business. So why is Jim Denault, ASC, and his all-female support crew laughing so hard?

Cinematographer Jim Denault, ASC, A-Camera 1st AC Aurelia Winborn

America’s oft-mocked election process is played for big yucks in the recent Warner Bros release, The Campaign, because as the film’s director, Jay Roach, observes: “I think comedy is the correct response to politics these days. At least it makes the reality of [the process] easier to swallow, whereas if you just watch the news it can be pretty scary.

Will Ferrell (incumbent Senator Cam Brady) gives voice to those sentiments about his on-screen battle with a hapless challenger, Marty Huggins (Zach Galifiankis), the naïve director of the local tourism center. “It’s all about the amount of money that can be poured into elections and how much influence it can have,” Ferrell says. “It’s the puppeteering that goes on behind the scenes in the making of a politician, and how the public can be duped,” Galifiankis counters. Whatever the state of Election Season, circa 2012, the Guild crew on The Campaign reports that even the most outlandish of scenes staged for the camera have been topped by real life.

New Orleans locations were selected to represent the fictional small town of Hammond, North Carolina. Local 600 members included cinematographer Jim Denault, ASC, in his fourth teaming with Roach. And, in perhaps another echo of how real political campaigns function, Denault’s support team (working in support of operators George Bianchini and Rob Stenger, and D.I.T. Brian Stegman) were all women: A-camera 1st AC Aurelia Winborn, A-camera 2nd AC Eve Strickman, B-Camera 1st AC Jan Ruona, B-camera 2nd AC Penelope Helmer, Loader Tonja Greenfield, stills photographer Patti Perret and unit publicist Spooky Stevens.

Will Ferrell and Director Jay Roach

Although the presence of so many female camera members is a sign of the times, Denault says the gender gap has never played into the hires he makes on a film. “I’ve been working with female camera crews since the beginning of my career,” the DP states. “It often had less to do with creating diversity in the crew and more about finding someone who was skilled and willing to work on the low budget shoots I was doing.

“I met Aurelia Winborn in 1996, and had just taken over for another DP. The producer said: ‘of course you will want to bring your own crew.’ I asked him if he was happy with the job that the crew was doing and he said they were great. Aurelia was a talented focus puller, had a great on-set presence and was organized enough to run the camera department. She is now one of my longest professional relationships.”

Loader Greenfield, ironically enough, was the one who had trepidation. “I was a little apprehensive when I heard that both firsts and seconds were female, because that’s a lot of estrogen,” Greenfield laughs. “Of course, I had worked with stills photographer Patti Perret before, so I knew she was great. But women can be catty and competitive and I’m so glad to say the ladies of The Campaign proved me wrong. It was an amazing experience and I learned a lot.”

Front Row L-R – Loader Tonja Greenfield, B-Camera 1st AC Jan Ruona / Back Row L-R – B-camera 2nd AC Penelope Helmer, Aurelia Winborn, A-Camera 2nd AC Eve Strickman

Helmer came on as a 2nd AC with completely different expectations. “The highlight of the interview was when Jim said it was an all female camera assisting crew,” Helmer recounts. “I’m often the only woman in the department, so I was immediately excited. There was an incredible camaraderie that developed over the shoot, from hands of Euchre to long bike rides into work. I’m not sure women, as a group, brought something different to the project, but I know these women I worked with on this film are as capable, knowledgeable and as strong as any other person in our Guild.”

And that was a very good thing, because according to Denault, The Campaign was a demanding shoot with more locations (70) than shooting days. “The most challenging aspect was the number and scale of the various campaign events,” he recalls. “There were a lot of characters with lines and action that had to be covered. And because we wanted to allow for spontaneity and improvisation, we often shot from multiple angles at the same time, crossing coverage to get both sides of a conversation.”

Director Roach says it’s more fun for him and the actors to improvise when “we’re not trying to memorize every action or position to match coverage. Jim has that rare ability to light for multiple angles at once. Sometimes I even shoot in opposing angles, so I am free to cut around from one angle to the other with little concern for continuity.

Jan Ruona and Tonja Greenfield

“It’s almost like live TV,” he adds. “We shoot with multiple angles, usually including a free-play cutaway angle, and know it will cut. But to achieve that, we need super-assistants – fast, smart and focused, because there are lots of cameras to set up or move very quickly, lots of gear to keep untangled, and hours of data being captured for every scene. It helps if the assistants love comedy, too, so they don’t think we’re insane for devoting so many resources to letting actors just play.”

“For all the big debates and rallies, our gaffer Lou DiCesare and rigging gaffer Tim Durr and I had to come up with lighting plans that would allow for the flexibility to move around quickly,” Denault adds. “We needed to have enough equipment hung from above that could shoot multiple angles, often with three cameras, while creating interesting, cinematic lighting without getting too many light stands in the shot. I am in debt to our rigging key grip Don Selsor, best boy Malcolm Doran, and key grip Sean Crowell. A rough sketch of a lighting plot was even turned into Cam’s fantastic Bachman Turner rock concert.” [Takin’ Care of Business is his campaign theme song.]

The camera system Denault and Winborn put together included ARRI Alexas with Codex recorders, recording ArriRAW, with a new set of the Leica primes. Stegman created looks for dailies on set with a Truelight system and the dailies were output using Colorfront’s OSD by Sixteen 19 Post back at the New Orleans edit suite.

“Jay became a big fan of the Alexa on Game Change,” Denault continues. “Probably because the video monitors show an HD image. We were originally going to shoot Game Change on 16mm, which is how we did Recount, but both HBO and the VFX company pushed us to explore Alexa. Jay rarely uses the monitors to judge performance, and I think the clearer video image made him more confident of what he was getting.

Unit Stills Patti Perret

“The other advantage was run time,” he adds. “We could record 25 minutes on a 512GB Codex mag, basically doubling the amount of time between reloads from film. This was a big advantage for Jay who likes to keep rolling and do multiple takes on one slate and pickups and alts during the scene.”

“Mike Myers taught me that you can’t over- shoot comedy,” Roach adds. “You never know for sure what’s going to be really funny, so the more you shoot, the more choices you give yourself, the better your chances of capturing a magic moment that is genuinely, surprisingly, hilarious.”

“That’s why our mantra seemed to be: Be ready for everything and don’t cut your camera,” explains Helmer. “Will and Zach gave so much on every take, we had to be there for them.”

Winborn’s take on the ALEXA was mostly pragmatic. “From a technical standpoint, I think I will always prefer film,” she admits. “It’s more magical and organic. However working with Alexa and Codex was cool in the way that you feel like you are working at the height of technology. It’s more like shooting with a computer than a camera and the focus pulling is more challenging. It’s certainly less forgiving than film.

(L-R) Zach Galifianakis, A-camera/Steadicam Operator George Bianchini, Writer Chris Henchy, Jay Roach

“We rented our gear through Otto Nementz and 444 Camera in New Orleans, and both companies were awesome,” she continues. “We had three cameras going all over the venue for Cam’s rally, changing from handheld to dolly to long lens, following Will from the balcony to the stage. [Writer] Chris Henchy and Jay were giving variations and alternatives to Will and Zach to try, so we really had to be on our toes. There were times when Zach’s character was trying to trash talk Will’s, and their composure [and sometimes ours] would break and they would have to work their way through the performance. Continuing to roll allowed everyone to stay in the scene.”

Stills photographer Patti Perret, who has to be unobtrusive, but also hyper-aware of what is going on in the scene, offers another perspective on improvised comedy. “The most interesting and challenging shot was the baby kissing scene,” she remembers. “It was a crazy sequence with a real baby which Marty goes to kiss and Cam ends up hitting.”

“We didn’t actually punch the real baby,” Roach laughs. “That was a digital baby that takes the punch. But there is a real baby there until just before the punch.”

“It was a crowd scene, and a stunt, with lots of mayhem,” Parret continues. “And I was lucky enough to be between A and B cameras, right where I needed to be for the moment. This happened because there was a good rapport between me and the operators and the firsts. I needed all their cooperation to capture it.”

Eve Strickman, Aurelia Winborn

“Whenever I could, I let Patti stand next to me or between me and the camera,” Winborn adds. “I know still photographers need to do their jobs and too often it is more challenging for them because for every shot they have to figure out where to be and try not to block light or be in someone’s eyeline. As a 1st AC you automatically have a spot, so that’s where the cooperation of the entire crew can make or break [the stills’] job.”

The generous camaraderie on The Campaign may have been the one area of the production that did not echo this year’s election. So, did it make a difference that the camera team was stocked with women? Denault and most everyone else say, “no big deal.” But they will admit there is a subtle gender demarcation, even in 2012.

“I think I speak for everyone,” Winborn concludes,” when I say that women just want to be treated with the same respect and trust as male crewmembers. And this film shows we are on our way to that.”

As for Roach he says it was one of the fastest crews he’s ever had. “We shot hours and hours of footage in record time, thanks to one of the best teams of assistants I’ve worked with,” he insists. “None of us said, ‘let’s make sure we populate the camera team with women.’ I just know Jim will bring the very best people available in every crew position. I will say, however, there is a special joy working with a crew of brilliant, quick women, who love to laugh. And I really hope it’s a trend.”

By Pauline Rogers. All photos by Patti Perret / Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.