ASC William A. Fraker Heritage Awards were given to two student cinematographers, Dagmar Weaver-Madsen of the University of California-Los Angeles and Boyd Hobbs of Full Sail University, in February. (Honorable mentions were Wesley Cardino of the American Film Institute, Michal Dabal of the American Film Institute, Madeline Eberhard of Florida State University and Allen Liu of Chapman University.)
Weaver-Madsen’s winning entry, The Absence, charts the path of an upwardly mobile assistant manager in the records department of a mysterious company called Black House Securities. He is sent on a mission to a rural town, where he uncovers the truth behind Black House, and ultimately must choose between kowtowing to the messianic upper management and calling it quits.
Weaver-Madsen entered UCLA’s graduate program in film, television and digital media knowing she wanted to study cinematography. (She had already shot a comedy series on video and a short film on 16mm.) In her first year, the MFA program’s three cinematography students and 18 directing students were rotated through various crew positions over the course of multiple films; someone served as camera operator on one film, then director on another, then sound recordist on another, and so on. That way, no matter what area a student finally focuses on, he or she knows what the other departments are doing.
On her first project, Weaver-Madsen was assigned to be the cinematographer for directing student Alex DeMille, and they quickly discovered they worked well together. In their second year, she shot DeMille’s advanced project, and by the time their thesis projects were being prepped, they had already developed a tight shorthand. “We could work together almost without even talking to each other,” says Weaver-Madsen. “We’d just look at each other and know what the other person needed.”
Production on The Absence began in New York in November 2008. Weaver-Madsen spent the month leading up to the start of principal photography doing location scouts and tech scouts with DeMille. “We had terrible, freezing weather,” she recalls. “It had a beautiful, dreary look, so I was very happy for the photography, but it was hard on the crew. Luckily, we were so prepared that we were ready for any circumstance.”
Primary locations included farms in Suffolk County and Oheka Castle on Long Island’s Gold Coast. The latter “was used as Xanadu in Citizen Kane,” notes Weaver-Madsen, who defers some of the credit for her award-winning work to the Olmsted brothers’ celebrated landscape architecture at the historic estate.
The resourceful filmmakers made the most of every opportunity they were given. The script won the Deluxe Film Award, which took care of their negative-processing fees, and because Weaver-Madsen assisted Fuji with some film tests, much of the stock (Fuji Eterna Vivid 500 8547 and the since-discontinued Super F-125 8532) was provided at a discount, making it affordable to shoot 3-perf Super 35mm. The production rented an Arricam Lite and Moviecam Compact and a set of Arri Master Primes.
“The film is really about isolation, and Alex and I both worked to make sure that came across visually,” says the cinematographer. “With the lighting, stock and lens choices, we really tried to underscore how the main character begins as a stranger to the world that he is exploring; for example, we used shallow depth-of-field for the first part of the story to underscore that he is separate from that world and alone. Later, after he decides to embrace this new world, he is no longer isolated from the backgrounds, and everything becomes sharp.”
Above all, Weaver-Madsen regards her relationships with her instructors (Bill McDonald, Tom Denove and John Simmons, ASC), DeMille and crewmembers as the driving forces behind her work. Since graduating, she has maintained close ties to all of her collaborators on The Absence. “There’s a family feeling in the MFA program because it’s so small,” she explains. “It teaches you to navigate relationships and maintain communication and friendship. If you’re always open with your collaborators about what you want to accomplish, then you’ll have a very effective set.”
Hobbs’ winning entry, Loves Me Not, takes place in an abandoned apartment building in Atlanta, where a woman lives with her lover. What starts out as a seemingly ordinary day begins to spin out of control when the woman has a flashback revealing she has been kidnapped and forced into sex slavery and is experiencing symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome.
Hobbs dabbled in still photography before focusing on filmmaking as a course of study. He started at Georgia State before switching to Full Sail, which offers a 21-month production-oriented program culminating with a B.S. degree.
“It’s an extremely competitive program,” says Hobbs. “In our class, there were only three 35mm films that were picked to go into production out of about 75 students.” Directing students have to pitch their final projects to a panel of instructors, so cinematography students need to get on board with as many directors and scripts as possible to improve their chances at shooting something.
Hobbs says he was immediately comfortable working with motion-picture cameras, but the lighting aspects of cinematography were initially somewhat intimidating. “It didn’t really come naturally at first, so I challenged myself to figure it out,” he recalls. “You see pictures of sets where there are just a couple of lamps and a camera, and somehow through the lens it all looks right, and that’s what I wanted to learn: how the light comes together.”
The script for Loves Me Not, written by student directors Rebecca Hodges and Ewa Pazera, offered Hobbs a variety of opportunities to develop a personal approach to lighting. Hodges, who had a background in production design, worked closely with him on the look of the film, which Hobbs shot in Super 35mm (framing for 2.40:1) with an Arricam Lite and Zeiss Super Speeds.
“Visually it’s a dark film, but at the same time, light plays an important role,” says the cinematographer. “We wanted muted green colors that would fade into warmer yellows, and we wanted [the look] to go back-and-forth between something that’s really dark and something kind of happy. Most of the action takes place in the apartment kitchen, and we worked with [production designer] Alex Thomson and [art director] Aaron Marinel to create a single space that we could play a number of different ways.”
The kitchen set was built on the Full Sail stages and designed to facilitate the creation of distinct zones of light; the filmmakers planned to use these to suggest the characters’ wildly varying feelings. “There’s a certain kind of light on the actor when he’s in one space, and then a different kind of light when he steps into another space,” says Hobbs, who shot the kitchen scenes on Kodak Vision3 500T 5219. “Sometimes those spaces are two feet apart or visible from a different camera angle. For example, an open window offering bright light shares the same space with a moodier window crossed with narrow slats.”
Though he was tempted by the school’s array of grip and electric assets, Hobbs made an effort to keep things simple, using a 5K tungsten lamp for each window, a 2K open-face lamp in the hallway and three practicals in the kitchen, along with a pair of 650-watt Tweenies on stands that were positioned as needed. “On my previous film, I used twice as many lights on a stage half the size,” he says.
Full Sail uses Continental Film Lab in Miami for students’ final transfers. Hobbs notes, “They typically set you up with an online-supervised transfer, but I opted instead to drive down to supervise it on site. I wanted to get it perfect before it went into editing, because every student who worked on it would also edit it. I made sure everyone in my class knew it had already been color corrected.
“I’m still trying to figure out how to light with film, because I haven’t done it very much,” he continues, noting that instructors Rob Tuscani and James Neihouse have been particularly helpful in this regard. “Rob and James really pushed me to get things the way I envisioned it in my head, and take the time I needed to do it.
“Loves Me Not was a success because of the people who mentored and worked with me. I can take on any project knowing that as long as I don’t overthink or underthink it, I can pull it off with the support of my collaborators.”