The recipients of this year’s ASC Heritage Award, which the Society bestows annually to a promising student cinematographer, were Lyle Vincent of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and Brian G. Melton of the North Carolina School of the Arts. Named for a different ASC member every year, the 2006 Heritage Award honored the late John A. Alonzo.
Vincent’s project, The Grey Woman, was created for NYU’s ProMotion Pictures Film Competition, which gives students an opportunity to create a short film for a sponsoring brand. Participants were challenged to create a film promoting Verizon’s broadband Internet service, and three finalists were then given $40,000 and three months to deliver a film that was no more than seven minutes long. Written and directed by Sayeeda Clarke, The Grey Woman is a magical realist tale of a lonely woman who reconnects with her lost love after her broadband connection is restored.
Vincent initially enrolled in NYU’s directing program. “I had a fine art and still-photography background, and I wanted to be a director,” he recalls. “The first year we shot a lot of exercises on black-and-white film, and my directing teacher, Boris Frumin, took notice of my work. He said, ‘You’re a cinematographer!’” Inspired by Frumin, Vincent went on to study with ASC members Sandy Sissel and Declan Quinn. “They helped me a great deal, and they both spent a lot of time with me outside of class,” he says.
To convey the main character’s transformation in The Grey Woman, Clarke wanted Camilla (Alexandra Laudo) and her apartment to be shown in black-and-white at the beginning of the film, and in color at the end. This meant a sizable chunk of the budget would have to be set aside for post, and that prodded Clark and Vincent to shoot on high-definition (HD) video. “This movie was always intended for the small screen, not a film print, and we knew [shooting on HD] would enable us to save a little money in production,” says the cinematographer. “This was very important because we shot no greenscreen, and every single frame that had a color effect was rotoscoped by hand. Another good thing about shooting HD is the footage never had to be down-converted, up-converted or transferred. We shot in HD, edited in HD and rotoscoped in HD.”
Vincent used a Panasonic VariCam in its native 16x9 aspect ratio, and he fitted the camera with a P+S Technik Pro35 Adapter so he could use PL-mounted 35mm film lenses. Using Zeiss Superspeed primes, he usually shot wide open or at a T1.4/T2 split. “I was trying to shoot everything as low as possible to achieve an organic, shallow depth of field,” he says. “We wanted to move the look of the HD more toward film.”
He avoided filtration except for a 1/8 Tiffen Black Pro-Mist for some of the more stylized lighting. “With the lens adapter you’re already co-opting the image, and using filters adds another layer of confusion,” he remarks. Concerned that stylized lighting would detract from the highly stylized black-and-white effects, the filmmakers opted for a naturalistic lighting style. “Even though it’s a fantasy, it had to be grounded,” says Vincent.
For the opening shots of Camilla walking home, the production shot in an East Village neighborhood filled with old brownstones. Vincent worked with production designer Veronica Ferré to find a street where the buildings were painted a variety of vibrant colors, and he kept the lighting simple. “We had a small Joker Bug in a China ball that we used to follow her, but after a few takes we just shot it straight. It just looked better lit with natural light.”
In a garden behind an apartment building, Camilla finds her fortune in a wishing tree and transforms into color. Vincent lit the garden with two 2.5K HMI Pars shooting through 12 ft.x12 ft. gridcloth. Two 1.2K HMI Pars with medium hot lenses were used to highlight specific areas, such as the small fountain or certain flowers. To highlight Camilla, Vincent had a 2.5K HMI Par shooting through a 6 ft.x6 ft. frame of bleached muslin immediately above the camera, and he backlit the actress with a 1.2K HMI Par to achieve a halo effect. “The lighting is moodier and more contrasty at the film’s outset, but this is the moment of Camilla’s awakening. This is when the lighting starts to become more glamorous.”
To light the apartment’s interior, Vincent shot the 2.5K HMIs through the windows and had a 1.2K HMI shooting through a tree-patterned cucoloris. 4 ft.x4 ft. wall spreaders were used to hang four-bank Kino Flos, extending the light from the window. “Even though the film was entirely set during the day, we wanted to create an intense, moody look inside her apartment,” notes Vincent.
Prior to production, Vincent used the Chroma Dumonde color chart, which was designed for the color calibration of HD cameras. “I wanted to get the most natural saturation and true-to-life colors I could get without overcranking it,” he says. “The Chroma Dumonde helped me get a very clean, stable image that gave us the most options for manipulation in post.” He set a smooth gamma curve so the images would retain a soft contrast while recording as much information as possible to tape.
Vincent edited and color-corrected The Grey Woman with Final Cut Pro. “I did two separate layers of color correction, correcting for one layer of color and then one layer of black-and-white,” he explains. “I had shot it fairly flat to get more info on tape. When I color corrected, I added contrast to make the blacks richer.”
Melton’s award-winning project, Red Autumn, is a low-key thriller about an ex-con, Rick (Mark Miller), whose brief stint as the de facto babysitter for a 6-year-old girl rekindles his long-buried desire for redemption. What he doesn’t know is that the girl, Chloe (Kate Taylor), is being used by her mother as a pawn in a drug deal intended to cause Rick’s death. “We wanted the film to be dark but not monochromatic,” says Melton, who shot the film for classmate Mohammad “Mike” Elsherif.
Melton says he and Elsherif share an appreciation for “off-kilter stories,” films by Gus Van Sant and Kar-wai Wong, and the cinematography of ASC members Harris Savides and Ed Lachman. “We have a really good working relationship,” says Melton. “I like to push him and he likes to push me, and we usually end up with something that works better than anything either of us would have thought of separately.”
Like every senior film at North Carolina, Red Autumn was given a budget of $5,000 and 4,000 ft. of whatever film stocks the filmmakers wanted. Shooting on Super 16mm, Melton used Fuji Super F-250T 8652 and Super F-250D 8662, rating them at ISO 125 and 100, respectively. “I wanted to get rid some of the grain, make the colors pop, and make the contrast look good.” Though he initially planned to shoot in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, he ended up shooting at 1.66:1 instead. “That ratio is native to Super 16mm, and there were only 1.66 guides available for our camera’s viewfinder,” he explains. “Instead of approximating with framing charts and cropping in post, we decided to make use of the full 1.66 frame.”
Elsherif and Melton liked how the combination of shallow depth of field and wide-angle lenses could accentuate the movement of actors toward and away from the camera. For instance, for a scene showing Chloe approaching Rick’s door for the first time, Melton placed the camera in the doorway; the shot begins as a wide shot of Chloe walking across the yard and ends as a close-up of her in front of the door. “There are many shots with characters approaching the camera and coming close to the lens,” notes the cinematographer. “Using wide-angle lenses and limited depth of field heightened the tension of these shots and gave them a lot of dynamic energy — but they were also difficult to focus.”
Filming with an Arri 16SR-3, Melton used three Cooke 35mm prime lenses (9.8mm, 18mm and 35mm) and a 50mm Zeiss 16mm prime; the package was rented from Cine Photo Tech in Atlanta. To reduce the depth of field he always worked at the bottom of the lens, generally shooting at T2.8; an exception was an extreme close-up of a woman’s mouth as she talks on the telephone, which he shot at T1.4. “I used as many ND filters as possible to get the aperture all the way open for that shot.”
The primary location, a house in Winston-Salem, had “all the dinginess we needed and big, bold windows,” says Melton. “I think there’s more mystery when actors go into and out of light.” He placed two Arri 2.5K HMIs gelled with Opal diffusion outside the windows and used the house’s architectural details to cut the light. “If the windows were big and tall, we’d raise the lights so the top of the window would clip them a little, or we’d have the light just coming in through a far pane.” Occasionally he brought up the overall level of the room by bouncing a 2 ft.x4 ft. Kino Flo, a 1K Molequartz Baby Baby, or a 2K Molequartz Baby Junior into a corner of the ceiling or off a white card on the floor.
The story unfolds over a day and a half, and Melton tried to play up the lighting changes as they occurred throughout the day. When it came time for night, he and his crew did a fair amount of rigging so the lighting was motivated by streetlamps. He used 2.5K and 1.2K HMIs gelled with 1/4 Plus Green. “The result was an icy turquoise instead of a deep CTB blue,” says Melton.
Melton worked with production designer Matt Frink to have lamps placed in or near the frame’s action areas. “I wanted the light to feel like it was coming from that source, so we placed the lights to key from that direction and minimized our use of fill and kickers.” To mimic interior practicals, he used small sources such as 650-watt Fresnels and 2-by Kino Flos. Occasionally he used a 100-watt Pepper or an Inky close to the camera to bring up the girl’s face.
In one scene set at the house, Chloe is outside on the front porch, under an awning, and Rick is talking to her through a window. Melton used two 1.2K HMIs in a butterfly pattern to create a backlight for the girl, and he bounced a 2.5K HMI into a large bounce card in front of the camera to bring up her face and eyes. “We didn’t have room to put lights in front of her, and we didn’t want to move her too far from the door.”
Melton graded Red Autumn using Final Cut Pro, focusing on contrast correction rather than color correction. During production, he had used a Red Enhancing Filter for the outdoor shots — the story is set in autumn, as leaves are turning — but “we didn’t get effect we were going for,” he says. “We wanted to bring out the foliage and the reds without making skin tones too red, but in post I had to reduce red saturation in the skin tones and midtone areas. I focused contrast correction, making sure the whites and the blacks were where I wanted them, especially in the night scenes. Aside from that, we had mostly achieved the saturated colors we wanted.”