“The Psychedelic Colors of the Earth”: Cinematographer Jarred Alterman on Bisbee ’17
Documentary filmmaker Jarred Alterman began his career on an unlikely note: as the director of more than a dozen episodes of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s animated show Tom Goes to the Mayor. Alterman would later serve as the DP on Contemporary Color, a 2016 concert film starring David Byrne. He collaborated on that film with Robert Greene, the esteemed documentary filmmaker and indie film editor. Alterman shot Greene’s latest non-fiction creation, Bisbee ’17, which screens in competition at Sundance. Alterman spoke with Filmmaker about the film’s western aesthetic, singular setting and unique blend of scripted and documentary scenes.
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?
Alterman: I met Robert in 2011 at the Maryland Film Festival while he was screening Fake it So Real and I was screening my film Convento. Two really different films, but we had a mutual appreciation of each other’s style; I had spent a decade filming dance films with Charles Atlas and Merce Cunningham Dance Co., and Convento has this dance-on-film aesthetic with regards to the cinematography. Robert and I later had a chance to collaborate on Contemporary Color where I was DP for a multi-cam David Byrne color guard concert. There was a lot of moving parts from lighting to cameras, and Robert was one of the roaming cameras back stage. With these two films under my belt, I was prepared to take on Bisbee ’17 – which has a combination of quiet, western landscape cinematography and intimate documentary shooting smashed up against large scale production: During our last week, multiple cameras were brought in to film an entire town taking part in re-creations of their past.
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?
Alterman: Driving through the desert on our first scout, I realized how important the landscape was going to be for this picture. The psychedelic colors of the earth, the dramatic shifts of light and color temperature, turning mountains blue and sagauro cacti fluorescent green was awe inspiring (and terrifying.) It’s almost impossible to imagine surviving in this place. As a kid I always loved westerns, and I thought this would be a good place to start for building our look. There is a certain weight, a heaviness in the frame that separates the western from other genres. It’s a combination of depth-of-field and composition, but for me, it’s about atmosphere and characters – how they walked and talked within the frame. I wanted the viewer to feel this heaviness on the screen. Just like the western, in Bisbee 17′ everyone and everything is on this “stage”, so I wanted to put an equal emphasis on our subjects and their backdrop.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Alterman: The entire town was built around two large open copper mining pits. Imagine throwing a large rock in a pond, where the ripples become the roads that stretch out over hills and valleys, where mining shacks and stores were placed in a circular pattern. The mines from above look like Mars. Saturated colors of orange and purple up against cobalt blue skies. And Bisbee became this hippie off-the-grid town, so the interiors of people’s homes and what they wore became a part of the color palate. In pre-production I put together a look book, pulling frame grabs from some films that capture characters and location in equal measure: The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Edvard Munch, Heaven’s Gate, There will be Blood, Oklahoma!, Topsy Turvy and a bunch of DePalma films. I also pulled one of my favorite quotes from Barry Sonnenfeld: “Light for beauty not for accuracy,” and it served as a reminder to not approach each lighting setup with rigid, film logic. At our production office in Bisbee I also had a pretty wild mood board taped to the wall over my desk that focused more on texture and color; I combed through old nature books about the desert and what kinds of animals and plants survive.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Alterman: Bisbee is in a valley so the light changes dramatically over the course of a day. I used available daylight as much as possible but tried to capture this change – even in scenes. This was a big challenge but we worked really hard to build our schedule around the shifting daylight. I was also fighting a high overhead sun which was harsh for filming people outdoors, but in westerns, this light is used dramatically. So, I worked with shadows and silhouettes and when we needed the light, reflectors and silks helped shape and diffuse the light. But when it came down to it – this was a documentary. So, I needed to come up with quick solutions, commit to a look and lens because we were also trying to capture real moments even when we were shooting scripted scenes. This is that Peter Watkins energy that both Robert and I love, especially in Edvard Munch. A mix of intensity, weirdness, beauty and anger.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Alterman: My A-Cam was a Sony FS7 with a PL mount. We chose this camera because of its versatility in the field, and when you’re filming in S-log3/cine mode, it has a velvet quality to the image. We filmed in raw s-log, but I have a Zacuto Gratical EVF with a couple different LUTs. We also have a director’s monitor with a few cine style LUTs. We made four trips to Bisbee before the big summer stretch, and I used these shoots as a testing ground for a variety of lenses and looks: older Russian Lomos, Angenieux Optimos, Cooke mini S4s and Zeiss super speeds. I decided to stick with a set of older MK II Zeiss super speeds T1.3 (18,25,35,65,85.). Our 18mm was our wide landscape lens and our 25mm and 65mm was a great pairing for our subject and their backdrop. I loved the 65mm on this picture. Having this set of these primes is like having two sets of lenses – at wide open and closed-down they are vastly different and gave us a wide palette for the movie. My B-camera was a A7SII on a gimbal, and I used older Nikor glass – 24mm and 50mm. For both cameras I shot higher ISOs (2000-3200) but stopped them down using a variety of polarizers and ND glass to bring out the colors. We framed for 2.35 on a super 35mm sensor, cropping in the field to capture that western look we were both after.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Alterman: I wanted to shape daylight as much as possible. So we used reflectors, silks and a fogger to diffuse interiors. Our lenses were fast so we didn’t need a ton of light, especially shooting at a higher ISO. I used practical lamps and LED Lite Mattes for interiors, both S1 and S2 and and for some of our larger set ups I had a 2K junior and a few tungsten units. In the mines we used LED light strips on batteries and minor helmet lights to keep the atmosphere moody and realistic. Even though this was not a period film, I wanted to channel that feeling of a time where lighting was moodier and dust was always in the air.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Alterman: One of the more difficult scenes to shoot was a one-take of Fernando leaving the Vietnamese restaurant, walking on the street and entering an office building. He then walks through a back door that leads us into an old abandoned movie theater. It was a complicated move especially when the camera turns around from following him to facing/leading him into the movie theater. Then, we turned around a final time as Fernando walks on stage to introduce himself. It’s an important scene because its shows the visual transformation of documentary subject morphing into actor and sets the stage for more of this theatricality to come. We were on a documentary budget: no motion control or Steadicam operator and unlimited time. We had to figure out a way for this to feel like (forgive me) a PT Anderson move, and I’m really pleased with the scene – camera bumps and all.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Alterman: We filmed in S-log3/cine gamma and we used a variety of LUTs to expose in the field using an EVF and director’s monitor. Robert and Kellan (our assistant editor) set up an editing bay at the office, and every day we would look at footage and drop in our LUTs. It was always a mix of art and science. But this was a movie where I was encouraged to take risks and for some scenes we really pushed the low light information. I try to keep the waveform levels slightly hotter on the exposure scale, to “burn” the negative, because a cine style LUT will always darken the image. However, some scenes just felt right to keep the exposure low. We had to resurrect the ghosts of the past and sometimes it’s best to keep everybody in the shadows. I was lucky because both Robert and Kellan were rough-cutting scenes throughout the summer and it gave me an opportunity to really focus on story and not just dailies. They cut in Premiere and used the color tool to load a variety of LUTs on the timeline. We then took this to Metropolis Post as a reference while we fine tuned our color grade in Resolve.
Camera: Sony FS7, Sony A7SII
Lenses: Zeiss Super Speed PL MK II T.13, Angeniux Optimo Zooms
Lighting: Available Light, LED Lite Mattes, LED Lite Strips, Tungsten Fresnels
Processing: 4K Digital
Color Correction: DaVinci Resolve