The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents February 2015 Return to Table of Contents
Presidents Desk
Q and A with Bradford Young
Sundance 2015
Shaun the Sheep
Christmas Again
The Visit
ASC Close-Up

Christmas, Again

by Andrew Fish

Director: Charles Poekel

Cinematographer: Sean Price Williams

Christmas-tree dealers pop up all over Brooklyn just around Thanksgiving each year, furnishing the borough with Yuletide essentials. Shot on Super 16mm, Christmas, Again tells the tale of Noel (Kentucker Audley), one such wayfaring vendor who's back for another season. He's lonely, testy and depressed, trudging along in stark contrast to the most wonderful time of the year. Circumstances intervene, however, when he finds a partied-out Lydia (Hannah Gross) unconscious on a park bench and takes her back to the safety of his trailer, thus beginning a slow and unsteady flirtation that should by all rights ignite at least a little Christmas cheer. The question is whether the two can shake off their doldrums long enough to make it happen.

For his feature debut, writer/director Charles Poekel tapped cinematographer Sean Price Williams, with whom he had worked on a number of documentaries for producer/director Doug Tirola. Featured in Sundance’s Next program, Christmas, Again was captured over a 15-day shoot in 1.78:1 with an Aaton XTRprod, primarily at night in frigid conditions. The boxed-in feeling of the trailer interiors, the Christmas lights blurred to little bokeh triangles, the intimate driving scenes — which required Williams to sit on actors' laps for the one-shots — are woven together into an artful portrait of bleakness.

Williams is perhaps best known for shooting with director Alex Ross Perry on The Color Wheel and Listen Up Philip. He also shot another Sundance ’15 offering, the documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. He spoke with AC shortly after returning to the East Coast from Park City.

American Cinematographer: You had your work cut out for you, shooting all those night scenes on film.

Sean Price Williams: Charles was really set on it, and I always want to shoot on film. The newer Kodak stocks [Vision3 500T 7219 for night and 250D 7207 for day] had been kicking around for a couple of years at the time of our original tests, about four years ago, and I was excited about how flexible they were in low light. It would have been easier to shoot film in the daytime and video at night, but I just don't like that idea. The first week I thought I was pushing it a little bit, and then we got the footage back and it almost looked too lit, so we knocked out a few more lights. I'm not happy [shooting] unless I'm taking some chances, because that's what makes it all so fun when you get the prints back. Those are always the best parts, where it feels like you're probably going too far. The challenges are what made it a good choice.

So you're not someone who frets over what the dailies are going to look like?

Williams: If we’re certain something is not going to work, then we don't do it, but if there's any gray area, I'm willing to take a chance, and I won't lose sleep over it because I know it's going to be something — and something we may not have thought of on our own. You look at a video monitor [when shooting digital] and see exactly what you're getting, and in a way you're kind of limited by what's in front of you. The chemistry [of film] brings a little bit of the magic and the excitement.

What did you first envision in terms of achieving the bleak vibe of this film?

Williams: I always wanted there to be Christmas lights somewhere in the frame, if possible. And I wanted it to feel as uncomfortable as it was to actually be there. These guys [sell trees] every year, and it's just one month, but I wanted it to feel like it was going to be forever, trapped in this freezing, merciless place. The bathroom doesn't work; there's no escape. I wanted it to feel really cold and really lonely. If anything, I'm disappointed it doesn't look as cold as it actually was!

Was it difficult shooting in the small space of the trailer?

Williams: I'm pretty comfortable shooting close up, and I don't mind seeing movies full of close-ups. That seems to bother some people, but to me it's a nice thing. We have some nice faces to watch, so I didn't think twice about it. I didn't want to go wide in the trailer because I wanted to make sure it was clear how small and tight it was. It's not like Das Boot … but I guess it kind of is.

What lenses did you use?

Williams: It was a combination of Zeiss Super Speed Mark 1 and Mark 2 [prime lenses] from the late Seventies and early Eighties. [The lenses have] a nine-blade iris, but everything that's out of focus, all the bokeh, ends up looking like triangles. I wanted them to be like little Christmas trees in the background. I think it's cool looking. It's in a lot of 1980s Godard films I’d just been watching. The 85mm was our first choice, and then we'd go to the 50mm or the 35mm. For a couple of shots in the trailer, we may have gone wider than the 35mm, but for the most part, it was on longer lenses. We had a zoom, the Canon [8-64mm T2.4 Super 16] lens, but I didn't use it very often.

Did you use any filters?

Williams: I did use some diffusion. I usually go over the top with [Tiffen Black] Pro-Mist — on video, especially — and sometimes filters with nose grease. I really can't stand how harsh [digital] looks, so I'm always filtering, and sometimes when I shoot on film I tend to use too much Pro-Mist, but with this one I scaled it back. I just used [1/4 and 1/8 Black] Pro-Mist on the morning sequences to make it like when you didn't get enough sleep and your eyes are sort of blurry.

How did you go about lighting?

Williams: Inside the trailer, we had a couple of hardware-store clamp lights [fitted with 25-watt to 500-watt bulbs] coming through the window and a China ball, which I used to put a little light on faces when they’re at the table. Outside the trailer, I basically just bounced a clamp light off of a sparkly Christmas gift bag I’d found in a store down the street from the location. I wanted [the source] to be from either Christmas lights or a streetlight; that's how I would justify it. We taped [the bag] on the light stand, and it made kind of a strange reflection. Sometimes it was more red, sometimes a little more gold. I liked not knowing exactly what it would do; it was definitely giving us colored light, not flat tungsten. It was a real cheap rig [laughs].

How did you shoot the two-shots in the truck, when you obviously couldn't be in the cabin?

Williams: We had a car mount [for the camera], and I had one little light taped on the hood. I get so anxious about the way driving scenes are usually lit, so that’s always where I take some risks, too. I want real lights outside to provide as much of the light on the faces as possible, and I also want things reflecting light on the windshield, so we drove down to Grand Street because they have these nice Christmas lights over the street. That was our lighting. We had mics in the car, and Charles was lying in the bed of the truck [along with sound mixer Artem Kulakov], listening to the performances. But he couldn’t watch because there was no monitor. It's usually my least favorite day, shooting that kind of stuff. I was in a car [in front of the truck], and I would run out and start the camera, and run back to stop it. You burn a lot of film, and you don't know what you've got, exactly. I always feel bad not having the camera to my eye. I was excited to sit in the car with the camera and get the coverage.

Tell us about doing a lot with a limited budget.

Williams: It's all documentary experience, I think. On documentaries there usually aren't a whole lot of resources, so you always have to improvise lighting and improvise movement — where you're going to put yourself and then how you get from one position to another. I like to use practicals and use saliva to stick a napkin over them to soften them! Whatever you've got! I guess I've gotten good at that sort of thing. I'd like to have some more resources, though [laughs].

Where did you do the DI?

Williams: I wasn't present for the color correction because I was out of the country. [The DI was completed] at Metropolis Post, which is where I try to grade everything I shoot. Jason Crump was the colorist; I use him whenever possible. The dailies looked so great that I just told him, 'Correct it, but try to keep it looking like the dailies.' I watched [the film] for the first time at the Locarno Film Festival, and I didn't even think to look for anything I would have done differently. I just watched the movie, and I was delighted.


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