Shooting a Cold-War Period Piece - DP Breakdown

Shooting a Cold-War Period Piece - DP Breakdown

This post was written by Nicholas Matthews

Nicholas is a Los Angeles based cinematographer who has shot 5 independent feature films in Mexico City, Colorado, the Mojave Desert, & Los Angeles. You can keep up with him via his instagram @nmatthewsfilm or online at nicholasmatthewsfilm.com


One of my favorite projects I've shot to date was a Cold War period piece written and directed by A.J. Martinson.  We would be undertaking a massive task, maximizing limited resources and tools at hand to create an entire world while predominantly shooting on sets.  For me it was a chance to develop a visual language in conjunction with the director and production designer to define our world.

From the very first interview A.J. welcomed collaboration and after that first meeting I presented a brief that expressed my approach to film.  I'll use that as the basis for talking through the process.

VISUAL BRIEF

The film follows three major storylines that involved jumping quickly between the U.S. and Soviet Russia throughout the script.  Red Fish, Blue Fish is a film where allegiances feature prominently.  In the film, we move quickly from the United States to Soviet Russia and back.  Thus, it was essential that we establish a visual grammar that both united the film and separates the geography.  The opening act connects these three worlds together in a chaotic fashion, and it was important to ground the audience.

We looked at a lot of films before we started production, and ultimately they helped inform what we would and wouldn't do in our film. Among films we looked at and talked about were Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Munich, Dr. Strangelove, The Conversation, and Fail Safe.


LENSES AND CAMERA PACKAGE

Camera Package – Panavision graciously supplied all our camera gear, and we ended up shooting on the Alexa XT with a set of Panavision Primos.  I favored the 21mm, 27mm, and 40mm, but we certainly used the 14mm a time or two.  Wider lenses really place you subjectively inside a space rather than being totally observational.  The Alexa is a creamy camera with loads of dynamic range and feels sharp without feeling too digital.  The Primos are among the best spherical lenses in the world and have beautiful contrast, color, and sharpness.

We made the decision to compose for 2.40:1.  In a perfect world we'd have shot on anamorphic lenses, but we simply didn't have the budget to make that happen.  In this case, I felt like the 2.40:1 frame worked well for giving a bigger scope to the character's interactions.

We went for softer glass to enhance a subtle homage to aesthetic of the time period.  All told, we favored wider lenses to place the camera into the action and we used a shallower depth of field to further the sense of mystery and intrigue.


CAMERA MOVEMENT

Act 1 – we designed the shots to feel a sense of perpetual motion with movement from right to left to jar the audience and connect the opening act together.  Once the dust settled, we adopted different camera techniques to reflect the different personas in the film.
These weren't exclusively applied in each case and morphed as we shot the film, but they were a good starting point.

Soviet – favored a more active camera indicative of the characters' state of mind.  Steadicam and handheld.

American – favored more formal disciplined camerawork and composition using wide lenses on dolly and sticks.

Rogue Agent – Mix of camerawork that embraced a range of styles and choices to reflect the changing nature of the character and his relationship to the world around him.  Handheld, dolly, sticks, steadicam.



LIGHTING DESIGN

I would call the lighting aesthetic I wanted to achieve "painterly naturalism with motivated lighting".  Some of the tools we used to achieve that aesthetic:

  • Haze when possible to let us feel the light and further solidify a softer period piece expressionism. Creamy highlights, velvety rich blacks, subtle use of color throughout.
  • An extension of the color palette for each setting.
  • Enhance character development – Low-key lighting with heavy use of shadows to silhouette, toplight, and hide the actors creating a sense of mystery.
  • Mixing hard and soft light for shadows and definition.

COLOR PALETTE

  • Soviet –  Subtle use of red and earth tones.
  • American – Monochromatic, leaning toward cooler tones with steely greys, cyan, whites, and blacks.
  • Rogue Agent – Mix of the two color temperatures.  We see a transition across the film that's reflective of the character's journey

Once we landed on this overarching visual design for the film, it was about executing it effectively across the board.  I've pulled some specific frames below to talk about how we tried to pull off our vision.


U.S. Meeting Room

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This set was a lot of fun to shape and light.  We went through a number of revisions specifying the paint color of every wall, making sure the we were building practicals into the right places of the space, and making sure the central table and overhead light had just the right feel.  

We actually built a bank of bulbs into the overhead light and then lined the interior with 250 to soften and blend the units.  The goal was to have a dimmable source that matched the exact ratios of the table rather than kino tubes or something of that nature.  From there, I had the art department place practicals around the room and we used small fixtures to create pockets of light throughout the space.

I can't draw.  At all. 

You'll see the diagram I sketched up to show my gaffer - Cole Pisano - my initial thoughts on placement of units and what size.  After 4 movies together I have complete trust in him to make adjustments and build onto the ideas I'm presenting.  Because we shot a oner that led from the hallway into the command center we had to light, rig, and wire the entire space all at once.

If memory serves correctly we shot it at something like 2700K to start us off with a bluer base, and I've never really had issues with blue channel noise on the Alexa if you don't push it too aggressively.  We used haze the solidify the look and tightened the contrast up in post.


U.S. Home

Here we used a period specific house.  It was important to use curtains and haze to blend and soften the light.  We relied on ambient daylight and used a few HMIs through diffusion frames and running on house power to keep the light a bit more consistent.  As is typical for me, there's no fill working here.


U.S. Laboratory

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This was the laboratory where we used our most pushed color palette.  For the space we used the built in fluorescents to do all the lighting along with a couple practicals.  When necessary, we'd add a softened 1x1 litepanel to wrap the light further on the talent.


U.S. Theater

We lit this this with projectors pushing through haze, a couple practicals, as well as two small tungsten units with diffusion rigged into the ceiling to add a bit more wrap for the characters.  


U.S. Offices

Here's one of two separate offices and the different looks we could give them both in each space and each “time of day.”  One is a real location with natural light blowing out the glass windows and we ended up just using some passive fill and an overhead litepanel to push the window light a little further into the room.  The practical in the background creates a nice color separation.

Here's the other office was a set where we lined the windows with tracing paper and blew them out. Normally on location I'm constantly trying to hold detail in the windows to establish our world.  But in this case we couldn't and it ended up giving us something I really loved with this high contrast look that I've since used on practical locations.  We had two practicals that we placed to light the character and the background a bit to create some depth and separation.  Additionally, we used a kino with 250 on it and worked it into the practical light for a bit more of a side push.


Soviet Command Center

We lit this space with real projectors shining through these fantastic overlays that AJ had made.  They gave us such a real texture and phenomenal look.  Because we did multiple 360s in this room, we couldn't light with any film tools because we saw it all. 

As a result I pushed the art department to build specific practicals into positions I wanted to light the space.  I had two clamp lights above the Soviet flags in the room for background separation. I had two desk style lamps hitting the the control center board and we placed papers on the table to key our talent.


Soviet Alley

I loved getting the chance to light this exterior.  It's a real alley way but we were able to dress it in a way that we had period materials to sell it as our version of the Soviet Union.  There was no practical lighting aside from the deep background.  But it perfectly illustrates how we went for a red, green color palette for the Soviet Union sequences.  We rigged lights on C-Booms from the rooftop to create these specific pools of light that you see on the side of the building as well as hitting the car and the clothing rack.  We placed a 2' 4 Bank on top of the phone booth and added plus green to add some color separation.


Soviet Alley - Car Interior

Once we went into the car closeups we walked around a 4' 4 bank kino flo and pushed it through 216 for our subtle key


Soviet Interrogation

Here we were shooting at this cool attic interior of an old building.  We actually shot during the day and couldn't flag off all the windows, but we were able to use post and our lighting to overpower the existing ambient light a bit.  We had 3 tungsten units rigged into the overhead piping to enhance the lighting here.  A dimmed and softened 1K lit our actors by the bare bulb practical.  A dimmed and softened 650 hit the masked man in the background, and we hit the far background with a unit to create some further separation.


Soviet Home

Here we lit all of these very simply with practicals that were placed to do all the lighting for us.  If memory serves me, I was shooting the scene at 4200K to warm up the units a bit.


Soviet Kitchen

In this scene you can see how we used practicals that matched the color tone we were aiming for in the story—green and yellow / orange.


Rogue Agent Home

These spaces were fun because we got the chance to develop an arc to the interior lighting that was reflective of the character's journey.  Every day on this set the lead actor Kaiwi would run in and shout, “We're losing light!!”  And it's certainly a weird experience to be shooting until 1 in the morning and have it feel like it's 10 a.m.  The windows lead to a small space with a skylight.  So we ended up blacking out the whole space with B/W griff with the white facing inward.  We hit this with a couple 2Ks and then used lekos to push hardlight into the space.


Working with Guns

We used period guns and blanks, which is always an exciting and scary venture, but it looks very real.  We had an incredible armorer named Clay Van Sickle.  He's an extremely professional and amiable.  His protocol was clear, easy to follow, and most importantly established a very safe environment.  As we all know, you cannot over-stress how much safety matters on set.  As a DP that often operates, I am the one typically closest to the gun when it goes off.  They're very loud in tight quarters and you can feel the powder on your skin even if you're more than 9 ft away and off to the side.


Rogue Home Interior - Cool

Here is a shot that demonstrates the arc the lighting took for the same space. This scene occurs later in the story, and uses both our established colors to achieve this look.


Ultimately, none of this would've been possible without an incredible team of passionate crew-members collaborating together to pull off this project.  I hope I get to light something period like this in the near future!

For more info on the film, follow them at facebook.com/RedFishBlueFishMovie

  • Director: AJ Martinson III
  • Cinematographer: Nicholas Matthews
  • Starring: Kaiwi Lyman, Jeff Hatch and Corey MacIntosh
  • Shot on Arri Alexa, Panavision Primo® Prime Lenses
  • Steadicam Operators: Orlando Duguay (ogdproductions.net/), Timber Hooy (timberhoy.com/)
  • 1st AC: Benjamin Steen
  • 2nd AC: Derek Endo
  • AC Dayplayers: Adam Marquez, Timber Hooy
  • Gaffer: Cole Pisano
  • Best Boy Electric: Max Schwartz
  • Key Grip: Yohan Herman
  • Best Boy Grip: Nick Doll
  • G&E Dayplayers: Sean Talbot, Caleb Wall, Mikey Gilmore, John Morgan, Yongmin Hwang
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