“Rebel” was the official theme at Sundance this year, and the Dramatic Competition entry Obselidia fit the bill perfectly. Shot in 18 days by a novice director for less than $500,000, the film came away with the festival’s Alfred P. Sloan Prize for its scientific topicality and an Excellence in Cinematography Award for its director of photography, Zak Mulligan. “We felt that not only was the film extraordinarily beautiful, but its images perfectly captured and conveyed the essence of the story,” says Dramatic Competition juror Robert Yeoman, ASC.
Obselidia is about obsolescence not just of objects and technologies, but also of whole species. George (Michael Piccirilli), a loner librarian, is writing an encyclopedia of obsolete things. He interviews Sophie (Gaynor Howe), a silent-movie projectionist, and the vibrant young woman offers to drive him to Death Valley to interview a reclusive scientist (Frank Hoyt Taylor) about his dire forecast for the planet and its inhabitants.
Visually, “I wanted a feel that was rather nostalgic,” says director/writer Diane Bell. A voracious cineaste with particular affection for the French New Wave, Bell eschewed a contemporary approach to coverage, relying instead on wide shots and long takes — a style that paired well with the short shooting schedule. Mulligan offers, “I had [Jean-Pierre] Melville in my head because of his long takes and limited coverage.”
Bell and Mulligan considered various formats, including Super 16mm and 2-perf 35mm, before settling on digital capture and choosing the Red One. “Shooting Super 16 would have been doable, but it would have meant less coverage,” notes the cinematographer. “Diane was a first-time director, and we thought shooting film would give us less room for error.”
Mulligan brought his own Red camera (Build 17) to California, along with a small set of Zeiss ZF prime lenses. Framing for a final aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the 28mm and 50mm were his workhorses, while the 21mm was used for high-speed work. He had a 1/8 Tiffen Black Pro-Mist on the lens throughout the shoot. Noting that he uses that filtration with every digital camera, he observes, “That touch [of diffusion] rounds out the highlights just enough and rolls off that sharp [video] focus, making it look more filmic.”
Despite being a small, character-driven film, Obselidia put the Red through its paces, offering an obstacle course of extreme heat, low light and vibrations on set. The factor that concerned Mulligan the most was heat: almost half of the movie was shot in Death Valley, where temperatures soared to 115°F even in April. Furthermore, the tight schedule necessitated shooting throughout the day. Mulligan considered various ways to keep the camera cool, including ice packs and putting the camera in a cooler. “My first assistant, Jeff Nolde, was concerned that ice-packing would create condensation, so we nixed that idea,” he recalls. They decided to simply forge ahead. “We just did very basic, common-sense stuff,” says Mulligan. “We always made sure we had a flag covering the camera, and sometimes we’d put a whole tent over it.” During two days of testing and eight days of photography in Death Valley, “it never gave me problems,” he says.
The Red didn’t fare quite as well with another Death Valley challenge: bumpy roads. With budget in mind, Mulligan decided to record to the Red Drive rather than the costlier, solid-state RedRAM drive. He brought three 320GB Red Drives, some Compact Flash cards, and 4x LaCie external hard drives that were rotated with the editor. (2x LaCie drives were always on set for redundant backup.) “It’s critical to have good, professional hard drives like LaCies or G-Techs,” notes the cinematographer. “I’ve used some brand-new drives that were $100 less expensive, and they crapped out after an hour of use.”
Obselidia’s driving scenes were mostly on paved roads, but one Death Valley dirt road proved to be the Red’s undoing. “I wanted all the dust kicking up behind the car,” says Mulligan. The crew put the camera on a shock-absorbing hood mount and crossed their fingers. “It barely recorded, it dropped so many frames,” says Mulligan. They subsequently switched to CF cards, which required them to return to home base every four minutes to switch out cards.
Desert exteriors created fewer blown-out whites than Mulligan anticipated. Without a budget for big units to control the fierce sunlight, the production relied on 12'x12' and 20'x20' frames of silver lamé. But the desert provided additional assistance. “Because there aren’t a lot of plants to soak up the light, the desert gives you this big, earthy-brown bounce light that fills in everything,” says Mulligan. “It’s actually not as contrasty as you might think.”
Obselidia’s nostalgic tone comes through most beautifully in the slow-motion bicycling scenes, which were inspired by Truffaut’s Jules & Jim. These were shot at 60 fps in 2K. Mulligan cycled through the Zeiss 21mm, 28mm and 50mm lenses, but his secret weapon for the dreamy visuals was a Sears Roebuck 80-200mm zoom from the 1970s that he found in his father’s dusty camera bag. “It was built like a tank, but it wasn’t precision at all, and there was no lens coating,” he says. Its patina matched the film’s mood. “The minute the lens had any light to it, it would flare out. It would get soft and milky and look super warm, with lots of oranges and golden tones,” says Mulligan. “Diane fell in love with it.”
In low-light and nighttime situations, Mulligan exposed and lit just as he would a film camera, but refrained from pushing the Red’s ASA, which can create noise. In tungsten-lit scenes, he opted for an 80D Blue filter to correct the camera’s native 5000ºK balance. “It’s only a 1/3-stop loss of light,” he says, “and cleans it up enough that you can bring it the rest of the way in color correction without getting noise.”
Throughout filming, Mulligan toggled between Raw and Look views to assess exposure, always checking the False Color Meter, which provides a color-coded reading of IRE values. “You push a button, and the whole image comes up with crazy colors, and each one means something. A face may be all pink, and pink is your 70 IRE range,” he says. “It’s like having a spot meter on every pixel.”
Mulligan notes that the most complicated aspect of using the Red comes in postproduction, when its proprietary Redcode files are transposed to another format. “The minute you change color space, whatever your look was on set is totally negated, and you end up starting over,” says the cinematographer, who did the final color correction at Numb Robot in Burbank, Calif. “Currently, the Red look and metadata live in this world of Red-only standards. They need more partners with color-correction suites and more standardization. You need to be able to take that metadata and apply it all the way through the color-correction.” The key, he concludes, is “knowing the tool you’re working with and planning ahead.”
Obselidia was screened on HDCam at the festival.