The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Da Vinci Code
Prairie Home
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DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
A Prairie Home Companion, shot by Ed Lachman, ASC, lends cinematic imagery to Garrison Keillor’s beloved variety show.

Unit photography by Melind Sue Gordon, SMPSP
Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion has been a staple of National Public Radio for decades, but the folksy, tongue-in-cheek program appeared to defy easy adaptation to the big screen. Of course, this is just the kind of challenge director Robert Altman has always sought. Now in his 80s, Altman continues to see filmmaking as a way to explore new artistic terrain.  

Shot by Ed Lachman, ASC, Prairie is set in the near future, when the show, Keillor’s troupe and their home, the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, are about to be shut down for good by a bean-counting businessman (Tommy Lee Jones). Based on a screenplay by Keillor, the plot also incorporates behind-the-scenes intrigue overseen by Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), as well as a story arc about a visiting angel (Virginia Madsen) that only some characters can see. “It’s like a variety show,” Altman declares. “You never know what’s coming next, and it’s got some star attractions. Just watching Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin sing their numbers is worth the price of admission!”  

Lachman previously worked with Altman on the final sequences of Dr. T and the Women and on some commercials for Revlon. The cinematographer was not familiar with Keillor’s work when he signed onto Prairie. “I knew him as a Will Rogers kind of guy, sort of folksy, and then I saw him perform at the Hollywood Bowl,” recalls Lachman. “After that I listened to several radio shows and found them to be sharp and very timely.” As he immersed himself in the world of Keillor’s script and began filtering it through Altman’s sensibilities, Lachman began forming ideas that would be the basis of his visual approach.  

For his part, Keillor claims that despite creating Prairie’s world on the radio for decades, he went into the film production with no preconceived notions about what that world looked like. He notes, “I don’t evoke pictures when I’m on the air, my audience does. Part of the secret of telling stories on radio is that you don’t exactly describe [everything]. You provide some interior voice and a few visual clues so people can make their own visual pictures.”  

This meant the filmmakers had considerable leeway in formulating a visual style, even though they were treading upon Keillor’s creative ground. This freedom was abetted by the fact that Altman likes to be surprised, according to Lachman. “Bob cares about the ideas behind the images, but he also encourages everyone to improvise and experiment,” says the cinematographer. “Before many takes, he’d say, ‘Let’s boogie!’ I welcome that [freedom], but I also look for my own structure to work within.”  

For Lachman, that structure arose from the contrast between the businessman’s cold, impersonal attitude and the creative camaraderie shared by the Prairie troupe. In an abstract way, this sense of different values led Lachman to contemplate the paintings of mid-century artists Reginald Marsh, George Bellows and Edward Hopper, whose canvases evoke a sense of isolation and loneliness in everyday settings. These works inspired him to pursue a palette of rich greens and reds amid areas of deep shadow. Lachman notes that his goal wasn’t to create obvious references to specific paintings — although the film does include an overt homage to Hopper’s famous Nighthawks — but rather to use the paintings’ emotional tones as a starting point for his work.  

For example, the performers’ dressing rooms, located beneath the stage, were designed and lit to have the same kinds of contrast as the paintings that inspired them: warm colors against cool within a surrounding darkness. “Those rooms have some fluorescent lights that gave us green and practical tungsten bulbs that went warm,” explains Lachman. “From the very first scene, which shows Guy Noir at a lonely diner, I made use of the interplay between strong reds, yellows and greens. It’s a look I wanted to set up from the very beginning and carry through the entire film.”  

Lachman shot Prairie on high-definition (HD) video using three Sony HDW-F900/3 cameras. All of the bodies were cabled via fiber to digital-imaging technician Ryan Sheridan’s workstation, where the HD-SDI signal from each camera was recorded to HD SRW-1 decks. Though the 4:2:2 signal could not take advantage of the SR format’s 4:4:4 capability, it could remain 10-bit linear rather than being compressed to 8-bit, the standard for recording in the HDCam format. This was the primary reason for the SR decks, explains Sheridan. “Because the 10-bit signal has less compression, we could manipulate it more on set or during post without getting noise in the blacks,” he says. “HDCam can get noisy fast, especially when you’re doing a [2.40:1] center cut and blowing it up for [theatrical] release.”  

Sony’s HDC-F950 could have captured an even more robust 4:4:4 signal, but it was considerably more expensive to rent. During prep, Lachman tested it alongside the F900; footage from each model went through digital color correction and was recorded out to 35mm. “There isn’t a significant difference [in image quality] with the 4:4:4 camera, unless you’re doing bluescreen work or plan to dramatically alter the colors in post,” he reports.  

Everything went through Sheridan’s station on set, where he had Sony MSU 750 controllers at his fingertips. “We could adjust the settings for gamma, black gamma, iris and contrast,” explains Sheridan. “We left our blacks up a little bit to keep more information there than we would have if it weren’t going out to film. When you’re planning to do a filmout, it’s important to maintain that control and leave more detail in the blacks than you ultimately want to see in the final product.”  

For Lachman, who had never worked with HD before, the big question was how much he would need to adjust his usual methods to get the look he wanted from the digital format. As evidenced by his work on such films as Far From Heaven (see AC Dec. ’02), Erin Brockovich and The Virgin Suicides, Lachman has spent years shooting with various negatives and using gels to establish color contrast in a scene; he generally prefers to significantly overexpose his negative and then print it down to heighten color and contrast. For Prairie, he had to determine how to translate his methods to HD.  

Testing the HD cameras gave him a firsthand look at the medium’s well-known difficulty with maintaining detail in highlights and impressive ability to hold detail in shadows. “It was a lot like 30 years ago, when I started out shooting Ektachrome and Kodachrome stocks,” says Lachman. “I had to expose for highlights rather than shadow detail. The camera is very good with shadow detail, but it doesn’t like highlights or even mid-tones very much in certain lighting and color palettes.”  

In addition to working with the camera’s settings, Lachman notes that it’s important to apply look-up tables (LUTs) to the image data before it’s transmitted to the monitors. That whole path must be spot-on, and the monitors perfectly calibrated, in order for the monitors to serve as an accurate visual reference. So although the HD monitors helped Lachman confirm what kind of exposure, color and contrast he was getting at a given point, he still used his spot meter to analyze his lighting ratios; he believed the meter provided a more accurate measure than the monitors. “When you work in HD, you’re only as good as the technicians you’re working with, and Ryan was very good,” says Lachman. “He helped the production immensely, but I still might not know exactly what he was doing in different lighting situations from day to day. My spot meter gave me something I knew I could go back to day after day.”  

Once Lachman and Sheridan worked out some basic settings on the F900, Lachman decided to “rate” the camera’s sensors at EI 500-1000 because he liked the look he got by putting more picture information in the shadow areas. “The highlights would start to burn out with 1 1/2 stops of overexposure and would hold shadow detail at 2 1/2 or even 3 stops under,” says the cinematographer. “I used that as a range so I could be consistent every day without relying upon the monitor. My gaffer, John DeBlau, would laugh when he saw me with my light meter and say, ‘Why not use the monitor? What you see is what you get.’ But I wasn’t convinced that was always true.”

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