The American Society of Cinematographers

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Let the Right One In
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Milk, shot by Harris Savides, ASC, recounts the life and death of America’s first openly gay elected official.

Unit photography by Phil Bray, SMPSP
Less than a week into production on the feature Milk, Harris Savides, ASC, and director Gus Van Sant decided the vérité style they had adopted wasn’t working and they would have to switch gears. The documentary approach certainly had made sense. Set in the 1970s, Milk charts the last eight years in the life of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), a seminal figure in the gay-rights movement, and rather than re-creating key moments from Milk’s story, Van Sant planned to insert archival footage of the actual events. The stock footage came in a variety of formats, including 16mm film, 35mm and video, and instead of manipulating them to look more alike, Van Sant wanted to build on the differences and, in a sense, make that the film’s style. “We got in touch with some really wonderful documentary cameramen who had worked during the ’60s and ’70s and were known for their vérité style, and our original idea was to [hire several] and rotate them throughout the shoot,” recalls Savides. “We told them to shoot as if they were capturing a political rally back in the day.” After watching a few days of dailies, however, Van Sant and Savides decided Milk’s story would be better served by a different approach. “It looked like we were trying too hard — it was form over content,” says Savides.

On Van Sant and Savides’ previous collaborations, Last Days (AC Aug. ’05), Gerry (AC April ’02), Elephant (AC Oct. ’03) and Finding Forrester, improvisation was a key component of the style, but the filmmakers always had aesthetic mandates in mind before production began. Hence the static camera, long takes and wide masters of Last Days, and the traveling shots and fluid camerawork in Elephant — “little rules that become a kind of thread [through] the film,” says Savides. After abandoning their documentary mandate on Milk, the duo forged ahead. “We were shooting a movie about the ’70s, so the period itself set a tone, but this was the least ‘designed’ movie I’ve shot for Gus,” says Savides. “On one hand, that was liberating; on the other, it really stressed me out.”

Savides placed a call to Will Arnot, who had operated for him on a number of projects and had recently moved to San Francisco from New York. Arnot came aboard as Milk’s A-camera/Steadicam operator, and Savides had high praise for him and the rest of the crew, who were all local hires. Arnot recalls, “Until I came aboard, the Steadicam had not been on Gus and Harris’ radar [for this movie], and we tried to use it judiciously, with no big roving shots or swooping moves. We also employed a handheld camera but attached gyros to achieve more control. Soon, we were using the Steadicam with gyros; we used two gyros bolted directly to the camera for handheld shots, and three on shots we did with the Steadicam. Sometimes we’d hard-mount the Steadicam on a platform attached to a Western dolly, an ATV or other kinds of dollies. Essentially, [that enabled us to execute] dolly shots with a Steadicam. It was very linear and very controlled — the opposite of the vérité approach.”

Milk and his partner, Scott Smith (James Franco), moved from New York to San Francisco in 1970 and settled in the Castro District, where they opened a camera shop that quickly became a Mecca for gay people. With his outgoing personality and populist views, Milk soon emerged as a leader not only in the fledgling gay-rights movement, but also in the community. After three unsuccessful runs for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Milk was elected in 1977, becoming the first openly gay elected official in America. He and another board member, Dan White (Josh Brolin), occasionally clashed over issues, and one day, White, who had tendered his resignation weeks earlier, walked into City Hall and fatally shot both Milk and popular San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber).

From the beginning, Savides planned on using older lenses, a grainy film stock and a ¼ Tiffen Black Pro-Mist filter to make the new material more closely match the archival footage that would be incorporated into the picture. “If I’d had my druthers, I would have shot whatever film stocks they were using back in those days,” he notes. He chose Kodak Vision 500T 5279 — “as close to grainy as you’re going to get today,” he says with a laugh.

In selecting lenses, Savides researched the brands cinematographers had used in the ’70s, settling on a set of Cooke Panchro prime lenses as his workhorses. He explains, “The Panchros are simple lenses that don’t have the contrast of today’s super-sharp lenses. They flare; in fact, there is a veiling throughout the whole lens, a subtle milkiness that today’s coated lenses don’t have. I like that — it beats the black up. Films from the ’70s didn’t really have great blacks, certainly not the kind of black you have in today’s stocks.” Irving Correa at Clairmont Camera in Hollywood helped assemble the lens package, which also included a set of Cooke S4 primes, a 10:1 Angenieux HR (25-250mm) zoom and a 20:1 Angenieux (40mm-800mm) zoom. (The latter was reserved for a key shot that shows Milk and Smith kissing on the sidewalk before zooming out to a wide reveal of the Castro neighborhood.)

Milk was shot in 3-perf Super 1.85:1 mainly with the Arricam system, but for some material, the filmmakers used a pair of 16mm Canon Scoopics they had located online. Featuring a fixed lens and automatic exposure, and able to accommodate a 100' load, the Scoopic proved perfect for a sequence in which Milk and Smith drive from New York to San Francisco. Driving along the peninsula south of San Francisco, Penn and Franco shot this footage themselves, and 1st AC Patrick McArdle rode along in the back seat. “Sean and James were completely in character and having a great time with the camera,” recalls McArdle. “Whenever they ran out of film, they’d pass the camera back to me so I could reload it and hand them the other camera. We went through 19 or 20 loads like that.”

When the film’s documentary strategy was shelved, Savides had to reassess not only the shooting style but also his lighting design. He had planned a rougher lighting style that would mesh with the vérité approach, and he decided it was still appropriate. “My intention wasn’t really to light that much, but to make it feel as if you were really in the situations, which frequently means using imperfect light.” The lighting equipment came from DTC Grip and Electric, a company owned by gaffer Steve Condiotti. He and Savides shied away from Fresnels and instead employed an array of older lighting instruments such as Lowel K5s, 2K Scoops, China balls and open-faced incandescent lights, all of which helped evoke the period. In addition, production designer Bill Groom acquired some period fluorescents that were used as practicals in the camera store.

Almost half of Milk comprises scenes set at Castro Camera and in Milk’s apartment. Remarkably, the shop used in the film was the actual store Milk owned; in the intervening years, it had become a gift shop. The art department studied photographs of the shop in its heyday, and the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk also proved a great reference that gave the entire crew a feel for Milk and the atmosphere of San Francisco in that era.

The entire storefront of Castro Camera was glass, so passersby on the sidewalk could see all the activity inside the shop. The ceilings were high, allowing best-boy electric John Lacy and rigging gaffer Jeff Gilliam to build an overhead grid and hang fluorescents low enough to use as practicals. These units comprised 16 4-footers, each containing four 4' tubes. The tubes were switched out depending on whether it was night or day. Additional lights were used as needed (Kino Flos were added at night), often through 1000H diffusion. Teasers were hung to keep light off the walls.


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