Shooting a Modern Western Sketch - DP Breakdown
I first worked with the Ryan Connolly (RC) and the Film Riot/Triune guys last year as a Camera PA on a couple horror-comedy shorts they made for Bloodtober. We're both local to the DFW area so naturally Triune Films and Maker Table have become friends and collaborators since then. As a long-time Film Riot fan, I was stoked that RC was considering me to DP this project.
I tend to approach photography in terms of emotions so in pre-pro I try to ask the director questions like "what emotion are you wanting to evoke here in this scene" or "what do you want the viewer to be feeling when [blank] happens?" and so forth. RC sent me a few reference images and films (3:10 to Yuma (2007) and Once Upon a Time in the West) however since I have a music background, I can usually pick up on a director's tone and emotion quickest through music references. For this project, I made a point to only listen to 'western' music (i.e. a lot of Aaron Copeland and spaghetti western film scores like the ones from Ennio Morricone) for about the two weeks leading up to the shoot day.
PRODUCTION DAY CHALLENGES
For our production, we had a very ambitious schedule that gave us about 18 minutes per shot. Additionally, the main strip of our location faced north-south and the forecast was calling for clear skies. So we knew, in combination with the narrowness of the strip, that it was going to be a serious challenge in keeping our lighting consistent.
RC was excellent at scheduling everything out efficiently and with our fast-moving sun in mind but because of some HMU & wardrobe issues early on we were already significantly behind schedule by 10 am. As the day went on we got progressively more and more behind schedule and I was growing more and more nervous about having consistent lighting. Because of the narrowness of the buildings we were unable to do much bouncing or reflecting after about 4 or 5 pm, at which point we had to just do the best we could. I was sweating bullets about it but RC and the Film Riot guys (who are exactly like who they are on the show) were still cracking jokes like we were two hours ahead of schedule instead of behind!
In the end, I was surprised how well everything cut together. I didn't even notice the lighting inconsistencies until the third watch when I was looking for it! Notice where the shadows are coming from in these two back-to-back shots of Josh.
In the single of Josh, the sun is obviously coming down from the top right out of frame and in the wide with the horse you can see from the shadows on the building and the shape of the light on Justin that the light is coming from the top left of frame with long shadows on the ground. You can also see a huge difference in the single of Josh, where the pillars to his left (frame right) are in the shadows, but in the shot with the horse, you can clearly see that those same pillars are being blasted by the sun. In the end, it wasn't worth stressing out over as if it's a make-or-break situation and I was surprised how little I noticed it.
You always hear people say the "gear doesn't matter" and that's just not true. Gear matters. It's not everything, but it matters. That's why we spend crazy money buying or even renting the good stuff. It's just that sometimes you have to use what you have. For this film RC had already picked out the perfect camera and lens package for the job so I had no objections. We shot this on an Alexa Mini + Kowa Anamorphics. Since we were doing all exteriors and (partially) because of budgetary restraints I opted not to use any lights but instead I put in a very small grip order to have some tools at our disposal to shape the sun.
RC was great to work with because he knows exactly what he wants for his camera moves. He's very intentional about when he wants the camera to move (or not move), and how he wants it to move. We spent the morning on sticks, then moved to the Movi after lunch to get all the moving shots, and then we switched back to sticks for the last few shots of the day. These decisions were mainly influenced by the genre norms, where the Movi replaced the traditional dolly shot. We chose to use the Movi for its nimbleness and for budgetary reasons.
This was my first time to shoot a piece with all daytime exteriors and it was also my first time to shoot a western-style piece. I knew RC was wanting a modern western look so I knew we were going to be mostly between f/2.8 and f/4 and not F/11 or F/16 like a lot of the classic westerns. And I knew that it meant we weren't going to be using huge, high-powered lights (and wouldn't want to anyway) so I decided to use a technique I learned from the Wandering DP podcast about using modifiers to wrap and control the sun on the mediums and close ups. Since their hats provided a good bit of shade on their faces it was easy to shape the soft light on their faces then to let the hard light from the sun play. And the for the wides we pretty much just let it play as is. Here's an example of the setup we used for Josh's MCU.
While I wasn't involved in the color-grading process it wouldn't have been necessary because John Carrington always takes what I am envisioning way farther than I could've imagined. He did a killer job on this. Here are some shots straight out of camera with a 3:10 to Yuma LUT by Triune (top) and John's beautiful grade (bottom, I believe he used a LUT from Triune's new Western LUT pack).
Location & Wardrobe
Great cinematography is never just good lighting or cool camera moves, so much of it has to do with location, wardrobes, art direction, hair & makeup, etc. The Triune Films guys & gals did a killer job finding us this stellar location and securing some badass wardrobe for Josh and Justin (who had hilarious performances, by the way). With all the great talent, location, wardrobe, etc. my job was pretty simple.
Written, Directed & Edited by - Ryan Connolly
Executive Producer - Joshua Davies
Produced by - Tim Connolly & Ryan Connolly
Director of Photography - Daniel Routh
Music Composer - Daniel James
Post Sound & Sound Design - Rob Krekel
Visual Effects Supervisor - Michael Stark