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“Time Is Always the Biggest Challenge”: DP Zach Kuperstein on The Climb

Kyle Marvin and Michael Covino appear in The Climb by Michael Covino (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

In Michael Covino’s The Climb, best friends Kyle (Kyle Marvin) and Mike (Michael Covino) embark on a bike ride in the south of France to celebrate Kyle’s impending marriage to a French woman. In the process, Mike admits to having slept with Kyle’s fiancée, causing an understandable riff in their friendship. Presented as one long take, DP Zach Kuperstein divulges the intricacies of the unorthodox process of filming The Climb

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?

Kuperstein: I met Mike and Kyle a few years ago while working on a feature that was directed by a good friend of theirs, Sam Kretchmar. As we stayed in touch over the years, I worked on a couple of commercials and shorts with them. When it came time for The Climb to become a feature, Mike shared the script and concept with me and I was sold. The writing was so good and the technical challenge was right up my ally. I just had to do 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?

Kuperstein: In shooting a film comprised entirely of “oners,” I wanted the audience to feel immersed and not constantly thinking about whether we cut or not. To that end, moving the camera without restriction was key to getting the kind of “coverage” one might expect when watching any of these scenes. Editing in camera became the main focus and also inspired us to attempt transitioning the camera support during the shot several times. In a typical scene, you might cover some of it on dolly, some on Steadicam, and some handheld, but when you can’t cut, how do you achieve those differences from moment to moment?

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

Kuperstein: When it came to staging the “oners,” I looked a lot at Victoria, Birdman, several sequences from Spielberg movies, Reality, Children of Men, Gerry, Rope, and Elephant among others. What I saw in them was clever blocking for lighting and the camera, strategically leading the eye from one “shot” to the next. Tonally, the references were more from French films of the 1960s and 1970s like Bed and Board or Jules et Jim.

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

Kuperstein: Time is always the biggest challenge and that was no different here. However, I think by the time we got to our final week, the crew fell into a rhythm that made us experts at this unusual style of production. Also because of the unique nature of each location and our limited ability to light in each place, the gear list had to be specially ordered and prepared each week. I was constantly blown away by my gaffer, Ted Maroney, and his ability to keep it all organized while coordinating with our production manager, Derek Rubin, to get the right gear to set every day.

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

Kuperstein: We chose the Alexa Mini, mostly for its size and flexibility for different types of builds. It needed to be light enough for Brendan Poutier, our Steadicam operator to wear it for 10 minutes at a time, for up to 30 takes in a day. We used the TLS-Rehoused Cooke Speed Panchros as our primes because I was familiar with them, they have great presence—especially in 25mm, which I knew we’d be using a lot—they had a vintage feel that wasn’t too mushy, and they were light weight. We also used the Cooke Varotal Zoom for a couple of shots because it matched the primes quite well.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Kuperstein: Generally, I aimed for naturalistic light, but had to find a way to control it throughout the day. This often meant unusual rigs to allow the camera to see 360 degrees, and constant adjustments throughout and between takes to make it all feel seamless. When working with practicals, we didn’t hesitate to put everything on DMX, so we could dim them up and down during the shot.

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

Kuperstein: The most difficult sequence was definitely the Thanksgiving to Christmas scenes. This required a ton of planning and precise execution of a number of complicated rigs. Aside from the carefully choreographed Steadicam work by Brendan Poutier throughout the house, we had to be prepared to go outside during the shot, following a dog. This meant a large exposure rack at the end, using a customized rota-pola filter to maintain the depth of field, rigged by our 1st AC, Logan Gee. Inside, the window lighting was accomplished with movable awning rigs on pulleys manipulated from the upstairs windows by our grip department, allowing us to look out the downstairs windows when necessary, but also to push light deeper into the dark house. This was all carefully timed and cued by our gaffer, Ted Maroney. When we went outside, we had to line up the end of the Steadicam move with a 40′ time lapse rig. This presented its own set of problems and we only had two attempts to get the time lapse right. Finally, this sequence is completed with a shot that goes from handheld to dolly and back. The mounting and dismounting was done with a custom electromagnet rig, and the dolly was staged to move almost all the way around the outside of the house, riding on over 200′ of track and leveled by our key grip, Dylan Kaplowitz, using every single apple box in NYC. Not to mention that the whole sequence ends in a stunt performed by our director and lead actor.

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

Kuperstein: The look of this film is definitely intended to feel like french films of the 1960s. With that in mind, the lenses we a key element to bake in the look, but beyond that, the filmic texture and colors were created entirely in the DI. There was a lot of work put into emulating the properties of film from that time by our colorist, Anthony Raffaele.

TECH BOX:

Film Title: The Climb

Camera: Arri Alexa Mini

Lenses: TLS-rehoused Cooke Speed Panchros and Cooke Varotal Zoom

Lighting: See above

Processing: 3.2K Prores 4444, 2:1 aspect ratio

Color Grading: Filmlight Baselight

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