The American Society of Cinematographers

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Cinema Verite
Page 2
Short Takes
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Cinema Verite, shot by Affonso Beato, ASC, ABC, revisits the first reality-TV series.

Unit photography by Doug Hyun, Peter Iovino and Sam Urdank, courtesy  of HBO.
They were supposed to be the perfect American family. They turned out to be anything but, and as their lives unraveled on national television, they incurred the wrath of millions of viewers who were scandalized by what they witnessed week after week. As a character in HBO’s Cinema Verite notes early in the film, “One must never let the public behind the scenes, for it is the illusion they love.”

In an age when reality TV blankets the airwaves, it might be difficult to appreciate what it was like in 1973, when the first reality series, An American Family, aired on PBS. The 12-part series, produced by WNET in New York, chronicled the lives of Patricia and Bill Loud (portrayed by Diane Lane and Tim Robbins in the new film) and their children, an upper-middle-class family living in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Cinema Verite, which premiered April 23 and will play throughout May and June, tells the behind-the-scenes story of how the groundbreaking series was made. When producer Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) chose the Louds, he didn’t know — but quickly ascertained — that the seemingly model marriage was coming apart at the seams, and that the couple’s eldest son was grappling with questions of sexual orientation.

Director of photography Affonso Beato, ASC, ABC was intrigued by the movie-within-a-movie concept and the visual possibilities it offered. “We used Super 35mm, high-definition video that was digitally manipulated to look like 16mm, Super 8mm, and clips from the original PBS series, which was shot on 16mm, and the optical universes are very different,” he says. “We differentiated the formats by aligning them with certain points of view.”

An Arricam Studio and Lite captured “the movie POV” in 3-perf Super 35mm (1.78:1), he continues. In a sense, this was the big picture. Next was the movie-within-the-movie, or the documentary. Believing that “modern Super 16 stock is so good and so grainless that it looks like 35mm,” Beato decided to shoot this material with a Panasonic AJ-HPX3700 VariCam and use the digital grade to give it the look of 16mm stock from that era. The Panasonic was referred to variously as “the documentary camera,” “the crew POV” and sometimes “the 16mm POV,” he says.

Cinema Verite jumps back and forth between what the movie camera sees and what the documentary camera sees. It was essential that the footage look substantially different so that viewers would immediately know which one they were watching. “The movie POV is composed, well-behaved, and we always used a dolly, or occasionally a crane, for that material,” says Beato. “The crew POV, on the other hand, is kind of a character in itself. We went handheld and did a lot of panning and zooming, in keeping with the style of the PBS series.”

The onscreen documentary crew carries an old Éclair, but the footage incorporated into the film was shot by documentary cinematographer Sandra Chandler, who walked onto the set after the main camera operators, Anthony Arendt and Joseph Arena, were finished; she used the same lighting setup. “Given that I would be shooting handheld, I needed a shoulder-mount camera, and the VariCam is set up ergonomically for that,” says Chandler, who had worked previously with Cinema Verite directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman. “The 3700 records to P2 cards and has the F-Rec gamma mode, which gave Affonso great latitude in post to create the 16mm look.” She kept a standard Fujinon HD ENG zoom lens on the camera.

Chandler also shot Super 8 “home movies” of the Loud family at earlier, happier stages of their lives, using a Beaulieu 4008 ZM4 borrowed from loader Christian Kessler. (Pro8mm in Burbank processed and transferred the negative.)

Finally, clips from the 1973 PBS documentary were added to the mix. Often, two different formats appear side-by-side on screen. Archival footage of the real Louds plays on one side while the actors portraying them appear on the other. At times, the actors replicate the exact movements of their real-life counterparts.

Keeping track of which format was to be used when, and what each camera would need for a given shot, could have been a nightmare. It turned out not to be, however, thanks to the meticulously organized workflow charts Beato creates on every project. “Affonso breaks down the entire [schedule] during prep and sends the charts to his crew,” says 1st AC Carlos Doerr. “He lists cameras and lenses, any special equipment, the stock we’ll need and exactly how much to order, whether any effects work is involved, and so on. Those charts always keep us one step ahead.”

Beato notes that planning ahead is a necessity these days. Tight shooting schedules mean “there’s no time to inspire yourself or change your mind on the set anymore. It used to be that the director would come to the set, plan with the cinematographer, and then the electricians would appear with their cables, all while 50 or 100 people waited. That doesn’t happen anymore.”

But when things do change on set, Beato can quickly alter his course. “Affonso has a real gift for seeing shots on the spot and executing them quickly,” says Pulcini. Though he and co-director Berman both interacted with Beato on the set, Pulcini recalls, “I spent more time with him because I deal more with the camera and the look of the film, while Shari concentrates on the actors.”

AC visited the Cinema Verite set on a cloudless, blistering-hot California morning. In the scene at hand, Pat arrives at a resort hotel to meet Gilbert for the first time. Pat, a friend and Gilbert sit down at a patio table under an umbrella. Tennis courts and a swimming pool are clearly visible in the background. The scene comprised five pages of dialogue and had to be completed before the sun crept behind the building and threw the action into shadow. Furthermore, Beato wanted the tennis courts to retain strong definition; he couldn’t just expose for the foreground and let the background go bright.

Beato had his crew put a 20'x40' softener over the table, and both Arricams were backed up as far as they could go, right against the sliding glass doors of the clubhouse. The actors were only 8'-10' away. “We had to light the actors 3 stops over what we’d normally do,” says gaffer Justin Holdsworth. “To raise the light level, we used gold and silver lamé bounces. Then, to give some shape to the faces, we brought in a 6K Par with a Chimera, moving it closer than I normally would.”

Beato kept an eye on the sun. “I was getting nervous,” he admits. “We had one shot left when the directors decided that another problem took precedence. By the time we went back to the patio to get the final shot, there was no way to match the light levels. The last shot we got wasn’t used.”

The blue skies and hard light of California serve as Cinema Verite’s predominant look. Beato describes it as “a Kodachrome dream: colorful, bright and sunny.” This typically translated into tungsten lamps gelled with ¼ Straw or CTO. There was also a much cooler “New York look” (HMIs with a bit of CTB) that was used for scenes showing Pat visiting her eldest son, Lance (Thomas Dekker), at the famed Chelsea Hotel. (The interior of the hotel was created onstage.) At the end of the movie, after An American Family has aired and the Louds find themselves the target of intense ridicule and scorn, the California look takes on a severe tone, a heavier, bluish-green hue; instead of using lens filtration to achieve this, Beato planned to create the look in the DI.

The Louds’ home figured prominently in the series, and the Cinema Verite team managed to find a house in Sherman Oaks, Calif., whose interior was almost a mirror image of the real residence. (Another location provided the front exterior.) The family tended to hang out in the living room, which looks out onto a patio, a swimming pool and the back yard, all of which are visible through a wall of sliding glass doors. “Affonso didn’t want to lose the depth of having the pool in the background while looking out from [the living room],” notes Holdsworth. “That meant balancing exposure inside for the exterior.”

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