Building LUTs From 35mm Tests: DP Jasper Wolf on Bodies Bodies Bodies
In A24’s Bodies Bodies Bodies, a clique of privileged twentysomethings retreats to an upstate New York manor to ride out a hurricane in style. They’re soon being bumped off one by one in a Gen Z variation of Agatha Christie. It’s basically 10 Little Influencers, a slasher-esque satire shot with glow stick-fueled style by Dutch cinematographer Jasper Wolf.
With the movie now out on physical media and VOD, Wolf spoke to Filmmaker about using film tests to create digital LUTs, stressing out the prop master with an array of actor-wielded flashlights and using characters’ emotions rather than practical sources to motivate light.
Filmmaker: I’ve heard director Halina Reijn talk about everything from Lord of the Flies to Heathers to the work of Larry Clark and John Cassavetes. What were some of your visual inspirations? What did you have in your lookbook?
Wolf: I’m in the habit of using mostly still photographers to start off with. We talked from the beginning about this film being about young people in an erotic atmosphere in this dark house. I was very much interested in textures of skin tones. So, I started sharing the work of photographers like Nan Goldin and Bill Henson, whose work was a big inspiration, especially if you’re interested in beautiful porcelain skin tones in very dark atmospheres.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the prep process for Bodies Bodies Bodies. You’ve worked with Halina in the past as both an actress and director and she brought you on even before the screenwriter who adapted the source material.
Wolf: She is one of the best actresses in the Netherlands as well, so she brings a lot to the table. She did invite me into the process from a very early stage. Because it was during [peak COVID], we weren’t sure when the film would really go. The good side of that was we had a bit longer prep than we would normally have.
We started the process [in the Netherlands], showing each other references and starting to get a clear idea of what we had in mind. There was also a big change in the script. When we first started thinking about the film, it was going to be set during a big winter storm that developed into a hurricane. Later, when we came to the States, we started doing rehearsals with stand-ins [in the filming location] and were able to go through the whole script. Although we had developed an official plan that we formed during prep, we were very free during the first tests to explore and to try to find what else was possible beyond what was on the page. Halina pressed to also have real rehearsals with the cast. That was a challenge for production, because we have a big ensemble cast, but we were able to have another week to work with the cast and give them a lot of space to add to the process.
Filmmaker: You shot on the Alexa Mini LF. What lenses did you use?
Wolf: I tested some different lenses and finally settled on the Panavision Primos, which are not large format lenses, but Panavision was very helpful [in making the set work for the LF]. I really like the way those lenses translate faces, and we knew that we would be shooting a lot of closeups. I was very pleased with the results.
Filmmaker: Panavision was able to tweak the Primos so they would cover the whole sensor?
Wolf: We tweaked the wide angle lenses to extend them a bit so that we could use up to a 21mm, but I never really felt that we needed to go much wider than that. Maybe there’s one or two shots in the movie, but since we are in such grand spaces and are so close most of the time to the actors, we stayed a lot in the 32mm to 40mm range.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the first shot of the movie, which is a long handheld shot of a kiss in the park.
Wolf: It was a very deliberate choice to start the film with something that was very much like spring—something that could flower or potentially start to flower, like this new love affair between our two protagonists.
Filmmaker: The camera feels like it’s very physically close to the actors in that shot.
Wolf: That’s true. It’s also something that I like about the first shot of a movie, that [it] foreshadows the style of what the film is going to be. So, it was definitely important to be very physically close to the actors, to feel that you are actually in their intimate space and that it’s OK to be there.
Filmmaker: You used a unique process to create your LUTs. You shot some film tests, then built the LUTs out of those tests.
Wolf: I shot tests with a couple of different stocks. We shot a 50 ASA and a 500 tungsten. The LUT is kind of a mix, something that we recreated with the colorist Damien van der Cruyssen from Harbor, who was amazing. I showed him my references and the look that I was after, then I showed him the tests. Because most of the film is set at night, if we had actually shot on film we would have definitely ended up shooting a 500 tungsten stock. So, I knew the grain structure and the texture would definitely end up with something like a 500 tungsten stock, but I was also interested to see if the colors could be a bit more daylight. It turned out that most of the colors in the LUT are more from the 50 daylight tests and the grain and texture are more from the 500 tungsten tests. Then I did another round of tests with the real cast in their costumes and makeup to see how our look would hold up. After that, we finalized the LUT, and I was pretty happy with how it worked.
Filmmaker: In the early section of the film where you have the entire ensemble together, how did you approach covering those scenes? How many cameras did you have?
Wolf: We had two cameras for the run of show. I think the big scenes we did in the living room were the only scenes where we did multiple cameras shooting at the same time. For those early scenes we were a bit more static and wide angle than the rest of the film so that you can feel how the group behaves as one. From there, we developed into a more disorienting and much looser style, and much more single camera.
Filmmaker: Is there a science or a formula to figuring out the order of coverage for an ensemble? How do you determine which actor to shoot tighter coverage on first and which to do last?
Wolf: It’s an interesting question and I always ask the director, because it’s so personal. Directors always have an urge or a basic feeling about [the order]. For this film, and in general when I’m working with Halina, we try to approach every scene as if it’s an ongoing process. Any of the actors can end up in the shot at any time. We may start on a close-up of one actor, but then the camera might [make an unplanned] pan to the left or right. So, the actors have to be on the tip of their toes in every take. We shoot extensive long takes with the whole scene as if it’s a play. That’s very challenging and tiring for the actors, because they have to give it their all every take. Then, sometimes when you do the reverses, you have to go back and do [the original side of the coverage] again, because something changes in the scene that’s interesting. Scenes develop and sometimes you need to go back and give [a previous piece of the coverage] another shot.
Filmmaker: One of the things I really love about what you do in this movie is that in every frame there are all these little lighting specials peppered around the room. Whether it’s under a lamp shade or on a drink cart, you have all these pops of color.
Wolf: That’s exactly what we were after, to give it a lot of texture and make all these elements of some sort of importance. We always talked about the house being a character as well—not in a haunted way, but more to give some insight or backstory about what kind of characters we were portraying. They live in a world where they can afford to put emphasis on everything. They have the money to put these neon lights—which we used Astera tubes for—in their living room, and they have access to booze and to these beautiful carpets. Something that we also really wanted to do is give every space its own color, which is something that’s also done with the wardrobe, where every character gets their own color scheme. The living room was David’s room [the character played by Pete Davidson]. It’s almost like a hotel nightclub.
Filmmaker: How did you create the overall ambiance for the living room?
Wolf: We made a big 8’ x 8’ overhead top source, then I put a lot of practicals and details in the frame. Because later in the movie so much of the lighting is done with flashlights and headlamps that were very frontal, I wanted these early scenes to have soft top light, so the characters looked at their best—almost as if they are ready for an Instagram picture.
Filmmaker: You talked about every room having its own color scheme. The house’s gym is definitely the red room, though you pop in some color contrast with these cooler lights that line the bottom of the gym wall and the blue sleep mask worn by Lee Pace’s character.
Wolf: Early in our location search we found these pictures of an in-home gym with a basketball court, and it had these typical American exit signs, which gave me a good motivation to have the scene be super red. To counter that red, I thought it would be great to add some strips of light. We were always asking ourselves what other light sources we could add to the scene or what could we give to the cast. We came up with the idea of Alice [Rachel Sennott] having this beautiful necklace made of [glow] tubes, which wardrobe made for us, then added that blue meditation mask for Lee’s character.
Filmmaker: Is that a practical mask that emits that blue light or did you have to goose it a little?
Wolf: We did tweak it a little bit. We had a choice between a few of them and picked this one just because we liked the color the best. Then, together with the gaffer, we had to make sure that it was not overexposed. We had to put some tape on it and tweak it a little bit. The same with the LEDs [along the wall of the gym]. If you’re working in very low exposures, they can often be too bright.
Filmmaker: Once the house’s electricity goes out, each character gets their own source of illumination. You’ve got glow sticks, flashlights, phones and a headlamp. How did you choose those sources?
Wolf: I requested tons of those lights, then just tested the hell out of them. For example, I wanted to look at all different brands of phones to see the different colors of the specific lights each phone had. We also wanted the source to work for the character. Maria’s character uses her phone for a light; her phone is connected to her [by a lanyard] because she doesn’t want to lose it. So. in collaboration with the costume designer, we tried to choose lights that would fit the character and make them into these little icons.
On a practical level, we had to tweak some of the lights a little bit if they were too bright, but most of the time we just tried to find the right light. I know it was quite stressful for the prop master, because they had to make sure that all the batteries were fully charged, because we were so dependent on those lights for our exposure. If the battery started to drop too much, then the exposure was not right or the flares were not like what I wanted them to be.
Filmmaker: Did you stay around 800 ISO once the lights go out or did you bump it up?
Wolf: One of the reasons that I was keen on shooting large format was the fact that it’s so super clean even if you bump the ISO to 1280 or even to 1600. I do like a certain rawness to the image, but the large format has a quality where you can feel the texture and digital noise while still having a little bit more sharpness and definition than the Alexa Mini [with its Super 35-sized sensor]. We only went up to 2,000 or 2,500 for a couple of shots and I don’t think we did any noise reduction on any of the shots.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the idea of motivating light. Once the lights are out, you’re still placing these splashes of color in the frame without any motivating source. I enjoyed that approach here. There are so many horror films now with iPhone or flashlight illuminated scenes where it’s just that source and utter blackness.
Wolf: I talked with Halina about the lighting being emotionally motivated to some extent. We didn’t want to be completely out of control and lose our sense of realism, but it was still also very important to me that the lighting worked on an emotional level. So, maybe that color or that light source is there because it gives a better representation of a character’s fear or jealousy or vanity. That’s something we also tried to explain to the production designer, to try to find abstractions instead of just being too attached to only realism.