The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents January 2007 Return to Table of Contents
Pan's Labyrinth
Allen Daviau, ASC
Apocalypto
Little Children
Page 2
Page 3
Page 4
DVD Playback
Production Slate
Post Focus
Short Takes
ASC Close-Up
Antonio Calvache, AEC lends a striking look to a small-town community in the emotional drama Little Children.


Frame grabs courtesy of Todd Field and New LIne Cinema
Production photography by Robert Zuckerman


After the success of his first feature, In the Bedroom (see AC Dec. ’01), director Todd Field could have chosen to change his working methods on his next project, an adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel Little Children. Yet even with a larger budget, a longer production schedule, and studio backing (courtesy of New Line Cinema), Field and his collaborators did not abandon the small-scale approach that was a necessity on In the Bedroom. “Todd wanted to shoot Little Children like we had shot In the Bedroom,” says Antonio Calvache, AEC, the director of photography on both pictures. “He wanted to keep the crew and equipment light to help make the actors feel comfortable.”

Though there are several key characters in Little Children, the story’s canvas encompasses an entire suburban community, which is examined in details both disturbing and amusing. Sarah (Kate Winslet), the stay-at-home mother of a little girl, is dissatisfied in her marriage to a marketing executive (Gregg Edelman) and has little patience for the other neighborhood moms. These women dub handsome, stay-at-home father Brad (Patrick Wilson) “The Prom King” when he shows up at the local playground with his small son. But Brad’s uncomplicated manner masks an unease similar to Sarah’s; while his documentary-filmmaker wife (Jennifer Connelly) thinks he is studying for the bar exam, he’s actually whiling away his time playing football and hanging out with Sarah at the community pool. Soon he and Sarah are engaged in torrid lovemaking sessions while the kids are down for their afternoon naps. Their reckless affair is one response to the free-floating anxiety that seems to infect the whole community. Another is the town’s extreme reaction to a registered sex offender, Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), who has returned to the neighborhood and moved in with his mother (Phyllis Somerville).

Little Children started production in July 2005, after a somewhat rushed, five-week prep period. “It felt like we had a longer prep on In the Bedroom,” says Calvache. “On that film, the locations were very close to where Todd lives in Maine, and by the time I arrived, he had already done quite a lot of research. Also, I was brought to Maine long before any of the other keys, so I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time alone with Todd. The prep for Little Children was quite different. By the time I got to New York, many departments were already up and running, so Todd and I didn’t have much time to spend away from the noise of an accelerated prep.

“I was working with an entirely new crew, and in addition, because the locations were spread throughout the five boroughs, a lot of time was spent on long commutes. Also, we found ourselves spending a good deal of energy during prep on shooting second unit and rear-projection plates that we’d need later on. So we began principal photography on Little Children with what felt like insufficient prep. What allowed us to achieve what we needed to achieve was the fact that Todd and I had already worked together, and the two of us have a very good shorthand.”

In order to qualify for New York’s city and state tax incentives, the production filmed mostly in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. (Only a tiny bit of stage work was done, primarily some rear-screen projection shots made by ASC associate member William Hansard for driving scenes.) “We pieced together our town out of the five boroughs, except for the pool, which I couldn’t find anywhere within a commutable distance of New York City,” recalls Field. “We had to go to West Orange, New Jersey, for that.”

One conceptual guide Field gave Calvache was the book Twilight, featuring the work of photographer Gregory Crewdson. “One of the central themes in Little Children is the idea of childhood extending into adulthood, so it was important that we approach the settings and the photography almost as though they were a memory,” says Field. “This village is a real place, yet it isn’t. It’s a kind of postmodern Our Town. Crewdson’s work tends to isolate moments with no past and no future. The beautiful and the strange hover over his images like a promise, but also like a threat. Although they are stills, there’s something oddly cinematic about them.”

Calvache describes Crewdson’s photos as “scenes in a traditional American small town, staged on sets, all shot at twilight. They are familiar scenes but have some kind of twisted element — for example, there will be a front yard and a nice, traditional house, but there will also be a naked woman standing in her backyard, staring at the sky. Todd had expressed in our very first meeting that he wanted to pursue a strong sense of realism with the lighting, like we did for In the Bedroom, but when I saw Crewdson’s photos, I realized Todd was after something else as well. Perhaps the day scenes would belong to the realm of realistic lighting, while the twilight and night scenes would open the door to something stylistically different. It took me a while to find that difference, and Crewdson’s book helped me a lot. The images were very sharp, very crisp, and there was always a mix of color temperatures, like yellow-orange artificial light against the cold blue of the twilight sky.”

Apart from this reference, Calvache mainly got the impression from Field that “we were going to continue the methods we’d used on In the Bedroom.” That meant, among other things, filming in Super 35mm. “In preparation for In the Bedroom, I took hundreds of photos and found myself cropping in what would be a widescreen ratio,” says Field, who is an avid photographer. “But I knew that if we were going to shoot anamorphic, we’d need a proper set of matched lenses and an AC with experience pulling focus on an anamorphic barrel, and this simply wasn’t possible with the modest budget on that film. Additionally, I tend to favor focal lengths that are only possible with spherical lenses. On Little Children, because Antonio and I had so little prep, we went with Super 35 sort of by default, because we were both comfortable with it.”

When he first arrived from Spain in 1992 to attend the American Film Institute (AFI), Calvache was accustomed to Europe’s then-standard 1.66:1 aspect ratio, but he quickly grew to love the 1.85:1 U.S. standard. “The first movie I did in widescreen was In the Bedroom, and I fell totally in love with it. Todd and I are waiting for the right project to shoot anamorphic. I tried to talk him into doing Little Children in anamorphic, but he expressed concern about the unpredictable nature of shooting with such young children.”

Among other issues, Field was concerned about balancing the frame between actors of varying heights. The amount of time the two 3-year-olds (Sadie Goldstein and Ty Simpkins) had to be on camera presented other challenges as well. “During our first meeting in Los Angeles, Todd insisted it was going to be a tough shoot, that we weren’t going to have enough time,” recalls Calvache. “I thought it wouldn’t be that bad because we had twice the time we had on In the Bedroom and a larger budget. But Todd knew better — it was a hard shoot. We had twice the time, but every day we still had to rush.” The most basic problem was that the children, who appear in almost half of the film’s scenes, could only work 6 1/2 hours per day; this meant the three-month shooting schedule was hardly luxurious. “Whenever possible, if a scene involved the children, we’d try very hard to plan ahead camera-wise and lighting-wise, in so much that when the children were brought to the set, the crew and equipment were hidden behind Duvatyn tents so that Kate and Patrick could play with them seemingly unobserved,” says Calvache. “Todd said, ‘Whenever the children are working, it will be like shooting television; we’re going to use two to three cameras and zoom lenses a lot more than we might like.’ We had to be ready to shoot at anytime, as soon as the kids woke up from their naps.”

The need to maintain that flexibility was one reason Calvache decided against using the Varicon, a variable, low-contrast flashing device he had used on In the Bedroom. “Todd wanted Little Children to have a similarly soft color palette, and I love the way the Varicon brings up the detail in the shadows, but when we discussed using it on Little Children we quickly came to the conclusion that it just wouldn’t be practical because of time constraints,” says the cinematographer. “In addition, I’m much happier with Kodak’s Vision2 film stocks, which have a more natural, neutral, desaturated color gamut.”

 

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