Frame & Reference is a conversation between Cinematographers hosted by Kenny McMillan of OWL BOT. Each episode dives into the respective DP’s current and past work, as well as what influences and inspires them. These discussions are an entertaining and informative look in to the world making films through the lens of the people who shoot them. You can listen to Frame & Reference where all the best podcasts are listened to like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. Each episode can also be found in video form on YouTube. Follow Frame & Reference on Twitter and Instagram for more content, and check your favorite app every Thursday for new episodes.
In this episode I talk to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom DP Tobias A. Schliessler, ASC. Tobias has quite the filmography including “Beauty and the Beast”, “Lone Survivor”, “Friday Night Lights”, “Hancock” and much more. Check out his IMDb for his full CV, and enjoy this very educational discussion! (Each transcript is edited lightly for clarity and legibility.)
Tobias, thank you so much for joining us on the [third] episode of Frame & Reference. Where are you joining us today?
I’m in Vancouver right now, in Canada. I’m working on a Netflix movie here, and I’m thrilled and honored to be on your [third] show. Thank you for that.
Oh, no, the honor is entirely mine. My girlfriend and I just watched Ma Rainey’s last night and loved it. We’ll get to talking about the lighting and lensing and all that later, but I was just taking a quick look at your CV. It’s substantial. Pelham 123, Hancock, Dreamgirls, Friday Night Lights. Just great. The Omen, the TV version. Excellent stuff. How did you get started?
I grew up in Germany, my father was a mountain climber that did a lot of expeditions all around the world, and to finance it, first he did slideshows, and then he did television documentaries on his expedition. So I grew up with literally cameras in our basement, and my mother was editing his film, so it was kind of like a family production. And so, I grew up with it. Then I got into photography when I was younger and moved in my early twenties to Vancouver where I am right now. I lived here till the mid nineties and then moved to California. But, I started really here in the film business. I went to Simon Fraser University here in Vancouver and studied film and I always loved images. I always loved the cinema, but growing up, it was more like a documentary style that I was accustomed to, and I really liked the dramatic end and telling stories.
And so I went to film school, and I wasn’t quite sure at the time whether I was going to get into directing or, ya know, editing… I was always drawn to the photography side, but going in, I was open. In my first year I started shooting student films and everyone said “You know what, you have a good sense for it.” So I ended up shooting a lot of student films. I just loved being behind the camera, right? Even in film school, I was just immediately drawn to it, and the lighting aspect, and the camaraderie, and the team effort on it. But it’s not just myself. I love working with my crew. And so it just became that I fell in love with it, and have never done anything else. I was very lucky.
I started here, coming out of university. It was very quiet in Canada, in Vancouver. There was none of this, like… right now there’s like 70 productions shooting here. At the time, there was like 1 or 2 movies, and it was really hard to get in as a camera assistant or whatever. So coming out of school, having done quite a lot of student films, I did a documentary for the national film board with one of my fellow students, Charles Wilkinson, who gave me my first job. So I got out, I ended up buying a camera and saying, “I’m a DP,” because I really didn’t have much choice. Then I just started slow. I started with just working my way up from like tiny little documentaries to very small, independent movies and industrials. I mean, anything I could get my hand on whether I got paid or not for the first 10 years.
I remember my first movie, I got paid, I think $1,800 for like 3 months of work and included my van, and my camera, and everything else that came with it. We had a budget of like $30,000, $40,000 to make it, but I just started small. I learned everything from the crew I worked with. I always kind of made sure I hired a gaffer that knew a little more than I did, and my key grip, my assistants, and my operators later. I learned from them. There’s two ways of going about it, I think in this business, you work your way up as a camera assistant, you learn from DPs, become an operator maybe, and just move up. You learn while you’re on set. I just did it the route of going small, small, small, taking chances, but never chances where I felt like I can’t do it. That’s one of the things you have to be careful with when you’re not really officially trained and you’re learning on the go. But I really learned, I always had a fantastic crew and I would ask my gaffer, “What did you do on your last job with this DP that I really admired”. I would learn the tricks and that’s how we got it. And then in Vancouver in the late eighties, once it became a lot of television movies coming in from the States, I was one of the few DPs in town that had a bit of experience. So I started doing television movies, and then there came that point where I had to make this choice. I felt like I wanted to work on bigger scale movies. And it was hard to do this here at the time. So I ended up moving to Los Angeles and working my way up there, again.
I started doing commercials there, and then through the commercials I met the directors that I wanted to meet… It took me a long time. I always think that the career of a DP, of course you can be lucky and be on the one independent movie that you make right out of film school and it makes Sundance, and you’re moving on, right? It happens. But in general, I think it takes 10, 15 years to really learn your craft, and for people to trust you, and show that you can do certain budgets. I’ve made like $50,000 movies, $100,000 to $500,000, $2 million to $10 million. At the end, there was like $250 million movies. But you know, it took me time. I was not one of those overnight successes, for sure. I’ve worked really hard. I always felt like I just had to keep on shooting, I just took every job I could, because I always felt like I learned from every job, and from every job you can meet someone. You never know who you will meet on any movie or any job or any music video. It usually leads to something else. You have to have patience. You never know what comes around 2, 3 years later, or the things you thought, “Why am I doing this?” It ends up being the one thing that just, moves you forward.|
I think that’s really important, what you’re saying, about just working, working, working. I think a lot of people can get too caught up in trying to be the “auteur” as a DP. You’re not going to pay the bills that way. I think everyone… you get the big movies, you get even the big for “you” if you’re on the lower end, but everyone’s got to pay the bills and being kind and working on whatever you can, you end up meeting people who are also just paying the bills, but then maybe they get a break and they remember that they liked working with you. And then off you go.
It is like that, right? I see it sometimes with friends of mine that are starting out, or I have assistants and they’ll go, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to do this because it’s not that great.” And I’ll go like, “Well, you’re at this place in the beginning. The chances of you just working on something, even if it’s not that great, you have the experience, you learn.” To this day I learn every time I do something. I learn every day. This is our business. Nothing is the same. And the more you learn, the better you will be. Something might happen, and even though maybe it was not a great project, I learned something. It’s just the experience of dealing with directors, producers, ADs, getting things done on time. This is all stuff that, yes, if you are lucky you might sidestep a lot of this stuff, but in general it helps as a DP to have that background. I find it doesn’t matter how talented you are, but you need that experience. You need the experience of how to move a crew around, or how to make a day, or how to plan your day, and that you can learn on things that are maybe not that great. You feel like it might not do something for you, but eventually it will do something for you.
We were talking about this in the last podcast, you can go to as many schools as you want, you can read every edition of American Cinematographer, you can hang out on Roger Deakins’ forums and read everything, but can’t buy on-set experience. So it’s better to just take the job.
I agree with you. It’s a different thing. And it’s funny because I see it, I might have an operator or a gaffer that’s been doing it for a long time, they’ve been on set for a long time. You throw me into a situation where I’m like, “Oh, I can’t do this. Can you do this job? Or can you do this?” And they don’t know how to. Well, it’s not that they don’t know, but it’s a different thing [working on set]. It’s one thing learning it or seeing, but you have to physically do it. I find that being physically there with a camera, you have to understand where the light comes from. You have to understand when you suddenly establish a light from one side and you haven’t thought about that. Then the next shot is coming from somewhere where the light doesn’t look that great. Now, what do you do? You’ve established it, all those things, it’s hard to learn unless you do it.
And timing, right? When you’re under that crunch, things change very drastically. In an academic setting you have a lot more time to think.
I compare cinematography to playing chess. It’s a chess game, I come in in the morning and I try to think of every setup, and what it’s going to take me to do it all day long. Like I established a scene, how is it going to be in my last shot, when I have to come around, and this and that. That’s not something that you can just learn. That’s experience. How much time you can spend on one shot, how far you can push it, and will you take sometimes more time and less time. You don’t learn how to be a good chess player in 1 day or in 1 year. It takes time.
So while you were coming up and you were just kind of working through whatever you could get, were there any cinematographers or filmmakers, anyone that you were kind of keeping an eye on? Anyone who helped you?
It’s interesting because we obviously didn’t have the same access as we have now with all the online education and everything. Of course I’ve read American Cinematographer when I was at the beginning, I still read it, but then it was like back to front, really studying everything. Whether it was Owen Roizman or Gordon Willis, all these DPs from when I went to film school that I admired, and still admire. One of the movies, The Conformist from Vittorio Storaro is still one of my movies that I go back to and go, “Oh my God, it’s so inspiring.” I like to watch it, I don’t know how many times before I do another movie because it inspires me. There are a lot of cinematographers in the past, and now. I’m always inspired by other people. Obviously now it’s like, you want to create your own world. It’s not that I’m going saying, “Oh, I’m going to copy this or copy that,” but I just get inspired by their work. Which is sort of the most important thing to me.
I draw a lot of inspiration from non-cinematographers, photographers especially. Dan Winters for instance, I’m always thinking of his work when I’m setting up portrait-type shots in my work. I think you are attracted to other photographers and cinematographers that seem to be going for the same vibe you’re going for generally. Ya know, it’s not stealing if you take from five people [laughs].
It’s never stealing! I don’t ever think of it as stealing. I had a talk with Larry Sher, ASC who did Joker, and I did a movie last year called Palmer that’s coming out in a couple of weeks. I loved his car mounts in Joker. The way he set it up outside and you can see the world, and you see him and all of it is reflected in the windows and everything. I mean, I literally stole the shot from him for one of my favorite shots in this movie that I did, and I admitted to him. I feel like it’s a compliment, right? Like I look at it. If someone wants to copy… it’s being inspired by something, it’s never the same anyways, right? But of course we should be inspired. I get inspired by painters, by photographers… How are you going to later on apply it in your own photography? The one thing is, I always feel like I have my own aesthetic that I like, but at the same time, I feel like I need to stay open for interpretation of the script. Of what a director wants. Because basically I think as a cinematographer, which I’m quite proud of, I learned the techniques first of like, you can show me a picture and I can completely copy it. Like where you would never know who did what (not exactly obviously but) I have the technical skills to do it. And I think as a cinematographer, you want to learn that. A lot of times you have to create things that are maybe not necessarily, your aesthetic, but that works for the movie. So I think if I would want to give any advice, it’s like really learning the craft, learning with all the lighting fixtures, what quality they do, and how you can use them.
That’s actually a big one. When I started this podcast, I went online and I was just like “Hey, everyone: if you could ask any cinematographer anything, what would you ask?” and a lot of people have very, very technical questions. “What exact lenses, what camera, exactly what lighting fixtures did you use?” And I feel like after a while, you just start to see light. It doesn’t really matter what the fixture is, as long as you know how to modify it to get the look that you’re trying to get, the result, you know?
The thing I find about that is a lot of times young cinematographers that work around me, or operate for me, they go like “how do you know which light that you have to use for this right now?” and, you know, it’s because I’ve used it. I know exactly what it does. I know the quality it has. I know [how it’ll look if I] bounce it, if I have control over the color temperature, how much control I have and if this will work for me… It’s good to have that [experience]. I feel like the more you can learn what a physical light is actually doing, it’s like having a paint brush, right? What is the brush, how thick is it? It’s the same kind of thing. That’s one of the things that just experience will get you. I find that some of my young DP friends, they get intimidated and go “I don’t know what lights I should order!” I was the same at the beginning, but now I know, for instance, if I’m in small rooms, I know I’m going to use Astera tubes because I won’t be able to hide lights necessarily, or have big fixtures in there. Or, you know, I don’t have enough power and I’ll be on main power so I’m going to use big LEDs like a 360 Sky Panel, for example, through a window. That kind of stuff, you know, it’s good to know. It’s good to learn.
When I went to film school, this is 2006 onward, we didn’t have LEDs. We were still using those Lowel Tota’s and all that. I don’t want to sound like an old fogy, but it feels easy now. Like I’ve got four small LEDs here right now. This light back here is a bunch of light bulbs in like a little plastic chandelier [bounced off a silver bounce]. Like you can get decent looking light in so many ways now!
Well, you lead yourself nicely! I’m stuck here in a corporate apartment in Vancouver! If I was in my house, I’d have nicely lit around me too [laughs].
Haha, after I started this I was like, “man, I got to start warning people that this is what mine looks like” I mean this is a C500mkII here…
Oh nice, yeah you’ve got nice focus and everything! I would normally do it but I’m stuck in this corporate apartment.
No worries at all! Actually, that’s a good question: if you go into a room like you’re in, how would you light your to-camera piece?
I’d have a big soft source [off to the] right here. Cut it off the wall. Maybe right here, because I have a little painting that I found right here so it’s not just a white wall, I might have an Astera tube down here just to glow it up a little bit. Obviously I would use a camera [laughs] get that nice shallow depth of focus, all those things. But normally the bigger the source, you know, right above the camera, slightly off at a good angle, you look good, right? Maybe a little bit underneath it when you’re my age and you know, you need help [laughs].
Those Astera tubes, man, seen every single person is using those tubes now. They’re so versatile.
Right? Incredible. I use them all the time. When it first came out, I had to do a car shoot on the street and we wanted to use available light and the people just driving on their own… you just roof-rack, like, 8 Astera tubes just right out of frame and then on the iPad create a little dimming/color/whatever else pattern we wanted. And we just drove through town. And it was amazing. It looked amazing. I can make a soft box in the ceiling, if I’m stuck without getting power to them, put a little 8×8 light grid underneath it with tape, and I got a soft source over top of me. They’re incredible.
I found that with a lot of those tubes you can get those little cell phone battery packs, like the USB kind, (or like with what I’ve got set up here, the little LED panels) you can plug in those little cell phone chargers, tape it to the wall or something and it’ll go for eight hours.
Yeah, no, it’s incredible. I mean the whole technology now with LED lighting to me is so exciting. I wasn’t good with switching from film to digital. I was so scared when it happened, because I was so used to film. I was so used to looking to that finder. Because I started in the independent world as an operator (even once I had operators) and I just had to look at the lighting, I would turn the camera on because just the flicker of the shutter gave me an idea of the contrast. You know, whether my exposure was good. I was so used to it. So I would do that; turn on the camera for a second, look at my lighting, turn it off again because I was so accustomed to it. So the idea of switching over to digital and being at a monitor and that all scared me and I’m not a very technical person but I got used to it and I’ve been doing digital for the last 10 years and I love it now, but it took me some time.
LEDs, I was right into it. I always loved changing light during a shot. I’ve always loved having light changes, whether someone comes in and turned on a light, I want to change the room. It was always so hard because like, let’s say I have a little ambient in the room that’s cool because there’s just like ambient light coming through the window, but now I’m turning on the the room lights and they’re practicals and suddenly I want the overhead, the ambiance, to be warm, right? It was difficult in the old days was regular lights. But now with the changing of color temperatures in the middle of the shot with the intensity changing you know… like, the most important person for me now is my dimmer operator. They’re literally right next to me, either in my DIT tent or right next to me because once the lights are up, he’s my guy. He’s the guy that’s my lamp operator now that changes the color that changes the intensity that does all that. And, um, I’m getting so used to it. I mean, I love it I mean, it doing a shot. I would change intensity. I would change color temperatures and you know,
Well now there’s a lot of wireless DMX stuff out there too. Like you can still be on the iPad and…
Oh they’re all wireless now! But like, the person I’m working right now, they still like their big board for some reason [laughs]. I’ve done movies that, you know, the guys just use the iPad but right now I’m working with someone who likes his board still, but he’s still right next to me. I’ve done movies where they just walk right next to me all the time with the iPad and *boop boop boop* we’re done. It speeds you up. I mean, it can be so much faster now, right. Instead of changing a gel, instead of having someone to go up there and throw a double into the light, all you need to do now is push a button and it’s done.
Switching from film to digital I think is something that doesn’t necessarily get talked about a lot in terms of how it affected the way that you thought about lighting. I’m lighting with barely nothing here but with film, you need to really punch light in there. What was that transition like for you? How did that change the way you think about shooting?
It was a comfort level for me, film was a comfort level. I’d done it for 25 years before I started shooting digital. I knew exactly with my light meter with three foot candles meant or what six foot candles meant. I knew that my film after three stops under will look like this, or the blacks would fall apart and it’s going to get noisy, I was so comfortable with my light meter being on set and looking through the camera was just something that, that’s how I, you know, it’d be like painting a project and suddenly you’re getting on a computer and painting on a computer. So I was just like, I was really scared of it but at the same time, DP friends of mine always would say “Tobias, you’ll be shocked how much more control you have, how much further you can push it. You won’t go to bed at night worrying whether you were underexposed.” I mean, the shooting sometimes at night or in scenes where it was really supposed to be dark or under and you’re pushing that film and you’re right at that line… if you were like half of a stop or a stop under it became grainy and muddy, and just waking up in the morning, you know, talking to the timer at the lab, and he’s giving you the printing lights and you go “oh god…” [holds chest] it’d make you sick! I couldn’t sleep. Now I can sleep when I go to bed at night.
The last real movie that I shot on film with this movie Battleship, which was big event movie. We shot it anamorphic, and I was on that movie for a year because it got pushed, and then we did more prep, and this and that, so I was literally gone and… in between movies I do a lot of commercials and in that year, for some reason, I think it was in 2010, everything switched in the commercial world. Everything switched to digital, I dunno what year…
I think that was probably 2012, when the Alexa came out. That’s when Battleship came out.
Yeah somewhere around then the Alexa came out and I come back into the commercial world and everyone was shooting on the Alexa and I was like “Oh my God, I don’t know how to do this.” I was so scared. And then, you know, obviously you get into it and you realize it’s not that scary, and then I really embraced it because I suddenly felt like, wow, I can actually push it a little further because a lot of the times when there’s a lot of things riding on you, do you really want to push it that far? Right? Like you have big actors: can you play him in a silhouette? Can you not see them, maybe you don’t want to see the eyes? But whatever you want to do now is pretty simple. Like, I can put my director into my tent and say “this is what I want to do. Are you okay with this?” and they say yes or no. We didn’t have that before, we didn’t have that luxury. I couldn’t show him, I mean… it always looked too bright! Everything looked to bright on set when you’re shooting film! The levels had to be higher, your ASA [was so low], I mean even now 500 ASA on my meter, looking at it on digital it’s too bright. You know what it is at the end, but it doesn’t transfer the same way and…
No, and cameras don’t even match! 400 on this camera looks like 800 on the Alexa.
I know. I use the Sony VENICE lately quite a lot and you can switch that to 2500 ASA, if you need to. I’ve done it a few times. I’ve never seen it used… my daughter is an upcoming director, Aisha, and she shot a short film at my house in the summertime with her DP friend and Jeff Tomjoy who used to be my DIT [edit note: I couldn’t ascertain Jeff’s last name. Sorry Jeff!]. He has the Sony VENICE and he shot for her at 2500 ASA… they shot at night, always available light except a little light for the actors, but it was so dark. It was so dark. I could barely see the marks on the floors for the actors, it was crazy. It came out beautifully! You couldn’t do that on film. I think it’s exciting. It makes for more creative filmmaking end and you look at the quality of work that’s out there right now it’s shocking. Right? It’s shocking when I see the work that’s done for streaming, whether it’s Netflix, or the limited series, or anything on they’re getting, I don’t want to admit to it, but they’re getting as good or better than any movie that’s out there right now.
Yeah. That that sort of, “TV vs Film” rivalry is gone at this point right?
Gone, gone, gone. All we can do is try to catch up with TV because, you know, I mean, sometimes they have a little bit more “time”, they can establish a look a little longer than in a movie where with film you don’t get another episode to push a little further, another episode to push a bit further. We don’t have that luxury as they do in television, but yeah, the work’s become great. It used to be all about time in television, but now we can be faster, we have these cameras that can capture under low light. I still think you still have to light the same way in a way. There is no difference, I mean, sometimes I think I have to light even softer for digital; I have to use bigger sources, softer, bring them in, but it’s just become faster because I don’t necessarily have to light the background, right? But I can shoot in the city and worry about the actors, not worry about what’s going to be five blocks down. I used to do movies where I had 15 generators for like, four blocks of a street and 20Ks on each rooftop and it took a week to pre-light three city blocks… Now I just shoot it and worry about the actors in the foreground which is different. But you still have to, you know, especially faces I find (and I’m sure you see that too) you just have to do pretty lighting. That doesn’t go away. Where you put the light and how you light it. It’s all the same.
I’ve found that with this camera it’s a little flat. I end up having to use a lot more neg. I’m deleting light more than I’m adding.
Yeah, I find that though, too. The same thing for me is like a lot of times it’s like “take this away and put blacks all alongside, solid’s all the way down.” It’s just a different style of lighting. It still comes to the same aesthetic, right? Like creating contrast, creating separation, color… the beautiful thing is now with the LEDs I love that you can just create… like I was just shooting in a hallway and there was a staircase and it was just “Oh, let’s try a real greenish cyan in the background, soft…” and it was beautiful. It was one button, right? Like “Let me see the green… ah, just make it a little more green, no let’s make them a little more cyan” it used to be like, “do we have cyan gels in the truck? No, probably not.” You had to think about it before. And you had to kind of figure out how much you need, now it’s like one button and it’s there. So I find a lot of movies now, which I love, is the color separation. People are really playing with that.
Yeah. And you’re doing a lot of onset grading you said?
I’m very fortunate. I work with really good, good DITs that can color and they can do it. We work so fast, it’s hard sometimes to do but I’ll create a Show LUT with my DIT and the Colorist that’s going to do my movie. I work a lot with Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3, he’s been doing my movies for the last 20 years or longer. I’ve been working with him in commercials and then in my first D.I. movies, he’s been with me, he’s done everything. I go to him with my DIT, I shoot test of what I think scenarios of the movie’s lighting setups that I think we’re going to do, take it into the lab with him, take it into the color suite and then create that LUT… It’s interesting: My DIT is really the [person I go to and ask] “hey, what do you think?” Like, “what do you think about this?” I hire people that I really trust and that I love and that shave aesthetics similar to me. They’re then my second eye, right? They go “Tobias, maybe this is little too bright, take this down a bit.” We work together, which I love. That’s what I love about making movies and shooting. It’s a collaboration. I try to keep it as simple as possible if I can. I still do a lot in camera. Like, I still use grads even though you can do that later, but on movies we can’t do color timing like that for all the visual effects, for all the editing, I can’t add grads to my dailies, so I do it in camera. We just try to keep the color as consistent as possible and face tones. You know, he works on that for me all the time, because sometimes you don’t have time enough to gel something or to change the color. Sometimes the lenses or the way you look, it changes the color temperature, so he adjusts all that for me and we put that in a CDL for the colorist, but usually I have a dailies colorist that I send it to on these movies because there’s just too much material, and I want my DIT not to be so involved in having to do all the coloring. I really need them next to me talking about it. I shoot a lot with two cameras and I do a lot of slight exposure changes, especially, you know, with cameras moving around… I do a lot of movies with Pete Berg, for example, a lot of his style is like: three cameras, very documentary style, even on big movies, I have to kind of light it 360. He gets in there and he just has the operators moving around and he might even say like over the megaphone (he uses a megaphone) like “B camera! Go get me that close up over there!” or “Get me that insert right now!” He does that. He likes to run the camera, he likes to run the scenes, and he covers everything. I mean, I’ve shot like four or five page scenes in maybe a couple of hours with him because he just goes and gets how he likes to do it. He doesn’t tell the actors where to go. So in that case, I feel like I’m constantly talking to my dimmer op, because he’s going to bring up lights and I’m like “Oh God, this camera’s over here” and I’m bringing this down, right, and I adjust it on my remote Iris control. And my DIT is right next to me, he runs one camera, I run one camera, so I need him right there next to me.
To get to the film that you’re here to talk about, Ma Rainey, like I said I saw it last night and loved it. I came up in theater, so seeing a more theatrical film was kind of fun for me. It’s available on Netflix, plus a little behind the scenes thing, but uh, it mostly takes place in two locations and I was hoping you could run us through the basement and the studio, and outside which I assume was all digital?
Well, you know what? That was all [on location and] controlled. I gotta be honest. That was all controlled. And I had, that was one of the challenges… it’s a movie that I was really, you know, a little scared of when I first read it. You read that script and you suddenly realize it’s 50 pages, half the movie is in a basement rehearsal room, in the script it’s described as a “windowless room”.
Right. So originally the director was adamant about not having a window, but we ended up creating the small window for this 22×18 foot room and we didn’t build it bigger, the room that you see is the size it was. It was one of the first things that I said is “Can we not build this bigger? I can make something that looks smaller.” But George Wolf, the director, wanted the actors to feel the walls are creeping in on them, like they have no place to escape from. He wanted it to feel like it’s like the underbelly of a slave ship and they can’t go anywhere. It ended up that we were on a scout just looking at texture for this room where we saw the storage room that our production designer let us into and it had one of those little windows and it looked beautiful. The light came through there and it looked gorgeous and with the Production Designer I said to George “this is kind of like something that we were thinking about.” And he goes, “well, you know what? Now I can see it” because he really wanted that heat. And I don’t know if you felt that in a movie, there’s a lot of heat and sweating and I go, like, “I can bring that sun in there so you can feel the heat. And because it’s high up and it’s small, a there’s a grate in front of it, they wouldn’t be able to reach it.” So that’s how he justified it at the end. It was like, they can’t reach it. So it is something to the outside, but you can’t reach it and you can’t get there, but the heat is coming in that you can’t escape. That was sort of the theme. He wanted Chicago to feel as hot as it can possibly be. And when you mentioned the outside and that it was a controlled, or that it looked so controlled, we did control it because I wanted to feel that heat and we were shooting on this street that was the only street that worked for us. We shot it in Pittsburgh for Chicago for 1927. Of course that recording studio is on the North side so I had the sun behind me the whole day, or sometimes it would go behind buildings… That’s the first thing I do, I check with my Sun Seeker and go, okay, I’m in trouble. Right?
Invaluable app. Everyone should have that.
It’s the first thing you have to have! If you’re shooting outside, that’s your lifesaver. You can schedule things and know when the sun’s going to go behind something. We shot all the scenes in front of the studio for three days, but the ones in the accident scene were really over like a day and a half. The sun comes up there, it goes behind the building, it comes out. So how do you control this? How do you make it the same in the summertime? Unfortunately there was like wires, electrical wires, everywhere. Normally I would just hang like a 40×60 silk over the top of the thing and light it with a big BB light or something so that was not possible but my Key Grip, Bart Flaherty, all the grips, they were amazing. They came in with like smaller fly swatters and sometimes hung like 20x20s of the building between things and patched it together, and then instead of a BB light, I got these LRX’s that are 18K Pars that you can remotely control, and we put six of those together on two Condors next to each other and spotted them all into this area. So that’s how you got the heat. And then I used like just an 18K through a Chimera just to wrap the light around a little bit more, but yeah, it was, it was all controlled because we wanted to feel that kind of heat and that kind of golden light that, uh, you know, George Wolfe had a painting that was Chicago 1906 that had really that kind of sweltering heat and those tones, those warmer tones.
Yeah the backlighting that sharp heat, the warmth… it’s a very rich film. I’ve found myself just constantly going like, damn, this is like… I can grab it. You know, it’s very tactile. The contrast is beautiful.
Oh, thank you. I used this Tiffin Glimmerglass and that uh…
I think I have that on this lens right now!
You do!? I don’t know many people that know that filter! Hardly anyone has ever heard of Glimmerglass. I love that filter.
Quite honestly, I used the Hollywood Black Magic a lot. I haven’t used a Glimmer Glass in like 10, 15 years. I used it sometimes on commercials. When I tested all the lenses… originally I was going to use maybe some vintage large format lenses or some Hawk Anamorphics, and Keslow Camera sent me all these lenses to do my first tests and I had them send a whole bunch of filters because I wasn’t quite sure; skin tone, color… but I wasn’t really thinking about what it would do in terms of heat or shine or anything like that, but then at the last moment I remembered, “I used that Glimmerglass that was kind of blooming the highlights more than other filters.” And then I remembered the Bronze Glimmerglass so I used that, which has some warmth in the highlights. It just creates a little bit of warmth in the highlights and that coordination between the, you know, blooming the highlights and adding some warmth to really helped to sell that, that heat. And then makeup obviously was amazing, just to get that shine on everywhere and keeping that shine.
Also the production design was insane. So good.
Yeah. Yeah. Mark Ricker is amazing. He’s one of those, you know, really good production designers that work with the DP… It’s a collaboration, right? I can make his sets look good, but he can help me all the time. We help each other. If it’s a good collaboration, we help each other. And he’s great that way. And, you know, he fought for me for, for a lot of things like that window which obviously it came naturally and then it worked, but he was definitely, he’s definitely a person in terms of practicals. A lot of times, you know, you need the set decorator is a really important person for a DP in terms of practicals and how they, you know, how you can get where we put them in how they work.
And what lenses were you shooting on?
You know, ended up using the Zeiss Supremes which I would have not… I mean, I had done a movie with them before, but it was a contemporary movie, action movie with Mark Wahlberg for Netflix and it worked, it worked great for that. And actually my daughter directed a little demo for them with a good friend of mine as DP, John Charlton [edit note: again, I whiffed on the last name.], who’s an amazing DP. They went out and shot this thing and when I first saw their short film, that demo film, I mean, these lenses looked amazing, right? They look beautiful and they shot on the Sony VENICE… but for this film, I didn’t think it was the right choice. I wanted to use all the vintage lenses possibly. So I got the Canon K35s sent out, I got the Leica M’s sent out, the Hawk Anamorphics, because I thought maybe we’d shoot anamorphic, and then at the end I thought for safety, right, I’ll get a set of the Zeiss Supremes, in case George doesn’t like the idea of a vintage lenses or something. I just wanted to have one set there that, you know, just in case. So I shot them all. In testing, especially if I want to show that director something, I do that the extreme focus pulls, because I knew in a movie we’re going to be a lot of focus pulls, we wanted to be very close, so close focus was important. And then the rack focuses were important. And the distortion on the wider lens was important. So I shot all of them and I was drawn to the Canon K35s because I loved the flare of those and I like the quality but when George saw the focus shifts and the distortion he said he wanted to be the least distracting with the lenses as possible. So we ended up using the Zeiss Supremes.
With the Canon K35s I might’ve made never used the Glimmerglass, because they already have a softness to them, but the Glimmerglass in combination with the Supremes, in combination with the VENICE it is really beautiful, you know, I love the way it renders the colors. I like what you get in the highlights, the detail in the highlights. It’s a good camera. And then I love the NDs, the switching of the NDs, right? Oh my God.
Oh for sure. Built-in NDs are huge. Do you find that you’re enjoying Full Frame capture more so than Super 35?
Yes, definitely. Definitely. Because I love what I got from anamorphic, I love the shallow depth of field, and that’s what you get in large format. Right? You get slightly shallow depth of field. I personally love being close on wide lenses. I love Emmanuel Lubezki, he does it on his movies, which I love the look of, he is very bold. He can be in there on a 16mm somewhere and I sometimes get scared with that, but I do like being closer in and wide, but what it gives me on large format lenses, you know… something I get on a Super 35 lens would be like an 18mm. Now I can use the 29mm, get the same field of view, but I don’t get that distortion on the face, which I prefer. And then quite honestly, I find these days a lot of times the directors, if they want to be a little closer to an actor they push in in post. And the amazing thing is if you shoot 6K large format, like you can push in 25% and you’d never know. Where if you shot, you know, regular Alexas, Super 35 format, it was harder if you had to push in like that.
And I don’t want to… I mean, ideally you don’t push in because that’s the frame we’ve shot and that’s what we wanted, but I understand that’s the way our world is. I mean, I also like now that, like for visual effects, if you do have to come up or lower a little bit, or they need a little bit of room or need to shift something, they can. So it’s good. It helps everyone.
I wanted to go back to the lighting in the basement because I was watching that special featurette, which I hope Netflix does more of those because growing up, watching special features on DVDs and Blu-rays, you learn so much… I saw in the basement, you had sort of like a balloon light on the floor. Was that just there all the time?
No, no, because basically the idea was for me, it’s like I have strong lights coming through the window. That’s my main source. The sun is out there, and for that I used a 20K Fresnel. That’s the only regular light that I used was outside that window. I used the 20Ks that came in very strong and hit the floor. And my idea was like, I’m getting this hot sunlight coming in and now everything that is inside should kind of bounce off from the ground as a motivation. And then I had another couple of 10K that would kind of highlight the sides a little bit, I had some par cans, all coming through this one small window. I think I had about 50,000 watts shining through that window at the end. It was quite hot. Could have melted the set.
Inside my thing was like, you know, like I did have a soft box up and top. I had like a soft box that I just, however little I needed, sometimes I run them at like couple of percent. I never run much, but I wanted something there in case I needed a little bit of ambient fill. And then we had practicals that came on when they walk in and I used those as a motivation for just like highlighting a little bit in the backgrounds where I needed it. But the idea was that the walls fall off if they can. But I also don’t want them to fall off that you can’t see something, I like to see into the shadows too. But yeah, so then I strategically… I mean, you saw that one ball that was a Chimera ball, but sometimes I used regular Chinese lanterns. If I had to be low and more directional with it sometimes I would put like a Litemat 3 or 4, or the 2L on the ground… Whenever we did a blocking and I see where the cameras would go around, I’d strategically throw them on the ground wherever I could. Turned off, but there was times like, there’s this one shot that I loved, one of my favorite shots in the movie, where Chadwick ends up talking about his mother, super emotional, and he walks in to this close-up and I had the light on the ground. We didn’t know how far he was going to come. We didn’t know how long he was going to stay there. You know, it was one of those magical moments where the camera was in the right phase. He started tracking in my operators started, you know, but I also wanted the light to come up so I had this, I had my dimmer op just bring it up just as we were pushing into it just a little brighter and brighter and brighter as he’s telling this emotional story. A lot of times we shot with two, three cameras…
In that little room!?
In that little room in that little room, yeah! They were hiding behind things. One camera would be there and it would fall away, the other camera would come in and cover something and then fall away again, I mean… we even did a 360 in there. Because some of the scenes, especially the emotional scenes that are like eight pages long, George did not want to interrupt the actors. I had to have multiple cameras in the right place to capture everything. And then there’s this main monologue that Chadwick Boseman has at the end, the last three minutes is two cuts, two angles: The one that he walked into closeup, and then there’s a front angle that when he turns around and walks towards the guys and talks to them, that camera picks it up. And then the other camera picks it up again when he goes back to his locker. It was two cameras shooting simultaneously and all on sliders and all on dimmers. It was a real ballet between camera and actors and, and being out of their way. It was a combination of Litemats and the China balls. But I always like lighting for motivation. The light does bounce off the floor and that’s why the light should come from below. Right. I mean, I did the top light. I usually just use for a little ambient if I needed.
When you’re contemplating the color contrast between like an ambient fill and your key light, are you trying to make the ambient match? Are you going for a slightly cooler fill?
Cooler, yeah. I mean, obviously it depends. I find color separation always helps. But also, what would it be? In a day where the sun comes in, the shadows are cooler than the sun.
I suppose they do teach you that in painting don’t they?
It all comes back to that. It’s what’s natural. You don’t want the sun to be cooler than your ambience, right? Also, I find shadows look better when they’re a little cooler. It’s hard to make a shadow… when it’s warm it gets kind of muddy, when it’s cool it stays crisp, I don’t know.
Well everything is contrast and context right? Music, Food, Cinematography, all of it. I noticed in the in the studio scene, the characters go and black out all the windows. Was that story-based or was that creative?
Oh my god, story-based! And of course I was crying first, right? Like I’m going in this room we’ve established, we have these windows, I’ve got eight 20Ks hanging everywhere, blasting in there, it feels like a hot Chicago day. And in the script it says “as soon as they start recording, the sound has to go away, we have to close the shutters, we have to close the curtains.” It’s not a real recording studio, but they would never record without the windows covered because you get the street noise. So it was like, “Oh God, why… Who would know!?” But of course you would know. And then I asked if we could use a translucent curtain, because I wanted to get a little light through the windows. And then it was like, no, we have to have shutters and I was just like “oh god…” And then I thought like, let’s just have slits in the shutters so we can push some light through there but no… it had to be solid curtains. But as soon as we started shooting and it made sense, right? It would be like, “why are the windows lit? You’re in a recording studio.” So it all makes sense.
It’s just one of those things where, you know, at the beginning of my career or whatever you want to call it, when I started shooting, it was always like “Oh, I want to make this look beautiful. I want make this look like this and that” but, you know, later you realize it’s about the story, right? They’re not shooting you a demo reel. It’s so easy to think you want to shoot things for your demo at the beginning, everything has to look “great”, but it doesn’t right? It has to be appropriate and it has to work for the story. And in this case, you know, once we started shooting, I realized that it would have been really stupid to have these lit curtains, but at the beginning you just think visually first. You think “wow, there’s going to be another 40 pages where I’m in this room without any kind of highlights outside these windows, what do I have, just walls?” But then in that room, because I had cameras everywhere for the performance piece and we shot with three cameras always… you don’t want to interrupt the performance. So I wanted to be quick shooting around everywhere. So I did light it, basically, with a big soft box above, but that became my real source now, because I could justify it. They had some practicals inside there hanging practicals, so that was my motivation for having a top light. And I made the top light big, it was on chain motors so it was always right outside my frame line. Like for instance when I shot Viola Davis, Ma Rainey, at the microphone there and I was shooting in front of her, I would just bring that whole softbox like right front of her, you know, I would drop it down right over top of her head. And that’s a great thing with LEDs, because now I can just bring that level down or just bring this side of the softbox down a little bit, and keep the same color temperature. It used to be if you had tungsten lights, you dim it down and suddenly it’d be way to warm, you’d have to add gels, it was all a nightmare.
Top light, to me… I like top light. It’s not that easy to use sometimes because it’s not necessarily the most flattering light, but it can be right? If you’re able to bring it super low, just so the light still creeps into the eyes… I did have some LEDs behind the camera, sometimes the Litemat 4’s just so I just wrapping it a little bit more. But the source was mainly coming from the top.
I’m a huge fan of top light. With digital especially you can get away with a lot of soft toppy stuff and it won’t be too contrasty in the face…
I know right? It’s nice. That’s another thing that was hard to do on film because I know it was like, “how do you get it in there? Do you have enough for the eyes, the ratios…” but now you see it and if you have to just add a little bit of eye light you add it but it’s a beautiful light from the top.
I’ve said this before but I could talk to DPs all day about literally everything, but I assume you have life to get to so just to wrap it up: I like asking, what everyday thing do you find most important to help you get through this career path? And also if you have any personal projects you’re working on.
Patience [laughs]. Patience, patience, patience. As a DP I find the pressure of time, you know… every day I feel if things don’t go quite fast enough I feel like I have to kind of meditate and breathe myself down and focus on being patient, because everyone that you worked for or works for you works as fast as they can. That’s sort of one of the things I’ve learned more and more and more is just be patient and be calm and also be, you know, good to everyone. It’s all about having people want to be around you because you’re a good person. They want to be around you because you want to have fun. I try to keep my sets as fun as it can be, obviously concentrating on what we have to do, but I like to keep it light. I like to keep everyone involved. I like to praise people. I want them to be part of my process and I want them to give me all the ideas they have and take them, you know what I mean? To me, it’s a big collaboration. I love going to work because we’re fortunate as DPs. We can hire our friends if we want to, we can hire the crew that we want to hire, so I always feel like I’m the most blessed person in the world because I work with my friends, right? And I treat it like this and we respect each other like this. And, you know, being patient about your next job or how you progress your career, it’s all about being patient and not giving up and just staying on it.
But then there’s, you know, like you said, your Sunseeker, that’s one of those things you can’t do without, your light meter that you still have, right? Like there’s things that make you…
[Kenny shows his light meter sitting nearby]
Awesome! I like to see that! That’s awesome because there’s a lot of people don’t have them anymore! Cause now it’s like, you don’t need them all the time. Like once I’ve established my lighting set up, I mean, I’d like to go in there and make sure, double check and walk around and know where I’m at, but I don’t really need it but I wanted to have it, but I’ve gotten into my car before… on movies I have it on my DIT table or in the camera truck or whatever but on commercials sometimes I’ll be getting my car. I go like “Oh, I don’t have my meters… well I don’t really need them.” But then I stop, I reverse, I can’t leave my house without it! Even though I can get away with it, but I won’t. It’s one of those things I have in my hand, I’ve had the same one for 30 years and you know, the leather and everything, it just becomes like a comfort thing that you have with you even if you don’t need it.
No, absolutely. Before I got this, uh, what’s this the L358? I had that little tiny, like $50 box one that I was using when I shoot 16mm. And yeah it’s like a sanity check.
Yeah. It’s a sanity check. It’s also like one day, everything breaks down and you don’t have your monitor or whatever you don’t have. I will take a reading and expose it properly.
Any, any personal projects, anything you’re doing that is not necessarily film related, but anything you’d like to tell the folks about.
I live and breathe for film, I’m a workaholic for sure. But I’ve been having a lot of fun with my daughter, who isn’t that young anymore, but she’s an aspiring director and, uh, you know, in the COVID lockdown we worked together on a treatment for a movie, I helped to produce her short film and we’ve been working together on projects that are more passionate, smaller projects. I love doing that. I mean, I’m very lucky… she wanted to originally be an actress and then, you know, she wanted to do commercial spot for herself and didn’t have a director so she did it herself and suddenly fell in love with it, and I never saw, growing up, that she had this passion for photography and for filmmaking really except acting at the time. But she gave up the acting and got behind the camera.
I did a short film for her for Fujinon Lenses. Cause she did, she did that short film for the Zeiss Supremes with my friend and then she got approached from Fujinon to do something for their Premista lens, so we did a short film together. It was the first time we worked together. You know, I tell her she has to work with other DPs, but we really see eye to eye and we have got the same taste and she helps me a lot with like presentations and research and all that stuff. So it’s been fun. I feel like I get to work a little bit more creatively with her, like she calls me when she does music videos and she askes me what I think and vice versa. So that’s been fun but… it’s terrible because I always say if I had the choice to go on a vacation or a film set, I’d pick the film set by any day.
Oh I’m genuinely the same way. Well Tobias, thank you so much for spending this time with me. I really, really appreciate it. Hopefully we’ll be able to talk again.
Yeah I’d love to come back someday, that’d be great. Thank you.
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