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“Nothing Irritates Me More than When the Cinematography Steps on the Story of a Movie”: DP Kevin Atkinson on A Futile and Stupid Gesture

A Futile and Stupid Gesture

Comedy writer/director David Wain returns to the Sundance Film Festival for a fourth time with A Futile and Stupid Gesture, his feature on the rise and fall of the National Lampoon empire. The film stars Will Forte as Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney and is based on a 2006 book by Josh Karp. Wain tapped Kevin Atkinson to shoot the film after the two worked together on Wain’s Childrens Hospital and the prequel and sequel to Wet Hot American Summer. Below, Atkinson discusses his experiences as DP on the project with Filmmaker. A Futile and Stupid Gesture hits Netflix on January 26 after its four screenings at Sundance.

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?

Atkinson: David Wain and I first met on Childrens Hospital season five. We have a mutual appreciation of pursuing excellence on a film set, while also having a good time. We have similar backgrounds in the indie/comedy/internet world in that he was directing Wainy Days, The State and Stella on the east coast while I was shooting for Funny or Die on the west coast. I think this plays into the fact that we both try to be flexible and ready for anything in order to get the most out of our shooting day. We are also the same age – we are old enough to greatly remember and appreciate The National Lampoon’s heyday.

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?

Atkinson: There are two main story arcs in the film: that of Doug Kenney (and his relationship to Henry Beard) and that of the magazine The National Lampoon. For Doug’s arc, we talked about a subjective camera that was with Doug on his journey: always trying to feel a piece of him in the frame, and using wider lenses up close to feel closer to him, etc. We also sought to use cyans/blues/greens for Doug’s early career in New York as he and Henry tried to get the magazine off the ground, and yellows, oranges and reds for his later career in Los Angeles where things were supposed to be going better for Doug. The film spans from the late ’60s through the late ’70s and we hoped to give it a period feel by sometimes incorporating zooms into our camera moves. For the story of the magazine, we wanted to feel the excitement of a successful upstart along with its growing pains. For this, we spoke of using a wide range of transitions with a moving camera. Going in we knew that this was going to be a “cutty” film; there are a lot of short scenes and we didn’t want the film to feel too chopped up, so we made an effort to do longer developing takes that sometimes were “oners” (and even then those sometimes got chopped up, but for good reason – there is a pace to the edit that I find really appealing. The film really moves along. Props to editors Jamie Gross and Robert Nassau for making this happen).

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

Atkinson: Oh, tons. En lieu of listing them let me just copy and paste David’s list to me during pre-production:

Reference movies – A Futile and Stupid Gesture:

  • GOODFELLAS
  • WOLF OF WALL ST
  • ALMOST FAMOUS
  • BOOGIE NIGHTS
  • 8 1/2
  • LA DOLCE VITA
  • AMARACORD
  • 25 HR PARTY PEOPLE
  • TRISTAM SHANDY
  • ANIMAL HOUSE, CADDYSHACK, SNL SEASON 1.
  • DRUNK, STONED, BRILLIANT, DEAD
  • WIRED about Belushi— it has 4% on Rotten Tomatoes

Recent Biopics about artists:

  • STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON
  • LOVE AND MERCY
  • BEHIND THE CANDELABRA
  • WALK THE LINE
  • RAY
  • ED WOOD
  • KURT COBAIN DOC
  • PRIVATE PARTS
  • MILK
  • SOCIAL NETWORK
  • BOOGIE NIGHTS
  • CONFESSIONS OF DANGEROUS MIND
  • THE BIG SHORT

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

Atkinson: We had a short schedule and that meant that we didn’t really have much time for set ups. And the fact that it was a period piece added on an extra layer of complication.

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

Atkinson: At the time of production there was a short list of 4K cameras that Netflix would allow you to use. I didn’t feel like shooting RED was appropriate for this movie. David and I have had some success exploiting the color space of the Sony F55 on past period piece projects with Charlie Tucker over at Technicolor. Charlie did a great job dialing in a nostalgic feel for both the flashbacks to the 1950s and then for the 1970s. As for the glass, I decided on Panavision primos. I particularly like their contrast.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Atkinson: Nothing irritates me more than when the cinematography steps on the story of a movie. This is a great story and we wanted nothing to get in its way and so we opted for a naturalistic approach – motivating sources when we could. This doesn’t mean that we didn’t augment and stylize; New York was lit cooler for a more overcast mid-winter vibe and Los Angeles was awash in yellows and oranges.

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

Atkinson: We did a Steadicam “oner” for the Saturday Night Live launch party that involved the ensemble cast in a bar in downtown Los Angeles. Will Forte comes through the front door and makes his way to the back of the bar. The trouble was that the bar has mirrors in all directions, on all of the walls. To plug them would make it claustrophobic, so from the get go, we were like, how do we light this? How do we do this developing Steadicam move and not see the camera? In the end, we just decided to embrace the mirrors and shoot into them. What seemed fine on paper on the scout turned into a very complicated and nuanced shot on the day – especially after losing 90 minutes to a fire alarm (set off with our hazers). I think it took about nine takes to get it right.

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

Atkinson: We shot 4K RAW on the Sony F55. So nothing was baked in other than how we lit it.

TECH BOX:

  • Camera: Sony F55
  • Lenses: 2x19mm-90mm Primo Macro Zoom – PCZ
    1×14.5mm-50mm Primo Macro Zoom – PMZ
    2x24mm-275mm Primo 11:1 Zoom – SLZ11
    1xLightweight Zoom 1 17.5mm–34mm – LWZ1
    1xLightweight Zoom 2 27mm-68mm – LWZ2
    1xSet of Primo Primes: 10mm, 17.5mm, 27mm, 35mm,
    50mm, 85mm, 125mm
  • Lighting: Tungsten, Daylight, LED.
  • Processing: Digital
  • Color Grading: Charlie Tucker at Technicolor.

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