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“Shooting Digitally Means Not Having to Play It Safe”: DP Doug Emmett on 892

A still from 892 by Abi Damaris Corbin.A still from 892 by Abi Damaris Corbin. (Photo: Chris Witt)

In 892, the debut film by Aby Damaris Corbin, a desperate former US Marine, driven nearly to homelessness by lack of resources and a stifling bureaucracy, decides to take hostages at a bank—but not because he wants money. What he wants instead is for people to hear his story and acknowledge what he has been through. Much of the film takes place in a single location where artificial lighting was not possible; cinematographer Doug Emmett explains how he was able to overcome these challenges and give the film a realistic and consistent look.

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?

Emmett: I have no idea why Abi hired me. It was probably the high quality of my Zoom connection.

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?

Emmett: Abi and I believed we could photograph 892 in a way that was entirely honest to the characters’ motivations while imbuing the image with a tonal richness that was controlled and precise. We selected a restrained color palette and designed blocking to allow dynamic camera movement and compositions to keep the pressure on and maintain energy. We believed authenticity and lush cinematic imagery would make good bedfellows as long as we stayed true to the main intent: to capture the performance with an eye toward uncovering and preserving one’s humanity.

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

Emmett: American Music is a collection of photography by Annie Leibovitz that inspired our color grading choices. The rich, deep blacks of her prints and the blue-green hues are simply stunning. We loved the skin tones in these photos. Through thoughtful choices in set-lighting and production design, along with the help of our colorist Natasha Leonnet at CO3, we were able to craft a really special, consistent image.

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

Emmett: A really tight production schedule and a lengthy, mid-shoot COVID shutdown posed the biggest challenge to our desire to photograph in chronological order. We had to abandon that plan, unfortunately. Abi and I found some silver linings along the way, so we don’t bemoan the challenges inherent to indie filmmaking. I think we share a similarity in the way we approach conflict, and it made us really strong collaborators in this endeavor.

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

Emmett: Sony Venice. The Venice is a great companion on set—the dual ISO and large format sensor are nice innovations. We chose Zeiss Supremes for their superb contrast and sharpness. Our primary location was a bank with very bright walls of windows and an interior that mandated no artificial lighting. I wanted the ability to photograph actors against this bright background with minimal veiling glare. I lit the interiors with Arri Skypanels, Jokerbug 800s, and LED Litemats, all with the intention of making the light source feel external.

We didn’t have the amount of equipment and crew necessary to fully raise the interior levels of the bank to compensate for the outside exposure, so we embraced the contrast levels and incorporated that into our visual design. The challenge was to photograph the bank over the course of 15 days and make it feel like a few hours in the middle of a single day. Choosing lenses that had modern coatings helped eliminate a lot of flare. The lenses look beautiful when opened up, and we found they had a nice dimensionality as focus fell off in the background. The Zeiss Supremes rack focus without much distraction and the crispness of the image allowed us to capture every detail on the actors faces—something we felt lent a sense of realism to the image.

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

Emmett: Scene 15. Brian enters the bank and for 20 pages straight we don’t cut out of that location. It’s a “three hander” between Brian, the bank manager, and a teller. We hoped to shoot it chronologically but had to shut down due to a COVID issue, and we didn’t revisit that scene and location for weeks after. Two more days of shooting were required to finish the scene. Keeping the lighting consistent while shooting over the course of many hours and days to create the illusion that everything is unfolding in real-time was a challenge for every crew member. I had a wonderful and talented team of people supporting our vision. We kept meticulous notes, and DIT Michael Borenstein helped provide plenty of reference stills. Maintaining proper eyelines while characters moved about the bank and keeping the tension of the scene was paramount. Abi and I felt it was necessary to incorporate multiple angles and create unique sightlines between all three characters, which certainly proved labor intensive but well worth it.

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

Emmett: Everything I shoot is “baked in” regarding lighting: color temperature on individual lamps, contrast ratios, shadow detail, and highlight detail. I do this because I can’t guarantee I’ll be available for the DI. As much as I feel it is so important to be in the room grading alongside your colorist, sometimes our schedules don’t allow it. Natasha and I designed a few LUTs before shooting and refined them as we went. Having a LUT specifically engineered for your show is immensely helpful—it takes a little guesswork out of the whole process.

The DI is great for adjusting the overall white balance, swinging primary and secondary hues in set decoration, and maintaining consistent skin tones throughout the film. Our look required Natasha to pay special attention to actor’s faces since the shadows have a lovely bluish/cyan quality and we didn’t want to drain the warmth from character faces. It was necessary to keep the skin tones from blending into the background. Windowing faces to add a little pop of color and light is a welcome tool in the DI. Generally, I find shooting digitally means not having to “play it safe,” which is so rewarding. Ultimately your dailies don’t look so different from the finished product.

TECH BOX

Film Title: 892
Camera: Sony Venice
Lenses: Zeiss Supreme, Angenieux Optimo
Lighting: Arri Skypanel, Joker HMI
Processing: DaVinci Resolve
Color Grading: DaVinci Resolve

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