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“I Wanted the Film to Have the Tactile Feel of the Vinyl Sound”: DP Eric Lin ON Hearts Beat Loud

Hearts Beat Loud

Director Brett Haley arrives at Sundance for a second year with a new dramatic feature. In 2017 Haley premiered The Hero, which went on to earn more than $4 million in the U.S. box office. He returns to Park City this year with Heart Beat Loud, a music-driven drama set in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The film stars Nick Offerman as a single dad who bonds with his daughter (Kiersey Clemons) through their shared love of playing music. DP Eric Lin (I Smile Back, Equity) shot the feature. Lin spoke with Filmmaker before the film’s screenings at Sundance about filming musical performances and lighting the dark streets of Red Hook.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Lin: My agent sent me the script, and I hadn’t even finished reading it when I emailed her, wanting to meet the director, Brett Haley, to talk about it as soon as possible. Brett and his co-writer, Marc Basch, created characters that felt full and alive, in a story that was subtle and complex. The film took place in Red Hook, a Brooklyn neighborhood that I’ve always loved visiting and photographing because of its history and the texture. Many scenes took place in shops and restaurants that I go to and love, so I immediately started to get a feel for the tone of the film. I was very excited that it was a Brooklyn story I felt like I hadn’t seen before. Plus, I love shooting music performance! When Brett and I met over Skype, it seemed we were on the same page creatively and I’m so thrilled I was a part of it.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Lin: Hearts Beat Loud is a character-driven film, so their subjective journey determined our camera and lighting choices, always with the aim of naturalism. Music is how Frank and Sam communicate with each other and express things they don’t say aloud. For the music performances, we wanted to make sure it never felt like we were shooting music videos. Each song has an emotional pull for the characters so accentuating that emotion was the basis that defined how we filmed the song. For me, the film is also about nostalgia and the need to embrace change. Frank’s vinyl record store provided inspiration for the mood of the film. I wanted the film to have the tactile feel of the vinyl sound: with warmth, depth and softness. So shooting on vintage lenses with a digital sensor was one of the first choices we made.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

Lin: The analog feeling of our film was also inspired by Hoyte Van Hoytema’s work on Her. Hoytema’s elegant use of soft lighting with vintage lenses was something we kept in mind. Brett and I were also drawn to the crafted naturalism of the light in Lost in Translation and 20th Century Women. The strong colors and melancholy of Edward Hopper’s paintings also informed several scenes. Early on we were torn between which aspect ratio to shoot. We considered 1.85, but with its closeness to the 16:9 HD aspect ratio, we wanted to frame the film in a more cinematic way. However 2.40 also felt wrong to us since it was such an intimate, interior film. Watching 20th Century Women was especially useful in helping us decide on shooting with the 2.00 aspect ratio (Storarro’s Univisum which he first proposed in 1998 and is now becoming more accepted). 2.00 was a great meeting ground between the two aspect ratios and it allowed us make dynamic compositions while also being able to hold the framing we wanted in tighter spaces.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Lin: The schedule was the main challenge. The music scenes in the script would say, “Frank and Sam perform this song,” and it’s one-eighth of a page but it would be more than three minutes of screen time in the finished film. We had five music performances to film and, as I had mentioned, we were adamant about not resorting to general coverage of the music performances. It was definitely a challenge to make sure we had the time to execute those ideas but it was anticipated in prep and, by constantly re-working the schedule and the locations and making some tough choices, I think we carved out enough time to give those scenes the attention they needed.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Lin: We shot on the Arri Alexa Mini. I always love the way the Alexa sensor registers skin tones, warmth and low light detail. We chose the Mini body because of some of our tight locations and because of the fair amount of handheld I knew we would be doing. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to pair vintage lenses with our digital sensor. We did an extensive test of TCS’s library of fantastic vintage lenses and discovered their recently rehoused Kowa Cine Prominar Spherical lenses, a set of Japanese lenses from the ’60s. The distinct orange, circular flares immediately stood out from the usual blue/magenta flares we were seeing and we exploited the look of those flares for the music performance scenes. The softness and falloff at the edges that the lenses gave us felt right for the analog feel of the images we wanted.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Lin: The record store was a hero location. We shot in an existing record store that had very high ceilings and industrial lighting fixtures that we turned off because they were harsh and hard to control. We wanted Frank’s vinyl record store to feel like a cave of forgotten dreams with pockets of warmth. However, with such a high ceiling it would be tough to create that mood without a lot of time and rigging, so we built the lighting into the space. In addition to installing some wall-mounted practicals that I requested, Erin Magill, our production designer, and her team found some great industrial work lamps on articulating arms that we spaced out inside the record bin aisles to give us those pockets of warmth. Along with some strategically placed string lights, we had a great base to work with that we usually augmented with movie lights depending on actor blocking. I also played a lot with mixed lighting temperature in the record store, contrasting the warm interior light against the cool daylight from the windows, to set up the tension between Frank’s musical dreams and demands of the reality of his situation.

Our one karaoke scene was a lot of fun to light. During the scout, we just flipped on lights in the karaoke room and loved it. They had these small LED clamp lights in the corners of the room that projected wavy shapes and patterns on the wall in blue and purple. So on the shoot day, we gathered a bunch of those lamps from the other karaoke rooms and put one or two through diffusion frames and let others just rake the walls. There was already a disco ball so we punched a Leko into it. Then I added a Litemat as an Edgelight as if it was coming from a TV in the room.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Lin: One of the more challenging scenes was a night exterior, Steadicam walk and talk. With our tight schedule and resources, I knew we could only do it if we had a location that was well lit at night. However, that was tough to find in Red Hook. We settled on a cobblestone street next to a pier that allowed us to shoot out at the water. It was lined with newer LED streetlamps, which were bright enough to give us something to work with. Because our camera swung from a ¾ leading two-shot into a profile two shot, we saw so much of the world that it was tough to find places to hide lights so we wouldn’t lose the actors too much when they went between the pools of light. Without the time or ability to use condors, the answer was to have a mobile soft key light. That meant our gaffer, Jason Beasley, walked maybe 10-14 feet ahead of the talent with a battery powered Litemat 4 on a pole. It provided a consistent mobile soft key light for the talent when they went dark that felt like it was from a source far away. The tricky thing was that when the actors arrived in the main pool of streetlight, the camera comes around for a profile two-shot, and Jason had to dim down the Litemat gently while scooting out of the way before the camera made it all the way around for the final frame so he wouldn’t be seen. It took some coordination, but, along with fill from a large and high HMI bounce, we got the shot with minimal setup and the result feels natural.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Lin: I try to bake the look in as much as possible while shooting. We were able to do this because we had great support in prep from Mike Howell and Alex Bickel at Color Collective. Mike had graded Brett’s previous films and was on deck to grade this film as well from the start. In prep I was able to shoot tests with our Kowa lenses and send it to Mike to craft a shooting LUT that maintains the look we wanted. When we began final color grading with Mike, the shooting LUT started off as our base, but then Mike showed us a Fuji film emulation LUT that also did what we wanted but it bent some of the stronger primary colors into a more filmic space. We ended up using the Fuji film LUT as our new base for the grade.

TECH BOX:

  • Camera: Alexa Mini
  • Lenses: Kowa Cine Prominar Spherical primes, Fuji 19-90 Cabrio
  • Lighting: Tungsten, HMI, Chimera Octaplus, Litemats, batten strips
  • Processing: Digital
  • Color Grading: Mike Howell at Color Collective

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