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“We Wanted to Keep the Film Grounded”: DP Cristina Dunlap on Am I Ok?

Still from Am I Ok? (Photo: Emily Knecht)

In Am I Ok?, the directorial debut of Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne, a pair of best friends have their lifelong friendship suddenly confused by one taking a job offer in London and the other coming out of the closet to confess her romantic feelings. Below, cinematographer Cristina Dunlap discusses how she avoided the stereotypical overlit comedy without making the film too serious and burying the jokes in the process.

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?

Dunlap: The script came to me through my agents at Gersh. I saw that Dakota Johnson was attached and was excited because I had worked with Dakota and her producing partner Ro Donnelly a few months earlier when Dakota directed a Coldplay music video. We had a wonderful time working together and I was excited for the opportunity to work with her in a new capacity. We started production mid-pandemic, so I virtually met with what I thought would be only the directors Tig Notaro & Stephanie Allynne, only to find about 10 other people on the Zoom. It was quite intimidating, but the meeting went well and everyone was so warm and collaborative. It was really an incredible group of people and I feel lucky to have gotten to work with them.

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?

Dunlap: Am I Ok? is a relatable, poignant, and often humorous look at the transformative power of human vulnerability. Talking through the visual language with directors Stephanie Allynne and Tig Notaro and writer Lauren Pomerantz, we knew we wanted to keep the film grounded and relatable while still playing into the comedic aspects of the film. I wanted to keep Lucy & Jane’s worlds visually distinct. Jane is quite self-assured and confident, so oftentimes we were more centered and conventional when framing her character. With Lucy, we tended to keep things a bit looser and less strict, letting her live on the edges of the frame or be entirely in silhouette if that was the mood of the scene.

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

Dunlap: When shotlisting the film I looked at many references with Tig and Stephanie. While trying to find a cover image for the lookbook, I came across the photographer Anja Niemi and felt her images captured the perfect tone to begin exploring the visual language of Am I Ok? Her photographs explore the constraints of conformity and self-discovery while still maintaining a self-awareness and quirky humor that makes them feel approachable. Keeping this feeling in mind, we used the invaluable tool Shot Deck, created by Lawrence Sher, to further explore color palettes and lighting references.

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

Dunlap: As with most indie films, time and budget were a big challenge. COVID certainly didn’t help. We had to shut down several times, but everyone was so excited about the project and committed to finishing that we never lost steam.

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

Dunlap: We shot on an Alexa Mini with a mixture of Cooke Speed Panchros and S4s. It was important to us to make sure to capture the spirit of Los Angeles without it feeling parodied, but with it still being self aware. I thought the Cooke Panchros, with their warmth and gentle fall off, were a great choice for helping to bring a sun drenched feel to our locations. We knew that we were going to be spending a lot of time up close and personal with Lucy & Jane in their cramped apartment and workplace environments. Cooke Panchros are amongst my favorite for shooting faces and portraits. Not only do they have a flattering softness and painterly quality, but they are unobtrusive in size so it is easy to get physically where you need to be in the scene as an operator.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Dunlap: After doing our initial lighting tests with actresses Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno, my gaffer and I found that we were partial to an unbleached muslin bounce fill for our more intimate interiors. So much of the story takes place in the characters’ homes, so we wanted their individual spaces to feel warm and inviting. I wanted to be cautious about not having a super bright overlit comedy. While there are so many funny moments in the film, the story is so personal and honest and I wanted to honor that with the lighting.

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

Dunlap: The most difficult scene in the film was by far the Hammock Sanctuary. I believe this scene was on the schedule at least four different days before we were finally able to shoot it. We kept having to move the shoot day due to weather or COVID scares. My poor rigging gaffer kept having to lay hundreds of feet of cable and then strike it, usually in the rain. It ended up being pushed to the final week of shooting, and of course on that day we had a hail storm in Los Angeles.

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

Dunlap: I like to set the look before filming. I have learned that if people are used to looking at one LUT on set and in the edit and then it is drastically different after the DI it can cause a lot of complications. I worked with Katie Jordan at Light Iron to finalize the look. We spent a lot of time dialing in the final look together, but it remained pretty close to the original vision.

TECH BOX

Film Title: Am I Ok?
Camera:
Alexa Mini
Lenses:
Cooke Speed Panchros
Lighting: 
Tungsten, HMI, LED
Processing: 
3.2K ProRes
Color Grading: DaVinci Resolve

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