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A Cinematography Master Class With TIM ORR

[On Saturday, December 1, 2012, I moderated a Cinematography Master Class with Tim Orr at the Austin Film Society. As I found it to be an informative and useful discussion, the AFS and Mr. Orr have kindly allowed me to transcribe and publish it here (with some necessary/appropriate edits, of course). Thanks to all involved.]

Hammer To Nail: The plan here is to be informal and informative, so if along the way something said triggers a specific question, please speak up and ask it. We’re lucky enough to have Tim Orr here with us today. Who here has seen a movie that Tim Orr has shot? [All hands raise] You came to the right place! Tim is probably best known for his collaborations with David Gordon Green. What is this, the ninth movie you’ve shot with David?

Tim Orr: We’re currently on nine.

H2N: Though you had eight and nine in the same calendar year, which is pretty damn impressive.

Prince Avalanche (David Gordon Green, 2013)

TO: We did a movie here in Austin earlier this year, in May, called Prince Avalanche, which I think will be [world premiering] at Sundance. And we’re doing one now called Joe, which has two more weeks left.

H2N: We have a lot to talk about, but firstly, who here is a filmmaker? [Almost all hands are raised] And who here is specifically a cinematographer? [Only a handful are raised] Okay, only a few DPs but everyone is involved in filmmaking, which should enable us to speak on technical production terms. I know this question can seem kind of cheesy, but I do think it’s a very relevant one here. I want you to talk about your decision to become a cinematographer as opposed to, say, a writer or director or editor or composer or producer. You went to the North Carolina School of the Arts, and the way that program works is that you do your general education your first two years, but as you become an upperclassman, you have to choose a more specific focus.

TO: I went to film school, like a lot of people. There came a point in my life where I was working a lot of crappy jobs and I took a time out and said to myself, “You know, I don’t want to work these crappy jobs unless I have to, so if I could do anything, what would it be?” And to me it was make movies. So I got into School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, this was the early- to mid-‘90s.

H2N: Were you in the first film class?

TO: Second class. When I went there, like most people I’m assuming who go to film school, I wanted to be a writer/director. But when I got there—as Mike said, the first two years, you kinda study everything: editing, directing, producing, cinematography. I never had any intention of being a cinematographer. Quite honestly, technically, I didn’t really know that much. So I fancied myself more of a writer at the time, but when I started working with the camera, I felt like I had a real affinity for it. I loved operating the camera and I really liked lighting. It was something that I’d never, ever thought of, but I felt like I had some sort of talent for it, and I just liked it. And then, at a certain point, you had to choose, and I decided to go with cinematography. It was either gonna be editing or cinematography, because I wanted to come out of film school with a skill. I figured there’s thousands of people who went to film school with a directing degree who were no longer in the film business. It’s not like you can just go apply for that job. So I figured I could still make a movie some day in terms of being a director, but I wanted to come out with a skill. And I liked editing but there was no way I could sit in a room for eight-to-twelve hours a day. So I chose cinematography, and the more I did it, the more I loved it. Then, one year out of film school, David Green decided he was gonna make a movie, and he asked me to shoot it, and that led to a long collaboration. It’s been a huge part of my life because now I dearly love the craft.

H2N: We can talk digital vs. celluloid later on, but you hadn’t officially shot 35mm before George Washington, right?

George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000)

TO: No. In film school, we’d made several shorts on 16. When I went, the film school was great, because for two years you could do three-to-four shorts on film—which was fantastic. So I got a certain amount of exposure there, and I began to learn some of the technical end of it. This may sound weird, but when I first started… “f-stops, ASAs, what are all these numbers for?” I truly, honestly did not know. I kinda came into it more out of intuition than anything. I felt like I knew what something should look like. Then I knew how to make it look that way in terms of lighting and even just pointing a camera at it. And then I started to learn a lot more of the technical end and it made a lot more sense to me. So, at a certain point, I was confident enough to shoot something and have it turn out well. But, yes, George Washington was the first 35mm that I shot.

H2N: Were you intimidated?

TO: No, I was just excited. That was at a time when digital—the low end of digital—was kind of coming to the fore. You know, there were a lot of Dogme movies out.

H2N: And InDigEnt.

TO: And InDigEnt. There were all these movies that I just kinda felt looked terrible. They’re all muddy and not very well shot and we decided… we had no money. We certainly had the DV-cam budget. But we rounded up a 35mm camera and some great anamorphic lenses and about 50,000 feet of short ends, and we made that movie. So it could be done. There were just some huge risks involved. But it was exciting, it was great.

H2N: Would you say your education was more formed by trial-and-error or through studying someone else’s work, whether in the classroom or on your own?

TO: Like anyone, I was certainly inspired by certain filmmakers. Obvious people like Kubrick and Polanski and, at the time, Todd Haynes. As far as DPs went, at the time I was really into Conrad Hall. In terms of any still, his eye, the way he lit. And so I certainly took a lot of inspiration from that guy. But beyond that, one of the interesting things was I had never been on a movie set before, really—except for student films. I had never really watched any other DP work. So I kinda just came into it with my own ideas, I guess. It would just be from watching other people’s movies and then just trying to execute things the best I could based on what I thought I knew.

H2N: Has anything changed dramatically when it comes to your process? I mean, now you have a stacked resume with most budgetary ranges being covered. Are there any rules or ideas you bring to the table no matter what, or does each project and location dictate how you approach things?

Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett, 2002)

TO: Certainly, the more that you do it, the more experiences you have and the more you know what not to do. I’d spent time earlier in my career wasting a lot of time in certain ways. In terms of obsessing over some little element in the background that I’m trying to light, that I’d maybe spend way too much time on when, in the overall scheme of things, that doesn’t matter. It’s about the people in front of the camera. It’s about this other element. So there are certain things I just kinda learned to let go of. But as far as, let’s see, “rules to live by,” a lot of it is I just kind of… this might be fairly obvious, but I went out on a scout today. We’re looking for some new roads to shoot some driving work on. The main thing is that I always get out my compass and find south. “Okay, this is where we want to look. That direction.” “Okay, well, maybe something is more interesting behind us, but, well, if we have to shoot the scene here all day, this is gonna look better if we look this direction, and we’ll be able to do it faster, ‘cause we won’t have to use as much gear to make it look good.” So there’s a balance of sacrifice, it becomes a collaboration between the director and myself in terms of making those choices. What’s more important? The time it’s gonna take to do all this and make it look good, or that element of a landscape we may like but ultimately it’s not as important as where the sun is? I’m trying to think of some other… a lot of it is that each location has its own characteristics and nuances. You step into a room and it’s always a new challenge. Some of them are harder than others. I mean, certainly the worst thing is a room with no windows, in terms of trying to make it look interesting. Or, just blank white walls. It’s like, “Right, good luck!”

H2N: How do you determine what your next movie will be? Especially now that you’ve done it so much and likely have more options than you did at the beginning of your career?

TO: I’d like to say it’s always the quality of the script and who’s involved. What I’ve tried to do lately is a bigger movie and then a smaller movie. And hopefully the bigger movies still have some quality within them that I feel could [make for a] good movie. I’ve never, thankfully, gone into any movie where I thought it was gonna be a pile of crap. Even in some of the studio films that I’ve done, however successful they are or if they turn out well or not, at least in reading the script I’d think, “Hey, this stands a chance of being pretty good!” They don’t always turn out that way, but at least there’s that effort involved. But usually, it’s like with anything, you’re just kinda struck by a story. I prefer indie movies. Even what we’re working on now, which is like a three-million dollar movie. I’d rather make those than a 50-million dollar movie. They’re just much more interesting. But obviously, at a certain point it’s hard to do that exclusively as you get on with your life and have other responsibilities. I try to strike a balance.

H2N: I think lack of sufficient prep time is one of the biggest hurdles—especially when it comes to independent films. When you’ve read a script and have committed to working on the project but you aren’t on location yet, do you think in storyboarding terms or do you simply wait to see the location before even beginning to conceive of what these frames will look like?

Dandelion (Mark Milgard, 2004)

TO: Usually, if I like the script and I really respond to the story and I talk to the director and we hit it off—like, there’s common understanding of what we’d like the movie to be—now, some of it can come down to where they’re shooting, just in terms of vague locale. “We’re thinking of shooting this in New Orleans.” “Okay, that would be totally fine there.” But I usually just reserve it ‘til we’re actually there, scouting locations, and then hopefully everyone’s on the same page and they’re good. But then there are the situations you get into where you step into a room and it’s like, “This will not work.” You step into a room that becomes hard to shoot for various reasons, whether it be too small, the ceilings are too low, there’s not enough windows, the windows aren’t in the right place. Maybe you’re spending days at a location that’s all night but the house is white. Then I’ll just chime in and state my opinion as best I can about why certain things are important. But until I get there, I don’t have that luxury. Honestly, a lot of the time these days, unfortunately, locations are decided before I even get there. They’ll have a production designer much before the director of photography. A lot of the time it’s, “Well, here’s where we’re shooting!” With no input from a director of photography. That’s sadly become a lot more common. Over the past few years, budgets are being shrunk and prep time is shrinking, so you just have to adapt to it and do the best you can.

AUD: You said that you work with a lot of the same directors. Do you find that you work with a lot of the same teams? Like, electrical and…

TO: Yeah, whenever I can. I definitely have a camera crew that I like to work with. But now, there are several people that includes gaffer and key grip. If I could always bring the people I like to work with, that would be fantastic. And I’ve definitely been able to do that on a lot of jobs, but then there are some where, you know, you’re shooting in a different area of the country and they want you to hire local. Then I’ll be lucky if I get to bring one person. And then it’s choosing who that is, whether it be a 1st AC, a gaffer, et cetera.

H2N: I feel like the producers think they’re saving money by hiring local, when in fact if they sucked it up and brought in someone you’ve previously worked with and thus have a shorthand with, they’d actually be doing themselves a bigger service because that would be saving so much time and energy in the long run.

TO: Oh, for sure. I mean, I’ve worked on a few movies when that’s been the case. The quality of the crew makes an enormous difference in a production’s efficiency. It’s not just…

H2N: It’s not that you’re just trying to fly in someone you really like to hang out with!

TO: Exactly. They have to be good at their job. Hopefully they’re someone you want to stand next to on set but they also have to be really good at their job. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had, say, gaffers in particular that weren’t good. Or they weren’t a creative gaffer, they just become a technician and I have to tell them exactly what to do. Which I can do, but that gets kind of tiring. But you get in situations where it’s hard to convince the producers. Like, that line item on the budget, you can’t see the efficiency to bringing someone in who will really assist—whether it be the designer or the DP—to make your days a lot shorter.

AUD: Would you mind talking a little bit more about how communication works on set for you? How you like to communicate with your gaffer?

All The Real Girls (David Gordon Green, 2003)

TO: Sure. Usually we will have scouted—at least a tech scout before. And I’ll line out what direction we’re gonna be looking—of course, I’ve talked to the director about this prior—and if it’s a night exterior where we’re gonna put condors and so forth, talk about specific lights that would maybe need to be rigged. I usually get fairly specific about all that. And then, two weeks down the line, okay, you come to that location, maybe some things change, but hopefully the notes from that plan are executed. But in general, a lot of times you just show up on set, you bring the actors in, we block the scene and see what they do, and then, “Okay, now let’s light the room.” At that point, the best case scenario for me is when—I’ll just use a gaffer, for instance—I have someone who knows what they’re doing and is good and creative. Then I can be fairly general with them, in terms of, “I’d like a soft push to come through the window,” or, “Maybe just splash something in the background,” but then leave them a fair amount of creative freedom themselves. Because I think that makes the whole experience richer for everyone. They’ll be involved. You’re gonna get better quality work if they feel like they’re contributing to the movie. Sometimes that’s not the case, but I try to keep it pretty simple in that regard, as far as that dialogue goes. And then, of course, the key grip follows the gaffer in terms of, “Now here’s the light, now we have to shape it.” The best thing there too is when someone is creative or intuitive, and I don’t have to ask for everything. They kinda know the things that need to be done to make a shot work. Either I usually operate the camera myself, or I always set up the shots. Dolly shots, I set up the marks, and then, if I’m not operating the camera then I’ll be fairly specific with the camera operator about what I’m looking for.

H2N: How about with regard to actors? I don’t think cinematographers get enough credit for the role they play in interacting with the on-screen talent. I know there’s a hierarchy but I personally hate the idea of, “You don’t talk to an actor, you tell the director and he or she will talk to the actor.”

TO: I think that’s when someone’s threatened about their role in the movie. I’ve never had that experience. Everyone I’ve ever worked with has been really great, in terms of directors. Part of the job of a cinematographer actually should be reasonably active with the actor. It honestly depends on the personality. Some actors who are either so into their character or are a Method actor and are that character, I try to leave them alone. And when that’s the case, I won’t ever have the assistants lay down marks. And I’ll never light a room for marks. Say it’s an interior. At that point I’ll just light the room and then let them live in it. Because if they have to think about that, that’s gonna affect their performance. And certain actors really want to make sure that they’re lit well, and so marks are important to them. I will then take a little more care in terms of trying to talk to them. You know, “If you’re over here then the light’s gonna be a little better for you,” “You may not wanna walk so far over there,” and they’re totally cool with that. But honestly, it’s gotten to the point where I don’t even like doing that. I kind of honestly prefer no marks and just letting them do what they do.

H2N: So you let the blocking rehearsal on that day fully dictate how you’re going to light the room.

Off The Black (James Ponsoldt, 2006)

TO: Right. And then I’ll talk to the gaffer and key grip. The hardest thing is to light a wide shot. Say, it’s a living room interior at night and you have to see the entire room. Well where do you put something? Usually, you’ve gotta either light off practicals, you’ve gotta hide stuff, or it’s gotta be in the ceiling. Sometimes you can get away with it but sometimes… it works for 90% of the shot, 10% you hope? [H2N laughs] I don’t know. I think a certain amount of cinematography is the art of compromise. It’s a big puzzle that you are a part of, and you try to do the best you can, but you’re not always going to be able to light the perfect shot for every frame of the movie. And understanding that is important.

H2N: Of course, the other—perhaps most important—reason people mark blocking rehearsals is for focus. Is that a case where you just really make sure to work with someone you trust?

TO: To me, that’s the most important job. Because that’s one thing I can’t do. Fortunately, lately I’ve been able to find people who are great focus pullers. But you have to be sensitive to that too, like learning to help them out. Because sometimes, say I’m working on something where I don’t want the actors to be beholden to marks, but they’re fairly important to the focus puller, we just try to work something out. I’ll give them just a little extra time to adapt to that situation, but that’s something they have to adapt to. Or say it’s a situation when I know it’s gonna be a really challenging shot, I will try to shoot it at a little deeper stop. Having a movie in focus is pretty important. I’ve definitely had sequences in movies that aren’t, and that’s always a bummer. And a lot of that, you don’t know ‘til… especially in the old days of film, you wouldn’t know until you’re in the lab or you’re timing it, “Oh, that shot’s soft, great!” [laughter] But I’ve also really tried to learn things that help a focus puller get the best shot you can. There’s a lot that goes into it on the technical end that can really help the technicians out.

H2N: Should we get to a clip and make this an interactive experience? This first one is from Dandelion. Was that right after George Washington?

TO: That was after All The Real Girls, I think. It’s a movie that not many people have seen, and I was just trying to think of something that might be a little different. This is one of those instances where I had to light the entire room. And it was all one shot. It’s actually cut up. They cut it into two shots. I think it’s two, it may be three. But it was all one shot. So we had to see the entire room—the entire house, actually—in one shot. So I thought it might be interesting to look at. This was shot in Eastern Washington in 2002.

[Watch a crappy quality clip from Dandelion here, which starts at the 4:30 mark]

TO: I haven’t seen this in a while, so that was obviously cut up into a lot of shots, but it was ultimately one shot. And for various reasons, which I was not surprised by, it [became that].

H2N: Since it was one big shot, did you do a ton of camera rehearsals?

TO: You can’t do a “ton” on an indie movie. [H2N laughs] Like, that was 24 days, I think. I did a walk-through and then we just started shooting it. With stuff like that, I operated that shot, but if I was working with a camera operator I’d be fairly specific about where not to go. If you noticed, I’d never go in front of the actor—that was Vincent Kartheiser—because the light would have been terrible. To be able to do that and have it look at all decent, there are certain places you’ll want to go and there are certain places you don’t. And so, temptation might be, “Oh, we’re gonna light the room and go everywhere!” It’s like, no. You try to use judgment and know what’s gonna look good and what’s not.

H2N: Was that a case where the director had always envisioned that as a oner?

TO: Honestly, that was something that I—even though it sounds like it would be more time consuming, we had a lot of work to do that day, and I thought it would instead of going into the scene and blocking it out and then, “Okay, let’s get this shot, this shot, this shot, that shot,” I thought it’d be more interesting and ultimately maybe more efficient if I just tried to light the whole house and then shoot it in one shot. And there are certain ways it would be imperfect, in terms of the lighting—if I was just shooting a shot of someone sitting on a bed, I could have done it a little better, but, I dunno, there’s also a certain amount of imperfection that I like, and that I thought would be perfect for this story, which was very realistic drama.

H2N: How about the use of the red light, when she appears in the doorway. Was that something you discussed or was that simply an instinctive decision?

TO: That’s instinct. You know, a lot of the time I just do things ‘cause I like it. [laughter] I just thought that would be right for her in that moment. Also, I didn’t want it to all be one color. I chose a very aggressive yellow to go with there, but, yeah, sometimes I do it ‘cause I like it.

H2N: So you’re saying that you don’t always get into deep, lengthy philosophical discussions on set with regard to every single color choice you make?

Snow Angels (David Gordon Green, 2007)

TO: I mean, some people might. A director, say, or another DP may have a very specific reason why they want to do certain things, but I just don’t approach it that way. I do try… like now, I’m doing this drama, and it certainly needs to be realistic, but I’m trying to use a lot of color, but I’m trying to keep it within the realm of believability in terms of naturalistic colors that you would find in that location. I’ll try to adhere to a certain amount of naturalism, in terms of ‘realism,’ but I try to stretch it just a bit.

H2N: How about when it comes to transitions? Obviously, things change in the edit room, but when it comes to shooting the script, do you place a heavy emphasis on the ins and outs of each scene?

TO: Oh yeah. That’s certainly one of the jobs of a cinematographer, for sure. I’ve worked with a lot of first time directors. You have to, in a way, protect them, because I’m not gonna get out there and make my movie. If they did, they’d be kind of screwed in the editing room, because it would be specifically shot to be cut together a certain way. You certainly have to give options, suggest options that they may want to use later, or you think they may need. With transitions, in prep that’s one of the things I always go over with the director, to make sure that in terms of a shot list, every transition is covered in the movie, between every scene there is a transition. Because sometimes you may not think about that, but they’re truly very important.

AUD: Just out of curiosity, how many cameras do you use generally? Usually, it’s based on the budget…

TO: Sure.

AUD: …But, like, I don’t do anything with less than three.

TO: I’ve done a lot of single camera movies, but certainly the bigger the budget the more cameras you’re gonna use. Personally, I prefer single camera filmmaking—no matter how big, it would always be one camera.

AUD: That makes it more difficult to find the transition.

TO: No. I like the discipline of making a single camera movie, because there’s more thought behind each shot. The downside is it may take longer. I don’t think necessarily it would apply to transitions, because that’s just another shot that you maybe need to get. Or it’s like a concept or a motif that you’re using throughout the movie. But the bigger the budget, there’s a mandate—like, if I wanted to use one camera, because “the shot is the shot and this is it and then let’s move on and let’s get the next shot,” [as opposed to] two compromised shots at once. But there’s a mandate. The producers, and a lot of times the director, are gonna want two cameras, ‘cause it’s true that you can get more coverage to a certain degree. It may help make your day. And that’s all very valid. If you’re shooting an action sequence then, yes, there are definitely places where using multiple cameras—whether it be four or five—if you’re doing a stunt and you’re only gonna want to do that once, then okay throw as many cameras as you can at it, which is completely valid. But if it’s a Hollywood movie you’re definitely gonna be using two cameras all the time.

H2N: Thinking of Pineapple Express and Eastbound and Down, is it comedy that dictates that? Basically, if you’re not talking about action, then I assume improv factors into that decision?

Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green, 2008)

TO: It is, but it’s perception that you’re just gonna have two cameras because that’s gonna maximize coverage. It’s just a given that you’re gonna use two cameras. But, yes, for the comedy element, especially with improvisation, there’s a lot of times when you need to shoot cross coverage. Say you’re shooting a scene where two people are sitting across from each other at a table, or where they’re doing anything, where they’re standing and riffing, it’s all improvised, it’s off the page, well, a lot of the times the only way you can cut that together is to shoot both shots at the same time. So, then it’s like you have two cameras pointing at each other, shooting both actors at the same time, and that becomes a tremendous challenge to light. But I’ve done several movies—three in particular—where virtually any time two people are looking at each other talking, it’s all cross coverage.

H2N: And that’s a producer’s decision more than a director’s?

TO: That’s director. But it is what it is. That’s something you have to adapt to. And I’ve kind of gotten to the point where, when I first started doing that I found it very difficult, but now I feel like I’ve done it enough where I can make most shots look good.

AUD: So how have you figured that out with the lighting? Do you use just smaller soft lights to make that space work?

TO: Well, what I start off with is… the downsides to cross coverage are it’s usually a wide eye-line, and the actors can’t move too much. That just is what it is, and the directors have to know that going into it, if they want to do that. But the times you’re gonna do that, it’s all about the dialogue and being funny anyway, so it doesn’t matter. What I usually try to do—and these are movies that usually demand a certain sort of look—I try to do as interesting a job as I can within those studio comedies, but I’ll just start off with, like, whether it be a big soft bounce right in between them, or it’s a soft push-through that’s like a side-y key to a certain degree. It’s usually always soft light, and then it’s either some kind of chimera that wraps it slightly, or a lantern, like a gem ball or a chimera lantern, just to fill in. You have nowhere to put a back light, so then you usually have to mini-arm in a backlight or something. And that’s the trick: to keep both lights off the faces of each actor. Then it’s meticulous flagging to make sure that the backlight is only for that actor… so it’s a tremendous amount of gear. But there’s a certain formula to it, and then it’s all about ratios, like “dimming that down,” “scrimming this light.” I can usually get to a place where I’m happy with both shots, but it takes a while.

AUD: Back to transitions, are you talking about having closure to a scene?

TO: Yeah, and then into the next.

AUD: Or are you talking about b-roll/establishing shots?

TO: Well, some of it’s b-roll. A lot of that stuff becomes like TV to me, which, sometimes, it is what it is. Maybe you can’t think of a better one, or if you can think of a better one, maybe it’s not suitable to the story. So sometimes it can be a b-roll shot. But ultimately, ideally, I try to help the director think of stuff that’s more story driven, and a great way to end a scene and get into another. And then sometimes I’ll just suggest, “Ya know what, I really feel like we should end on this shot, and you should overlap the dialogue to the next scene and that’s your transition.”

AUD: You go into that much detail?

Salvation Boulevard (George Ratliff, 2011)

TO: Oh yeah. You can step onto the set and you block a scene, and you can figure the shots out. Those don’t even have to be shotlisted, in my opinion. Unless the tone of the scene demands a certain shot and it’s gonna really aid in the storytelling. But transitions are the type of thing that you often don’t think of on the day because it’s like, “Okay, we gotta get to the next scene, we have three more scenes to shoot.” So that’s why I think it’s one of the most important things in shotlisting and prep.

H2N: This also applies to the camera movement at these in-and-out points as well, correct?

TO: Yeah. Sometimes it’s like we’re gonna dolly past a character and they’re gonna leave an empty frame, and then when we come into the next frame we’re gonna continue the same left-to-right movement.

H2N: Ooh, are you talking about that awesome dolly past the characters in Snow Angels?

TO: Oh yeah. That one was just thought up on the spot. We shot the first one and I was like, “Ya know what I think we should do is just keep dollying.” ‘Cause we shot the first one and it was like… I don’t know if you guys know that shot, but it’s pretty interesting… but it felt like it didn’t have enough gravity, so that just happened on the spot.

H2N: Let’s watch another clip. Snow Angels, in the bar. This is not the shot we were just talking about, but it’s a good one.

TO: This is actually one of my personal favorite scenes in anything I’ve ever done. This is a scene of Sam Rockwell in this bar…

AUD: Freddy Krueger scene?

H2N: [laughs] Exactly!

TO: This is all one shot. There’s a lot of stuff David and I will do in movies, where we’ll just lay down a piece of track and have a zoom and we’ll just kind of make it up, and this was one of those times. There was no rehearsal at all with this. I think we did two takes and this is take two.

[Watch the Snow Angels clip here]

TO: That’s one of those things where it’s kind of a dance with the character. In the context of the movie, that’s a fairly moving scene, I think. ‘Cause Sam [Rockwell] had just had some horrific news come his way. That’s also a situation when I talk about no marks, that certainly is that. You don’t want to try to light a room and have the actor hit a specific place. All I requested was—and I didn’t even say this to Sam—the other people in that scene were non-actors to a certain degree, so I just said, “Why don’t you guys just hang out here,” where it was lit for, but if he didn’t even get there, then fine.

H2N: The beauty of that scene is that it is a devastating moment, but there is a woman who looks like Freddy Krueger, and there’s a candlelit birthday cake sitting on a pinball machine? For me that’s a perfect expression of David’s vision and how you guys work to bring his ideas to life. Not only does it mix drama and humor, but it was also a moment when you were letting ideas form in the moment. Like, that Freddy Krueger thing wasn’t scripted, right?

TO: There were some weird ideas in that movie. [laughter] A lot of them, honestly, we’d come up with the night before. ‘Cause that’s a very dark… I don’t know how many of you guys have seen that movie…

H2N: Snow Angels is truly sorrowful.

TO: It is a very heavy, dark movie. And David’s certainly got a sense of humor. You know, this was kind of the last movie before he started doing three comedies. I’m trying to think… some of them were just kinda dumb elements to put inside a scene that otherwise is really bleak. Some people get it, some people don’t, some people may think it’s stupid, others may really dig it. But the Freddy Krueger thing, I think came… it’s a real person, but dressing her like Freddy Krueger came the night before. [laughter] And then there was another scene, which is in the same bar, that not many people ever notice, but way back in the background, he’s at the bar and having a heavy moment, but in the background there’s like a boxer and a corner man working out, in a place where they never should.

H2N: It sounds like after this foray into overt comedy, the movie you guys are making now is straight heaviness. Would you put it on par with Snow Angels?

TO: Yes. It’s very dark also. I enjoy those movies more, ‘cause it’s a struggle to make the comedies visually interesting, in terms of the cinematography, because there is a certain expectation of what they should look like. And you’re always battling that, the commercial expectations, what the studio wants, what producers want. So it’s kind of hard to go out and photograph a scene exactly the way you want to under those circumstances. The comedies aren’t as fun as the dramas. The dramas are where a cinematographer can really help tell the story in a visual way, whether it be camera movement or especially in lighting. Lighting’s the thing that excites me the most in terms of underscoring the emotional vibe of each scene. In drama, I feel like I can do anything I want, which is great. There’s no one telling me, “That scene’s too dark,” or whatever.

AUD: This is kind of a non-sequitor, but do you have rules of thumb about eye-lines?

Year of the Dog (Mike White, 2007)

TO: This is interesting. Part of that you get a sense of after a while, when you’re looking through the lens in terms of what’s correct. At a certain point, maybe some people have a hard time figuring out the action axis, or not—you know, “this person’s looking right, this person needs to be looking left,” on what side of the line we need to be on to make this cut together. Whenever I’m blocking a scene, I’ll decide what side of the line we’re gonna be on, because that’s very important in terms of lighting. So, “I wanna be over here ‘cause this person’s looking right because I wanna light from this side.” That goes into it. But as far as specific eye-lines, what’s really interesting, I did this movie a few years ago with Mike White called Year of the Dog, and he wanted that movie to look very bland and like a documentary, in a way. He wanted it to look like, it’s a great documentary: Gates of Heaven by Errol Morris. But he also didn’t want the camera to move hardly at all, and he wanted all the eye-lines to be almost directly into the lens. So that became an exercise in eye-lines in terms of getting them close enough to the lens where it didn’t look like they were looking in the lens. It sorta looked like they were looking at the other character, but not really. So we had like these three dots that we put in the matte box, and depending on where… since all the eye-lines were so close, we had to separate them by millimeters. But what’s interesting is, depending on what lens you’re on, you can totally tell the difference between someone looking at the red dot and the blue dot, even though they are, like that [pinches fingers closely together]. I don’t know if that answers your question at all, but eye-lines to me are like you know it when you see it. That looks correct; that doesn’t look correct. That looks like they’re looking way over there. A lot of the time, the actor cannot look where the other person really was, because the eye-line would be too wide. So that’s why you move them four feet closer to the camera and then it looks actually correct.

H2N: Are you a real stickler, or are there times when you think it’s okay to cross the line?

TO: Absolutely. I think it’s completely okay, especially when you have any kind of special connection, I say who cares. If you’re just shooting two shots—this and a reverse—and no other shot, and no one else is in the shot, they have to be looking at each other. Otherwise it’s just gonna feel stupid. But I kinda like it when you don’t adhere to that rule and you break the line, I think it’s exciting in many ways.

H2N: Let’s watch the next clip. Your Highness is next. We were just in a sad bar, and now we’re in Ye Olde Times for some action.

[Unable to find a clip of the carriage chase scene online but it’s a carriage chase scene!]

H2N: So that took one day to shoot, I assume?

TO: Yeah. [laughter]

H2N: I’m assuming action sequences like that force you into storyboarding in a way that other scenes don’t?

Your Highness (David Gordon Green, 2011)

TO: Oh yeah, that was totally storyboarded. That took a week to shoot. First unit did all the stuff with the actors, and then second unit did any shot that didn’t have an actor in it but had stuntmen. That had to be meticulously storyboarded. You had to figure out when to shoot what, what rig to shoot, what piece of gear to use, that was certainly many cameras. We had a couple of carriages: one that was a shell of a carriage that was on a trailer with a technocrane so we could move all around it; then one that we kind of towed, so you could see the wheels and whatnot. You can’t go into that like, “Okay, what are we doing today?” [laughter] Not that it ever could be, really, but that was conceived as dusk originally. I said, “There’s no way we can shoot all of this and have it feel like dusk.” So there was a vague attempt to try to find as canopied a route as possible, but you just do the best you can. ‘Cause you have to shoot all day and that’s just not gonna happen.

H2N: And not just having action to contend with, but this movie has a ton of special effects. When I flew out to visit, those two days were purely technical. It felt like even more down time than on most productions. Was that type of thing fun for you because you hadn’t done it before? Or was it just grueling?

TO: Certain things are fun but ultimately it’s very tedious. Everything takes so long, it takes a lot of the joy out of it. It’s certainly a challenge. But what I still prefer is the small indie drama. It’s interesting a lot of ways, it is fun to do different stuff, but how tedious some of it is makes it a little less rewarding. I feel like that movie is crafted pretty well for what we were up against, but it wasn’t easy, that’s for sure.

AUD: I’m wondering what you did to shape or augment the sunlight in that scene? Even though they’re moving through all those trees, it stays pretty even.

TO: There wasn’t a lot I could do, honestly. I considered trying to construct some kind of silk that could live over the carriage, but there were too many shots that precluded that. We just see too much. So what we tried to do was shoot in cloud cover. And in that route there was one section that was very open, so what we would do is whenever we would get to that section, we would just wait until it was cloudy, and then we would shoot. And that was kind of the only thing I could do.

AUD: That doesn’t really work in Texas.

TO: No. It’s part of doing the best you can. That movie had a fairly long schedule and it was a decent budget, but you still have to shoot the day’s work. And you have to try to do the best you can as a cinematographer to make it all match. There were scenes in that movie… it would rain every day. Every day it rained. No matter what. And we’d be shooting scenes in the rain that had to match to what was sunny earlier and, yeah, you’d just deal with it.

H2N: And that was in Belfast.

TO: That was in Belfast.

H2N: A lotta rain there.

TO: Yeah, but you could also just count on it raining for at least an hour every day. You just had to adapt.

H2N: Let’s polish off our last clip. We’re now at Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World, and this is also a different type of scene from the one we just watched!

[Watch the first two minutes of that clip here]

Seeking A Friend For The End of the World (Lorene Scafaria, 2012)

TO: Some of that was a regular restaurant interior dialogue scene, an example of cross coverage. But as far as new technology goes, that entire scene was lit with light panels. I don’t know if you guys know what these are. They’re little LED lights, a lot of them run on just batteries, as practicals. Which is pretty great, because in terms of a leap of new technology, they’re small, they are great on power, and they’ve gotten to the point where they can look really good.

H2N: Have you been burned… well, not ‘burned,’ but, say, that Dandelion clip was conceived by you as a oner and they were able to cut it up, but have you found yourself in a position where maybe a first-time director was conceiving of lots of those shots and you found yourself overriding your own artistic instincts to protect the scene by suggesting coverage?

TO: Oh yeah. There are times when I say, “I would love to play things in one shot, but I’m gonna suggest to you that we also get this. Just in case.” And usually that ‘just in case’ is definitely in the movie, which a lot of the times it really needs to be. Although I love Bela Tarr and some of those Gus Van Sant movies, you’re not gonna get away with that all the time.

AUD: [Asks a question about what is meant by the term “make your day.”]

TO: Usually, a normal day’s twelve hours. I think most producers would like it to be done in less than twelve hours, or certainly not over that. But you need to accomplish that amount of work in that day to stay on schedule. So you have to be conscious of how much time you’re taking to set up, how much time you’re taking to light a scene, for instance. I mean, you can’t take forever. That’s why you can’t obsess over… a lot of things you just have to do very quickly. It’s like as soon as we’re off of one shot, we have to immediately get into the next. And that’s one of those things when I refer to “The Art of Compromise,” you can’t spend two hours lighting a close-up. You wouldn’t need to, for one thing, but you have to be conscious of the responsibility of bringing the day in on time and, in a way, the movie on budget. Or at least I do, because that leads to your next job. “Does that guy make his days? Is he fast? Does he do good work?” If you don’t, that’s gonna get around and you’re not gonna work that long.

AUD: Could you talk a little bit about lens choice? You’ve got a lot of different styles of film.

Tim Orr (and a light meter)

TO: Sure. It’s anamorphic and spherical. I shot several anamorphic movies, and although I really love it as a format, it comes with a lot of baggage, in terms of depth-of-field mainly. There’s a certain thought that it takes more light to shoot an anamorphic movie, and that’s partially true, only if you have to give the focus puller a stop that you’ll have anything in focus. It’s a great format for landscape movies. It’s so pretty, so beautiful. But you have to keep in mind that it’s not great for two-shots, unless the actors are on the same plane, like if you have an actor here and one here, they’re not gonna be in focus. Or, you have to go to the director on a close-up and say, “Which eye do you want in focus?” That’s a characteristic of that lens. So it’s not right for every project. Some it’s, I’d like to say a no brainer on one hand, it would really aid in the storytelling. Your Highness was anamorphic. Dandelion was anamorphic. But then spherical lenses are obviously a little faster and there’s not as much stress on the focus puller. It’s a little easier format in terms of you have a wider lens selection and you don’t have that depth-of-field problem.

What I like to do, especially now that everything’s moving digital, is I’ve just been using older lenses. Spherical lenses, but older. Like, the ones I’m using now are re-housed lenses from the ‘70s. And the previous movie I finished were 50 years old, they were like these super Baltars that were [this big]. You can’t even come close to shooting them wide open, you have to shoot them at a certain stop, but they look really awesome. And I think with digital—‘cause I don’t like to use diffusion unless I have to, ‘cause I just think it looks like diffusion—I’ll try to use older glass and then I don’t have to use diffusion. I just think it looks nicer. Whereas when it was film, I certainly liked Primos the best.

H2N: Maybe now’s a good time to discuss the transition from celluloid to digital. Of pretty much any of the cinematographers I know or have talked to, there’s a resounding feeling that the Alexa is a real revolution.

TO: It’s the best one out there, I think. I’ve never been a Red person. Alexa’s a great camera and it looks really great. All things being equal, I still prefer film. But I will say that for night work, the Alexa’s a little more liberating. Because, I mean, I’m doing things now with that camera that I would never be able to do with film. It would just be mud. In terms of being able to shoot in so low light and have it look good… I’d walk off the set and look at the monitor and the shot and say, “Okay, this looks really great,” and then I’ll just take a moment and come back and it’s like, “Good grief it’s dark. I mean, you can barely see anything.” But that camera’s so sensitive, it was a learning curve for me to get used to that, ‘cause I was used to film. Now I’m kinda used to it, so I really like it. But, no, it’s a great camera.

Now, sadly, too, when I go into a meeting, I just have to ask that question: “So, what are we shooting on?” Because that decision is usually already made. I don’t even get to participate in that anymore. “Oh, we’re shooting digital. You can choose which digital camera we use, but…” Unless the director really, really wants to fight for [film].

H2N: Have you had a director ever call you and say, “Will you come to me with this meeting so we can convince them to shoot on film?”

TO: No. [laughter] I’ve had directors really want to shoot film, but then they’re so dissuaded by the producers, or they look at the cost and see what they’re gonna have to give up. And I think it’s true to a certain degree, but I think it’s a little inflated. It’s a little sad. But I’ve come to terms with digital now. That’s all I’ve done for the last two years.

H2N: Has it changed color correcting?

Observe and Report (Jody Hill, 2009)

TO: It’s made it a little easier, honestly. It’s a little more consistent. You know, with film, scanning the film for the digital grading got a lot better, but you’d still find inconsistencies in especially day exteriors, which were a little harder. It’s a lot more consistent with these digital cameras. I’ll just add this real quick. I’m using this thing now, on this current movie, it’s called LiveGrade. It’s basically where we’re doing a primary color correction on each shot, which can carry through to the digital intermediate. And it’s just great. It’s very quick, very efficient, you just protect your raw digital negative, and then you can color it right there for dailies, in a very quick way. And it all translates to whenever you step into the DI room to finish the movie. You plug that in and the colorist’s sliders move into place and you’ve got the look that you completely set up on set, which is incredible.

AUD: A lot of AFS filmmakers are working with really low budgets—one hundred thousand, two hundred thousand dollars. If you had to go back to that, would you recommend shooting on film or digital?

TO: Now, with that budget, I would shoot on digital. It’s gotten good enough to where, depending on what camera you’re using, I just don’t think the trade-offs are worth the expense of film. Sadly, but I think there are even some small cameras, like the Canon C-300/500, actually looks really good. Digital has made a huge leap, so that’s what I would say.

AUD: Can you talk a bit more about your involvement in post? Are you there every day?

TO: No. I come in basically for just the color timing. I’ll hopefully get to see a cut of the movie, just to give my input in terms of an opinion of the cut, which sometimes happens and sometimes doesn’t. But I show up when the movie’s cut together and we’re ready to color correct it. For a while, when DI’s were first getting off the ground, it took longer, because the process was new and it wasn’t as streamlined. But now I can definitely color correct a movie in a week. I mean, Your Highness took like a month, ‘cause there were a lot of effects in that movie. But most of the time, you can do it in a week. And I just sit in a room, much like this, with a screen, and there’s a colorist with lots of expensive equipment, and we just make decisions shot by shot on color balance, et cetera.

H2N: For a DP, it seems like the colorist is as vital a relationship as with a gaffer or 1st AC.

TO: Oh yeah.

H2N: Are you in a position where you can recommend a person you want to work with and the producers will actually listen to you?

TO: I definitely have people who ask who I’d like to use. But you don’t always get that, ‘cause it’s up to bidding. “Oh, this place is cheaper, we’re gonna go with them.” “Oh, okay.”

H2N: “Thanks for asking!”

TO: Thankfully, I’ve been through that process enough now to where I know if the person can operate the controls, I know I can tell them what to do. But it’s obviously a lot better if you have somebody who is great and can do an even better job.

H2N: Has anyone in here ever been in an even somewhat professional color correcting situation? I feel like it takes about twelve seconds for me to totally lose perspective about what I’m seeing in front of me. Do you have to keep going back to the base image to keep tabs on yourself?

TO: That’s really interesting, actually. I feel like reel one’s the toughest. You’ll make decisions in reel one and then come back to it, and it’s like, “Oh my God, what were we thinking?” Usually, with me, I’m a warm-toned person. I really like to push things in a warm direction. And I would always find that you have to get your eyes right. You’re looking at it long enough and then you just kinda keep going too far and come back and look at it the next day and it’s, “That’s way too yellow!” I will say that I’ve gotten a better perspective on that now. But I also try to attack it in a different way, based on what I’ve learned from one specific colorist in general. That’s one of those things, you always learn something new. You just have to be willing and open to listening.

— Michael Tully

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Michael Tully is an award-winning writer/director whose films have garnered widespread critical acclaim, his projects having premiered at some of the most renowned film festivals across the globe. He is also the former (and founding) editor of this site. In 2006, Michael's first feature, COCAINE ANGEL, chronicling a tragic week in the life of a young drug addict, world premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film immediately solidified the director as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s "25 New Faces of Independent Film,” a reputation that was reinforced a year later when his follow-up feature, SILVER JEW, a documentary capturing the late David Berman's rare musical performances in Tel Aviv, world-premiered at SXSW and landed distribution with cult indie-music label Drag City. In 2011, Michael wrote, directed, and starred in his third feature, SEPTIEN, which debuted at the 27th annual Sundance Film Festival before being acquired by IFC Films' Sundance Selects banner. A few years later, in 2014, Michael returned to Sundance with the world premiere of his fourth feature, PING PONG SUMMER, an ‘80s set coming-of-age tale that was quickly picked up for theatrical distribution by Gravitas Ventures. In 2018, Michael wrote and directed the dread-inducing genre film DON'T LEAVE HOME, which has been described as "Get Out with Catholic guilt in the Irish countryside" (IndieWire). The film premiered at SXSW and was subsequently acquired by Cranked Up Films and Shudder.

  • Gus

    Thanks for going out of your way to transcribe and post this. These long conversations are the best part of the site to me. I’d give a similar note for your long convo with Alex Ross Perry.

    December 10, 2012
  • Gus

    Thanks for going out of your way to transcribe and post this. These long conversations are the best part of the site to me. I’d give a similar note for your long convo with Alex Ross Perry.

    December 10, 2012
  • tully

    Thank YOU for going out of your way to write this comment, Gus. These long conversations are also my favorite aspect of the site but they are indeed incredibly time consuming. But even one comment like this gives me enough of a boost to keep soldiering on!

    December 11, 2012
  • KT

    this was a pretty fantastic interview. i’ll throw that out there.

    December 13, 2012
  • Derek VG

    This is a wonderful interview, thank you so much for posting!

    April 1, 2013
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