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“We’re There To Solve Logistical Problems All Day Every Day”: DP Steve Yedlin on Winner

A young woman with blond hear wears a blazer and stands in a building lobby adorned with American flags.Winner, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Based on the real-life whistleblower who leaked an intelligence report exposing Russian interference in the 2016 election, director Susanna Fogel’s Winner depicts the events leading up to Texas native Reality Winner’s eventual arrest and sentencing.

Cinematographer Steve Yedlin describes his approach to shooting Fogel’s film, which included not getting caught up with references and “not being a slave to superstition” when it came to choosing a camera. 

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?

Yedlin: Susanna and I had been trying to work together for years, but the schedules never worked out. I was really excited to finally get to do it on this one, especially on such a great story that she and I are both really passionate about.

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?

Yedlin: In general, I always prefer cinematography that’s very strong and confident, but in a way that supports the storytelling rather than distractingly calling attention to itself. Specifically for this project: on the one hand, we have a story that’s important, weighty and about a real-life character of distinction in our historic moment. On the other hand, we have a storytelling style that’s fun, quirky and ebullient—not at all dour or self-serious. 

Susanna and I wanted the photography to reflect that two-pronged tone: to feel richly cinematic in a classic sense—as opposed to flimsy, sloppy or slathered with an artificial veneer, but at the same time to be infused with fun and zeal—a camera that’s ardently enjoying the ride.

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

Yedlin: Although it’s important to make sure that a cinematographer and director are on the same page about taste and style in an abstract sense, I don’t like to get bogged down with specific references, since that’s really just false precision: it sounds specific, but is actually very abstract—it’s not a basis to plan an actual shoot. Susanna and I buckled down and used our limited prep time to really design our movie together in detail rather than squandering the time on congratulating ourselves for agreeing on what movies we like.

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

Yedlin: To me, the biggest challenges to any creative endeavor are not external “production” challenges as much as internal challenges: external circumstances are just everyday realities, but internally figuring out what you’re trying to do—how to best visually tell the story—is the real challenge.

But if I have to answer the question as framed, I guess the biggest production challenge on Winner was the compressed schedule of such a low budget. Susanna and I worked really hard to economize and use our very limited time wisely while figuring out how not to compromise on our vision. In the end, the movie is what you are actually able to do in the time allotted, not what you wish you could have done if you’d have had more time.

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

Yedlin:We used the Arri Alexa Mini. There’s some very entrenched superstition in the cinematography community that selecting a camera model or format is a major leverage point in how the photographed scene is rendered into a final image in terms of tones, colors and textures. But despite the fervor of that belief, it’s not really true. Although the camera does matter in more technical and logistical ways, that aesthetic part of the look often attributed to camera-type is actually defined primarily in the post pipeline, not in selection of camera model. 

So, we hand-crafted our post pipeline for the photorender look we were after. This was very freeing in our camera selection, because, by not being a slave to superstition (not having to pick a camera for its “look”), we can select a camera that is versatile and logistically frees us to do lots of different kind of shooting more quickly and easily—not hampering our creativity in lighting and shot design. 

The Alexa Mini has almost as low noise and high latitude as any cinema camera today, yet is less expensive than direct competitors just because it’s not the shiniest new toy and therefore not in as high demand. It also allows us to shoot up to 200 frames per second with our main camera body (and not have to rent a special camera). 

Additionally, I’d been using it on other recent projects, so it was less time consuming to develop our project-specific post pipeline for it than if I’d used a different brand—freeing up precious preproduction time for me to spend with Susanna actually designing shots instead of shooting color charts and doing color transformation math.

Filmmaker: What lenses did you use?

Yedlin: Zeiss Supreme Primes and Fujinon Premista Zooms.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Yedlin:Lighting is a puzzle. There are many considerations to keep in mind at the same time: trying to make it look richly cinematic but not over-lit or artificial, trying to be evocative of the time and place of the characters (both literally and figuratively) in a way that has heightened theatricality yet is not overcooked, making sure lighting is flattering on the actors when it needs to be, and of course the dry logistics of doing all this with limited time and resources and while keeping lighting equipment out of the shot.

I think that it’s easy to fall into a trap where all of those considerations (and more) feel like they’re conflicting and pushing against each other, but that’s sort of a quicksand mentality. I try to conceptualize it in a way where all those considerations are in harmony with each other instead of being rivals—until I can figure out an approach to a scene that way, I haven’t cracked that particular puzzle yet. I think that’s the only way—for me personally, anyway—to get something creatively satisfying within all the real world limitations. 

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

Yedlin:I don’t really think of it in terms of ranking difficulty: every day is a fun puzzle. We’re there to solve logistical problems all day every day and to embrace doing so in real-world circumstances; we’re not there to complain about those circumstances.

So, maybe instead of “most difficult,” here’s one that’s unusual in that we improvised and deviated from the plan much more than we usually do: there are several night exterior scenes around a house where our main character is concerned that a dog is being ill-treated by its owner. In prep, gaffer Aaron Merasty and I devised a whole plan to light the surrounding neighborhood at night using many splashes of light on surrounding houses and trees as well as augmenting existing in-shot practical lights in surrounding houses and in the park across the street. But on the night of shooting, there were unusual, beautifully thick atmospheric conditions, and the city light was back-lighting the air, glowing up the whole sky. I decided not to do any of the surrounding neighborhood lighting we’d planned and instead shoot with my lenses at their widest aperture and capture the atmospheric glow. And I loved the results: they’re both photographically rich to my taste and also very evocative of the of time and place for the characters.

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

Yedlin: Neither. “Baked in” means that the processing from uninterpreted scene data to final photographically rendered look is in the camera, but we don’t apply any such processing at all to the files that we record onboard the camera. “Realized in [color grading]” means that there is no plan for how to prep the camera-original, uninterpreted scene data and the colorist is figuring it out from scratch on the fly as we go through the color session.

We don’t do either of those two methods: we capture uninterpreted, camera original files while shooting, and then use our carefully crafted and very rigorous pre-established processing pipeline to get us to exactly our custom base/core look that we’re after. And that’s our starting point in the color grading.

This gives our colorist, Phil Beckner, a very strong basis: one that already has the crux of our intended look even before he begins (even though nothing was “baked in”). That way we don’t waste any of our limited time with him reinventing the wheel or doing damage control before we can even begin the real work. Instead, we can get going right away and use all our time with him for his expert eye to polish, finesse, and elevate the film.


Film Title: Winner

Camera: Alexa Mini

Lenses: Zeiss Supreme Primes and Fujinon Premista Zooms

Lighting: Chief Lighting Technician: Aaron Merasty

Processing: Photorender script developed by Steve Yedlin, applied by FotoKem using Nuke and custom in-house software. Show LUT developed by Steve Yedlin.

Color Grading: Supervising Colorist: Phil Beckner at FotoKem

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