Recently I was given the opportunity to interview Cinematographer Johnny Derango (Small Town Crime, Lost on Purpose), who returns to aid the Nelms Brothers in lensing their latest film FATMAN starring Mel Gibson, Walton Goggins, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste. This transcript is a condensed version of a longer-form interview conducted as a new Podcast I’d like to get going [edit: this became Frame & Reference! Slightly different concept but this talk with Johnny was ostensibly the pilot]. You can watch the full interview here, but this written version gets to the meat of the matter if you’re in a hurry or prefer to read.
Kenny: Talk to me about your collaboration with your gaffer.
Johnny Derango: I have a gaffer by the name of Mateo Gonzalez, he’s a great guy. We’ve done two features together now, and a bunch of short form content. He’s a really smart guy and we just have a really amazing shorthand. So ideally what happens is you go in and you do a location scout, a tech scout, and you get things figured out and you talk through it on the day of the tech scout. And, you know, obviously not always the case, sometimes there’s curve balls and you have to be prepared. So when you’re going through those locations, you’re deciding what’s going to be the best units based on what you’re planning on doing mostly based on what time of day you’re shooting. I’m really concentrating on the characters and the story and how I can bridge that with my lighting and my camera movement.
K: Walk me through a tech scout, are you just looking for plugs and windows?
JD: What I’m looking for on a location scout is interesting angles, interesting placement of windows, sometimes there may be just a single lamp that you look at and you say, okay, that could be an amazing single source for the scene. So I’m taking all that into consideration. As I’m looking at it, I’m trying to figure out what’s going to work best for my vision. With Chris’ (Mel Gibson) house, I wanted it to have really great homey feel. I wanted it to be his safe place, the one place that you always felt comfortable in.
So when I was designing the lighting for that and on the tech scout, we talked about it and I wanted a nice soft wrap. So what we decided we would do is we would push light through the windows, a real soft diffused light that felt natural coming in the windows. And then we would do small sources within the room to have some background pops, some bokeh in the background. Some things like that. We also had fireplaces inside that we knew we would have on and we’d have the flicker of the fire too. There was also some window coverings, some things like that, but those are the things that I’m looking for.
I want to know, am I going to have to black out the natural light behind my big pushes that are coming in? Because time of day is going to be shifting. Am I ever going to get the sun coming in on an off axis? That’s going to compete with what I’m doing. So you have to take all that stuff into consideration and say, “okay, do I have the firepower to overpower the natural light? is the natural light going to create a problem at any point?” And you know, based on that, you have to make decisions and you try to make those decisions as far in advance as you can.
K: You were saying you were putting 12×12’s up by the windows, what were those wrapped with?
JD: Ultra Bounce. You know; black side to the sun, white bounce side facing in. It does a little bit of double duty, blocks the natural light and bounces our film lights in.
K: And that was just to simulate the sunlight outside the windows…
JD: Just a nice soft ambient push from all sides. Yeah. Just to give a nice wrap to the characters on the inside and make it just feel real nice and homey.
There’s three very distinct characters in this movie and they needed to have their own distinct lighting and lensing. And so that was something that I really concentrated on with Chris (Mel Gibson). It was always soft wrapping light, very traditional, very classic film light. So that again, I was very careful to, in conversations with my gaffer, talk about keeping it as soft as possible. We did a lot of snap grid type egg crate stuff with chimeras, that kind of thing, direct the light, very soft to where we wanted it. Because we were in really small environments and I never wanted that light spilling all around the place. And for all intents and purposes, it’s a thriller so I wanted to maintain that feel. Even though it’s soft wrapping light, there’s still contrast all throughout.
K: There’s a great shot of Mel shooting a gun in the trailer and the contrast you got outside in the snow is amazing. Can you talk about that a little bit?
JD: That was actually day one of shooting. So talk about being thrown right into the fire, you know, we got Mel we’re outside, we’re in freezing weather. We’re trudging through snow that once you track through it, it’s blown. We had to be really careful where we walked. So I couldn’t always get the gear that I wanted in. But in the scene that you’re talking about in particular, Mel is facing the camera, he’s got his gun up pointed almost directly at camera to camera left. I was able to bring in some diffusion to, to break up the natural sun, just to soften, to get it a little wrap. And, I was able to bring in negative film from the right. I walked it up pretty close to the edge of frame. So you get this really nice contrast. It still feels like natural sunlight coming through because whatever the diffusion I used, I went pretty light on it. So you still have that direct sun feel and Mel’s got such an amazing face. And if you start to soften it up too much, you lose a little bit of that character.
K: So to get this sort of homeyness in the interior of Chris’s house what were some of the things that you did to achieve that?
JD: Yeah I wanted all the exteriors to have a little bit more of an icy blue, you know, but I wanted that inside of that house to always carry a warmth. There was a time where I thought about, you know, even playing that sort of icy blue in, through the windows and keeping his house nice and warm on the inside. It was something that I tested and in testing, I just found out it, it just sort of overpowered the environment. It just, it didn’t feel right to the character. So I stuck with a warmth at all points in his house. You know, the only time we feel the iciness is when he’s outside in it, especially in the morning when comes home from delivering presents on Christmas morning and you have a very blue early Dawn look.
A lot of that is coordination with the production designer. Production design cannot be underestimated. You can light the most beautiful scene in the world, but if it’s in a white room, it doesn’t matter. You know, you gotta have elements that, especially with his homestead and inside of his house, it had to have this sort of weathered lived in feel to it. He’s, he’s a character he’s been around for thousands of years. He’s been married for who knows hundreds of thousands of years. It just needed to feel lived in. And we found a tremendous location. So the location along with Chris August, who was our production designer, did an excellent job, his production design and the lighting that fit the environment. It just all came together. So you can light the most beautiful scene in the world, but if you don’t have those other elements in play, it’s never going to look as good as it does when, when everything comes together. And I think in this project, all those elements were in play.
K: I mean like lights, practical lights, that’s production design. That’s not necessarily cinematography, but you guys got to really work together.
JD: I I’m a big fan of practical units. In Billy’s (Chance Hurstfield) house I really wanted there to be a lot of lamps and a lot of practicals cause I wanted it to feel like it was sourcing from somewhere. I wanted everything to feel very motivated. And again, with his lighting too, I wanted it soft because I wanted to tie him to Chris (Mel’s character) through the soft wrapping lighting.
K: I know you shot the mini LF on this one.
JD: Part of the reason for using the LF for me was I wanted to differentiate the characters through the Lensing. With Chris I wanted to physically place the camera closer to him and use a little bit wider angle lenses for the closeups. I knew we were going to be in some really tight, practical locations and I wanted it to feel homey, but never claustrophobic.
K: What lens package did you go with?
JD: ARRI DNA Primes. Which are made up of all old glass, it’s cobbled together out of all these different lenses in modern day housings. And they’re great. They’ve got a lot more character than more modern lenses. I tested a lot of lenses and I tested some beautiful lenses. I tested signatures, I tested Supremes. I took a look at Cooke S4s because they are one of my favorites. The DNA’s, they remind me more of the S4s than any of the modern lenses. TheS4s tend to skew a little more yellow, which I like. I shot SMALL TOWN CRIME on the Mini S4s and I love the way that looks and it fit really well with that film. The DNAs are not as yellow, they skew warm, but not as much as to the yellow side. So across the line, I think they have a little more warmth to them and they definitely have more character, especially some of them towards the edges.
K: So interiors, you were mostly using practicals with the sort of outside big, old bounce source coming in.
JD: Yeah. If I needed more of a punchy edge light, I was using the ARRI L5’s or L7’s, which are LED Fresnels. They’re awesome because they’re not very big and the quality of light is beautiful.
In Chris’s bedroom, there was a dresser in the corner. I remember tucking an L7 up on a C-stand arm, flat on the top of the dresser, extended off right up against the ceiling and you get a nice edge for separation. So you get that nice soft wrapping light and then a harder edge that plays as more direct sun coming through the window.
K: I remember you saying you were using a lot of tubes?
JD: We used the Helios tubes a lot on the film and we would always push those through something soft. I was looking at one of my diagrams earlier and I think we were playing a lot through 216. I used a lot of the Celeb 250s through snap grids with the snap bags. Like I said I wanted this to have a really traditional, soft wrapping feel to it and I didn’t want it spilling all over the rest of the room. So those were really helpful. Just depends on what we were doing. We were in some tight environments. But the tubes are awesome because they have grids for them as well and you can use those as a highlight almost anywhere. They’re fantastic for highlights as well.
K: Before we get to the exteriors and talk about the challenges of working outside in the winter, talk about the factory that’s a big ol’ set.
JD: It was the inside of a former Nestle factory. Absolutely enormous and it wasn’t heated because it wasn’t a functioning factory so you’re in a giant concrete freezer for days on end. It got down to -36 degrees, so that was a challenge in itself. And then the factory floor set was enormous. They had to do a big build of all the machinery that the elves used to manufacture the toys.
Reference is a big thing for me too. It can be in my head but if I can’t explain it to the directors, they have to just guess what I’m looking to do and I don’t want any director to have to just guess what I’m doing. I found a spot called Throwback that was done to promote the Canelo vs GGG HBO fight. The DP was Mike Rizzi and the spot was directed by Jason Sotolongo. It took place inside this boxing gym, and there were these amazing top lights just spotted down and there was a ton of atmosphere in the place. That’s what, in my mind, this factory looks like. So that was actually the shot that I pulled for reference and I leaned pretty heavily on.
I felt like I was walking a fine line; I wanted the factory to have a warmth to it, but I also wanted it to feel industrial. In talking to the directors they really wanted it to look like the industrial revolution. At the same time I didn’t want it to feel like the elves were in a sweat shop. Cause these Elves are happy. They love what they’re doing. I was walking this fine line of trying to make it look moody and interesting and still have a warmth to it. That was the balance I was trying to strike. And, I think we landed there because you never look at it and go, Oh man, these elves are being tortured.
K: You know, it is funny. You bring that up. Cause you do get that vibe that they’re kind of in like a dingy or spot, but they’re stoked. Especially Seven, he was really determined to let the military know that they all took their jobs seriously.
JD: Yeah that character is fantastic. They do a great job with the Elves, credit to the Nelms Bros. and the makeup department. I feel like it’s a really, really interesting take on the Elves. When people see what the elves look like, they’re definitely more human than elf and they didn’t go over the top
JD: And that factory floor (again, this is working with production design) all those lights were sourced by the art department. There’s, I think 36 China hats on the factory floor. And that provides the bulk of the lighting in that scene.
We used spot bulbs, exterior floodlights, but the spot version, like home Depot spotlights, I purchased them at home Depot myself. There were 36 of those on the floor. And then we had some KinoFlo image eighties pinned up, Seven image eighties, and then a bunch of par cans around the perimeter so that we always had a backlight when we weren’t in the exact right spot. And then for the ground lighting, we would bring in larger bounces and hit something from the floor into the bounce and bring it back. And then wrap around with a little something more. That was pretty much the game plan in those sets and a lot of atmosphere, just so you could read those spots. It was important to me that you could sort of see the beams coming off those spots. And so that the backlights had a little more pop to them.
K: They were supposed to look industrial instead of theatrical?
JD: Yeah. I did not go out of my way to keep lights out of the shot in the factory floor because they all felt natural to the environment. It’s nice when you have an environment like that, it’s not like when you’re in a house and you can’t have a PAR Can in the background in the shot. With this you have a little more leeway, there’s a little more creative freedom.
K: How often do you find yourself just using regular old Leko’s?
JD: When you need that longer, harder throw they tend to still be the choice. If you’re working inside in a smaller environment, you can get a led light in there that’ll do virtually the same thing. Aperture makes some great lights, but even those don’t yet quite have the punch of a standard tungsten PAR Can.
K: You were saying that you couldn’t walk around the snow, what was that sort of dance like?
JD: Yeah, especially the final showdown. there’s a big confrontation at the end between Chris and the skinny man. And it was going to take place over three or four days. And I knew shooting in Ottawa. The weather is not like it is in Vancouver. In Vancouver, you get long stretches of overcast where you can shoot things with more consistency but in Ottawa, it’s day to day, hour to hour. It changed. So that was something that was really on my mind, going into pre-production, trying to figure out how I was going to combat that, especially on a scene that takes place in five to seven minutes on screen. And it takes place over four days in real life. So I talked to a bunch of different people. I went over it with my gaffer, my key grip. I talked to other DPs and it was one of these things where I knew that I couldn’t control it the way that I wanted it there, it would have taken construction cranes and massive, massive overheads that we just didn’t have the budget or time for.
I had to be a little more nimble and a little more creative and it became more of a game of exposure and picking my angles. And the directors were really awesome in the fact that they understood what I was up against. We decided to shoot in sequence because we saw that the weather was going to arc in a pattern that felt like it would work with the continuity of the scene. The scene starts out overcast, then it goes to snow. Then it gets a little bit brighter back to over task. And then it goes to full on sun, but because it happens in a sequential order and it’s not jumping back and forth between one side being snowy and the other side being bright and sunny as you watch the scene, it transitions pretty seamlessly.
K: I thought that scene was shot in a day. I thought you just knocked it out.
JD: It was just being nimble and going back to our indie roots and going, okay, this is the way we’re going to do it. We’re going to game plan for it. And it worked, you know, obviously when we got into closer up stuff, we could use some small overheads.
K: Are there any shots or setups that you’re like particularly proud or challenged you in a way you didn’t expect?
JD: There’s a scene in the movie where Chris is getting ready to go out and deliver the presents on Christmas Eve. And I think it’s one of the first times that you really realize, there he is, he’s Santa, he’s got the coat on, he’s got the hat and he’s having this heart to heart conversation with Ruth played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who is just amazing, and there’s just this moment where he stops right before the door and he says “because I failed” and then he walks out and I just remember everything. It was just one of those things where I got the lights and all the positions I wanted. And I just feel from the time he comes down the stairs, it almost feels like it’s not one shot, but if you watch the scene, it almost feels like it’s one shot.
He comes down the stairs, he goes into the living room, he gets this coat out of the closet, we’re looking at Marianne close up, it just feels so nice. So warm. He gets to the door and there’s this light that’s just right down the middle of his face where it’s got this beautiful wrap to it and he’s in profile. That was a moment where I was really, really happy.
The Friday of the first week, we did a big night exterior that’s the continuation of the scene, the other half of it, where Chris walks outside and Marianne comes trailing behind him. We had a big snow machine and big fans and it was just a big night exterior. I did the same thing I did forthe interiors where I put a big fly swatter up with an ultrabounce and I took my lights from ground level and pushed up into them and just did a big soft return. It just looked beautiful.
K: “All of filmmaking is contrast in its various forms.”
JD: That’s where testing comes in, if you have the time to test, otherwise, you have to figure out the first couple of days, what the hell you’re doing. And hopefully, you know, you haven’t shot so much that you can’t still keep a consistent look. In this case, I had done those tests and it was always changing. Like I said, there was days where it was bright and sunny, like the first day when we shot and Mel was shooting the cans off the fence, that was a day where, you know, negative fill and softening, the hard direct sun was important. And then you have drastically overcast days where the character was walking down the street to go take the baseball bat to skinny man. And you have soft, beautiful light with snow coming down.
In that case, you’re trying to either walk some negative fell alongside him next to steadicam, or if the wind is too strong and that proves difficult you’re picking the angle the best you can to get the best lighting with the best shape on him. When he’s landing in a closeup, then you’re bringing something in for shape. I think in that particular case, I had somebody with a bounce that was moving in to hit him when he landed in his final position. It’s a lot of that too. You can get an eye light with a bounce, you know, when you’re in exterior, daylight, even if it’s not pushing a lot of light into the actual face, sometimes it’s nice just to have that reflected there, just to get a little something in the eyes. With sun too, a lot of times you’re looking at harsh light coming from above. So you’re doing a little bit of a fill from below.
K: There’s little things like that that I think only come from experience.
JD: Yeah. I’m a big fan of trying to work with the natural daylight. I try whenever I can to make my exteriors a grip show versus an electric show. Sometimes you get in situations where you need huge lights, but I’m always of the philosophy “if I can make the natural daylight work for me, I’ll do that.” And that’s exactly what we did on that shootout. Once you start adding giant rigs, especially giant overheads, you just start slowing things down. And I never want anybody looking at me going “okay, we’re going to miss our day because of you.” Right? Cause I feel an obligation and responsibility to myself, the directors, and the producers to come in on time and on budget and still make it look beautiful.
You realize right away the amount of light it would take to pump the actors up above the background [outside during the day] is just insane. When I was testing everything on camera tests early on, I realized when I put my actor a stop to a stop and a half below key, there was like this reverse contrast where all of a sudden they were popping out and it had this really great look. And since I knew we were doing a thriller action movie, dark comedy, it was the way to go.
There’s a scene in here that I’m really happy with where Walton is on a job and there’s a couple of sleeping in bed and he’s in the bedroom with them. And that scene, I pumped the hell out of the light. If you walked into that bedroom, it looked like broad daylight. And if you watch it, it’s one of the most contrasty scenes in the film. And it’s because I ND’d down. I’m shooting wide open, even though my stop is, would have been deep, just because I got this amazing contrast that you can’t get otherwise. When you’re lighting at really low light levels, you’re not always getting the contrast that you want. And that’s what was important to me in that scene. I wanted a heavy contrast and if I just barely have my levels, I can’t really push one way higher than the other and get the background to fall off.
I was hitting The Skinnyman really hard. He had an overhead and then I was blowing a light in through the window, which this was one of my favorite things because it’s screaming in the window and it’s night, but there was a mirror on the wall and it hits the mirror and it throws across the other side. So I have these two amazing pools of light behind him, plus the light he’s in. And it just worked really well. But if I had tried to do that at a really low level of light, you know, stuff starts to get milky and noisy. I was able to control my contrast, get really deep blacks and make it feel really spooky. There’s the shot before he gets into the bedroom, he was walking down the hallway and I did this with The Skinnyman, wherever I could, his shadow proceeds him.
In the movie, when he’s coming down the hallway, you see a big shadow drop on the wall before he gets there. When you see him in the basement with Billy in a later scene, he’s coming out from behind a furnace. You don’t know where he’s coming from, but his shadow is seen before he comes out. So wherever I could drop Skinnyman’s shadow before he was seen, I did.
K: What was the relationship like with your colorist?
JD: It’s really cool because we have a great relationship with J. Cody Baker. Who’s over at CO3 and did color for us on SMALL TOWN CRIME. He works lightning fast and he gets it. Both times he got exactly what I was trying to do. Going in to do SMALL TOWN CRIME, I was a little more apprehensive. I get a little apprehensive every time I go in with a new colorist and the experience I had on that movie was awesome because I really focused on my LUTs and I do live grade on set to get things as dialed in as I can. So when we got into the, the final grade, it’s not like he was pushing to throw it out. You know, we put the base LUT on that I had crafted and then we refined from there. It worked really well. He’s got great instincts. He understands what myself and the directors are going for. And he’ll offer suggestions on things which is what you want in a collaborator. That’s what I want. Every collaborator I work with. I don’t care if you’re the third grip. If you’ve got a great idea, tell me it’s my job to vet those ideas and get the best ideas on screen.