The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents September 2006 Return to Table of Contents
Black Dahlia
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Page 2
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The story of this movie was too strong to rely entirely on post, and we didn’t have the budget to allow that. I wanted to achieve what I could in camera and just lightly color correct in post, like I usually do for film.

My lighting plan was to light the characters and the locations with harsh backlight or side light. I overexposed the highlights and filled the subject just a little bit when needed. Often the backlight became an overexposed key light, which many times I used to blow out windows. I noticed that in order to light HD, it is better to start with the backlight, where you can have more definition.

I told my gaffer, Nicola Guarneri, that I wanted to push the limits and explore HD’s capabilities. Because of the budget, we shot the film in 30 days, and our bigger lighting units were 4Ks and 6Ks. I tried to use them as a one source and cutting that light. I also used many gels like Yellow 764 to cover an unbleached muslin, through which I’d aim a light to get an antique color palette.

The quality of light was also very important for me. I asked my gaffer to mix the color temperature of the light. I discovered that what I defined as “magic colors” — plus green, deep amber, chocolate, Oklahoma yellow gels — gave a special edge to the light when used in the HD format.

We started to shoot in November where the weather in New York is cloudy. Mostly, I didn’t have to deal with highlights blowing out. On one exterior day scene I wanted to give an old, yellow feeling to the look. I came up with an idea to cover the bleached muslin with Lee 767 Oklahoma yellow gels and bounced an HMI to give the two actors, Jason and Nicole, a side key light with an almost 1950s golden color.

One of the most beautiful scenes in the film is when Nicole and Jason walk on the dock in Brooklyn Heights. It is a moment where the two characters find themselves very close to each other because of the situation surrounding them. It had rained all day, and finally by sunset we arrived on the location. We wanted to capture the magic moment while the sun started to go down. We were almost loosing the colors, and I decided to leave the two lovers in silhouette and enhance the sunset hue in the background with a Sunset Grad N3. Understandably, the director was nervous because he wanted to see the talent’s faces. But when he saw the monitor, he understood what I was trying to do and said, “Sometimes you don’t need to see clear in the face to show feelings.”

Another amazing scene in the film is when we were shooting in a loft in Dumbo, Brooklyn. It was an emotional moment for Jason and Natasha. The day after a party, they discovered a tape where people were murdered. The two actors step into a loft with a huge window where the daylight was coming through. I decided to gel the window to see the fantastic landscape in the background. I soon realized that we didn’t have enough neutral density to cover the window, so we put up different colored gels. The scene came out beautiful.

I discovered many new tricks throughout this film. The budget was very low, so I suggested to co-producer Ged Dickersin that he hire an engineer (Othmar Dickbauer) only for eight days. I was able to work without a full-time engineer and have him only on the days we needed. I explained to Othmar a look that I wanted for the scenes, and I showed him some pictures that I took in the past and manipulated in Photoshop as references. I also showed Othmar the paintings that I showed to the director and producer. and instructed him to create color saturation and contrast on the monitor just like the canvas paintings. I had him push the limits with highlights and crushing blacks. Many times he warned me that on the vectorscope the images were “pushing too much.” But I looked at the HD monitor and liked it. Even if technically the image did not work, creatively it worked, and I took all responsibility for it. This experience made me explore the format further. Othmar showed me how to use the tools so that when he was not there, I could manage the paint box myself.

Many people asked me if I would shoot a film in HD again. My answer is yes. I think that we can’t compare the formats; we just have to choose creatively the right format that could better translate the story to a film. Many times the decision of shooting in HD is dictated by the budget, and budget is always a concern that a cinematographer should take into consideration to help the producer make the right choice for the right format to express a vision.

Everybody worked very hard on this film. The schedule was tight, and we had many locations. The producers did a great job of keeping the show together while still allowing for creativity on a limited budget. I wanted to credit gaffer Nicola Guarneri, 1st AC Ronan Killenn, producers Ed Gregory and Ged Dickersin, producer and writer Morgan Pheme, director and writer Dylan Bank, production designer Rodney Allen Trice, HD engineer Othmar Dickbauer, and key grips Mike Yetter and Marshall Macomber.


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