“The Gorgeous Light of LA Sunsets Always Seemed To Come Too Soon”: DP Derek Howard on The Tuba Thieves
The very real news story of tuba thefts occurring at a series of Southern California schools is the inspiration for The Tuba Thieves, visual artist Alison O’Daniel’s feature debut. Yet the film isn’t really about these odd crimes, focusing instead on abstract notions of sound and what is means to “listen,” particularly as it pertains to the d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing experience, a theme that has fueled much of O’Daniel’s artistic output.
The film’s cinematographer, Derek Howard, discusses how being an outsider to LA helped him capture the city more honestly, the benefits of his documentary background and the filmmakers the inspired him on this project.
Director Alison O’Daniel also offers insight into how she worked with several cinematographers before Howard, who served as the film’s third and final DP during a nearly decade-long 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?
O’Daniel: I began working on The Tuba Thieves with cinematographer Meena Singh in 2013. She and I filmed several segments of the film between 2013 and 2016. I was making this project piecemeal; I applied for grants, and if I won funding, I would look through the script and determine any sections that could stand on their own as short films. I couldn’t conceive of how it would be possible to raise the entire budget, and I’m impatient. This method of working is not for everyone, and it had its challenges, but it afforded me the opportunity to collaborate with a lot of different people. Cinematographer Judy Phu came onto the project in 2018 and we filmed several large sequences right before I began a concerted effort to fundraise to finish the entire feature. During the pandemic, I concentrated my efforts on raising the rest of the production budget to finish the feature and the bulk of the rest of the film. This is when Derek came onto the project. I’ve always thought of The Tuba Thieves like a game of telephone where some phrase, whether visual or aural, was being passed down the line, allowed to morph and change as it goes. Each cinematographer was listening to the previous, and passing it forward to take a new shape.
Howard: I came on to The Tuba Thieves because one of the consulting producers at the time, Su Kim, was someone I had been working with on four other projects around that time. She recommended I meet the director, Alison O’Daniel, and I happened to be in LA on another shoot at that time and we were able to sit down and get a sense if a collaboration would make sense. I think the fact that I was coming from a strong documentary background was advantageous to the style in which The Tuba Thieves team wanted to work in. I also think it worked well that I was not from LA and saw the city, which is very much a character in the film, with fresh eyes. I also had previously worked with one of the performers and musicians on the film (Christine Sun Kim), so I had some experience working with those who are Hard of Hearing. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community myself, I think it was a natural fit to work on a set that prioritized a sensitivity to different minority groups and marginalized communities.
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?
Howard: First and foremost, my goal is to help realize the vision of the director. Knowing that Alison was coming from a visual arts background, my own experiences shooting video art pieces while living in Berlin for ten years was a big advantage. The film operates in the spaces between documentary, narrative, and visual art. The goal was to let scenes play out sparsely without complex coverage, favoring long takes and scene shots with minimal inserts. Fluid tripod pans and tilts, mixed with gimbal, crane, drone, and car mount shots were used to create a fluid flow of movement that is more formal and slightly more detached than the feeling achieved through hand-held shots. Only for very specific scenes would we use a hand-held camera. For example, in one scene we actually passed the camera through a group of extras, having them guide the camera’s random movement themselves, resulting in a disorienting effect that breaks the formal flow. We also used a couple of big creeper zooms for dramatic effect, that fit nicely with our tendency towards highly subjective points of view, but with a formal quality.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, or photography, or something else?
Howard: Alison had a strong sense as to the visual style of the film and was able to share a look book that highlighted the central visual references for the film. The films of Miloš Forman, Lucrecia Martel, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul were a major source of inspiration in terms of compositional style, layering within the frame, internal rhythm, and an attention to textures. Visual artists such as Uta Barth and Wolfgang Tillmans were inspirational in their use of color, abstraction, and focus, allowing technical limitations to morph into bold aesthetic choices. Reflections, distortions, extremely shallow depth-of-field, and unconventionally balanced frames, and mixed media formats became our friends as we sought to unsettle and challenge the viewer in key moments throughout the film. From 2.8K, VHS, to HD hidden animal trap motion triggered cameras, the film uses a variety of formats to imply different time periods of modes of viewing.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Howard: As always, time is the number one enemy to realizing one’s artistic goals. With only so many hours in a day, and a strong desire for experimentation through improvisation, the gorgeous light of LA sunsets always seemed to come too soon. Numerous technical setups such as car mounts, telescoping cranes, and working on boats and canoes all became a time suck that greatly limited the actual time we had for purely creative work. Another challenging factor was the fact that we were sometimes working in a more documentary mode, so we had to wait for certain events to naturally occur. I recall waiting for what seemed like hours for a plane to taxi across an overpass or take off from a specific runway, or chasing plane shadows through neighborhoods. Often working with natural light, I would find myself in situations where the time period in which the light was ideal was very brief so we had to rush to get it done before we lost it.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Howard: The Tuba Thieves was shot on the ARRI ALEXA Mini camera with the entire range of Panavision Primo Primes. The Mini was the ideal choice for this project because it is small and adaptable, gimbal and crane ready, and had already been used on some previously filmed scenes. The vintage primes we used helped cut the digital sharpness and allowed for relatively low light filming due to their wide apertures. The apparent characteristic of the Primo lens series gave the film a slightly less contemporary feel (the film is loosely set around 2010) with gentle vignetting and beautiful flares and bokeh.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Howard: I approached the lighting on this project starting from a documentary style that first looks at what the naturally occurring lights are doing for the scene, and then detailing and sculpting from there. Negative fill was often used to create contrast and avoid needing to have big and time-consuming setups that are hard to move quickly. After I see how the natural sun or practical fixtures are playing, I would usually try to add a minimum of artificial lights such as quasar tubes and a spider (LED book light style bounced ambient light) to key the scene and throw accents around the set as needed. The idea was to avoid things looking too lit and maintain naturalism with a few exceptions. One of my favorite scenes is when lightning flashes near a garage and scares Nyke’s mom. We used a combination of ARRI SkyPanels and tubes to simulate the lightning flash, and then fake rain was backlit so it can be more easily seen. I love the combination of set dec, lighting effects, and great acting, that work together to sell and moment.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Howard: One of the most difficult scenes to realize was the above-mentioned lightning scene in the garage because it had so many factors and relied on precise timing. The lighting cue had to coincide with the actresses’ actions along with a cut in the power that resets a clock, all while dealing with fake rain. This scene took the most amount of coordination to pull off convincingly and was made even more challenging due to the extreme heat in the garage. Through a lot of patience and the good fortune of working with a fantastic actress, we got the shots after a few very humid and steamy hours.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Howard: The look was really being built from the ground up when post-production started. I was able to send notes remotely and help massage the footage towards a look that best serves the story. Notes would be implemented by the grader and then we would use frame io to upload reels back to me to review and make more notes. Since the film was shot for such a long period of time, we had to bring together the different formats and make them match when that was desired.
Film Title: The Tuba Thieves
Camera: Arri Alexa Mini
Lenses: Panavision Primo Primes
Lighting: Arri skypanel, quasar tubes, spider, 2k, 1k, 650W tungsten, lite-mates, neg fill
Color Grading: Splendor Omnia (Mexico)