Canadian Cinematograher reports

Two articles from the last edition of the Canadian Cinematographer magazine. Publication of the Canadian Society of cinematographers.

Len and Company
André Pienaar csc, sasc
Lenses Stylish, Heartfelt Comedy

By FANEN CHIAHEMEN

In the feature film Len and Company, Rhys Ifans plays a successful music producer, once a legendary punk rocker in the 1970s, now spending his crotchety mid-life in a secluded country house in upstate New York, trying to avoid family, friends and collaborators, with little success. The film is Montreal-born director Tim Godsall’s first feature, but after having shot many commercials with him, DP André Pienaar csc, sasc agreed to work on Len and Company even before reading the script. “He’s an extremely accomplished commercials director and storyteller and I have the highest regard for him,” Pienaar says of Godsall. Although Len and Company is marketed as a comedy, the cinematographer says, “I think it’s a fairly full-spectrum life story with emotion, family dysfunction, cynicism, darkness and loads of humour. In fact it’s quite black and English in tone the main character Len, is a British rough diamond with no filter. His language and his scowling attitude are pretty entertaining and bring lots of chuckles to audiences. But he’s also incredibly engaging and attractive in his own offbeat way.” Pienaar tells Canadian Cinematographer the process of bringing Len and Company to life.

 
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André Pienaar CSC, SASC Photo: Patricia Homonylo

 

Canadian Cinematographer: What did the director tell you he wanted as far as the visual aesthetic of the film?

André Pienaar csc, sasc: Tim and I have worked together in commercials for many years, and I think the style he naturally gravitates towards tends to be fairly honest. Our look is really about being naturalistic and not overly dramatic, and keeping the lighting very honest and the lensing very natural. So Len and Company was an evolution of a style we have worked on before. Tim wanted the photographic style to be understated and quiet, simple and honest. At the same time, he wanted it to be stylish, elegant and composed. In a way, the film alludes to ‘70s-style filmmaking but with a contemporary aesthetic. It’s a quietly intense and personal film, so we wanted to match that cinematically. It’s also a comedy, so we had to find a subtle language to convey all the layers of the film.

CC: How did you approach and design the lighting?

AP: Very simply, the lighting on Len and Company needed to feel natural and believable. For me, lighting design is driven by the type of film, the story, the style and the language, and it’s also very much influenced by the budget. Given that we had limited time and resources, the fact that we were going for a very natural available light look suited us well. So budget and our stylistic intent married well to define the style. Even when I do have a comfortable budget, I often try to interfere as little as possible with existing light. I like to shape what’s there, taking away and adding where necessary. I used ambient daylight or strategically positioned practical lamps, augmenting with film lights where necessary. To this end, we paid a lot of attention in prep to practical lights, their positioning and the quality of their shades because a lot of the film happens at night and I wanted the rooms to light themselves as much as possible. I think there is a lot of skill necessary to use available light. It’s not just a case of switching on the house lights and shooting. My gaffer, Jonah Hart, did a great job of manipulating ambient daylight and practical lamps. He and I have an understanding and a shorthand, which goes a long way when I am also operating the camera. My typical lighting kit on a film like this is comprised of small HMIs, Kinos and LEDs. I also use ETC Source Fours and Dedo 400s with gobos for accent lights and bounces. I also like to have an 18K up my sleeve for use during the day only when necessary like extending soft ambient daylight during bad weather or at the end of the day. William F. White was most generous in providing us with an HMI package truck and some extras despite our limited budget.

CC: How did the main location – a house in the countryside – inform your lighting?

AP: The house was a treat to shoot in both practically and stylistically. It’s a 19th century farm house with a modern addition designed by our production designer, Paul Austerberry. It’s attractive and lived in with a simple colour palette of natural materials – wood, brick, stone, leather. The house is well laid-out with windows all round, so we were able to take advantage of natural light for much of the film. We shot in every room in the house, day and night. The main room, where a lot of dialogue scenes happen, has a cathedral ceiling with wooden beams, which made a perfect place to rig a pipe grid for a few Kinos and small incandescents. While I don’t often light from above, it helped speed things up and allowed me to put in some edges and accents without much fuss.CCP

CC: How did you decide on your camera and lens kit?

AP: This was a particularly interesting part of the process. When we started the process, Tim was dead set on shooting the film on film. He showed me many examples of films shot on film, saying he wanted our film to have a similar quality. The producers and I felt that digital was better suited to our budget, as well as to our style and process, so Tim said, “Okay, prove it to me.” So we set about doing exhaustive tests of formats, cameras and lenses to find the best possible formula of camera and lenses. We had seven cameras, including 35 mm film, Super 16, ARRI ALEXA and RED EPIC, with permutations of Zeiss, ARRI, Cooke and Panavision lenses. After viewing our tests on a screen at Technicolor, then on a big screen at Scotiabank Cineplex, we settled on the ALEXA with Panavision Primos. This gave us the subtlety of the film look that Tim was after. A week into shooting, Tim said, “I see no reason to ever shoot film again.” As far as lensing goes, we tended to stay in a natural range of 24 on the wide end to 75 on the long end. We occasionally strayed into the 20 and 100 world. Panavision was incredibly supportive of me and the project, giving us two cameras and everything we needed at bargain rates.

CC: The film has a distinct colour palette. Can you talk about how you helped create that?

AP: The film takes place from winter into spring, and we were lucky to shoot at the right time of year. The colours of the landscape early in the year were suitably bleached and monochromatic. So along with the colours of Len’s world, well coordinated by Paul [Austerberry] and Tim, the whole film is in muted tones of brown and black and bleached vegetation. This is a signature of the film. Despite Len’s urban background, he is surrounded by tones of wood in his house, his furniture, his guitars, his mixing desk, the trees on the farm, as well as the bleached tones of grass, faded skies, worn leather, dry earth, snow and his faded black Porsche. All this contributes to a very simple palette. The colour in the lighting is equally restrained and monochromatic, and lighting contrast is also used with extreme discretion. An important part of creating the palette is done in the digital suite. I always set the look with the on-set DIT. I don’t use LUTs, I prefer to create the look from the Raw image. I oversee every shot on set so the cutting copy looks a lot like the final grade. This means all the screenings prior to final grade look good. Technicolor Toronto was incredibly supportive. Despite our low budget, they gave us the full treatment from extensive testing right through to a long session in final colour, including having us back after re-edits for final tweaks. Our Technicolor colourist Brett Trider did a wonderful job of understanding where we wanted to go, making for a pleasing and coherent look. I’m sure it can be frustrating for a colourist to exercise such restraint with colour and contrast.

CC: Can you talk about camera operation and when, if at all, you decided to shoot handheld versus dolly or Steadicam?

AP: Intuitive operating is gold for me. As a result, I have operated many of my own films. It’s impossible for me to separate the lighting and the operating – they are part of the same photographic impulse. This is how I manage to translate my personal understanding of a film, a scene, a character. It’s very personal. For me operating is deeply integral to the style and tone of a film. There is no such thing as “good” operating or “bad” operating – it’s more whether it’s appropriate operating. While Tim and I had every shot planned as handheld, or dolly or static, we also would go on instinct during the shooting. We had two cameras running for most of the film. My other camera operator was Rob Barnett, who has worked with me for many years and understands my approach. He did a spectacular job, and I feel our two operating styles blended seamlessly. I have mixed feelings about two cameras on the one hand it can significantly compromise lighting and eyelines, but in many cases it can allow us to get our schedule as well as capture two angles on a scene that is improvised or particularly emotional. Len would not have been possible with one camera.
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CC: Can you talk about the decision to shoot widescreen?

AP: I love 2.4 as an aspect ratio in commercials and I try to work in 2.4 whenever I can. I think it lends an elegance to the frame, and there’s more spread across the frame so you have more design space to work with. I think it’s a frame you can play with and there’s a lot more variety available in the wide screen. It’s great for two people; you can put them on opposite sides of the frame. Or with one person, you can either put them way on the side of the frame, or depending on what you are trying to say, you can put them in the middle. You can put one person in a landscape. There’s a shot of Len walking down a country road at dusk, and he’s angry and pissed, just a grumpy old bugger and he’s walking towards the camera, and we had the camera dead centre in front of him tracking back, and he’s just this man in the middle of a wide frame around him. You see the dark trees and the dark sky, and I think it’s graphically beautiful. He’s an imposing character, and I thought putting him dead centre shows how bullish he is and how angry he was at the time.

CC: How would you describe kind of work you aspire to as a cinematographer?

AP: I want my work to be current. To me, the kind of cinematography that I love and aspire to and think is the best work around tends not to get awards. A good example is Alwin Küchler who shot Morvern Callar. To me, he’s a great cinematographer who doesn’t use old techniques. I would rather think about my image, and think “When is this happening? Who’s my audience?” I think that’s why [Emmanuel] Lubezki [asc, amc] has done such a great job, because he doesn’t use those old-school tricks. It’s too easy to have a pouch on your belt with 50 tricks in it. I almost like to forget what I’ve done and treat every day like a new day on set. That may be why at my age I’m still busy in commercials. I like change. Work would be boring if I was still doing things the way I did in the ‘90s.

CC: So do you think trends come and go in cinematography just like in fashion?

AP: I think it evolves through time as times go by and film language evolves. It even changes within the decades. When I was shooting commercials in the early ‘90s, they were so different from the late ‘90s. 1992 was quite different from 1996. I could pull commercials out of my reel from those years and show you how I changed. In the late ‘90s we were always using very long lenses, and in the early ‘90s we used wide lenses. Styles come back but reinvented. Just some years ago, maybe 10 years ago, there was a whole fashion with brown; everyone was wearing brown and coffee colours, and it was very mid-century, very ‘70s, but it had its own new twist. We don’t go and repeat it, but we take its essence and we do something new with it. So, yeah, in all the arts, in play writing, in novels, particularly in clothing, fashion and interior design – like the whole mid-century revival, the whole Scandinavian thing in furniture design – it’s all a revival but in a new way. You might have been 10 years old in the ‘70s, but now you’re an adult, and you’re designing stuff and you see it with new eyes, so it’s going be an allusion. Which is what I think Len and Company was; I think it was an allusion to the ‘70s but with a contemporary aesthetic.

 

Gridlocked
Pasha Patriki csc Lights While Dodging Bullets

By FANEN CHIAHEMEN
Photos by ERIN SIMKIN

In the action film Gridlocked, a highly-skilled tactical assault officer winds up saddled with a reckless young Hollywood celebrity who has been forced into a police ride-along as part of a court-ordered community service agreement after a run-in with the law. What’s supposed to be a routine shadowing exercise quickly becomes a high-stakes game when the unlikely pair becomes caught up in an attack at a police training facility. As if in a nod to the odd-couple cop flicks popular in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Gridlocked features Danny Glover of Lethal Weapon fame, while Dominic Purcell (Prison Break), Vinnie Jones (X-Men: The Last Stand) and Saul Rubinek (Unforgiven, Warehouse 13) round out its roster of stars.
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In discussing the look of the film in preproduction, DP Pasha Patriki csc and director Allan Ungar came up with the terminology “grounded and gritty,” the DP says. “We talked about fluid camera work that could be kinetic but never shaky. It’s very muted handheld camera work, just to give a little life and breath to the camera but without making it so shaky it’s distracting to the audience. We went with the RED EPIC just because of its smaller size and easier manageability – there was a lot of shooting in tight spaces and running or walking backwards with the camera.”
Patriki outfitted the camera with Zeiss CP 2 Primes for their high-speed qualities and cost, with the 35, 50 and 85 mm lenses being his three main shooting lenses. “Those really helped us,” he says. “I usually set the ISO on any model of the RED EPIC at 800. Sometimes in very dark lighting conditions or if we had to overcrank the shooting a little bit, I’d go up to as high as 1280, and in either case it gave us a very clean, very manageable picture.”

A significant portion of the film takes place in the SWAT training facility that is ambushed, Patriki says. “The idea is that they’re cut off from power; there are no real windows or sources of light anywhere, so they’re all existing in what’s supposed to be a very dark environment. So part of the look of the film was essentially guided by this. What do we use as a source of light when, technically, the power’s supposed to be cut and there are no lights? So we decided to sell the idea that there are some orange sodium emergency backup lights, and low-output, small ‘guide’ LED strips that are steel blue. So basically the interior look was based on these two colours – cyan blue and the orange of the emergency lighting.”

Most of Gridlocked was shot in an old meat packing plant in Etobicoke, Ont., which “did not have much in terms of power or rigging, and we were given a very strict budget to work with,” Patriki says. “So we couldn’t just take two weeks and build a lighting grid and bring in lights; we had to be very economical. So these emergency lights that I mentioned earlier were actually LED battery-powered lights – which we purchased at places like Dollarama, Ikea and Home Depot – and all we had to do was just stick batteries in them and Velcro them onto the wall. It was enough light to light a scene as long as we were using high-speed lenses. And that’s a credit to the modern 4K camera technology where the cameras are sensitive enough to actually produce a good picture under such low light conditions that we had.”

 
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1st AC Jurek Osterfeld and DP Pasha Patriki CSC rehearsing a camera move.

The abundance of long corridors also made the location particularly challenging to shoot in, Patriki says. “You can’t physically run cables anywhere, and doing a new cable run for every shot is not practical. And there was also no practical way to run the cables above the head. So we had to come up with something that would work for us without having to run cables around the entire building every time we turned around the camera setup,” he says. “So battery-powered LED lights came in handy for that, which is why the film was almost entirely lit using battery-powered LED lighting, without the use of any generators. “So we created this world, imagining that if the power is cut to that facility then the emergency generator kicks in, and these dots of light guide you through the long hallways and tunnels, similar to the way small LED lights on an airplane guide you to the emergency exit,” he says. “Although we did change out the lights a little bit – we put coloured gels in them and we painted little strips on them to make them look less like consumer closet lights, and we positioned them in the hallways to make it look like they were these emergency LED lights that come on during a power outage.”

Even in other locations, Patriki says they went for a natural look, working with whatever was in a particular location. “In fact, there’s one scene with Saul Rubinek, which is supposed to be in a conference room in a lawyer’s office. We went to a real lawyer’s office on the 72nd floor of a tower in downtown Toronto, and it was not very easy to get in and out of that location because it was on such a high floor, and being in the heart of the busy financial district, there was not enough time to load in there properly and we couldn’t reserve a cargo elevator for the day or block off the hallways in that building,” the DP says. “We really had to be very small and mobile and bring in as little equipment and as few people as possible. However, during the location scout we saw that this conference room had a couple of fairly small windows, and the way the light was coming in through the windows, it was lighting the room in a very interesting, grungy yet realistic and pleasant way. So we decided to go with that natural window light and in fact kept off all the incandescent lights that were available in that room, and it gave the scene a very real, gritty look. Saul Rubinek, who plays the lawyer of our main character, is sitting against the window and there is basically no lighting at all hitting his face; he’s all just backlit by this window, yet the cameras had enough latitude to capture the detail in his face, and we could still see the brightly lit daytime downtown cityscape through the window. So we embraced that look instead of relighting the room from scratch; we just went with what was there and it worked for us.”

Patriki did have a basic lighting package consisting of a couple of 1.2K HMIs, small HMIs, some Kinos and some LED panels with daylight and tungsten lighting, which he employed on locations and the very few built sets that Gridlocked required. This “mini mobile” package was supplied by Patriki’s long-time friend and gaffer Tom Henderson. “Under normal circumstances on a feature film, you’d probably want a bigger lighting package, but knowing that a lot of the lighting was already created by these purchased Home Depot and Dollarama fixtures, we knew we could supplement that with a basic but smart lighting package,” the DP says. “So we didn’t actually have a large truck with lighting or grip, it was all in my gaffer Tom Henderson’s trailer that he owns.”

Gridlocked takes place over the course of a single night, Patriki says. “It starts in the day, and as the whole story is being set up, it rolls into a dusky environment, and then goes all night, so we scheduled it accordingly. I think any cinematographer will probably say they enjoy working in a night scenario where every light is your source rather than a brightly lit scene. It’s a lot more fun dealing with lighting that’s night lighting, to me at least,” he says.

To reduce the amount of setups on the action sequences, the crew brought in a second camera operator, Steven Szolcsanyi. “ We also rehearsed everything really well before we shot, and I already knew exactly what sequences they would be doing, and it allowed me to follow the action with the camera for longer takes,” Patriki says. “We tried to get as much of the action in a single take as possible, and a lot of times it involved panning the camera and following the puck to see who’s shooting, who’s attacking and who’s retreating. “The empty shells can be really hot and burn you,” he recalls. “On some takes, literally hundreds of shots were being fired at once, so we all had to have protection for eyes, ears, ideally no exposed skin, really. I would have to say that this was my first exposure to that many shots being fired on set. I had a foam bullet-proof-style vest made for me and was also almost constantly covered by a sound blanket or two. Sometimes you couldn’t even tell there was a person underneath. In one of the shots, the main character was quickly walking through the corridor and firing his gun, and I was about 6 feet away walking backwards with the camera as he was firing his gun, so I had gloves on my hands, I had a mask on
my face, I had every piece of protection imaginable so that I didn’t have any skin exposed to the muzzle flash and the gun powder that was flying out of the gun. I think at some point I stumbled a bit and slowed down, and the actor came closer than 6 feet and ended up firing the gun at a fairly close range to my chest, and the blow from the gun was so strong it almost knocked me down, and I almost fell backwards and the camera almost went flying. But I was caught by the friendly grip-spotter behind me and we saved the situation. We had to cut the camera and do another take, as it essentially almost knocked me off my feet – just a blank shot.”

Shooting in the cavernous corridors of the meat packing plant, the shots could be deafening, Patriki continues, and in another instance he took out his earplugs between the takes so he could talk to the director and forgot to replace them in his ears when they began the new take. “We starting shooting, and the camera was on my shoulder and I was using both hands to hold it. When the gunfire erupted, it was so loud I thought my ears were going to start bleeding, and there was nothing I could do because both of my hands were actually holding the camera. My ears were exposed and I couldn’t even cover them. After that I said I will never forget to put earplugs in my ears again.” But he stresses that safety was of the utmost importance on the set and they had a firearms expert on hand to ensure proper weapons and gunfire safety.

Aside from having survived a hail of blanks, Patriki also expresses pride at having been part of an independently produced, Canadian-made action feature. “We obviously have lots of great content coming out of Canada, but something like this that was put together completely independently I think is unique, and it’s a movie that’s able to compete with action films coming out of California on some level,” he says.