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“Family Photos Gave Me a Deeper Connection to the People Who Lived in the Suburbs”: DP Chananun Chotrungroj on Palm Trees and Power Lines

Still from Palm Trees and Power LinesStill from Palm Trees and Power Lines

Palm Trees and Power Lines tells the story of a wild child who, after a series of unmemorable hookups and a reluctant dine-and-dash, finds herself enthralled by a man in his thirties. The feature debut by Jamie Dack evokes the fragility of even the most precocious youth. Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj explains how she used framing to channel the protagonist’s state and why she looked to family photos on social media to better understand the film’s story.

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?

Chotrungroj: Jamie Dack and I attended NYU Grad Film in different years but didn’t overlap during the program. We were introduced by a mutual friend from school when Jamie was interested in my work. Jamie sent me her script and I was struck by the power of the story of Palm Tree and Power Lines. It was a story simply told with such force and emotional depth. The story felt like something told not by a writer, but by a teenager directly. I immediately recognized aspects of Lea, the main character, in my own youth. I think that I was able to approach this story with emotional authenticity and intimacy, which gave Jamie the confidence to trust me as a collaborator.

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?

Chotrungroj: We wanted to tell a dark story under the bright, warm lights of Southern California. I wanted it to feel personal and true but also have a forbidden quality. I framed Lea’s teenage life with vulnerability. I composed her world with a lot of emptiness to rhyme with her inner emotions. This emptiness is broken when Tom, Jonathan Tucker’s character, meets Lea. He visually commands the frame, as if his character’s influence on Lea is dominating.

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

Chotrungroj: For this film, I didn’t look to famous photographers or filmmakers for inspiration. I instead looked at real and intimate photos by Southern Californian families on social media. The family photos gave me a deeper connection to the people who lived in the suburbs our film was set in. I was also inspired by Jamie’s personal photography in California. This gave me a deeper connection to her as a collaborator.

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

Chotrungroj: We were a small crew and had to work nimbly with a tight schedule. Jamie and I addressed this partially by working with our team on creating a unified color palette and aesthetic for the film that is connected to the emotional life of Lea’s character. We also made choices with our camera framing and composed our shots very carefully to give each frame emotional depth. I’m also personally very grateful to the crew members who worked so hard on the film, as well as Panavision, who supported our production with their New Filmmaker program.

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

Chotrungroj: I wanted to shoot with a small camera to allow for as much spontaneity on set as possible with a lean crew. The Panavision DXLM was such a versatile fit for our production. We shot with the Panavision Ultra Speed set, which gave us smooth, realistic imagery to the eyes. The lenses captured the lively textures for the skins. I loved how the lenses represented colors with both richness and subtlety. The colors felt full but not too vibrant.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Chotrungroj: With lighting, we wanted to give the film a very natural look and capture the bright sun and dry heat of Southern California. For our interior scenes, we placed key lights outside the windows and used unbleached muslin and practical light as a fill light inside.

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

Chotrungroj: There are several scenes at the end of the film that were challenging. I can’t spoil the film, but our main character goes through a complex emotional arc through the sequence and we had to be inventive with our camera strategy to support the emotions in such a tight space.

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

Chotrungroj: Since we leaned towards realism, our color grading strategy with Katie Jordan was touching up what we had, adding grain and using a kodachrome film emulation to give a timeless look.

TECH BOX

Film Title: Palm Trees and Power Lines
Camera: DXLM / RED Weapon Gemini
Lenses: Panavision Ultra Speeds
Lighting: Available light and Arri Lights
Processing: DI
Color Grading: Katie Jordan at Light Iron (Baselight)

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