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“Wildfires Are a Complicated Tornado of Danger”: DP Bennett Cerf on Users

Users

Natalia Almada’s Users is an inquisition on technology and its inextricable nature from modern life. Juxtaposed against Californian wildfires and oceans on the rise, the film questions what progress means when we sacrifice so much in the process. DP Bennett Cerf discusses the morbid thrill of capturing disasters on film.

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?

Cerf: Natalia has always shot her own projects except for her narrative feature, which Lorenzo Hagerman shot. I was peripherally involved in prep and the first few weeks of shooting. This time around, I think Natalia was looking to have different access to a DP. I think that as she was conceptualizing this piece, she knew that family was becoming more important to her. Between my brother’s musical and sound strengths and my years of cinematography, the pieces all just fit for a family project. It’s probably the most long term strategy I’ve seen for making a film.

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?

Cerf: My original goal for the visuals was to inject gravitas to an already big subject. Natalia had stressed the importance of approaching the grand subject with big images but that we also needed to make this intimate as well. Users is a personal film for her and not some emotionally distanced observation of the human condition. 

As we got deeper into the process, a friend of Natalia’s had given some feedback regarding the imagery, saying that it lacked a certain disorientation. I recall hearing that and thinking, this is a big thing to learn. We had been shooting long takes, very formal, with no panning, tilting, or camera movement. The idea of disorientation was an aha moment for me. It opened our original visual rubric to include some different tools. Instead of static, grounded shots, we were suddenly breaking from gravity and looking at our subjects with a new perspective. 

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

Cerf: This was a little bit of a dream project. When I was a senior in high school, I was feeling the pressure to figure out what my future career might be. I was studying programming at the local junior college and had spent a year in pilot training. During that time, my brother was on break from college, and he showed me this movie called Baraka. I remember sitting in our basement after finishing the film, speechless for like ten minutes. The film seemed like it was on the opposite spectrum of the Star Wars and Back to the Future filmmaking that I was so used to, and it affected me so much more! That’s the moment that spun me towards cinematography. 

This project has its roots in films like Koyaanisqatsi, Baraka, and Samsara, but while attempting to evolve that form. During prep, Natalia showed me some photographs by Edward Burtynsky, a photographer that I had also been obsessed with during my time at AFI. There’s an almost direct reference to his 99 cent store photograph in the film.

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

Cerf: I think the challenges are the same with any production: access and time. There were many planned ideas that we never shot because gatekeepers were nervous about the film’s message or the timing just wasn’t right. It’s an emotional struggle when you know that you’ve potentially got the perfect shot, but for some reason or another, it’s just not possible. That’s why the little successes boosted morale so much. We had been trying to figure out how to capture specific infrastructure images for about a year. The train one was eluding us. After one of our shoots in central California, I was driving back to LA at night with the gear and stopped for gas along the highway. As I was finishing up, I heard a distant train horn. I didn’t think much of it, but by the time I got back on the road again, I realized that the train had caught up and was running parallel to me at 80 mph! I looked over, and it struck me. The sound, the energy was epic! I filmed it with my cell phone as I drove (unsafe, I know) for about 20 minutes with chills running down my spine. The second I got home, I sent the video to Natalia, which was the beginning of the movie’s train sequence. Happy accidents like that give filmmaking a thrill.

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

Cerf: Natalia wanted both the ability to film at high quality/epic scale and to work with a small flexible crew and be intimate. Larger format cameras that were affordable and small were just becoming available around that time. One of our sponsors, Simplemente, in Mexico City offered us a choice of the RED Helium, Monstro, Gemini, and the Arri LF to use throughout our shoot. We considered the Monstro, but I found that the Red Gemini was the best balance of low-noise, high-resolution, and lightweight form-factor. The Gemini’s quaint size allowed me to rig the camera in more environments on my own than a larger camera like the LF. It worked in our underwater housing, two different gimbals, and in two teleprompter rigs. 

Since the Gemini wasn’t a large format sensor, I decided that faster, high-resolution lenses would give us a similar look and feel. Arri Master Primes were my first choice, and I was thrilled when the producers made space in the budget for them. They aren’t budget-friendly, but we reduced the cost slightly by bringing only three lenses on each shoot and we had the camera for free. They are very sharp, but the focus rolls off softly, and their flares are gentle. The 35mm played the lion’s share of production. It gave us the right perspective to get intimately close with our subjects without warping.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Cerf: When I shoot documentaries, I usually light interviews and some additional stylized lighting, but with this project, I stuck more to my narrative lighting approach. I always start with the scene’s emotional tone and grab whatever is naturally happening and run with it. 

We shot what we called “screen portraits” of my nephews. We would have them watch bright and colorful movies through a teleprompter so that we could get between the screen and them watching. I tried lighting them with screens all around them, but the kids would get distracted and look at those screens, so I had to adjust the camera so that we could see the light hitting them directly from the teleprompter. In the end, it worked! In general, I always kept my Aputure lights and Quasar X-fades on standby, ready on standby. 

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

Cerf: I think our most challenging moment to capture was the fire scene. We had shot in Paradise, CA, a few months after wildfires destroyed 95% of the buildings in town. The destruction was a way for us to visually show how our ability to expand our boundaries isn’t as seamless as we would assume. When Natalia began to edit the footage, she struggled to find a way to communicate the context of this fire. It’s hard to get the fire’s full impact just from people searching through ashes and seeing laundry machines where there used to be an entire house. We concluded that we needed to see the fire itself.

After a few missed opportunities during fires in LA and Santa Cruz, we enlisted the help of a brilliant photojournalist, Noah Berger, who let us embed with him as he photographed the fires. We geared up with Nomex suits, rented 4×4 cars, bought a fire shelter, and headed to the Complex Fires, which were raging at the time. I jumped on a plane to San Francisco, we hopped in the rental with our camera gear and fire gear and headed up. By the time we arrived, there were small spot fires, and everything was smoldering; we’d missed it. 

It was a minor setback, though, because a few weeks later, the Creek Fire sparked up, and 63 campers had to be evacuated by helicopter. We ran around and rented gear again, met in North Fork, CA, and headed toward Shaver Lake. We wandered around a bit through the sleepy town that day, filming some spot fires that the crews were letting burn. The fires would pick up suddenly, and we would try to get to them as soon as possible and set the camera to film them, but by the time we’d start rolling the camera, it would already be fizzling out. Timing is everything with fire, and the editing pace of our film required long takes. It was like trying to play whack-a-mole. That night, a fire was building on the road we had used to enter the area earlier that day. We were scouting to find a place for Noah to photograph a few burning houses when it seemed like we might be heading into danger. The flames that had previously been burning the forest below had swept up towards us with ferocity. Noah asked us to turn around and follow him back up the hill. As he drove through the fire that was starting to build upon the side of the road, we hesitated. In that one moment, the 20-foot wall of fire became a 75-foot wall of flames jetted across the road by the vortex that occurs inside these giant fires. We drove through, not knowing what would happen. As I was staring at the camera monitor, I could see in my periphery that we were engulfed in flames. I could feel the heat radiating directly through the windows. After that, we realized that we were trapped. Our only road out was on fire and the fire crews needed to push back the flames before we could leave, so we had to sleep in our cars that night. When the morning came, we drove back down the mountain through what seemed like a dream. Everything was gray, and the sun looked pure crimson through the clouds. When we returned to the main road, we were met with a gas station that had succumbed to the fires the night before. The big sign had melted, cars had become empty hulls, and news crews littered the area. It felt tragic. Wildfires are a complicated tornado of danger, alternate reality, and loss. 

The results from that shoot were unforgettable, and I think I was bitten by the wildfire bug and continued to shoot more at the Bobcat Fire in Los Angeles.  

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

Cerf: Post-production was an adventure! In general, the look wasn’t entirely different than what we got out-of-camera. We had several delivery objectives to accomplish. We wanted to color in HDR (Dolby gave us a grant to finish in DolbyVision), color using a facility that Natalia had worked with in the past in Mexico City, and we had to do it all remotely because of the pandemic. The Post House, Cinema Maquina, calibrated a Flanders HDR monitor and shipped it to San Francisco so we could use it in a makeshift color room. Using Blackmagic Resolve remote grading, the colorist in Mexico could color while we watched on our matched monitor in San Francisco. Then, at night, my brother and I would do VFX, stabilizing and reframing, and send the files to CM. They would apply our changes, and we’d go through the coloring process again the next day. I learned a lot about Resolve. 

TECH BOX

Film Title: Users

Camera: Red Gemini

Lenses: Master Primes

Lighting: Aputure 300x, 120DII, AputureMC, Quasar X-fades

Processing: 5K R3D

Color Grading: DaVinci Resolve

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