The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl

A unique Panavision lens and the Red Epic help cinematographer Brandon Trost create an intimate perspective.

Unit photography by Sam Emerson, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.


Set in San Francisco in the 1970s, The Diary of a Teenage Girl focuses on Minnie (Bel Powley), a 15-year-old girl whose developing interests include Iggy Pop, comic books, and sex with her mother’s boyfriend (played by Alexander Skarsgård). Director Marielle Heller spent years adapting Phoebe Gloeckner’s eponymous novel, first as a stage play, and then as a screenplay at the Sundance Labs. In the meantime, Heller met cinematographer Brandon Trost while he was shooting MacGruber for her husband, Jorma Taccone. “You could say I got the gig by being a friend of the family,” says Trost, whose recent credits include the comedies This is the End and The Interview. “I was really happy for the opportunity because Diary is a different genre for me — more dramatic. Also, I think it’s a fresh take on the coming-of-age story.”

For his work on the picture, Trost won a Special Jury Award for Excellence in Cinematography at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. He spoke to AC about the project shortly before its U.S. theatrical release. Here are highlights from the conversation:

American Cinematographer: What did you and Marielle discuss in terms of the look and feel of the film?

Brandon Trost: Mari definitely had ideas about how it should look, but she knew more about how it should feel. I love those kinds of conversations because it leaves room for so much creativity. We agreed the movie should feel like you’re flipping through a photo album of old Polaroids — the color palette, the way it faded, the softness of it. I’m really proud of what we achieved because when you make a period movie, everything costs money, and indie budgets are so limited these days. We also knew this would be an intimate movie, that most of the scenes would take place in small rooms, and that we were going to be close to Minnie the entire time.

This was Heller’s film-directing debut, and first-timers often bring a fresh perspective to the process. Was that was the case with this film?

Trost: Mari definitely relied on me when it came to the camera because she’s very performance-driven — she’s a professional actress. What she brought to the table was a fresh perspective on working with the actors, and that informed my approach to filming them. She was incredibly capable and confident in all of her decisions, and I would strive to help improve them or give her the best version of what she wanted. We had an extremely collaborative relationship, and that’s all I hope for when I work with any director.

Tell us how you achieved the old Polaroid look.

Trost: I shot with a Red Epic. Mari saw the whole movie as handheld, like the camera is a friend in the room with Minnie, so I wanted a camera that wouldn’t break my back and would also give me a really great image. Anamorphic is my favorite format to shoot, and I like older lenses for their softness and character. Guy McVicker is the optics manager at Panavision Hollywood, and every time I prep a film there, I ask him to pull something I haven’t seen before. This time he brought out an old 55mm close-focus lens, a MAP55. You can focus it to something like 10 inches away from the film plane. We put it on a camera and framed up a friend who was helping me test, and as soon as the focus snapped in, I knew that was the look of the movie. When you’re in a close-up, it throws the background so far out of focus that it becomes a mess, but in a really interesting way. At close focus, the lens distorts the face in a way that adds a kind of roundness. I showed it to Mari, and she thought it was perfect. Ultimately, I used that lens for 80 percent of the movie. I shot the rest with a mix of C-Series, E-Series and G-Series anamorphics.

Most of our close-ups of Minnie were shot 18 inches from her face; you can literally see it in her eyes when she’s working out her problems. I tried to keep the camera at her height as much as possible, and most of the time I used an EasyRig, which allowed me to position the camera on whatever level she was at.

Were there any challenges to using such a unique lens so much?

Trost: It’s a hard lens to work with. It flares like hell. It’s difficult to get super sharp. You have to watch the monitor to really get spot-on. My focus puller, Markus Mentzer, did an amazing job of working with it. It’s a T2.5, but we had to set it to at least a T2.8 for it to resolve. At wide open, it was too difficult to latch onto anything optically. It was definitely better closed down to a T4 or T5.6, but I like anamorphic lenses at wider T-stops because the image feels more flawed; the focus falls off at the corners of the frame when it’s not all sharp. I guess you could say it has more texture. I’m always scrambling to get more texture into the digital image!

Let’s talk about the challenges of making period films on an indie budget.

Trost: The main challenge is always the scope you want to give the story versus what you can afford to put in front of the camera. This was another great thing about shooting anamorphic: shallow depth of field. This is a period piece, and we thought it would be a shame to not shoot outside in such a pretty city as San Francisco because of fears about modern signage, cars, et cetera. So, in a lot of the exterior scenes, you see the city in the background, but because of the shallow depth of field, you can’t tell the difference between 1974 and 2014.  

In the past, you’ve used a high camera ISO to introduce more texture into the digital image. Did you do that on this film as well?

Trost: I shot the whole film at ISO 2,000, which helped tear up the image a little bit. It also gave me a little more detail in the shadows when we were doing nighttime scenes; I shot some of those scenes at ISO 3,200 just to make sure I could really see into the dark.

What resolution did you capture?

Trost: We shot 5K raw and finished the film at 2K. In the DI, Tom Poole at Company 3 in New York dialed in a super-low-contrast look, which was kind of nerve-wracking for me at first because it went against everything I know about traditional photography. But it was so perfect for the movie that we just dove in. It helped take away the digital edge, and because it was such a flat look, we ended up getting a lot of detail in the highlights, which preserved the analog look we wanted.

Did you take a period-specific approach to lighting?

Trost: To give the actors as much freedom as possible, I tried to stay small and keep lights far away unless I needed something specific. With blocking, I sometimes made a suggestion here or there, but usually the actors would come in and work out the scene, and that’s what we would shoot.

Did you shoot on location or on stages?

Trost: We were on location for the whole shoot. Minnie’s house was in the Lower Haight. A lot of scenes didn’t specify time of day, so almost all the light you see coming in the windows in the living room just happened to be whatever light was coming into the room at that time of day.


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