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“Operating Handheld for the Whole Film”: DP Matthew Ballard on Tendaberry

A young Black woman stands in front of a Coney Island ride.Tendaberry, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

23-year-old Dakota (Kota Johan) finds herself unmoored in South Brooklyn after her boyfriend returns to Ukraine in order to tend to his ailing father in Tendaberry, the feature debut from writer-director Haley Elizabeth Anderson. As she navigates the city over the course of an entire year, she finds moments of tenderness and trouble, all while wondering when her lover will return to join her on the shores of Brighton Beach.

Cinematographer Matthew Ballard discusses how he collaborated with Anderson to capture her vision on 16mm for Tendaberry, also Ballard’s first feature-length 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 you being hired for this job? 

Ballard: I first met Haley in the early pandemic when we were prepping to shoot a music video together. We were having a great time coming up with ideas, and then the night before the shoot, our line producer got COVID and we had to cancel everything. It was unfortunate at the time, but the whole experience was really an opportunity for us to connect and find a friendship and mutual excitement of what we liked and wanted to create in our lives

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? 

Ballard: Haley from the get-go had a number of specific references for the film. She wanted to take a handheld approach and feel very in the mind of the protagonist—to see things from her point of view and for it to be a very subjective experience. The question was always, “What is Dakota like during this season?” We’d talk about her energy, the weather and how the weather affects our body. For example, how does winter slow down time? What about summer? How does do the seasons affect the light in your apartment and how does this affect your mood? The film was always about asking these questions as the story progresses to get a better understanding of how we’re creating the experience of tension or harmony.

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

Ballard: Haley and I started a shared iPhone photo album where we would drop a lot of images. Haley shared a lot of frames from films and also a lot of photography references. It was always first and foremost about the feeling of something. It’s hard because when you look at references there are so many focal points of it: color, composition, set dressing. It’s endless. For example, Haley showed me a Nan Goldin photograph and we spent 10 minutes figuring out that it was about seeing the women through a mirror and how this negative space was creating this kind of observation and removal from her. For summer, she shared a lot of photos of people laying on the beach, nature or young girls sitting in the bright sunlight coming through a window. It wasn’t necessarily a specific photographic reference, but more just about the essence of feeling of the image. 

We also shared a lot of music. We started a playlist together that by the end of our shoot was 8 hours long. We’d put in some music that was more cinematic references while other tracks were like, “This is what Dakota would be jamming to during this season.” 

Probably my biggest influence came out of all the more intangible conversations of the stories we shared of our past—those questionable memories we have of things we thought we saw or experienced growing up. 

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

Ballard: Tendaberry was my first feature film, so it was a big learning experience for me on many levels. It was also made on a very tight budget. We shot shot off and on for over a year and half, so we often had new crew in camera and GE for each shoot. With the shoot being so spread out, managing the energy mentally and physically for over a year was a challenge. I often get nervous before a first shooting day, but after a few days we’d find our rhythm only before having to stop again. Then after a few months we’d pick it back up again and start a new prep for a new portion of the film. This was definitely challenging but also a great learning experience.

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

Ballard: We shot on my Aaton XTR Prod with Ultra 16 glass from Arri in NY. I’ve owned this camera for a number of years and have shot many of my passion projects on it. So for me it’s really special to be putting this camera on my shoulder since I’ve been through so much with it. Haley had always conceived shooting Tendaberry on 16mm and it made sense in terms of the look and functionality. I also had converted the camera to have an HD tap right before the film. 

For the summer portion of the film, the film turns into digital, which we shot on Amira and Alexa Mini. From the start, we knew that we wanted to have the last portion feel different, like some kind of rebirth. Dakota has been facing so much adversity and we wanted to remove all of that and bring a different feeling to the image. A certain surrender and honesty. It was hard to know how far to push this and exactly how extreme the effect would be, but we ended up using S16 mode for the final portion so that we could continue using the same lenses as that S16 focal feeling for me is super specific. We also used these digital cameras with a wide 10mm at 200fps for the other interlude moments when the film’s POV opens up and becomes more musical. We wanted to feel the tapestry of how all human life is interconnected. It was about really seeing how everyone is in it all together, and experiencing that it in an other worldly kind of way. 

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Ballard: For most of the film, we only had one gaffer for the whole grip/electric team. On some specific days we’d get one or two swings to help. Tendaberry was a huge team effort. Everyone was helping everyone and I’m really grateful for all of the rest of the crew for being so willing to help out. 

We were shooting in an apartment in Bed-Stuy that belonged to a friend of Haley and I. All of the practical fixtures were already there and belonged to his family. I wanted to keep things very basic and quite crude. I don’t think we ever used any artificial soft light unless it was just to raise ambience a bit. Light was often soft and warm when she’s with Yuri, brutal and harsh when she’s struggling, or more bright and opened up in the summer.

For me, the most notable moments were the simple decisions about how to light things like the kitchen and bathroom. The bathroom was just one frosted 75w tungsten bulb that we taped straight into the ceiling. I liked this very raw and very basic approach. It just felt right. Depending on whether she was in the bathtub sitting, standing, or by the mirror, we’d move it 6 inches here or there. The kitchen we also just used a single exposed CFL that was already in the ceiling when we arrived. I loved how it was front lit, green, and a bit underexposed. It felt perfectly raw for what we were going for. 

One of my favorite lighting set ups in the film is when Dakota is going to sleep and she looks up into the ceiling and is looking at the light shining on her ceiling through the sheered windows. We were on the third floor of a brownstone and we dropped a stinger out a window and had a 2K fresnel outside on the side walk top-stick shining in. It was so simple but I love how it became an actual object of sorts, one of Dakota’s fixations. The light for me felt like the essence of what we were trying to achieve, it became a character and a door between her exterior and interior world.

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

Ballard: Probably the most difficult scene for me was a day when we went with a stripped down crew to shoot at the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn. Operating handheld for the whole film was difficult and I feel really pushed my operating, but this day was probably the most challenging I’ve ever had. We were were just free-styling through thousands of people during the parade and I was chasing Dakota sideways pulling my own focus while trying to glance just over the top of the camera through the top handle to make sure I wasn’t flying into people. 

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

Ballard: Shooting on 16mm was, of course, the biggest decision in terms of setting the look. Haley and I were always talking about color, whether it was for our film or just about other films we were watching. Finishing this film in the DI was one of my most gratifying experiences I’ve had in my career as for me color is one of the most important aspects in image making that I feel very intimate with. We were able to work with Elodie Ichter at The Mill in NY. It was our first time working together, and even from our first conversation I felt she was the perfect person to work with. She brought so much care to the project and a certain conviction that really pushed it through. We were working very detailed on the tonality and curve and range of colors. We wanted the color to progress between the different seasons so we had to keeping watching the film down in order to feel how everything related and how it felt going from one season to the other so we could feel where we should push things more dramatically. The whole experience really felt like painting and I’m super grateful for Elodie’s collaboration and work in the film.


Film Title: Tendaberry

Camera: Aaton XTR Prod, Alexa Mini, Amira

Lenses: Zeiss Ultra 16, Ultra Prime 10mm, Canon 8-64

Lighting: Handheld Films

Processing: Kodak NY

Color Grading: Elodie Ichter

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