There is one thing we all learn as cinematographers: rarely does a project have an adequate budget, at least when it comes to camera, grip, electric and color grading. Whether the budget is $500 or $500,000,000, you’ll probably never hear a producer say, “Sure, you can have everything and everybody you need.”
Low-budget independent filmmaking starts with that premise. Everyone involved knows that what you’re trying to achieve is overly ambitious to the point of wishful thinking. We’ve all been there. You read a script you really like and think, “I’ll give my all for this one.” And from that point on, you’ll do practically anything to make the film look as good as the script reads.
I met Herschel Faber shortly after reading his screenplay for Cavemen, a “bromantic comedy” that appeared on Hollywood’s Black List. It read like an updated version of the 1996 indie hit Swingers, a film I love. I liked both Herschel and the script, so I decided to throw myself down the rabbit hole, knowing it would be an 18-day shoot with a very modest budget. I did not want the film to look typically “indie,” but hoped to instead lend it some of the production value we ascribe to films with much bigger budgets. In the romantic-comedy genre, it’s all about making the actors look their best.
When shooting quickly, you have to accept that you will not get all the control you would like, and you often make compromises that can be addressed in post. The primary difference between shooting on the Canon 5D in H.264 and an Arri Alexa in ArriRaw comes down to flexibility in post. Given time to exercise the proper care, a cinematographer can make a shot on a 5D with a domestic-quality lens look fantastic, even on the big screen. But if you are rushed and shooting with a 5D, the camera’s lack of flexibility in post becomes its Achilles’ heel. Problems arise not with individual shots, but with how those shots work as a sequence. From experience, I knew that an Alexa recording in ArriRaw would be data intensive, so when it came to color grading, I could make the images match from shot-to-shot and have the best chance at maintaining control of skin tones. Therein lies the paradox: Cameras with greater latitude are more forgiving, more flexible and ideal when you need to shoot quickly, but they are far more expensive than most indie budgets will allow.
Every cinematographer needs allies, and Rufus Burnham of The Camera House in Los Angeles is one of mine. I had a big favor to ask. I knew they had recently acquired a set of Kowa anamorphic lenses, and I wanted to test them for Cavemen. Pete Berglund, an experienced first assistant who was working for Rufus at the time, helped me do a quick test of the Kowas on an Alexa. We agreed that if I were to use them, I should maintain a minimum shooting stop of around T4?. At wider apertures, the lenses rapidly fell off in contrast, and the anamorphic flares washed the image out and became a bit unpredictable. At T4?, all four lenses (40mm, 50mm, 75mm and 100mm) looked pretty good. I also wanted to give my first AC, Chris Keth, a fighting chance of keeping our actors in sharp focus.
I knew anamorphic flares would contribute to the look of the film, but that wasn’t the primary reason I wanted to shoot anamorphic; I wanted to squeeze every last drop out of the Alexa sensor, yet still work in widescreen. Cavemen is set largely at night. The main interior is the “cave” where the protagonists live, a windowless bunker lit with small practicals. The exteriors are predominately night scenes shot in downtown Los Angeles, which is not an especially well-lit area. We also had a sequence to shoot in the subway. Low-light sensitivity was going to be a concern. My plan was to shoot with an Alexa Studio, fill the entire 4:3 sensor with the anamorphic lenses, and then push the EI as far as I could. The rationale boiled down to: the more pixels, the less noise, the higher EI I could get away with, and the less supplemental light I would need.
Fortunately, Rufus agreed to supply us with both the Kowas and the Alexa Studio. We received another great favor from Stephan Ukas-Bradley, who works for Arri’s Burbank office. With Stephan’s help, we secured a Codex Onboard S recorder, which enabled us to shoot in ArriRaw.
A week before commencing principal cinematography, I shot some night-exterior tests in downtown L.A. with Chris Keth and 2nd AC Vanessa Ward. I wanted to find out where the line was between the highest sensitivity we could use and the most acceptable level of picture noise we could get away with. I also wanted to test some new Digicon filters from Schneider Optics. Herschel and I didn’t want our locations to look grainy or gritty; we wanted to lend them a little glamour.
We viewed these tests via a Christie 4K projector, and the results were astonishing. After applying a Rec 709 LUT to the ArriRaw files, bringing the exposure down a little and adding a touch of additional noise reduction, I felt confident we could push the Alexa from its native 800 EI to 2,600 EI, producing controllable noise levels while maintaining good skin tones. The ?Digicon filter helped lift the shadow detail without making it feel at all muddy. In general, we stuck with our T4? minimum stop, but we broke the rule a few times when I thought the situation warranted it. For interior scenes, we kept the Digicon ?but returned to the native 800 EI.
Our approach to lighting exterior scenes was to control the ambient light in the foregrounds, replacing it with our own sources, and let the backgrounds look after themselves — mainly because we didn’t have a hope in hell of controlling the backgrounds. Key grip Justin Lesch used flags and butterflies to kill streetlight pollution, while gaffer Jose Aguire lit the foregrounds to the 9 footcandles we needed to produce good skin tones. Not having to use powerful light sources opened up some interesting possibilities. In fact, working with a high EI completely changed our lighting approach. At 2,600 EI, you can get a decent exposure from just about anything that emits light; the challenge becomes controlling light pollution and working your keylight into the exposures you need for the background.
In my still photography, I’ve used 7' Octadome soft boxes made by Photoflex. With a grid attached, the light is both cosmetic and controllable. I’d used them with photographic strobes, so I called Photoflex and talked to Nadine Frush about continuous-light options. Her recommendation was a Constellation 3, which allows three E39 bulbs to be used together inside each Octadome. (Photoflex has since released the Northstar, a 100-watt LED fixture that we would have used if it had been available.)
For our night exteriors, we used a mix of 150-watt and 75-watt Maxi Daylight 5,500K CFL bulbs and 17-watt domestic Phillips LED bulbs rated at 2,700K. Using car batteries and inverters, Jose could power up a 7' Octadome with LED or CFL bulbs and place it anywhere within minutes without having to run additional power. This enabled us to move quickly on locations that would ordinarily be more complicated to light.
For our interiors, we used the Octadome with Phillips LED bulbs or a 1K tungsten bulb, supplementing the practical lamps and China balls used as part of the set dressing. We used very little conventional film lighting apart from the occasional Source Four Leko or 4' 4-bank Kino Flo.