“Organic Beauty and Inherent Quirks”: DP Nanu Segal on Marvelous and the Black Hole
Kate Tsang’s debut film Marvelous and the Black Hole follows thirteen-year-old Sammy Ko (Miya Cech), who struggles with delinquency shortly after the death of her mother. After meeting Margot (Rhea Perlman), a magician dead set on taking Sammy as her assistant, Sammy reluctantly begins a friendship with her and learns to heal through the expressive art of sleight of hand. DP Nanu Segal explains how they captured the intimacy of a teenage girl’s internal and external worlds and the “meeting of the minds” between Kate Tsang’s script and her own visual approach.
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?
I was sent the script via my agent, and I fell in love with the project on my first reading. I read it a second time before meeting Kate and Carolyn (via Skype from London to LA rather than Zoom as this was back in 2019!) and found it as moving and fresh as I had the first time around; Kate’s script really enchanted me from the outset. When we met there was a real meeting of minds, and I loved Kate’s vision for the film. When I was offered the job I said yes immediately.
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?
We wanted to create a world for Sammy to inhabit which was naturalist but heightened, and also find a way to delineate her everyday existence from her fantasy world and dreamscapes. It was also important that both the drama and humor would be able to play out together in harmony. We chose to use lensing as the primary way to shift between Sammy’s internal and external world; most of the film was shot on Xtal Express anamorphic lenses, which we chose for their organic beauty and inherent quirks and “flaws”; this instinctively felt like a great match for Sammy’s journey. When the story moved into Sammy’s imagined world, we switched to Panavision super speeds for a crisper, more expansive tone.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Kate introduced me to wuxia films, which were a key influence in how we approached some of the dream sequences. We also looked to Beasts of The Southern Wild for inspiration, when it came to filming our super sized bunny. Hunt for the Wilderpeople was another touchstone as well as the gorgeous imagery in Diary of a Teenage Girl.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Our biggest challenge was when we had to reduce our number of shooting days from 20 to 19, after we had already embarked on our already incredibly packed schedule. Somehow our producer Carolyn Mao and first AD Justin Hogan made the logistics work, while Kate and I quickly revised our plans. Also the wildfires meant there were a couple of days where we couldn’t actually get to set, as the highways were closed; subsequently, the whole schedule needed to be reconfigured midway through the shoot, which definitely presented additional challenges to all departments.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
We chose to shoot on the ALEXA Mini, for it’s small footprint combined with a beautiful sensor. It suited the shoot really well, as some of the locations were very small. I spent at least a day backed up into a wardrobe in Sammy’s bedroom location, using every spare inch that the Mini allowed.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
For the main part, I chose to have the lighting motivated by practical lights or window light—then I would shape this with additional lighting or with negative fill. During the day, we didn’t have the luxury of large units to set back at a distance from outside windows; instead the gaffer Armando Ballesteros introduced me to magic cloth, which worked really nicely with smaller units closer to the windows, pushing in just enough light to balance with the LA sunshine outside. Overall, the approach was more subtractive that additive, taking care with how the blocking worked windows and the placement of practical lights.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Finding a way to light the auditorium for Sammy’s performance towards the end of the film was tough, but this was only due to the classic constraints of indie filmmaking! I.e. Not enough time, money, crew or kit for a location with incredibly limited rigging possibilities available to us. In the end though, it was really fun to shoot, particularly animating the pink flamingos and filming the beautiful props the art department created.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
On set I lit to a standard Rec 709 LUT to keep the work flow simple and efficient, knowing that when it came to grading we would back off the intensity of the saturation, and soften out the contrast. Unfortunately, the timing with the pandemic meant that I couldn’t travel to attend the grade in person with Kate as planned, and instead we had to communicate via still frames and notes during the process. This was no substitute for being in the room together, but Kate and I were very in tune with what the film should look like.
Film Title: Marvelous and the Black Hole
Camera: ALEXA Mini from Panavision, Woodland Hills
Lenses: Xtal Xpress, Panavision Super Speeds
Lighting: Arri M40 and smaller, Litemats, Tungsten package 5K and smaller, Atseras, SkyPanel Kit: From GFC, LA
Color Grading: Andre Rivas