“It’s a Balance of Preserving Your Strength”: DP Sean Havey on Homeroom
Homeroom, the final entry in Peter Nicks’ Oakland trilogy, couldn’t have come at a more bizarre time. Amid the early days of the pandemic and movements to defund the police, Oakland High School’s class of 2020 prepares to graduate into an unforgiving world fighting for justice. DP Sean Havey details filming long school board meetings and the intimacy of camerawork.
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?
Havey: I was the associate producer, assistant editor, second camera unit cinematographer and sometimes sound recordist on Pete’s last film, The Force, which is about the Oakland Police Department. At the time I lived a few blocks from police headquarters and was basically on call for three years filling whatever role was needed to complete the film. The director Pete Nicks and I developed a great friendship during that time and when we wrapped on The Force we basically went into pre-production on Homeroom. We met with stakeholders in education, spent time in various schools and eventually landed on Oakland High School for a litany of factors.
When we started filming in August of 2019 I was running sound and producing for Homeroom. Just a few weeks into the school year Pete’s teenage daughter, Karina, died. It was a complete tragedy. Obviously Pete was devastated. The entire crew was devastated. The crew switched from making a film about teenagers to then putting on a memorial service for one. Despite the turmoil, Pete didn’t want us to stop and asked that we continue to make the film. He knew that is what Karina would have wanted. So I became the cinematographer and our associate producer, Gaby Arvizu, who had never run sound before, became our full-time sound person.
I know that is probably a much longer answer than you wanted. But it’s been a crazy road to finishing this film from both a unique personal perspective to just the entire nutty year that 2020 turned into for everyone.
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?
Havey: I wanted this film to feel extremely intimate.
Unlike the other two films, Homeroom was shot almost entirely on one lens: a Canon SLR 50mm 1.2 lens. I was almost always wide open on that lens and that short depth of field creates a visual intimacy that I wanted.
As you will notice in the film, I’m almost always very tight on the characters face. Because of the inherent limitations on the 50 prime I also had to be physically close to the subjects. That forced proximity always felt like it yielded more genuine moments in some ways. It’s a bit counterintuitive because you’d think a long lens standing half way across the roam would yield the most genuine moments. But because I was always within arms reach of the characters there is this authenticity and intimacy that I think comes through in the cinematography.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Havey: Pete really established a very intimate shooting style on The Waiting Room that we then followed closely on The Force. So I had a good aesthetic framework when I started shooting Homeroom.
I’ve been a photojournalist for a long time as well as an assistant editor. Besides the aesthetic factors that go into my shooting I always think of what it takes to edit the scene. I’m constantly asking myself: when can I make a move; when can I take chances with my camerawork. So it’s a bit of a battle of balance—what is pragmatic versus what is true to the aesthetic.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Havey: Producing while also shooting was probably the biggest challenge.
Any documentary filmmaker will tell you that good stories are revealed only happen when you have good access. Access comes in layers. We had the blessing of the principal and most teachers and parents but then it’s a film primarily from the POV of students. Overwhelmingly the kids were extremely generous in the access they gave to us but managing those relationships in real time while filming could be a challenge at times.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Havey: Mostly I shot on the Sony F5. It’s a great camera that I had a lot of time working on as the second cinematographer on The Force. That camera matches perfectly with the Sony A7SII which I would use when trying to maintain a lower profile outside of the school when filming on the streets with the kids.
At least 50 percent of the time I was on the Canon 50mm F/1.2. From there it was a hodgepodge of other Canon primes and the 70-200 mm F/2.8 zoom.
Something new to my arsenal in shooting Homeroom was extensive use of the Vario Easy Rig. It became invaluable maintaining that eye level perspective when shifting from a characters standing position to them seated at their desks in classrooms. It also helped distribute the load of the camera better on my body for our consistently long vérité shoots day after day.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Havey: We didn’t light a thing!
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Havey: Probably filming in those school board meetings. Board meetings of any sort whether they’re city council or school board are the death of cinema. School boards can last 6 or 7 hours even longer sometimes. They can go past midnight. And some of the procedures can be terribly boring. But then again as you can see in the film things can really pop off at Oakland School Board meetings. So, just as with all vérité filmmaking, it’s a balance of preserving your strength while waiting for those moments that create intrigue and track to a story.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Havey: We shot the film in LOG so we had a lot of latitude in post to decide on the grade of our footage. We also had accumulated so much of our character’s social media content, which is super contrasty by nature. We knew we wanted to differentiate the two sources of media through the color grade by leaving our camera’s footage as lifelike as possible in the grade while letting the user generated material really be itself.
Film Title: Homeroom
Camera: Sony F5 and FS7
Lenses: Mostly Canon L Series Primes
Color Grading: DaVinci