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“You Live and Die by Your Crew”: DP Doug Emmett on The American Society of Magical Negroes

A Black man receives a medal while a crowd of onlookers cheers.Still from The American Society of Magical Negroes.

Riffing on the eponymous stock trope recognizable in so many American films, The American Society of Magical Negroes tells the story of Aren, the latest recruit to a secret society of magical Black people who use their powers to make the lives of white people easier. The Sundance 2024 premiere is the debut film for director Kobi Libii.

The film’s cinematographer Doug Emmett has a number of recognizable credits under his belt, including The Edge of Seventeen and Sorry to Bother You. Below, he humorously recounts difficulties mounting a set three floors underground and details the inspirations behind the film’s look.

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?

Emmett: During our initial interview, Kobi and I realized we shared a similar concept of the style and look for The American Society of Magical Negroes. We liked the idea of embracing a style that was slightly reminiscent of the American “Black savior” films of the past century and fusing it with a modern aesthetic, all told from the perspective of our protagonist. We had an easy time discussing the challenging themes of this movie together and both saw the cultural potential for this story.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them?

Emmett: The most noticeable cinematography choice we made was in how the spaces are lit and photographed. The Society scenes have an obvious style that is colorful, a nod to Afro-centric color, with bolder compositions and playful camera movement. There’s a lot of contrast and richness to those scenes. It has a uniqueness—a bit of magic—that is specific to the space. The MeetBox office is a more traditionally lit location that intentionally “plays it safe” style-wise. We needed a look that would juxtapose nicely with The Society location. It was important to maintain some lightness and not let ourselves go uber dark, because at its heart this film is a comedy. Toeing that line wasn’t easy and I thought we did a good job balancing a rich, deep tapestry without making the film too moody.

Filmmaker: How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Emmett: At its heart, this film is a hero’s journey—a journey within Aren’s mind and soul to self-actualization. It was necessary we maintain Aren’s point of view the entire time. There were elements of our photography that could convey his wonderment, his confusion, his frustration and his power. Using cinematography to zero in on the character’s emotional state is so enjoyable.

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

Emmett: There were—movies like The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Green Mile served as reference to classic “Magical Negro” films of the ’90s. There are some nods to those films in our photography.

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

Emmett: Our challenges were no different than any other ambitious indie film: We would have loved more shooting days and more time to craft challenging VFX shots. We had smart producers and a supportive team at Focus Features, so ultimately we had enough to pull off a challenging schedule. I credit the entirety of our crew and producers for this success. Specifically, we chose a lovely but difficult location for The Society. We spent a lot of time in the Los Angeles Theater in DTLA (97% of the film shot in DTLA). We were three floors below ground with no elevators. It was a massive effort to build sets down there and light these big spaces without traditional rigging equipment. Wireless, battery-operated lights helped tremendously in this location.

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

Emmett: Sony Venice and Tribe7 Blackwing. The camera has lovely dynamic range and is a great starting point for color in the DI suite. I find the camera very functional while shooting on location. With a full set of internal NDs and high ISO, we are able to make creative choices quickly that sometimes I might not make with other systems.

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

Emmett: Lighting the great hall of The Society was most complicated. We had to build scaffolding three floors below ground to access a huge oval array of glass panels 30 feet up in the celling. The glass, we were told, was irreplaceable, and the points to rig inside were few and far between. The electric team did an amazing job filling the glass ceiling with 40 Astera tubes. Of course, on day one we ran into major wireless interference between our dimmer board and the wireless frequencies used by the sound and camera department. We were scrambling and pulling out our hair trying to get the bulbs to respond without causing our camera follow focus to erratically shift focus. I went and got a coffee while my gaffer Jeff Chin and first assistant Buddy Allen Thomas figured it out. You live and die by your crew.

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

Emmett: We shoot raw and essentially start fresh in the DI. We used a show LUT that colorist Natasha Leonnet designed for our film. We referenced Kodak Ektachrome from the ’70s for certain colors and added a new film emulation product called Invizigrain to our finished grade. The Invizigrain replicates grain but also emulates the red bloom and halation you get while processing film negative. It is a remarkable new technology that I would love to implement on my next movie.


Film Title: The American Society of Magical Negroes

Camera: Sony Venice

Lenses: Blackwing

Lighting: Astera & Arri

Color Grading: Natasha Leonnet

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