“This Room had Even Scared Off Another DP”: DP Ryan Jackson-Healy on Mass
Fran Kranz’s Mass is the rare film that explores the aftermath of a tragedy rather than the tragedy itself. Some years after the events of a school shooting, the parents of a victim (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton) plan to meet the parents of the perpetrator (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd). DP Ryan Jackson-Healy speaks to not being scared of shooting primarily in a white room, switching lenses tied to emotional cues and creating a subtextual lighting arc.
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?
Jackson-Healy: A bit of being at the right place at the right time. Fran and I met at a small dinner and had talked about a project he had just finished filming, an iPhone-filmed documentary about Bloomsday. A few months later he approached me about Mass. I absolutely loved the script and the challenges it presented, so I feel quite lucky to have got the job. I had only graduated from the AFI a few months prior.
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?
Jackson-Healy: I took extensive notes about my thoughts and feelings (nothing technical!) on my initial read of the script. This is the only opportunity I get to be an audience member experiencing the story for the first time. I use those notes as the basis for technical ideas. I feel this makes them both faithful to the story and to myself as a person and artist. The most noticeable thing to me in Mass was the arc of the experience. It takes the audience from being passive observers to getting really deeply into the characters’ hearts and heads. I also took note of how uncomfortable and claustrophobic the script got, and how important to the story it was to lean into that and not be afraid of it. I thought of some ways we could express those emotions in our visuals and used those as the starting point of my discussions with Fran.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Jackson-Healy: I’m a sponge for all forms of art, so visual research is an essential part of my process. I also find that visual references are oftentimes the best way I can communicate what’s going on in my head, not only with the director and producers but also with everyone from the production designer, to the colorist, to my own crew. Specific influences for Mass were a few paintings by Lucian Freud, some photographs by Dana Lixenberg and Rineke Dijkstra and the filmmaking styles of Ozu and Haneke. I also had a long discussion with Fran about an exhibition at the Tate called “Execution Squares” by Hrair Sarkissian as an example of how seemingly mundane images can evoke intense emotions when given historical context.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Jackson-Healy: Fran had a location in mind that was part of the inspiration of the story. He had warned me that it was just a small white room in a small-town church. As a matter of fact, I think this room had even scared off another DP before he had approached. To me, yes it was a challenge, but it was also essential to the story. It all went back to my initial thoughts on the script and how I loved that it leaned into discomfort and claustrophobia. The other major challenges were practical in nature: a micro budget and extremely tight shooting schedule. But I had confidence that Fran and I could develop a plan that could make it all work. And somehow we did!
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Jackson-Healy: We shot with Alexa Mini as our A-Cam and Alexa XT as our B-Cam. I chose the Mini because I love the usability, sensor and color science. (As far as the XT, it was the only camera in the Alexa family available for our budget at the time!) I used TLS rehoused Cooke Panchros as well as Kowa anamorphics from Alternative Rentals in LA. We chose two sets, because Fran and I wanted to switch from spherical to anamorphic at a pivotal point in the story. I love the creaminess of the Cookes as well as the vignetting you get on the Mini sensor. The color discrepancies from lens to lens can be a bit weird, but we had shot extensive charts to assist with the colorist later down the line. As far as the Kowas, they were one of two anamorphic sets we had available, but I lucked out because their evocative haze and color rendition really suited the story.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Jackson-Healy: I wanted light to play a subtle sub-textual role throughout the film. And like the story arc, I wanted Mass to have a lighting arc. The plan was to craft a shortened winter day with clouds moving in and out and a finale that matched the catharsis of the characters with hard, powerful sunshine streaming in through the windows. For the final scene in the basement, I was struck by the pattern of a particular sconce during our location scout and wanted to incorporate this into the closing moments of the film.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Jackson-Healy: The main scene in the back room at the church was our biggest challenge. It’s over 40 pages in the script and features four characters mostly seated around a plastic table. So Fran and I developed a plan where the visual language of the scene would slowly evolve with the characters until the scene’s climax, which is when we would use the emotional cues from the characters to switch lenses. This visual evolution would take place subtly with camera movement, lighting and framing. We then had to balance the practical limitations of the location, budget, shooting schedule and small crew with this plan. The solution started with slicing the script into segments that we would shoot sequentially. This made sense not only for the performances of the actors, but also in assisting the visual language to evolve as we had planned. It was a great way for my fantastic and tiny crew to stay in the current moment while also planning ahead for the next step in the visual plan.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Jackson-Healy: I had developed an on-set viewing LUT in pre-production using our cameras and lenses that was in line with my visual inspiration. I made a few tweaks to this look after the shoot, and this became the look that our colorist Richard at HQ Post used when timing and finishing the film.
Film Title: Mass
Camera: Alexa Mini
Lenses: Cooke Panchros (TLS) and Kowa Anamorphics
Lighting: Redman Movies & Stories, Salt Lake City
Color Grading: HQ Post