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“It’s Always About Time and Not Having It”: DP Greta Zozula on Summering

Still from SummeringStill from Summering

With Summering, James Ponsoldt wanted to make a film that his young daughter would appreciate, and the result is a coming-of-age story about four girls planning one final weekend of fun before middle school. They unexpectedly make a discovery in the nearby woods that they keep to themselves, and from there imagination and reality collide in magical realist fashion. Below, cinematographer Greta Zozula explains how she managed the narrative’s tension between magic and realism and how the crew managed to make difficult scenes work with limited time.

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?

Zozula: I want to say it was a like minded creative connection between James and I. I read the script and immediately fell in love with the story and related to what it was like to be that age as a young woman. It’s strangely a really big moment in life that you never really forget. Its that moment you start leaving the safe fantastical world of childhood and enter the scary realism of growing up and becoming an adult. I loved that James wanted to make a movie that his daughter could relate to and grow up with. 

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them?

Zozula: To take the audience on a journey that has beauty, magic and an edge of darkness. This was realized through camera movement, lighting and color. Ideally, we would have shot this on 16mm film, but logistically that didn’t make sense. I still wanted to approach contrast and color the same way you would on film. A lot of that was brought in through production design and costumes but also in the DI. We didn’t hold back and really let the colors pop out out vs. dialing them down.

Filmmaker: How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Zozula: It was important to me to use cinematography to put you in a time and a place that could be anywhere at anytime. First and foremost, it’s a story that follows these four girls through a moment in their life. It could be a big or small moment but the importance is that you feel what they are feeling. Capturing the environment around them was key in capturing those moments as well. 

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

Zozula: There were a few different influences for this film. One of the greatest films of all time, I think, to capture a child’s point of view is Spirit of the Beehive. We used it as a reference quite a lot to find a balance between the child’s perspective and reality but not making it a clear line. Is the journey we’re on real, or is it part of their made up world? Or both, simultaneously? We also looked at photographers like Justine Kurland who really know how to capture youth in a very truthful way.

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

Zozula: Without stating the obvious, for just about every project I would say “time.” It’s always about time and not having it. Another challenge that may be slightly more unique to this project was the heat in Utah in the summer. We have a lot of exteriors in this film and a lot during the day, so the heat was a big challenge. Weather in general was difficult. We had a big storm that ended a day and smoke from fires that affected the look and caused other concerns. COVID as well is still a big challenge for most productions.

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

Zozula: We shot on Alexa Mini. Alexa is always a go-to for me when shooting digital. I have always preferred it. We also didn’t have a ton of prep or time to test. Since it’s a camera I know very well and I am comfortable with it, I felt like I could get away without testing certain things, where other cameras I would be less confident going into a movie that way. We went mini because standard size Alexas are always challenging with the size. Fine for studio conditions, but hard when you’re in a lot of small spaces and need to move quickly.

Filmmaker: What lenses did you use?

Zozula: A mix of Cooke Xtal lenses and Cooke anamorphics. The Xtals have very distinct characteristics and are very warm because of the panchro glass elements in them. They also flare beautifully. The newer Cooke anamorphics have distortion, but overall I would say they are cleaner with less random impurities. Also, they don’t really flare unless you get it added, but it feels more artificial and not organic, and the flares in this needed to feel part of the environment. We primarily used the Xtals for the adventurous moments in the film and for when we are really in the heads of the girls. The Cooke’s were used primarily when we are with the girls at home with their families or moments when it’s more objective.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Zozula: Naturalistic for the most part, although we play around with surrealism it was important that the lighting or color didn’t change noticeably for those moments and largely stayed realistic. It makes those moments feel more magical in a way because they are approached realistically but something fantastical is happening in the frame. We did come up with colors for each girl that we would subtly implement into certain scenes.

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

A big storm during a séance. It was complicated for 100 different reasons. Limited shooting time with the girls at night, and because of the limitations we had to break up the scene over a few days and block shoot day for night with night for night depending on whether we were seeing the windows and the storm outside. We had to create lightning and rain, and the interior was mostly motivated by candle light. This scene is actually four scenes in one broken up by an actual storm that’s happening that we also created from scratch.

The biggest challenge was lighting it. My gaffer, Matt Hadley, built his own lighting board and operated it for the scene. Its hard to put in perspective exactly how hard it is to do what he was doing, but because we had so little time, he often had to make changes on the fly while we were filming. I watch the scene now and its one of my proudest moments because I know what went into it and in the end it’s a great scene and looks great.

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

Zozula: I never bake in a look. I think the closest to baking in for me is making bold decisions in the lighting and sticking to it to the end. That being said, I will be the first to always admit when I rely a ton on a very talented colorist because I know not only will I need to fix continuity issues from loss of light or miss matched weather related issues but also that I value that relationship so much and really enjoy what can be created in the DI.

I bring on the colorist before principle starts and we create a LUT. On this film we didn’t have a lot of time to build something, but Damien van der Cruyssen is amazing and built something great. We also had a super fast color session at the end, but again Damien did his magic. When you trust the collaboration with another artist the work can only be better for it.

TECH BOX

Film Title: Summering
Camera: Alexa Mini
Lenses: Cooke Xtal express, Cooke anamorphics, Cooke anamorphic zoom 35-140
Color Grading: Damien van der Cruyssen at Harbor Picture Company

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