“The Overall Emotional Responsibility of the Film Was a Daunting Task at Times”: DP Adam Crosby on Violation
Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s domestic horror debut Violation follows Miriam (played by Sims-Fewer), a fraught woman on the verge of divorce, returns home to visit her sister and her husband at their lake home. The trip takes a dark turn when Dylan assaults Miriam, sending her on a violent arc of revenge. DP Adam Crosby tells us how he captured the film’s lurid takes and how they fostered an environment to explore sensitive topics.
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?
Crosby: Violation was in many ways the culminating project for Madeleine, Dusty and I. The three of us had known one another since our time spent together at university. In the years since then our communication had ebbed and flowed, connecting here and there for projects but then, about f9ve years ago, the two of them approached me about collaborating on their first film they were tackling as a directorial team. Over the next few years we proceeded to make a series of short films that worked us towards the foothills of tackling a feature. It was a very organic creative evolution.
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?
Crosby: The artistic goal of any cinematographer and their work is to service the story and the experience of the audience, and while I appreciate that this has become a pretty standard packaged response to this sort of question, there’s a legacy truism to it. This film occupies a pretty visceral emotional space from the onset and relentlessly maintains the position throughout so we took aim at finding the most appropriate way to select that in our images. The film has an immediacy to its visual design, it situates the viewer amongst the scenes and in doing so creates a tension that is more palpable for the viewer. Dusty and Maddy are extremely committed to and talented at executing a visual approach that incites a reaction, at times an uncomfortable one, that acts as a catalyst for the overall tone of the scene or moment.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Crosby: Like any project, the best way to begin universe building, to begin creating a visual tone and approach is by pulling together references and using those as springboards for broader conversations about our specific project. We would watch films and share photography references but we tended to be quite granular when engaging with them. Other than the overall tone or vibe of a reference we’d be specifically looking at the quality of direct light in a photograph and the way it catches the textures of a room and kicks around the space. We’d look at films set against a lot of overcast exteriors and focus on how to find contrast, shape and tonal depth while still maintaining the blanketed wash that a muddy, overcast day provides. Dusty and Maddy built a beautiful look book that consolidated a lot of these references and I always find that these sorts of support material are fantastic as a catalyst for conversation and critical dialogue in prep. But once we were in the woods, admittedly we rarely if ever turned to those materials. The first few days are always a little more dodgy; feeling out and searching for the tone and vibe as you put the show on its feet, but then once it’s found the first few strides of momentum I find that a lot of those references and dialogues have become enveloped into the approach.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Crosby: This film was approached with a very specific production philosophy; we built as lean and agile a team as possible and headed to the woods for two months. We committed to an approach to production and scheduling that allowed us to be flexible and shoot at locations at the specific times of days we wanted, if weather conditions changed we would capitalize or adapt, we would do doughnut days where we would shoot under the best natural light of dawn and dusk but take large breaks midday. Because we were living this project so wholly, we could make this sort of approach work. We’d have scenes that we wanted filmed particularly at the twilight that precedes dawn and so we would spend two straight days staging a scene at that time of day, take a break and then have a magic hour sequence we would tackle at the end of the day. We were always chasing rain (cause everything looks better in the rain) so if we heard reports that a weather front was moving in we would pivot the schedule to capitalize. The entire film was filmed under natural light (I have no lighting or grip package at all, I had a 8”x8” piece of LED bi-color mat that I could stick somewhere if desperate but I think it was used a total of once…) but Dusty and Maddy wanted this film to be the product of natural or authentic sources lighting genuine spaces. I am very comfortable working with natural light, it’s my preferred approach when possible, augmenting with some card and negative fill when needed, but I was very into the idea. I didn’t even have a technician team! It was just me and my first AC Artem out there (an ally who deserves an immense amount of credit and respect, I could not have done this without him).
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Crosby: We shot on a Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro G2 and recorded to their proprietary BRaw codec. It was a camera that I actually purchased for the film; spending that much time away, on location filming the way we wanted to make the cost of renting a full package prohibitive. The initial option floated was a micro 4/3s one, a format I’m not in love with so I opted to secure a G2 in order to allow us to operate in a Super35 ecosystem. As a team we’ve tended to prefer the aesthetics of Super35 or large format spherical over the years; we just prefer the field of view and compression characteristics of the longer focal lengths in these formats. We paired the camera with a set of Zeiss Super Speeds we were able to get our hands on as well as a couple of old Soviet-era still lenses, a Helios and a Jupiter, that we would use for more emotionally visceral moments associated with the character of Miriam; moments that called for a more stylized and heightened treatment of the image. The Super Speeds were exactly what you expected them to be, they were simple, beautiful lenses that softened the overall image just slightly enough when wide open to give an organic texture that didn’t feel like it was robbing the image of fidelity. That said, we then heavily, heavily diffused from there. Dusty and Maddy have forced upon me a very real and somewhat unexpected love for softening filtration. There would always be some degree of Glimmer Glass in front of the lens and we would play with varied densities throughout, I think we hit a three at one point! At the end of the day, the visual language we created for the film, while in many ways initially born out of necessity, came to really embody the subtle surrealist fairy tale undertones that keep the film consistently engaging and unnerving.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Crosby: As I mentioned earlier, the entire approach to lighting was derived from and dictated by natural sources. We didn’t have a lighting pack nor a lighting team. What we did have though, by design, was the ability to scout locations and schedule so that we would shoot the locations we wanted at the times we wanted to shoot them. Now that said, we were still very much a small, independent film and were knocked off stride here and there, but for the most part we aimed to capitalize on locations during the time of day we felt they looked best and read best given the scene. This meant a lot of early mornings, capitalizing on that beautiful cold twilight that is eventually overtaken by dawn, and deep afternoon, into sunset and dusk. We aimed to situate the film, as often as possible, in those fleeting transitionary times of day, where hues and color casts are dense and changing quickly. Beyond that, we would block and cover a scene in a way that would capitalize on the natural light the best, keep a far-side key and try to get some camera-side falloff on our actors for shape. And of course I had my bed sheets. I never am not without at least one black and one white bedsheet when on locations shooting. If I need to tape some bounce to the wall, or some negative fill to a roof they are there. They’re so much lighter than traditional film textiles and I can rip them up and do what I need with them. Invaluable. So that was my lighting and grip package, a flat sheet from Walmart, king size, 200 thread count.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Crosby: All of them. This film had so many uniquely difficult scenes, scenes that were tough for such a wide variety of reasons. First and foremost, Violation is a film that deals with some very difficult, very sensitive content matter and making sure that we were creating an environment where our talent could safely and comfortably explore those concepts was integral. And then, from here making sure that we were capturing and conveying the gravity of those moments in a manner that was true and correct to the nature and intention of the story. So the overall emotional responsibility of the film was a daunting task at times. From a technical standpoint there was a scene at the early script stages I was a little nervous about how we were going to tackle. It involves the two sisters, Miriam and Greta, having a conversation with one another as they swim across a lake. It was a long scene, it was going to need coverage, we were not in a position to have a camera boat, hydro-casings, any of the standard go-to infrastructure for a scene like this. Then Dusty and Maddy came to me, and explained that they had tracked down a small lake, in the interior of a national park a few hours away that had a beach with such a subtle grade to it that you could walk out hundreds of feet and still only be in waist deep. As such I could stand in the water with the camera, handheld on an easy-rig, floating just off the surface, walking with our talent as they pretended to be swimming in the middle of the lake. The solution was so simple and the effect was seamless. Plus, Artem got to float just outside of frame pulling focus from a canoe.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Crosby: While we had been quite bold throughout shooting, committing to a usage and density of filtration not common to my usual approach and really embracing the notion of baking in the look and feel we wanted to accomplish; having captured in BRaw, a very impressive RAW codec was essential. We had the room and latitude to really explore each scene, pull out details from the low end of the curve and stretch out the contrast spectrum of the final product.
Film Title: Violation
Camera: Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro G2
Lenses: Zeiss Super Speeds, Jupiter, Helios (soviet-era still lenses)
Lighting: Walmart King Flat sheet, 200 thread count (1x black, 1x white)