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Cinematographer Steven Holleran on Capturing the Streets of Cleveland in The Land

The Land

in Filmmaking
on Jan 31, 2016

Cinematographer Steven Holleran has shot more than a dozen shorts since 2011. He makes his Sundance debut with The Land, a film about four skateboarding teenagers in Cleveland. Holleran speaks with Filmmaker below about Cleveland and capturing a city’s essence visually. The Land debuted in the NEXT program at Sundance 2016.

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?

Holleran: The writer and director of The Land, Steven Caple Jr., and I were in the same introductory filmmaker class at USC’s MFA production program. We immediately recognized a kindred passion for like minded filmmaking in each other from our first class together. Our friendship developed into a working collaboration as we shot a number of passion projects and shorts while at USC. It was nearly two years ago now that we scraped together some equipment and spent a couple sleepless nights over one weekend shooting the short Land of Misfits and from there, the project took off.

There is a silent bond of trust that grows between many directors and cinematographers after they have worked together for a while. I think one of the reasons that Steven wanted me to shoot this film was the trust that we had developed over the years and our shared understanding of pacing, composition, and lighting. I also had the chance to read various versions of the script and hear Steven’s ideas as he worked through them. This closeness to the material gave me valuable insight into his inspirations and vision for the film. On top of that I was able to draw from my own experience growing up as a surfer and skateboarder to understand the freedom of riding a board, what that meant for the characters in the film, and how we could express that on camera. The film ties in elements from both our childhoods and looking back on it, I can see that The Land was a natural progression for us as filmmakers.

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?

Holleran: The four boys, our main characters, have a complicated relationship with the streets of Cleveland. As a result Steven and I wanted the cinematography to fuse the freedom of skating the streets and simultaneously the tough realities that those same streets impose on the boys. Using pacing, composition, and lens choices as tools, we focused on keeping our dialogue scenes “raw” by shooting everything handheld with long roving takes. The roving takes allowed a naturalism to develop on set for the actors which Steven and I hoped would enhance the dynamic authenticity of our scenes. To push the claustrophobic nature of the boys’ living conditions we shot long lenses whenever possible in our interiors.

To shoot skating in a way that communicated escapism and liberation, we chose to stabilize the majority of shots and utilize slo motion, dutch angles, and wide lenses to push the dream-like state the boys entered when skateboarding. To insert the viewer into the skaters’ world and get as low in the street as possible I shot the majority of the skate sequences from my own skateboard. We worked with our actors to develop a rhythm in which I could actually skate behind them, next to them, and even in some cases in front of them to capture different angles of their action. Over time it became a natural process in which I could skate in and out of the boys as they flew all over the city on their boards.

Last but not least, Steven and I wanted to film Cleveland, its tapestry of culture, and the local weather as their own characters. We worked to capture as much of the scope and texture of the faded brick buildings, the muggy days, and vibrant nightlife as possible. The anamorphic frame gave us visual possibilities when it came to framing the four boys against massive backdrops. Grandiose architecture, steelyards, semi-deserted city blocks, and long abandoned structures were all part of our visual code.

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

Holleran: My biggest reference for the film was Steven’s relationship to Cleveland, his childhood home. In April of last year, Steven asked me to accompany him to stay with extended family for a three week location scout. He took me on an extensive tour of the city as we looked for locations that felt right for the film. As a cinematographer it was the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to immerse myself at such an early stage in the world we were going to shoot in.

Seeing the different neighborhoods and schools Steven grew up in, hearing his stories, and meeting many of his supportive family and friends gave me rich insight into his history and inspirations for the film. Exploring derelict warehouses, dark streets, and even an abandoned mall and subway were all part of a day’s work during the scout. At the end of three weeks we had identified and photographed nearly all of our 20-plus locations and I had come to a deep appreciation for Steven as a friend and director.

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

Holleran: Our push to shoot on the streets, in real abandoned locations, and at live events was a huge asset narratively and at the same time a logistical challenge for us. It meant we were exposed to inclement weather, uncontrollable crowds, and dilapidated spaces. On top of that our tight schedule of 22 days meant multiple locations moves daily and a majority of overnight shoots. For me the film was incredibly physical as I was operating the Alexa all day and also skating for a big chunk of the project. It was a hot sweaty business working in some of our tight interiors when temperatures nearly exceeded one hundred degrees.

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

Holleran: To start, Steven and I knew a long time ago that we wanted to shoot the film anamorphically to take advantage of format’s unique depth of field, field of view, and FG and BG separation. The film is an ensemble piece and the city of Cleveland has so much depth and texture that we knew anamorphic would give us the scope that we wanted. We decided on the Arri/Zeiss Master Anamorphics for their speed and clarity. One huge benefit of the anamorphic format was the ability to draw the viewer’s attention specifically to our boys but at the same time with such a large frame and shallow DOF, I could still capture this large wave of light, texture, and color from the world around them. In my head I approached it like you might with a Western where the backdrop is just as much a character in the film.

This immediately meant we needed to look at the Alexa XT Plus as our main A camera due to its 4:3 sensor which allowed for the complete capture of the projected image out of our anamorphic lenses. Not to mention the Alexa is my favorite camera to operate handheld from my shoulder for its balance and ease of use. Clairmont Camera and Bill Hale provided us with a great package for the project and a brand new set of anamorphics.

We also utilized a Red Dragon as our Action Cam for car mounts, skate work, and some specialized rig shots. David Dodson and Panavision put together a small and efficient package with a few custom accessories like a U-shaped top handle that allowed me to skate with the Red.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Holleran: It was important that the lighting maintained the grit of the streets. I didn’t want anything to feel overlit or too glamorous. To do this I would motivate whenever possible off our practical sources for instance the yellow and red neon sign over Uncle Steve’s diner or the blue dash lights in Chino’s Dodge Charger. Maintaining a natural darkness was an important part of Steven’s vision for the look of the film and I worked to achieve this by bringing shadows into the frame wherever I could.

We had the tricky situation of a tight schedule with a lot of locations and a lot of night work. Steven also wanted the actors to be as free as possible to move around each set which were sometimes no bigger than a bedroom or a bathroom. This meant that we rarely had any units on the ground. With my gaffer Greg Doi, we put together our “roving cam” kit which was made up of Litemats and Dedolight LED panels and Panaura umbrellas. We would rig those units to the ceiling and tuck them away into the corners the camera couldn’t see to get light into all parts of the set. We would use larger sources like Maxis and 9 Lights to create exterior sunlight or moonlight.

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

Holleran: The most difficult scenes to realize were the ones involving Uncle Steve’s diner. The original location Steven wanted was literally called Steve’s Diner, but it fatefully burned down in a grease fire a few weeks before we left for our scout. Luckily we found a unique diner interior a few blocks away the featured a long counter. The difficult part of the location was it was incredibly narrow and had only one small single door entrance in the front and the back. For Steven and I this developed into a unique lighting and blocking challenge. We spent many hours trying to visualize the best way to continue our roving camera style and where to put lights in a location that was maybe ten feet wide. Fitting the Alexa, 4-6 actors, and a full crew into the space proved quite the task but in retrospect I think the authenticity the location brings to the film is priceless.

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

Holleran: My goal on set was to create a look in camera that was as close to what Steven and I imagined in pre-production. Ultimately our look centered on capturing the many off colors and textures of Cleveland from the faded streets and storefronts to the old neons and sodium vapor street lights. I wanted all the colors to have a bit of a dirty industrial edge almost like there was smog in the air. It needed to feel roughed up. I translated this into a practical look by selecting certain gels, mostly industrial greens and blues as well as urban vapors to enhance but mimic the natural colors that you would see in Cleveland. Steven had a very clear vision when it came to the colors we would use to differentiate the four boys and their home environments. Their individual color palettes became our primary means to subjectively communicate the boy’s varied personalities and living situations. Weather and seasons were also a factor in the way we built a look in camera. I worked to create a coolness towards the beginning and end of the film while bringing warmth into the bulk of the summer section of the film. We balanced this out in the DI as we didn’t have the luxury of actually shooting the seasons changing.

  • Camera: Alexa XT plus
  • Lenses: Arri/Zeiss anamorphic
  • Lighting: Arri, Litemat, Dedolight
  • Processing: Digital
  • Color Grading: EFilm
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