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“Achieving a Deliberate Aesthetic in a Way That Was Unobtrusive”: Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw on The Truffle Hunters

A still from The Truffle Hunters by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw (courtesy Sundance Institute)

The white Alba truffle, one of the most coveted culinary delicacies, evades the acquisition of modern truffle hunters. The only people on earth who know how to locate the coveted truffle are Northern Italian elders and their canine companions. Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw  immersed themselves in the daily lives of this small sect of truffle hunters, who only prowl the sloping Italian forests in the dead of night in order to protect the location of the white Alba truffle. The Truffle Hunters follows these secretive men through a fairytale-like landscape and eventually finds itself at upscale restaurants that pay exorbitant prices for the rare truffle. Dweck and Kershaw explain the arduous process of gaining trust within the community and the intimacy of filming them.

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?

Dweck and Kershaw: As the directors of the film, we always planned to shoot the film ourselves. We took a very deliberate approach to constructing the story, and in order to maintain an intimacy with the truffle hunters we were filming with, we needed to maintain fluid movement between the work that is traditionally divided between the director and the cinematographer. Decisions like where to put the camera and how to shape the light were inseparable from our interactions with the truffle hunters we filmed with, and the bigger conceptual ideas that guided our approach for telling the story. 

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?

Dweck and Kershaw: The goal of telling this story was to create a unified feeling and aesthetic that flowed throughout the narrative. The film’s look started with the idea of reflecting the fairytale storybook feel of the world. We looked for ways to flatten out the image and build frames that had a graphic intensity. We wanted the light to have a warm softness and feel like it supported the emotion of whatever we were filming without ever calling attention to itself. This all had to be accomplished in a way that allowed the truffle hunters that we were filming the space to forget about the camera and go on with their daily business. 

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

Dweck and Kershaw: The way we captured the story came out of our experience spending time with the truffle hunters. We worked on translating what we felt when we were with them into an image. During the production process, we didn’t consciously pull from other sources, but we share a list of influences that our work is undoubtedly built on. The ghosts of Fredrico Fellini and Vittorio De Sica must have been floating around our production. They pulled in different directions, and through that conversation, we came to the style, the look, and tone of the film. For lighting, there are of course the great master painters whose work is a constant inspiration, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Titian, to name a few.

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

Dweck and Kershaw: Achieving a deliberate aesthetic in a way that was unobtrusive to the people we were filming with required time. On most days, we would shoot a single one-shot take, and on some days, we wouldn’t shoot at all. Before we would roll the camera, everything had to line up. There needed to be something interesting happening, the light needed to be right, and we needed to be in a place that looked and felt right for the story. 

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

Dweck and Kershaw: We shot on the Alexa Mini. It has a beautiful image, it’s small and robust, and it has internal ND filters. It was everything we needed for this shoot. 

Our primary lens throughout the production was an Angenieux 16mm – 40mm zoom. It rarely came off the camera. The only time we switched lenses was for the wide landscape zoom shots, and for those we used an Angeniux 25mm-250mm zoom. Ultimately only one of those shots made it into the final edit, which is the film’s opening shot. 

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Dweck and Kershaw: Whenever possible, we try to use natural light and shape it in a way that worked for our scene. This often meant setting up an army of c-stands and 4’x4’ floppys to shape the natural light. In the scenes where we did bring in lighting, we mostly used a single source, which was more likely than not an Arri Skypanel. Out of the box they have a beautiful soft light quality that we would then diffuse as much as we could while still maintaining exposure. Usually, it was just the two of us setting up all the equipment, with the occasional help of a sound person who was willing to lend a hand. Because it was only us, even simple setups could take quite a while.

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

Dweck and Kershaw: Technically, the most challenging scene was the zoom shot at the start of the film. The shot zooms into Sergio, one of the truffle hunters, as he climbs up a nearly vertical cliff with his two dogs as they search for truffles. It required a slow, even zoom in over several minutes that had to match the unpredictable speed of Sergio as he made his way up a treacherous mountainside. When the timing worked out, and we got the shot, we knew we had something special.  

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

Dweck and Kershaw: During production, we monitored in the Arri Rec 709 LUT, and we recorded in Arri Log C. The approach to lighting was very specific and carefully considered while filming, so the basic Rec 709 LUT gave us a strong base to work from. In the DI, we worked with the amazingly talented Marcy Robinson at Goldcrest Post in NYC. She helped us focus the look that we wanted to pull out of the film and ultimately helped us achieve a richness and depth to the color that was startling in its beauty. 

TECH BOX:

Film Title: The Truffle Hunters 

Camera: Arri Alexa Mini

Lenses: Angenieux 16mm – 40mm, Angenieux 25mm – 250mm. 

Lighting: Available Light, Arri Skypanel, Kino Flo 

Processing: Digital

Color Grading: DaVinci 

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