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“Rendering American Urban Landscapes as a Character”: DP Derek Howard on PLAN C

A group of women sit around a long dining table, eating food and drinking wine while having conversation.PLAN C, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

When a marked increase in abortion restrictions and bans began unfolding across the country, Francine Coeytaux knew she had to step up and do something. As a result, she formed the grassroots organization Plan C, which lends its name to Tracy Droz Tragos’s documentary about Coeytaux’s fight for everyone’s right to abortion medication and broader reproductive health services.

Cinematographer Derek Howard tells Filmmaker all about his experience shooting PLAN C.

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?

Howard: I had been working with one of Tracy’s producers, Su Kim, on a number of other projects, so she also connected me with Tracy in the first place. We started working on Tracy’s follow up to Rich Hill, and we found we worked very well together and it made sense to continue collaborating on her next project which was in development at the time. Both Tracy and I have a lot of respect and trust in Su as a producer and team builder, so it was a very comfortable and easy match right from the start. They both knew I had a lot of verité experience and a history of working on visually driven creative docs, so my previous work experiences were a good fit for this particular project.

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: My goal is always to align as closely as possible to the director’s vision and then try to enhance it with my own personal style and input. I knew this film was going to be dealing with some very intense topics and extremely personal, vulnerable stories, so keeping the camera set up and team as minimal as possible was going to be a big advantage. I used a hand-held approach to be able to follow quick and dynamically unfolding moments that are often unpredictable. The mixture of wide shots that show characters in context, cut with extreme close-ups that are often slightly abstracted, became the dominant mode we covered scenes in. We knew we wanted a more cinematic aesthetic to separate it from many other more journalistic approaches to this subject matter, so we used Cooke Pancho/iClassic prime lenses to give it a more filmic quality. These older compact primes have a beautiful translation that cuts the sharpness, introduces very pleasing flares, and are good for working in low light situations, offering a lot of flexibility. With this tight set up, I was able to embed myself with our subject as much as possible and achieve that “fly-on-the-wall” closeness that we needed to tell these intimate stories.

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

Howard: Tracy has built a body of work that revolves around reproductive rights, so her previous films were a very helpful reference. A doc I had recently shot called The Hottest August was another source of inspiration in terms of its verité approach, sense of space and time, and striving to get away from talking heads and film interviews in a more creative way (often starting wider than what is convention and ending much tighter and abstracted). Since Plan C was filmed all over the country, I was looking at photographers like Robert Franks and Walker Evans, who road tripped the nation and captured everyday scenes in stark and beautiful compositions. The textures of small town America became part of the interstitial glue of the film. I remember channeling films like Dina and The Florida Project when filming colorful yet banal suburban scenes around the country. The painting of David Hockney and Edward Hopper also offered useful references to rendering American urban landscapes as a character itself.

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

Howard: The biggest challenge while shooting Plan C was to find creative solutions for filming subjects who needed to remain anonymous for security reasons. Certain subjects [that] we would return to several times throughout the film needed to have their identities protected, so I had to explore how to film an interview with them and capture their presence and vibe without showing any full faces. Long lenses like a 75 or 100mm were used to film abstract details such as hands, feet, the edge of a face, or a silhouette by a window. Over the course of a long interview it gets difficult to find new angles and compositions, so searching for fresh ways to convey a subject’s presence without actually seeing them clearly was a big obstacle that was overcome mostly through experimentation and abstraction, made possible in large part due to the prime selection we were lucky to have available to us. 

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

Howard: I used a Canon c500mkII with Cooke Panchro/iClassic primes. I put the camera in Super35mm crop sensor mode to avoid any vignetting on these vintage primes that are 35mm optimized. The director had purchased this camera and lens setup, so it was the natural choice to go forward with. It was great for long rolling takes and long hours of hand-held due to its compact size and weight.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting:

 Howard: In the majority of scenes in Plan C, available lighting was utilized. Because it was mostly a verité shoot, I didn’t have the luxury of pre-lighting and would often arrive on location with minimal time to set up. I would position subjects near natural light sources, lamps, and windows, or sometimes remove overhead lighting sources and let natural ambient daylight key the scene. For a few specific interviews I would use simply 750W tungsten lamps shot through diffusion to lift the key light a little and pump-up light thrown from artificial sources. I would sometimes use a reflective bounce or white cloth to lift faces. 

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

Howard: One of the most challenging scenes to film was this large group gathering of the main players in the abortion pills access fight. They rented a large house in a suburban setting that was relatively uncinematic, dark, and visually drab. The lighting in the house was quite unflattering and a big mixture of different color temperatures. I dealt with it by turning off as many lights as I could, opening (and sometimes closing) blinds to control daylight spill and to try and create some ratios on faces and natural contrast to get away from flatness. The sheer number of main subjects I had to cover in an awkward space presented a definite challenge. The saving grace was we had enough time and flexibility from the subjects as to when and where we could stage scenes, so it worked out in the end.

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

 Howard: We shot in Canon C-log, raw, capturing the widest latitude “negative” possible to maximize our options in post-production. The Panchro glass certainly bakes in a certain vintage aesthetic with an overall de-sharpening, slight vignetting, and beautifully shallow depth of field and bokeh. The color balance and contrast levels were all dialed in precisely during the DI. I was able to consult remotely using frame io to work with the colorist in real-time on his initial passes of the film to set looks and supervise the progress. 


Film Title: Plan C

Camera: Canon C500mkII

Lenses: PCooke Panchro/iclassic

Lighting: lowel 750W tungsten lamps, umbrella diffusion, bounce reflector, practical lamps

Color Grading: Different by Design / davinci resolve.

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