Cinematographer Alice Brooks hits all the right notes in transporting the 1980s animated series Jem and the Holograms to the big screen
Back in 2011, cinematographer Alice Brooks and director Jon M. Chu (Step Up series, G.I. Joe: Retaliation) were sitting on the back of a truck lift gate during a break in shooting The Legion Of Extraordinary Dancers. They started talking about the ’80s animated show Jem and the Holograms, a conversation they’d had many times since graduating from USC School of Cinematic Arts. Chu watched Jem with his sisters growing up, and Brooks recorded the entire series onto VHS cassettes as a six year old.
“I still have the tapes,” she admits. They both had ideas about updating it, while staying faithful to the essence of this cartoon cult hit.
Two years later Chu left Brooks a voicemail: “I have Jem news, call me.” Blumhouse Productions had come through. They were going to make the movie at last.
“Over the years I’d had meetings at Hasbro about doing a Jem movie [the series was a joint endeavor between Hasbro, Marvel and Sunbow Entertainment], but it didn’t go anywhere,” Chu explains. “At that time it was a very different concept. It was only after I’d done the Justin Bieber movie, Never Say Never, that I started to think about doing Jem differently, blending in a documentary style, using handheld, mixing in the spectacle but also cutting in crowd-sourced videos – all inspired by how today’s teen girls are creating on- and offline.”
As to how Chu selected Brooks to shoot Jem, he says that “Alice was in the year above me at film school and I looked up to her. She was so confident and quiet – directing, writing and producing her own stuff. We have very different sensibilities, but we get along so well.”
Since graduating from USC, Brooks’ work has spanned a broad swath of formats – music videos (Justin Bieber’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”), Web series (The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers), commercials, documentaries (Sweethearts of the Gridiron: An American Story) and film-fest premieres like Roots in Water, directed by Domenica Cameron-Scorsese, at Tribeca, and The Bake Shop Ghost at Cannes.
Brooks’ industry roots run deep, having acted in more than 40 national commercials as a child. She says she spent her teenage downtime in a darkroom and knew she wanted to become a cinematographer from the age of 15. Jem and the Holograms is Brooks’ first union feature, earning her entry into the ICG. “Getting to do this movie as my first union job was pretty special, especially with people that I love working with,” she relates. “I took a shot of my first paystub where it says ‘Local 600,’ and I’ll always have that image on my phone. On this film, I really wanted to push boundaries and create a look that was different from any other music movie [or cartoon adaptation].”
Jem and the Holograms is a tried-and-true story of a small-town singer-songwriter who makes it big, while (almost) losing her creative soul in the process. In true millennial fashion, instead of being discovered by an A&R man in a dodgy club, Jerrica Benson (Aubrey Peebles) becomes an overnight sensation on the Internet. With her three sisters, she is swept up, made-over, coached into stardom and Photoshopped into the global music industry machine by an archly menacing producer (Juliette Lewis). Their real identities remain secret and the stresses and strains of stardom start to form fissures in their family bond (presided over by Jerrica’s aunt, played by Molly Ringwald).
Unlike most other animation-to-live-action studio efforts, Jem has a gritty indie feel, having been shot in just 24 days, mostly in L.A., and mostly at night. Ninety percent of the film was handheld, and its multi-format workflow was impressive: RED EPIC (5K 6:1) with PVintage lenses, Blackmagic Pocket Camera with Panasonic Lumix G 12-35-mm zoom, GoPro HERO3 (2.7K) and a Panasonic Omnimovie VHS.
Yes, you read that correctly: VHS videotape.
“Guy McVicker at Panavision Hollywood went through the entire line of lenses with us in a demo, and after tests we decided on the Red Epic with the PVintage lenses, which are re-housed glass from 1973,” Brooks explains about the show’s main capture system. “The lens flare on the PVintage is incredible. We set a rule for ourselves to embrace the flare and we didn’t use hard mattes or lenses, which added to the overall texture of the film.”
As for the VHS capture, whimsical tape footage takes the viewer on a nostalgic trip through the sisters’ childhoods. There aren’t many VHS cameras in Hollywood these days, but the production managed to source several on eBay. (They were all broken.) Wintech Video in Van Nuys ultimately came through, but the batteries lasted only five minutes because they were so old!
Brooks says the decision to shoot handheld, across the range of cameras, was to “establish an authenticity” to the action. Remaining “connected” to the girls as they get swept up inside the L.A. music industry scene was crucial, so part of the drama unfolds via the “Kimbercam” POV (Blackmagic Pocket Camera) used by one of Jerrica’s sisters.
The multi-format and aspect ratio approach is compelling and delivers the modern mash-up feel that the filmmakers wanted. “Deciding to shoot 2.40 really defined the way our story is told and makes the whole movie feel more grounded,” Brooks adds. “The different formats are pillar-boxed within the 2.40 aspect ratio. The Black Magic is 16:9 and the VHS is 4:3. The YouTube videos play in all different aspect ratios within the 2.40 frame. It makes the whole movie feel like a collage of contemporary teen girl life.”
Chu says the combination of media “allowed us to incorporate digital distortion with analog retro feel. Giving pops of real color, earthy pastels – nothing shiny or fake – was important.” Ian Vertovec, DI colorist, Light Iron, agrees: “I used a film print emulation LUT to map the Red footage into film-print color space and graded normally from there. This really creates a complementary sense of nostalgia versus technology.” [In a nod to the YouTube generation, which this version of Jem celebrates, Chu also put out a call on the Internet for creative fan material to edit into the final print.]
Of course, the multi-formats did make dailies a bit of a challenge. Chase Abrams, DIT and dailies colorist, says it was, surprisingly enough, “the GoPros and VHS camera” that were the most involved in terms of workflow. “The GoPros would transcode the slowest at about 10 to 13 frames per second,” he explains. “For the VHS camera I used an Elgato Video Capture Cable, transferring to H264 via USB 2.0/RCA. From there I would have to up-res the SD footage to 1920 by 1080, convert it to ProRes 4444 and add timecode so that they could conform to it during final color.”
When it came to lighting, Brooks had a clear vision of what she wanted from gaffer Jay Muranaka and his team, as well as Brooks’ own camera department (which included A-cam operator Andy Waruszewski, 1st AC Doug Oh, 2nd AC AJ Baca, B-cam operator/Steadicam Nick Franco, with B-camera 1st AC Danny Gardner and 2nd AC Ron Elliott). The last night of shooting featured a scene where the girls escape by jumping off the Santa Monica Pier. Although the subsequent underwater section (operated by Tom Boyd) was done in a tank in Long Beach, Brooks had something else in mind than the classic moonlight shot.
“We had moving light as if it were lit from the Ferris wheel above, constantly changing,” she states. “Our dimmer-board operator, Matt Ardine, was on walkie with us and we played with the lights until the colors were shifting enough. We also wanted more air bubbles – the more bubbles, the more magical it looked playing against the colorful lights. I think it’s the most beautiful sequence in the movie.”
As one might expect, Jem’s concert scenes really stand out. Chu’s direction was to make each concert into a separate event, a real art form, something that hadn’t been seen before onscreen – which is why Brooks called Marc Brickman in Malibu. With an eye to the cartoon’s original decade, Brickman, lighting designer for Pink Floyd, was able to create stadium-worthy concert scenes for the teen-dream band on screen.
While Brickman’s Hollywood résumé includes two Steven Spielberg projects (Minority Report and AI: Artificial Intelligence), he’s best known for creating the Floyd Droids – custom-built robot lamps with MIDI capability to sync-up true son et lumière, (sound and light) for Pink Floyd’s late ’80s comeback world tour. A more recent gig had Brickman lighting up the Empire State Building; he created an LED structure with 11,500 pixels mapped via DMX channels, powered by a bank of GrandMA VPU’s.
“When Alice called, I was a bit taken aback,” Brickman remembers, “as I hadn’t done a Hollywood movie for some time. But we met to talk, and she’s lovely, really great.”
Brooks wanted Brickman for his laser expertise on the outdoor concert, but also to create something special inside the underground parking lot at L.A. Center Studios. This concert happens at the point in the movie where the band is starting to get noticed by the industry. But the space had its limitations.
“Jon wanted to shoot in the garage because he loved the deep space and thought there was something new we could do with the space for our second concert scene. It was 400 feet in length. We had the idea to do chasing lights hitting the columns to really accentuate the deep space,” Brooks recalls. “The challenge was that the ceilings were only ten feet tall and we would lose the magic of the deep space if we saw the lighting units themselves. But when I presented the idea to Marc, he went away and thought about it, and came back to me and said, “I am literally turning your idea on its side. Instead of lighting the columns, we create ‘columns’ of light on the floor and the ceiling.”
Brickman has worked on a massive scale for much of his career. “When I did Pink Floyd, I used to drive around a tractor-trailer full of custom-built 50-gallon smoke machines,” he laughs. “When you have a lot of money, it’s easy to pull it off, as you can just buy everything in. But when you need to be more creative, due to smaller budgets, you really have think about it, and that was the case with the underground garage concert.”
The designer used thirty-six Vari Lite VL3500 Spot and the same number of ColorBlaze TRX, adding six Martin Atomic 3000 DMX Strobe Lights and Profusion DF-50 Hazer. “It became a real art installation,” he adds. “We created space with endless bands of light and chased the light across. It was such a cool scene to do.”
As my lunch interview with Brooks at a Hollywood café winds down and she prepares to head off to the DI, she scans the trailer on her laptop to select her most memorable shot. It turns out to be earlier in the film, during the first Jem concert.
“It’s when Jem sings ‘Youngblood,’” the new Guild member shares. “We shot at Lacy Street Production Studios, near downtown L.A. Jeff Ravitz was our lighting designer on that one; he’s most known for his work on Bruce Springsteen’s shows. It was a great design – all sky pans and bare-bulb carnival lights. But, halfway through the gig, the electricity goes out. Jem asks everyone to bring out their cellphones so they can light the stage.”
Such authentic moments of connection were key for Brooks and Chu. Where concerts used to be heralded with the flame of a thousand Zippo lighters, in today’s smoke-free venues there’s the unmistakable smartphone LED glow, and that’s the image Brooks wanted to visualize. And despite the props department’s scratching its head and gathering up hundreds of cables to keep everything fully charged, it all came out beautifully. “We lit the entire scene using 80 Samsung flashlights from camera phones,” she concludes. “It looked like a sea of blue fireflies.”
Brooks and Chu got to make their own version of Jem, and it hits that note of authenticity of which they dreamed. “It was a thrill to work on a movie with such an important message for young girls,” says Brooks. “To have the courage to always be yourself and to never fear the unknown.”
by Sophia Stuart / photos by Justina Mintz