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“The Alexa Has a Wonderful Creaminess to Its Capture”: DP Scott Miller on A Little Prayer

A family unpacks a mini van and carries their belongings into a new home.A Little Prayer, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

In writer-director Angus MacLachlan’s A Little Prayer, a father-son relationship becomes strained when family patriarch Bill (David Strathairn) discovers that his son David (Will Pullen) is cheating on his wife Tammy (Jane Levy). While attempting to guide David back onto the path of monogamy, he realizes that his own bad habits might have unintentionally been passed down to his son.

DP Scott Miller tells Filmmaker about the shoot, including his affinity for the Alexa Mini on this project.

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?

Miller: The producer had reached out to cinematographer Tim Orr, whom I worked with as a gaffer a while back, and I am grateful he passed my name along to the production. The shoot was in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which has a supportive and close knit community for filmmaking. The last time I had worked on a feature in NC was with Tim, on David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls, and it was wonderful to be back. From there I began a correspondence with the director, via Zoom, six months prior to the shoot. It was precious time. We had a chance to explore the story, emotions, and characters together. We shared references. The time enabled us to create a shorthand and a trust. It became fundamental when faced with a quick prep and shoot on location.

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?

Miller: As I worked with the director remotely prior to the shoot, he shared his desire for the images in the film to feel as if they were illuminated from within, that the soul and and heart of the characters would glow. There is a lot of darkness in the characters and the story, but not on the surface.  The lensing approach went hand in hand, keeping the photography simple, and trying to find the right place for the camera. The photography was not to lead but to accompany.  While the characters in the film encounter challenges and darker times, the camera and the lighting were to accentuate the warmth and love still between the family. We made a decision to film with a 1.59 aspect ratio. The frame for me contributes to a feeling of bearing witness, to that of a photograph or a portrait.

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

Miller: We looked at the Hudson River School painters, including Federic Church (whose work features in the film), also directors Mike Leigh, Renoir, Peter Bogdanovich. Photographers included Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sally Mann and William Eggleston.

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

Miller: We had a short prep/shoot schedule with a goal of 10 hour days. COVID chased us around while 1st AD Jake Heineke nimbly reorganized our schedule mid-shoot, and we had to embrace filming day for night in some challenging locations, to keep up the pace. Filming during a heat wave and the longest days of summer was a real challenge. If we had a morning/late afternoon exterior, we had one chance to film with beautiful light, which like any day on set, is fleeting.

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

Miller: We filmed with the Alexa MiniLF and Canon K35’s from Adorama NY. The Alexa has a wonderful creaminess to its capture, and the older glass of the K35’s lent a softness and roundness to the image. As the shoot progressed we began to rely on the 45mm focal length. I often find there is a lens that becomes the hero lens on a shoot, and for us it was the 45mm. It framed our story.  We filmed full frame/open gate, and finished with an aspect ratio of 1.59.  

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Miller: The approach to lighting was to keep the film anchored in naturalism and to allow space for the cast and director to move freely in our sets, which were all on location.  Whenever possible this included keeping light sources outside the windows, with a mix of bounced sources accentuated with highlights from small mirrors and reflectors.  

MacLachlan and I discussed how the light should glow from within, especially the scenes inside the Brass family house. Throughout A Little Prayer, the Brass family members are faced with challenges and  revelations about their loved ones actions, the lighting was a container of warmth that enveloped the family, while they processed the challenges of loving each other.

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

Miller: One of the most rewarding scenes for me is when one of our characters visits a doctor’s office. We decided to shoot the scene in one shot, and stay with what the character is experiencing. The camera moves 360˚ around the character in the room. I felt the circuitous motion would echo what the character was experiencing—from where they start, what they journey through, and finish as they find their resolve. The set was very small, and because of the size, there was only room for our two actors, myself, and the camera on the dolly.  We flooded the room with light from the lone window. I slowly pushed the dolly around with my other hand on the pan handle, and kept a slow pace. The performance was so wonderful I didn’t have room for error. I won’t forget the scene and the wonderful cast and crew I was with that day.

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

Miller: I think we found much of the look of the film on set. We did not utilize LUT’s. I would change the Alexa’s color temperature and green/magenta scale. Colorist Jane Tolmachyov did amazing work stitching the look of the film together at Goldcrest Post in NYC. At the start of coloring we tried a few different directions and contrast levels for the look of the film. The director, working remotely, would bring us back to what we first captured on set, which Jane translated as “letting more air into the room,” a look with softer contrast and a warmer palette.


Film Title: A Little Prayer

Camera: Alexa Mini LF

Lenses: Canon K35 primes, K35 zoom

Lighting: HMI’s, Skypanels, NYX kit, Paper Lanterns, Small tungsten

Processing: ProRes 4.5k 3:2 open gate, aspect ratio 1.59

Color Grading: Goldcrest Post NY, Jane Tolmachyov

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