“It Was -30 to -40 Degrees Celsius for Most of the Shoot”: DP Bryn McCashin on My Animal
Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), a hockey player with a troubled home life, becomes instantly drawn to figure skater Jonny (Amandla Stenberg) who’s just rolled into town. Despite being held captive in her own house during each full moon, Heather yearns to escape and have Jonny by her side. Teeming with queer sensuality and lust-fueled lycanthropy, director Jacqueline Castel’s My Animal injects originality into a classic monster mythology.
DP Bryn McCashin tells Filmmaker about lensing the film, which entailed frigid night shoots in Northern Ontario, Canada.
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?
McCashin: I was originally approached by the director Jacqueline Castel because she had seen some of my earlier short form work and felt that the aesthetic I had been able to capture in some of those projects was reminiscent of what she envisioned for this film. After chatting about the project with Jacqueline I really felt like the vision she had for the film fit extremely well with my style and way of thinking.
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?
McCashin: I think my goal always is to tell the story of each project in a way that is true to the source material, while also injecting my personal taste and style into the project. I think it’s the combination of all the parts of a film and the way they combine that makes each project unique, and so embracing your personal style is important. The story of My Animal was such a singular point of view, and I really wanted to use lensing to give this feeling of being along for the ride with the protagonist, while feeling the distance of all the other people in their life. We shot Heather, our protagonist, with wide lenses very close to her face, sometimes inches away from the mattebox, while we kept other characters at arms length with more traditional lensing. As the story progresses, we allow other characters to get close in lensing, and began to widen the lens selection even more during some of the most heightened scenes. Along with this, it was always important to me that the visual style felt grounded, but also somewhat elevated or supernatural. I think my approach to lighting is always somewhat stylized, and so finding the balance and arc between the real world of these characters, and the supernatural was important, and something I focused on a lot during prep.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
McCashin: We looked at some photography, Todd Hido, Greg Girard, and of course the classic Greg Crewdson, along with stills from films. I tend to think quite abstractly with references because my mind is often not able to compare images without them being identical to what I’m imagining. I find using references more so to just get across a vibe, feeling or color palette to be more my approach. I often feel like I don’t want to get too stuck on references, or I feel like it puts me in a box. Jacqueline already had such a strong Lookbook when I came on board, and I felt like it was right on the money, so we really didn’t have to go too far down the rabbit hole.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
McCashin: The biggest challenge was honestly just the weather and the environment we were shooting in. We were shooting mostly nights, in a town in Northern Ontario, in February. It was -30 to -40 degrees Celsius for most of the shoot, and there was close to 6 feet of snow on the ground. The cold was killing batteries and freezing the lenses, and if the camera turned off we would have to warm it up for a few minutes before it would power on again. The actors couldn’t be outside for more than a few minutes in their wardrobe, so we would be slate and roll the cameras before the actors even come out of the warming vehicles, without a chance to rehearse or even have a first team line up. I can say from first hand experience it is incredibly difficult to light with a stand in that is wearing a full face balaclava. Beyond the technical, the weather and the schedule were just incredibly physically demanding. Being from the west coast, I had never experienced colder than maybe -10, so to be outside for twelve hours a night in -40 weather was quite the challenge.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
McCashin: We shot the film on the Alexa Mini, with Ziess Super Speeds and a selection of Zeiss Standard Speeds for the wider focal length and to expand the set a bit. It was very important for me that the camera be as light as possible, as some of the sequences called for a lot of handheld movement and I wanted the ability to not be constrained by the weight of it. We used a backpack rig for probably 30% of the movie, taking all the accessories off the body and leaving me with a build that I could easily hold with one arm fully extended, allowing for very dynamic handheld camera movement. We also used a lensbaby and a selection of modified stills lenses that I bought off eBay and flipped around the front and rear elements, giving a super warped, wacky look for some of the dream sequences.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
McCashin: I always try to use light to build set pieces into a scene or location, much like a production designer would use physical items to create a space. This gives the actors something to interact with, and I think always elevates the scene to somewhere slightly beyond realism. Things like shafts of light or pockets of shadow, I start with broad strokes for the location and then get into the minutia on a shot by shot basis, but all informed by the broad strokes and its interaction with the scene. On a technical level I think my lighting on set looks quite sloppy, I often leave spill on walls, utilizing it for bounce, or straight up bounce a light off the environment to begin with. I find the imperfections in the light make it feel natural, the way light bounces off a real surface always has more texture and color than when it is bounced off a white bounce card, and while it looks sloppy it is very controlled and thought out, just not in the traditional way.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
McCashin: The scene I had the most difficulty with is actually one of the most understated scenes. An altercation happens in the family house kitchen, and we wanted the scene to be very dark and shadowy, the lights in the house are out for the night and our characters are sneaking around checking out the house when they are interrupted. To light a scene that dark with only small pockets of light for the actors to stand in, with multiple marks per actor and without letting the scene get bright was very challenging. I find it funny because there are sequences in the film that will instantly grab people’s attention visually and are very stylized, yet those scenes were often much easier to shoot. Often it is just making something feel real and motivated in the context of the story that can be the most difficult.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
McCashin: I actually brought an Alexa on the directors scout a few months before production and shot footage in each location. I then took that and spent a week on my own building a shooting LUT that I felt translated our look into the image, and had the right exposure curve for my taste and how I wanted to shoot it. I ended up putting in almost a stop of underexposure into the LUT to save me from myself when I would push the darkness too far, which was great but also allowed me to have a denser image in the shadows, not trying to pull mud out of the toe of the image, but pushing the midtones down into the shadows. When it came time to do the grade, the look was 80% of the way there. Our colorist Sam Gilling started from scratch and basically rebuilt my look but in a more textured, interesting way, and then it really was just a balance pass and more specific notes. The look was really already there.
Film Title: My Animal
Camera: Arri Alexa Mini
Lenses: Zeiss Super Speeds, Zeiss Standard Speeds, Lensbaby, Helios 44-2, MIR1b, Skaterscope
Lighting: LEDs, HMI, Tungsten
Colorist: Sam Gilling & Marc Boucrot