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“It Was About Being Very Open and Standing Back”: DP Jake Magee on The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me

by
in Filmmaking
on Jan 27, 2020

A chance encounter between two travelers trekking along a path on the Annapurna mountains in Nepal propels the story in Cedric Cheung-Lau’s debut feature, The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me. Tukten, a young man from Nepal, is en route to Dubai in the hopes of finding opportunity when he meets Hannah, an older Australian woman traveling solo. As important as the lead characters are the Annapurna mountains themselves, having a sentience and knowledge of their own. DP Jake Magee speaks about the character of landscapes, the frustration of relying on nature and the brilliance of editors. 

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?

Magee: Cedric and I have a longstanding friendship through watching and making films together. I think this background gave us a shorthand in our work and has allowed us to be free to experiment and take risks. Cedric isn’t afraid to push the boundaries with letting a shot live—and I love that. As a DP I’ve always had a strong interest in the potential for landscape and duration in moving pictures. I think Cedric recognized this and so the roots of the collaboration on this film had a lot to do with that as well. 

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?

Magee: Cedric talked a lot about the landscape needing to have its own perspective over the intersecting journeys of Tukten and Hannah. I think conventional film language generally tends toward an anthropocentric viewpoint, and so our goal was to try something that contrasted that. We experimented with a holistic approach that gave time and space to the landscape as its own active entity in the film. The landscape actively observes and carries the characters and also has a visual life beyond them. We used long panning shots that held the characters in the frame enough to chart their progress and describe their relationship, but also left them behind at times. The goal was often to draw attention to the simple visual drama of a cloud passing or wind in the bamboo that was a detail we identified with and documented the feeling of the space. There wasn’t a lot of technical wowing to be done in the approach. It was about being very open and standing back—framing with wider lenses and letting things unfold in real time without interruption from traditional coverage.

We shot a lot of landscapes that weren’t used. In the edit It was amazing to see how they all felt in opposition or harmony to one another and to the journeys of the characters. The editors are to be applauded for finding the specific rhythm of the images and for organizing them into what you see in the film. This is especially significant without having traditional coverage to give a clear logic scene to scene. With a spare visual language, every edit changes the meaning and feeling of the movie in such a significant way—it’s not something you think of so often as a DP. The editing and sound is really what activated the images in this film. 

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

Magee: I think the work of Hou Hsaio Hsien and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing were a strong reference. Not only in terms of their treatment of landscape and fluidity of camera movement but in a cinematic attitude that favors the overall feeling of film as much as if not more than narrative logic at times. As his student, Peter Hutton taught me to be patient and nonintrusive with the camera. Cedric and I love his work. I hear his voice in the back of my head whenever I am shooting. I also spent some time familiarizing myself with the history and mythology of the Himalayas and I tried to acknowledge these giants with admiration and respect as we shot the movie. 

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

Magee: Doing long takes while trekking for certain scenes was a unique challenge. If anything went wrong during a 5 minute long shot, it meant a lot of reset time. Oftentimes that was the only shot in the scene—so getting it right was a challenge for everyone—me as an operator, physically for the actors (going up and down the trail again and again), our production team for keeping people safe and finding places for porters and gear. We didn’t get a lot of chances at these scenes and we sometimes had to make the next village by nightfall. Cedric took a risk in covering this film this way and I think it was well worth it but it certainly was a challenge both artistically and physically. 

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

Magee: We used the Alexa mini because it is small and pretty rugged and the image from the sensor is a great filmic starting point. We had Zeiss Super Speed primes which had a softness and the ability to open wide for night/dusk work with available light. There were some longer zooms that we used to shoot “portraits” of far away mountain faces.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Magee: This project required an openness and flexibility across the board. we often didn’t have much of a choice but to use the weather or light as it presented itself to us on the day. It was an interesting limitation—when we scouted the film we saw things in a different light than when we returned to shoot. That same rock or bend in the trail that we loved felt different and despite having had specific ideas and attachments to a way to shoot it, we had to work with what was there in that moment. No big grip teams or ways to reorganize the schedule were available to us. This was sometimes frustrating—but for me I just think it is the truth of nature and you’re better off letting go and adapting than enforcing. 

For the interiors we did bring some lightweight led units and folded fabrics, but not much. My single grip/gaffer extraordinaire Alex Prokos worked very hard to make these disparate looking spaces look correct for the story. Oftentimes we decided to let them be.

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

Magee: We stayed pretty close to what we got out of camera. There’s some clever day for night stuff that is timed down in the grade. We took advantage of locked off shots to do a bit of Hudson Valley painter highlighting—nothing extreme. We worked with our colorist Mikey Pehanich to keep things naturalistic and true to the spaces we photographed.

TECH BOX:

Film Title: The Mountains Are a Dream That Calls to Me 

Camera: Arri Alexa Mini

Lenses: Zeiss Super Speeds, Panavision and Leica Zooms

Lighting: Available Light

Processing: Digital

 

 

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