“We Are Happy to Welcome Broken Things Into Our Film”: DP Christian Sprenger on Using the Alexa LF As a 16mm Doppelgänger for Guava Island
In Guava Island, a musician (Donald Glover) incurs the wrath of a tropical despot when his plans for a celebratory music festival threaten to shutter the fictional isle’s silk factory for a day. The film, which runs 55 minutes with musical interludes from Glover’s alter ego Childish Gambino, features many of the talents behind the FX show Atlanta. That includes Emmy winning cinematographer Christian Sprenger (The Last Man on Earth, GLOW), who spoke to Filmmaker about working on location in Cuba and his magic formula for making the Alexa LF look like 16mm film. Guava Island is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Filmmaker: I don’t know how Amazon is about sharing viewing data, but when you have a project like Guava Island do you ever even find out how many people are seeing your work? Or are you just looking at Twitter to measure impact?
Sprenger: It’s basically Twitter and Rotten Tomatoes. (laughs) It’s funny, because when we made this film we didn’t really know what it was. We knew we weren’t making a feature and we know it was longer than a short film, and it also had this music video element. We never in a million years thought it was going to get reviewed at all. The fact that there were Variety and Hollywood Reporter reviews the day after it came out was crazy. We never really expected to see how well it was going to do or what the percentage of Rotten Tomatoes reviews was going to be. We just thought of it as a cool, fun little art experiment that we all wanted to do.
Filmmaker: How long were you in Cuba?
Sprenger: I was down there for, I think, seven weeks, and shot for maybe 12 or 13 days.
Filmmaker: What are some of the difficulties in shooting there?
Sprenger: Getting down there wasn’t too bad. Since the Trump administration there have been some restrictions placed on travel, but to be honest with you they’re just bureaucratic hoops. There are a dozen or so approved reasons why an American is allowed to travel to Cuba. So getting down there wasn’t too tough, but importing equipment and bringing in supplies was actually extremely challenging.
Filmmaker: Were cameras difficult to import?
Sprenger: The big thing is they’re very sensitive to things coming into or going out of the country due to the trade embargoes, so anything that comes in that looks like it could be sold as merchandise or profited on is a red flag. We had tons of stuff get flagged at the border. The wardrobe department brought in a suitcase full of shoes for extras and that got flagged. They’re very particular about technology coming in. They don’t like any forms of wireless communication and so, at the 11th hour ,when we were importing the camera equipment, we had to strip all the camera cases of anything that was wireless. By the end we adopted a very Zen approach to the whole situation, like “Whatever we can get down there, those are the tools we’ll use.”
Filmmaker: Were you able to find capable crew in Cuba?
Sprenger: Cuba actually has a fairly robust crew base. The infrastructure is not as bad as you would think. There were a couple rental houses. There was a company that was actually from Germany that had set up a small camera rental house. In terms of crew, we had a pretty great local G&E team. I brought a 1st AC, 2nd AC, DIT and operator, all of whom I’d worked with before. I also brought my gaffer. Then we used a local gaffer and his crew to be our electric team and used a full local grip crew and they were phenomenal. There were some language barrier issues, but they were incredibly hard working and very experienced. There’s actually a fair amount of European commercials that shoot in Cuba. There’s a surprisingly bustling film industry.
Filmmaker: You shot mainly near Havana?
Sprenger: Our production office was based out of West Havana and we shot mostly west of the city. There’s this sort of favela community called La Lisa that we used for the[(fictional island’s] download. The factory was a couple of hours away and there were some remote locations like that, but mostly we were in West Havana.
Filmmaker: I read a story that said one of the Fast and the Furious movies shot some in Cuba, so people on your crew would talk to people from that crew for intel.
Sprenger: Yeah, and then my key grip in Los Angeles did Ray Donovan, which went down and shot in Cuba for maybe five or six days. We talked to everyone we possibly could and got as many tips as we could. I also tracked down a couple of cinematographers who had shot in Cuba over the last couple of years. You don’t have very reliable internet or cellular networks down there, so I knew I had to gather as much information as possible before I left.
Filmmaker: The first night or two after Guava Island released on Amazon, I saw people on Twitter talking about the beautiful 16mm cinematography. Then when I watched the movie the credits say you shot on Alexa LF. I have to admit, you fooled me. I would’ve guessed it was film as well. Did you consider actually shooting on 16mm?
Sprenger: We did talk a lot about shooting film. It felt like, aesthetically, it made a lot of sense [as opposed to] a clean digital aesthetic. But, again, importing/exporting was a huge issue. Even when we were traveling with hard drives we got flagged by customs for bringing in multiples of the same hard drive. We were really concerned about the idea of traveling with all of the same film cans or having to fly someone every day with a few new cans. We really couldn’t wrap our heads around how to safely do it. [Director] Hiro Murai, Donald and I do this show Atlanta together and we did an episode that Donald directed last year where I shot in Super 16 mode on an Alexa Amira with Super 16 lenses, then we printed to film and scanned back in for the DI. Earlier in the year I had also done a commercial that I shot in Paris where I did the same thing. I used the same colorist for both of them, Ricky Gausis at MPC LA. He actually was the one who introduced us to that process.
Filmmaker: What made you go with the Alexa LF? You’re using a large format camera to replicate the small 16mm film gauge.
Sprenger: Yeah, we decided to carry a very big, heavy camera down with us and make a very small little movie with it. (laughs) The LF had just been released [when we were prepping Guava Island]. We spoke with Keslow Camera in Los Angeles about bringing that camera down to some of the most extreme heat and humidity in the world and they felt pretty confident that we could pull it off. They literally were building us top plates, battery plates and belt packs for the first time for that camera.
Filmmaker: What stock did you use for the film-out?
Sprenger: I had used [Kodak Vision3 500T] 5219 on Atlanta and then I believe I used a 250 daylight stock on that Paris commercial. We decided that the 5219 was the way to go [for Guava Island], so basically we finished the edit and then did the film-out using log. That film-out process does add a little bit of contrast inherently, but because you’re doing a DI off the log you’ve got full control to do what you want. But you’re obviously picking up all that grain, and then the other thing I’ve noticed is that if you are feeding a noisy image [for the film-out], you are getting back like a three-times noisier image. So there were some scenes, particularly the night scenes, where I took precautions to make sure I didn’t underexpose so far that I would end up with a big grainy, noisy mess.
Filmmaker: Why do the film-out to a 35mm stock rather than 16mm?
Sprenger: A 16mm film-out is so noisy and grainy. I feel like 35 kind of looks like 16 [after you do the film-out] in terms of its grain structure. We filmed-out to open gate 4-perf 35. If you look really closely there is some weird stuff happening at the top right edge of some of the frames. The lab was like, “We’ve never filmed-out anything with such a large sensor before.” They were actually at the very edge of the optical lenses that print the film. They said they are usually doing a Super 35 [sensor size], which is smaller by about 20 percent. But we left [those imperfections] in there. We are happy to welcome broken things into our film.
Filmmaker: So you actually had to shoot everything fairly clean because this film-out and re-scan process adds grain?
Sprenger: Exactly, yeah. Cleaner than I normally would. On Atlanta, I underexpose to a dangerous point and then print it all back up. On Guava Island I quickly learned that was not the right call and that it was better to shoot it cleaner. The other thing that you’re getting [with the film-out] is you retain a little bit of the Kodak color palette in terms of skin tones and the way that highlights are handled on the film emulsion. So you get the best of both [the digital and film] worlds. There were scenarios where I felt extremely fortunate to be able to shoot at 1280 ISO [on a digital camera], wide open, and still be able to double check to make sure that we were perfectly in focus. By [using a digital camera[ we could shoot whatever shooting ratio we wanted to and the only thing we had to worry about was hard drive space.
Filmmaker: Did you create LUTs so you could approximate the look you were going for on set, while still capturing a clean image?
Sprenger: We built a hero LUT that we felt gave us a representation of what we were hoping to achieve with the film-out. Then we built a version that was super protective of night time work, which forced us to almost overexpose a little bit so that we had some extra information that we could use in the film-out, and then we could [adjust the levels] back down if we needed to in the DI. My DIT [Chris Hoyle] and I had some conversations with our colorist first, then built some LUTs when we were down in Cuba. We sent those back to our colorist in LA. He made some modifications and then sent them back to us.
Filmmaker: Which sensor mode did you record in?
Sprenger: We shot in open gate mode and cropped to 4:3 in post.
Filmmaker: When you’re using the LF in open gate, how much does that limit your lens choices? I think open gate is 1.43, so if you’re finishing at 1.33 you don’t have a lot of wiggle room around the edges that isn’t going to be seen.
Sprenger: That was definitely a concern of ours. I didn’t want to use super modern full frame glass that was just released in the last six months so I tested a whole bunch of different options and we all really fell in love with the K-35 Canon lenses. We also considered the Sony Venice as our camera, so we tested the Venice and the LF side by side with all of our lens options. The K-35s had a very specific image quality that referenced these older films we were watching. They just felt like they were a little softer and didn’t have that super modern focus snap. We felt like they would be the right choice to pair with the film-out. So there weren’t a ton of options, but I was really happy with that lens set for this particular story.
Filmmaker: Let’s finish up by talking about lighting. Tell me about how you approached the sewing factory where Rihanna’s character works.
Sprenger: That was shot in this massive practical factory that we convinced to shut down for a few days to let us film. The reason that I liked it from a location perspective was that it was surrounded by windows on the north and sound side and also had a ton of windows up in the ceiling. The assistant director and I worked very closely to schedule the days around the natural light.
When we first got in there we toyed with the idea of playing all of the overhead lighting off and blacking out all the skylights and playing really moody, directional light motivated from the side windows. On day one we started doing that and it felt like we were pushing into this noir look that didn’t feel believable, and we wanted to make sure that everything felt grounded. Even though we are begging the audience to go on this journey to this mythical storybook island, we still wanted it to feel like you could believe that it was a real place.
The reality was we didn’t have massive resources to re-bulb and re-light everything. We mostly worked a lot with the grip department to play as much natural light as we could in there and balanced in a way that we could use the [existing overhead fluorescents, leave them uncorrected and accept the dirty color temperature mix of it all. For some of the tighter coverage of the women we’d come in with LEDs that we imported from Cinelease in Los Angeles just to get a little bit cleaner skin tones.
Filmmaker: A lot of the factory windows have fabrics hung in them that give these pops of blue and green.
Sprenger: Color plays a significant roll in the narrative and figuring out where we wanted to incorporate color was a big part of designing the film. Our production designer, Lucio Seixas, brought tons and tons of fabric into the country from different places, including Africa, and also went on a crazy goose chase trying to find local Cuban fabric that we could incorporate. Putting [fabrics in the factory windows] was one of the things that he pitched us, which is something you see quite a bit in Caribbean countries. People don’t have fancy curtains that they buy from the store. They usually take old sheets or old blankets and cover the windows. We’d scouted a lot of locations that had really colorful, fun fabrics that had been used for that purpose and it brought an interesting color and quality of light [into those factory scenes]. If you strip out those fabrics and the wardrobe, it’s a very monochromatic location.
Filmmaker: You talked earlier about the necessity of capturing a relatively clean image because of your post workflow. That must have been difficult for the music festival scenes, since you’re shooting a large space at night with limited resources.
Sprenger: The festival was probably our hardest location to find, because we had to shoot there for several full overnights and bring in like 500 extras. The place we ultimately shot at was actually in the back of a taxi depot, where cabs were repaired. It was this massive empty parking lot, basically a black hole. We did several days of rigging. We had a Cuban rigging gaffer and his team rigged the whole parking lot. The walk up to the festival was just the street outside of the parking lot. We shut it down and hung our own streetlights up on telephone poles.
The nice thing about the festival location was that it was wrapped on three sides by two- and three-story buildings. We lined up Arri SkyPanels on the tops of those buildings so that no matter what direction we were looking we could always motivate backlight. Then our gaffer, Cody Jacobs, came up with this concept of creating these light towers. Normally if you go to an outdoor concert there are these delay towers where they hang speakers and Cody pitched the idea of the art department building up these speaker towers that we could place a bunch of lights on to build up a base light level for all the wide shots with these massive crowds. I think we ended up using 2K Pars. We also tracked down some old theatrical spotlights that we used on stage. All said and done, I couldn’t tell you how many light sources we had there, but it was too many to count.
What I didn’t want to do was build large bounce lights or anything like that. I wanted everything to feel very natural. At night things were really sweaty and everyone was very shiny, so I liked the idea of there not being this big key source and instead it would be this orchestra of small light sources. The art department came up with all these vendor carts with people selling food and drinks. They were buried around the backgrounds of all the shots and each one of those carts was rigged with fluorescents or practicals. Then we had this idea to take a ton of backyard string lights and hang them across the festival. Our production designer was able to import some, though we did get several confiscated by our friends in customs. Throughout the entire course of preproduction and production Lucio was collecting all of our water bottles. It’s important that you drink out of a clean water bottle in Cuba, so we had hundreds and hundreds of these blue water bottles and he kept collecting them. He had garbage bags full. When I showed up for the festival scenes, he had cut the water bottles in half and used them as lampshades over those string lights. It was a total surprise to me and gave the lights a really interesting blue color.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.