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“We Lost Quite a Bit of Time Waiting Out Lightning Storms”: DP Brian Lannin on The Starling Girl

A young girl with brown hair tied back in a low ponytail kneels beside her bed and folds her hands in prayer. Her eyes are open and she looks up.The Starling Girl, courtesy of Sundance Institute

Seventeen-year-old Jem Starling can’t help but feel out of place in her fundamentalist Christian community. The only person who seems to understand her is Owen (Lewis Pullman), her church’s youth pastor. He’s more than eager to get close to Jem (despite being a married man), making for a complicated relationship that will inevitably bear harsher consequences for Jem than her older male counterpart.

Brian Lannin, the film’s cinematographer, discusses his collaboration with director Laurel Parmet (who also happens to be his fiancé), the Kentucky shoot’s unpredictable weather and the film’s most difficult scene to shoot. 

See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here

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?

Lannin: Laurel Parmet, the director of The Starling Girl, is my fiancé, so it was not a traditional hiring process to say the least! I’ve been living with this film for many years so it seemed like a natural decision for me to shoot it. It was certainly a fortunate position to be in as a cinematographer.

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?

Lannin: This film is rooted in Jem Starling’s POV (the main character played by the incredible Eliza Scanlen). She’s in every scene and we are experiencing everything with her, in the moment. The audience is never ahead or behind Jem, in terms of receiving information, so I wanted the photography to support that, thematically. The goal was to be very present, intimate, somewhat reactionary, and subjective, without being too dogmatic about it. In terms of the visual storytelling and lensing, we are always with Jem, often handheld, seeing what she sees, feeling what she feels. 

A large part of the narrative deals with Jem’s relationship to her church and her community. We had a different visual language for Jem’s church life and her life outside of the church. Track and dolly were often employed in the church and then we would usually have the camera on the shoulder in the world outside, with some intentional exceptions. 

Given the subject matter, it was very important for us to not make the film feel judgmental, or to vilify certain characters and groups in the film. In terms of the light, I didn’t want the light to lead the viewer too far in one direction or the other in how it relates to one character or another. It was a constant balancing act of how to support the emotion of the scene, to create a strong look and mood, while not letting the light overly dramatize any given moment or character. The priority was always to emphasize Jem’s experience and her inner emotional life.

We also wanted the film to feel lush and verdant, to balance the heavy emotional weight of the film, which was a big part of the decision to shoot in Kentucky. 

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

Lannin: Laurel and I have been watching films and looking at still photography together for years so we are fortunate to have a shared language. There wasn’t any one leading influence for this film, although the work of countless cinematographers and photographers were probably quietly influencing our decisions in the moment.

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

Lannin: We were a small film on a very tight shooting schedule with the beautiful, yet unpredictable weather of Kentucky in the spring/summer. We lost quite a bit of time waiting out lightning storms and sudden downpours, which is very difficult for any shoot, let alone one on a compressed schedule.

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

Lannin: We shot on the ALEXA Mini LF, ARRIRAW Open Gate with a 1.85 extraction. We used the Zeiss Supreme Prime lenses, usually wearing some very light diffusion. The choice of camera and lenses were both practical and creative. I wanted something small, fast and beautiful and the Supreme Primes gave us all of that. I also happened to own the camera and lenses, so it afforded a lot of flexibility to the production and helped us put our resources into other things. It was a very simple camera package, just a single box of lenses!

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Lannin: Thematically, I was trying to balance a strong mood that supported where our main character was emotionally, with the natural beauty of the environment.   

Technically, I took a minimal naturalistic approach to the lighting. We had a small, but great crew, so generally we would be using one or two large HMI 18K Fresnel or a 9K Par sources for our day interiors and supplementing small LED fixtures on the inside as needed. For our night work, we had to be very selective about what we were going to light, given our resources. We embraced moonlight as a main, motivating light source, given the rural nature of the film and the amount of night work.

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

Lannin: There is a scene in the film at a creek at night which was practically and logistically the most complicated in the film to realize.  

Given our crew size and budgetary limitations, it was very difficult to find a location that worked narratively and that I could also realize photographically. We needed a body of water that wasn’t too large, with a safe and accessible place for our condor with an 18K HMI for our moonlight. It had to look completely remote, but also accessible for the actors and the crew. We scouted for a long time, until Laurel and I found a creek that satisfied all of our requirements. It wasn’t easy, but it was accomplishable. However, we had to get lucky with the weather because the water level would change drastically based on the amount of perception, which, if the weather wasn’t with us, would have made the location inaccessible.

From a filmmaking standpoint it was simple, but the logistics for our small crew were very complicated. Working in and around the water, far from our basecamp, in tough terrain proved to be a significant challenge. It was a long night in the water and the brush, but our actors were totally committed and delivered incredible performances so it was all worth it.

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

Lannin: I don’t believe in finding a look in the DI. It’s too late in the process, especially for a film like this. Our look was tested and predetermined before we started shooting. I shot tests with Laurel and we took that footage to Sean Coleman, our amazing colorist at Company 3. We built a LUT that was based on a strong print film look and dialed in the halation and grain that we were looking for prior to shooting. We wanted a timeless film look that could support the emotion of the main character and that would render the lush natural beauty of Kentucky. The final work in the DI was more polishing, matching time of day, and finer strokes of the digital brush.


Film Title: The Starling Girl

Camera: Alexa Mini LF

Lenses: Zeiss Supreme Prime

Lighting: HMI, LEDs (Arri, Astera, Digital Sputnik) Tungsten

Processing: Davinci Resolve

Color Grading: Sean Coleman at Company 3

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