“We Wanted To Get Creative With Negative Space”: DP Dan Adlerstein on Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls
Director Andrew Bowser brings one of his most well-known comedy characters to the big screen in Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls. Onyx the Fortuitous (Bowser) is a struggling amateur occultist who believes he’s made it to the big leagues when he’s invited to a demonic seance by his idol Bartok the Great. When they manage to rouse the ancient spirit, however, he must fight to save his life—and his soul.
DP Dan Adlerstein discusses his longtime collaboration with Bowser, bringing the film’s specific brand of horror-comedy to life and more.
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?
Adlerstein: I’ve worked with writer/director Andrew Bowser for years on various projects including branded content, commercials, and short films. Collaborating with Andrew is always such a pleasure and we’ve developed a really great working relationship. When he told me he was writing a film centered on his Onyx character I could not have been more excited to be a part of it.
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?
Adlerstein: My approach to my cinematography on any film starts first and foremost with character and story. I firmly believe everything should be in service to that, and as such, I try not to implement some sort of preconceived overarching personal style onto the film. And I try not to see sheer beauty or visual dynamism as a goal in and of itself. I’ve had the good fortune of shooting a wide variety of projects over my career and playing in many different styles and genres. While Onyx is an incredibly unique film that deserved its own distinctive visual storytelling — in many ways, the goals are always the same. Tell the story.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, or photography, or something else?
Adlerstein: Onyx was conceived by Andrew as a throwback to 80s adventure/horror/comedy films such as Ghostbusters, Fright Night and Gremlins. These movies are fully embedded in Andrew’s DNA as a filmmaker, and the first thing he did was give me a list of about 15 of them to watch. Everything from Gremlins to Monster Squad. But early on in our discussions we agreed that while Onyx should feel like a throwback, it shouldn’t exactly look like one. When those films came out, to those audiences they felt modern. So instead of copying ‘80s movies aesthetics and tropes, we set out to shoot a modern-looking movie, with modern sensibilities, that would evoke the same emotions and sense of wonder.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Adlerstein: From the beginning, we knew that striking that fine balance between horror, adventure and comedy would be tricky to say the least. In some ways, horror and comedy visuals can seem diametrically opposed. In comedy it’s about seeing the joke while in horror it can often be about what you don’t see. But Andrew and I discussed how in many ways Onyx is a “fish out of water” story. This ridiculous character finds himself in serious situations with serious consequences. So the comedy was actually served more often than not by the movie feeling more like horror. The more serious the visuals, the more funny the character of Onyx became.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Adlerstein: We shot on an ARRI ALEXA Mini with Atlas Orion anamorphics. With ARRI cameras I just find their rendition of colors, skin tones, exposure gradation and fall off to be second to none. In terms of lenses, one of the first decisions Andrew and I made was for Onyx to be shot anamorphic. Yes, we wanted that grand and epic feel that anamorphic can help provide. But also — Onyx is an ensemble piece, and the 2.39 aspect ratio would allow for more natural framing of group shots. We wanted to get creative with negative space. We wanted the shallow depth of field to give a sense of mystery to the surroundings. And knowing we’d have many candles in the background of shots, we thought the anamorphic bokeh would help reinforce the gothic mood and atmosphere of the location.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Adlerstein: We wanted the lighting to have a gradual yet distinct progression throughout the film. When our characters first arrive at Bartok’s estate there’s a sense of excitement and optimism about them. For daytime, we start with the light pouring in through windows — hard splashes of sun bouncing off surfaces and illuminating the interior. But as their weekend at the estate progresses, we played the interior lighting as softer and bluer as if it was getting more overcast outside. Trouble is brewing. For our nighttime scenes we started with a soft, warm, safe feeling glow. But as the stakes are raised and danger begins to abound, we played the moonlight coming through the windows more and more and the interior tungsten less and less. The idea being that the cold dangerous night is penetrating the safe warm interior.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Adlerstein: There’s a crucial scene about 40 min into the film where things really take a turn tonally. In many ways, it’s the first horror scene in the film. We had an entire plan for the scene that we had shot listed during prep. But when we blocked the scene right before lunch on an overnight, that approach seemed daunting, if not impossible to achieve in the time allotted to shoot. So there we are, about midnight at lunch, and we come up with a drastically different approach to the scene — something much more subjective with Onyx’s experience of the events unfolding. There would be no wide shots, with almost the entire scene being shot in close ups. The visuals became more expressive, more intimate, and more bold. We went with the new plan, and it turned out to be my favorite scene in the movie.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Adlerstein: It’s very important to me to make what we shoot on set look as close as possible to what we want for the finished film. I want the editor to be editing with what we intend the film to look like. A lot of the emotional weight of certain scenes, or shots, or moments might change with different visuals and those might lead to a different edit. Even though we didn’t have a dailies colorist, I took great pride in the fact that the first rough cut looked pretty darn good and close to what we wanted. Now that being said, a great colorist can be invaluable and truly take your visual storytelling to the next level. We were lucky enough to work with Tyler Roth at Company 3 who has an amazing eye and did a fantastic job. He didn’t just make the film look better, he made the film better — full stop.
Film Title: Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls
Camera: Arri Alexa Mini
Lenses: Atlas Orion Anamorphics
Color Grading: Company 3