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The Toenail of the Curve: Remembering Harris Savides

In what is easily the most informative internet message board thread I’ve ever come across, “birth – Harris Savides,” which was started on Cinematography.com by a young man you may have heard of named Jody Lipes on November 1, 2004, the conversation turns around midway through to the aggressive underexposure used by Savides on Birth (pictured above). One of the forum’s members, who claimed to have worked on Birth, explained that Savides underexposed the film two stops, and then pulled it two additional stops, netting a total underexposure of four stops – which seems to have sent the head of every camera nerd on Cinematography.com (is there anybody else on the site?) spinning fast enough to power the electric grid of a major metropolitan city.

The posts on the thread almost read like remembrances of Savides’ gargantuan talent, and in light of his tragic passing of brain cancer yesterday at the age of 55, they sort of do. Quenell Jones, a camera assistant, posted:

actually, I was able to attend a screening of birth and afterwards q/a with Harris and that question came up….and yes he did under expose negative 4 stops…..he and his assistant coined the phrase…the toe nail of the curve was used…..i was surprised….Harris said he wanted to push the envelop a bit…..

A few posts before Quenell’s, ASC cinematographer David Mullen said:

I doubt he was underexposing by two stops and then PULLING by two stops — he’d have a net underexposure of four stops, which is an awfully thin negative — your printer lights would be in the single digits if you tried to print that to a normal brightness

But, genius that Savides was, that is exactly what he did. My favorite post in the thread is by a camera assistant named Brent J. Craig:

I pulled focus for Harris Savides on some commercials a few years back. As the guy responsible for setting the stop, his underexposure really freaked me out.

I would see the display on his meter as he checked the key light, then he would tell me a shooting stop that wasn’t even in the same ballpark as the key! I can’t tell you how many times I checked and rechecked with him to be sure I was hearing him right!

I have never seen someone so confident and daring with underexposure. Most guys will take a reading, and knowing it can be fixed in telecine, will open up a bit for insurance. Harris was always pushing the envelope right there on the pinky toe of the curve.

We did a night exterior where he lit a city block with the edges of the beams of six 1K par cans, then he underexposed the key by at least 3 stops! By the time we started shooting those par cans were so precisely positioned that the poor electric in the lift wasn’t allowed to come down for lunch!

It reminds me a bit of an anecdote Savides tells in Alexander Ballinger’s great book, New Cinematographers, where Savides explained that during the shoot of The Yards, a James Gray film, the scenes would be lit so darkly that his light meter often didn’t get any reading at all. This was one – but only one – side of Savides: hero to the camera geeks and techno-nerds (groups that may or may not include a certain Filmmaker contributor) who are fascinated by exactly how certain films achieve their looks. Savides would always say that his work was subservient to telling the story, but the truth is that A) he was either being modest; or, B) he was overlooking the fact that a film’s look has an enormous influence over its general aesthetic atmosphere, which in turn is very much a part of how the story is told; and, C) the vast majority of the films he shot – of which there will be only too small a number, sadly – have extremely distinctive looks that can not be ignored, looks that demand the viewers’ attention alongside other, more traditional modes of narrative storytelling like plot and character, though these looks themselves surely bolstered the authenticity and articulation of those more traditional elements.

I think Birth is Savides’ greatest work. The creaminess of the film, of the texture, which persists despite a definite grain, is a great counterintuitive feat of cinematography. Savides once remarked that – while he greatly preferred shooting on film and, according to an interview I once conducted with Gus Van Sant, often pushed to shoot on regular 16mm, for the sake of the grain – he found the base look of digital formats to be interesting in their vividness, and that HD reminded him of the Cibachrome printing process. The photographic process known as Cibachrome (or Ilfachrome) printing produces extremely vivid, creamy images that almost look hyper-real. Due, perhaps, to how darkly Birth was lit, Savides was able to capture that vivid creaminess that he admired, while still getting his grain. Additionally, by underexposing two stops and then pulling an additional two (as opposed to just underexposing four stops) Savides was able to maintain a significant level of detail in the image while still getting the darkness he wanted. It also enabled him to get a lower-contrast image, with milky blacks that are really more dark browns and purples than true blacks (Savides said that Rembrandt and Georges de la Tour were important influences in this regard).

Birth wasn’t just beautifully shot – it was, in fact, a fantastic film, a Kubrick-esque portrait of a woman teetering on the edge of sanity that never lost its grip on this viewer, not even for a frame. Savides shot many other great films, most notably (with respect to cinematography) Gus Van Sant’s death trilogy, David Fincher’s Zodiac, and two films by Noah Baumbach (Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg). For the death trilogy (Gerry, Last Days and Elephant), Savides put together some of the most stunning long takes cinema has seen this side of Bela Tarr; there are some inside to outside steadicam shots in Elephant that contain virtuoso aperture racks. His work on Zodiac was vivid and compelling at a moment when the worm was beginning to really turn toward HD formats, but the so-called “Death of Film” had not quite been proclaimed. And his work with Noah Baumbach, especially on Margot at the Wedding, achieved a brownish dark-in-the-daytime ’70s offbeat-drama effect, suffusing that film with a sense of melancholy and wistfulness.

Especially inspired was Savides’ choice – for the Baumbach films as well as Birth, and perhaps many others too – to shoot on Bausch + Lomb Super Baltar lenses, long out-of-production lenses that were standard in Hollywood in the ’50s (they were also used to shoot The Godfather). These lenses – very rare, very finicky and, let’s be honest, probably the most beautiful ever made – have a very soft, diffuse look, with a very gradual focus fall-off and unique bokeh. That Savides used these lenses so often in the face of the sharp-sharper-sharpest trending of contemporary cinematography (let me get a close-up of his nose hairs!) – not to mention the perpetual desire to crush the blacks – only adds to the portrait of a man who followed his convictions, often moving against the tide of mainstream taste and complacency for the sake of art. In an industry that privileges how the star is lit above all else in cinematography, Savides had the balls to explain that he “[lit] rooms, not people.”

Every industry has its pioneers, people who move things forward and open up new routes of possibility. Harris Savides was one such pioneer. My mind keeps returning to that four-stop underexposure of Birth; what it reminds me of is how, when Paramount executives first saw the developed film for The Godfather, they sent it back to the lab, thinking that there had been a mistake and the film had been printed too darkly. Great artists often push against dominant aesthetic currents in their time, because they are so often ahead of it, and in doing so, risk going unrecognized; happily, Harris Savides’ talent was very much understood.

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