The American Society of Cinematographers

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JasonBourne
SwissArmyMan
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Swiss Army Man - Directing
Life
ASC Close-Up
Body Language

Cinematographer Larkin Seiple infuses outlandish scenarios with raw beauty and vibrant color for Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man.



Unit photography by Joyce Kim, courtesy of A24. Additional photos courtesy of Larkin Seiple.


Stranded on a deserted island and about to do himself in, Hank (Paul Dano) spots a body (Daniel Radcliffe) that’s washed up on shore. Upon investigation, Hank discovers that the corpse’s unremitting gas can propel it through the water and, when properly harnessed, allow Hank to leave the island astride the cadaver. Back on dry land, the ostensibly deceased man — whom Hank dubs Manny — begins to show signs of life, and progressively reveals that the parts and functions of his decaying carcass in fact comprise a treasure trove of survival tools.

      Beneath its sophomoric surface, the crude, chimeric comedy Swiss Army Man — which won the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award at last February’s Sundance Film Festival — is a visually striking film about love, friendship, secrets and loneliness. “What is home?” asks Manny. “What is life?” With an abject lack of memories, Manny absorbs all that his socially awkward companion has to teach as the two journey through verdant vistas, musing upon humanity’s fixation on isolation and shame.

      Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as “Daniels,” Swiss Army Man was shot by Larkin Seiple. Graduates of Emerson College, the three have been working together since 2011 on such projects as the decidedly strange short film Interesting Ball and the surreal, frenzied music video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What.”

      “The initial thesis [of Swiss Army Man] was, ‘What if we made a movie that had the stupidest premise ever, and made it the most beautiful thing we possibly could?’” Scheinert says. “We wanted this to be a celebration of beauty and life, and meanwhile the content would be constantly subversive, weird and unpredictable. We gave Larkin that open-ended assignment, and that led to our concerted effort to location-scout more intensely than we ever had before, and get the nicest lenses we’d ever shot on.”

      “I had a lot of questions,” Seiple recalls of his first look at the Swiss Army Man script. “How were we going to make it believable? How would we make this relationship work between a man and a corpse? My first inclination was to fight against the absurdity of the film by grounding it in a stark environment, using hard sunlight and desaturating most of the colors so it wouldn’t lean toward fantasy. But as the project evolved, we instead focused on supporting the absurdity of the visuals and structuring them around the emotional journey of the film. We started bleak and minimalist, with flat and locked-off camera angles and very blunt framing — and then, as the story unfolds and Manny comes to life, we introduced more dramatic dolly pushes, whip-pans and handheld. The scenes soon become lit with rich amber fires, moonlight and flares.

      “Ultimately, the approach to avoid the feeling of a slapstick comedy was to let it be raw and underexpose it,” Seiple continues, “and to shoot anamorphic to break it up and give it a texture. We love the work [cinematographer] Tim Orr did on All the Real Girls [AC April ’03]; there’s a beautiful naturalism with anamorphic lenses. For the more fantastical sequences, we referenced the vibrant colors and dynamic camera movement of Dean Cundey [ASC] on earlier Spielberg films like Hook [AC Dec. ’91] or Jurassic Park [AC June ’93].”

      Swiss Army Man was shot primarily with an Arri Alexa XT, which was set to 4:3 sensor mode and recorded ArriRaw to Codex XR Capture Drives for a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. The XT was most often fitted with Cooke Anamorphic/i prime lenses; Seiple preferred a 50mm focal length, and 75mm for close-ups. “On anamorphic, 50mm is great because it’s intimate but wide at the same time. Especially shooting in the forest, you want to be able to see the environment and really take in where you are. Even on the close-up work, we wanted the backgrounds to be visible, as opposed to a longer-lens, dramatic ‘doc’ vibe. We tried to stay around T2.8. It helped with edge sharpness on the Cooke anamorphics, but still kept some of the beautiful aberrations. That didn’t make it easy on first AC Matthew Sanderson, as 2.8 on anamorphic is quite shallow.” Cameras were provided by Eastside Camera Services.

      The production limited lens filtration to Mitomo True NDs, which are Seiple’s “preferred choice,” he says. “When you stack most ND [filters], they tend to shift magenta or green, but True NDs shift the color cooler or warmer if you stack them, which is much easier to correct.”

      Shooting on a tight schedule predominantly on practical forest locations, the filmmakers had little time for lighting. “The plan was to try to control it to a degree,” Seiple says. “The entire scout was overcast, which was completely workable, but by the time we started shooting, we had beautiful, vibrant sun every day. Trying to control that would have slowed us down too much, so we just picked our angles and went for it. We had several [Arri] M90s, but by the end of week one we decided to dispense with them for the most part and try to time it out so everything was backlit — and if the sun went away, it wasn’t the end of the world. We tried to add negative fill when we could, or an eye light for crucial moments, but the pace was so breakneck that we tended to embrace the locations we chose. The movie was shot almost entirely with natural light.”

      “I did not appreciate enough, until we started shooting, just how important scheduling weather would be,” Scheinert notes with a laugh, “but Larkin did. He worked with our first AD [Jesse Fleece] intensely, scheduling and rescheduling each day — because he knew that his main light source was out of his control — and that paid off a lot.”

      With inherently variable light from scene to scene and even shot to shot, Company 3 colorist Sofie Friis Borup’s assistance in post was another essential element in maintaining lighting continuity. Borup offers, “When the sun hits a face and in the next shot the face is in shadow, we had to bring the shadow up a bit and the sun spot down, and make it as consistent as possible.”

      “Sofie is an amazing colorist,” Seiple enthuses. “We spent ages coloring this movie because of all the visual effects that had to be dropped into it. We colored three times [at Company 3’s New York facility], and then she flew out to L.A. twice. It was this hopscotch of a coloring session that [proceeded periodically] over the course of a month.”

      Day exteriors were captured at 1600 ISO to provide latitude in the highlights. In that way, Seiple explains, “you have 8 stops above exposure and 5 stops below, which helped us out a lot. For the night work, we went back to 800 [ISO], as I tend to expose night scenes quite dark but wanted the latitude to print up, which we did end up doing. I could [expose normally] but know that I still had information there for the worst-case scenario.”

 

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