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DP Jomo Fray on Selah and the Spades and Drawing Inspiration From Rihanna’s ANTI

Lovie Simone in Selah and the Spades

Tayarisha Poe is a former 25 New Face of Film; her feature debut, Selah and the Spades, teams her with another New Face, cinematographer Jomo Fray. The titular Selah (Lovie Simone) attends a prep school where, with ferocious discipline, she manages her gang, the Spades. Via email, Fray discussed his long-in-the-making collaboration with Poe.

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?

Fray: The director, Tayarisha Poe, and I met a few years ago about the project and pretty quickly became totally creatively enamored with one another. We both have very similar ideological approaches to cinema and enjoy taking risks and trying to find new images together. I think after that first meeting we were both buzzing with ideas and thoughts. Although there were a few years between that meeting and principal photography, Tayarisha and I would always be sending images or ideas back and forth with one another. The interesting thing came when we started prep on the film armed with literally years’ worth of images. I think we were both so plugged into the aesthetic at that point that it felt like second nature, and it was from that place that we both realized that we wanted to surprise ourselves and be surprised on set, so we opted to strip back our references to their core and try and find new ways of looking at all of these images we had collected. It was out of that process that the look and feel of the film emerged.

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?

Fray: My goal on this film, as with most of the work I do, is to try and shoot in as open-hearted a way as I can. I try to always be compassionate and fully present to the emotional life of each character in every scene. Ideally, I want to be equally vulnerable and equally there with an actor/character as we are shooting. My goal is to then translate those vulnerabilities and emotional presence into the camera, towards realizing these goals and turning that process into a deeply specific visual language for the film, I love doing a deep dive script analysis with the director in prep. Really going through the script beat by beat, line by line, and talking about the emotional quality of each moment. It is through this process that a visual language starts to organically emerge. I love coming to a project with an open mind on the infinite ways it could look and working with a director to create something born out of the emotions and specific tone of the world—in that way we really create something truly bespoke for their film.

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

Fray: For Selah, we found ourselves drawn to points of contrast—places where the surface did not match the deeper underlying motives and the texture the interaction of those two elements created. The director and I came up with the term Savage Formalism to describe the visual style of the film to ourselves during filming. Savage, not in the anthropological sense of the term, but from the meaning of the word found in Rihanna’s 2016 album ANTI. Savage as brutal, cool, powerful. We wanted to build a formalism born of that energy. An image that is composed with a certain brutality to it, an inherent coolness, but also a quality of unease/disquiet. An image with youth, but which offers us a picture of a pretty vicious world. Towards this we found ourselves being guided by the principals and design philosophy of brutalist architecture—the lines, the austerity, the density.

Brutalism has an inherent duality to it. It was born out of an ethically utopic vision of human co-habitation despite having that same energy linked to a set of people trying to process the atrocities coming out of World War II. There’s a strange duality there, and Selah and the Spades similarly has a duality to it–it’s about kids who are having fun in high school while also being a meditation on power and what it takes to maintain it.

We took these principals into the production with us—the equipment we choose and visual design came from a place of trying to create the sharpest juxtapositions in order to highlight those inherent dualities. Whether it was framing or approach we tried to imbue the images with the same qualities we found in brutalist structures—the forms, the shapes, the feel.

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

Fray: When the sets and the surroundings are so beautiful, there is a constant threat of making the image about beauty and not the core of the drama and emotion. We shot in incredibly lush and beautiful locations, and it was always a challenge not being tempted to try and lean into the inherent beauty when the moment wasn’t necessarily about that. When it was about the beauty or opulence we leaned into that, but maintaining vigilance when something isn’t about beautiful imagery is the challenge of the work.

I often find myself drawn to ways of working that introduce some form of inherent challenge to the image. Shooting with lenses that don’t have strong coatings and in turn have very accentuated flares for example, but not allowing yourself to flare the image except in particular emotional moments creates an interesting struggle in the image to me. I find images with inherent forms of conflict more interesting and cinematic—the process is the product in a way. For some projects, building in those difficulties makes for more dynamic and specific work.

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

Fray: We shot on a Panavised Alexa Mini with a set of Kowa Cine Prominar Spherical lenses. The versatility and light weight of the camera was a huge help on the film. We were bouncing between different modes of movement and the size and modularity of the mini, especially with the modifications by Panavision, made it easy to switch between rigs. As for the lenses, the concept of duality was a deep underlying theme of the piece, and we wanted to work that into the visual DNA of the film. The Kowas were a great tool in telling that story because of the inherent color contrast present in the glass itself. The way they resolve color and the stark difference in the quality of their flare was particularly really intriguing for us.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Fray: My personal philosophy around lighting is to come to a space and try to determine how a space wants to be lit—whether it has built in fixtures, or how the architectural design of the space dictates how it takes light. I like to take these things into consideration and try and build off of that starting point—grafting onto that the dramatic and emotional life of the scene. Our strategy of lighting on this film was more focused on augmentation and modulation than trying to overpower the spaces with our own lights. Due to the heightened nature of the performances and the stylized world, our strategy for lighting was to create as natural a feel as possible. I had a fantastic team in gaffer Scott Ray and key grip Kevin McDonald. I could not have asked for a better team for the project. Their sensitivity to light made it an easy and seamless collaboration.

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

Fray: The story isn’t particularly harrowing, but a moment that comes to mind was on a day with some weather issues. We were shooting a scene indoors with a character at their desk talking to a student. We had blocked the scene and my gaffer and key grip were running around, building a set up for the scene. As we get the actors back in, the actor who had been sitting at the desk turns to the director and asks what if he was sitting on the table instead. Normally this would have been a minor adjustment, but with the weather and the set up this would be an incredibly challenging turn around for the lighting. Internally I was pretty reticent to changing the plan and wanted us to stay the course, but he ran through the scene with the blocking adjustment, and although the change was a small one, it really did change the texture of the scene in a really interesting way. I think at that moment the director, gaffer, key grip, and I all just knew that we all had to just figure out a way to make the adjustment work. It is always hard to notice when something isn’t about you and when you need to rework your plan when presented with a better idea.

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

Fray: I find, ideally, the two approaches work in tandem. For me, building the color comes part and parcel with building the full visual aesthetic. I like to get a colorist in early on a project. Once the director and I have come up with a general look, I like to bring the colorist into the discussion, often shooting a host of tests so that we can really push our look and see how it reacts at all angles. Due to testing in the DI and building a look together in prep, I am able to make strong choices on set and shoot as thin or as healthy a negative as is appropriate. I don’t often find myself making large changes to the aesthetic in post, but rather strengthening the choices made across production. Ideally I don’t like to treat the grade as space for color correction, but more as a space to build upon and strengthen the ideas you formed in prep and choices you made on set. It is less of a correction and more of an elevation. I had the profound pleasure of working with Steven Bodner at Light Iron on this one. He was an incredible collaborator and someone whose instincts and approach were always right on.

TECH BOX

Film Title: Selah and the Spades

Camera: Alexa Mini

Lenses: Kowa Cine Prominar Spherical Lenses

Lighting: available light

Processing: Digital

Color Grading: Steven Bodner at Light Iron

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