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DP Caleb Heymann on Evoking the Early ’90s in Sundance Winner As You Are

As You Are

The first feature film from writer/director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, As You Are unfolds as the story of three teenage friends in the early 1990s. Joris-Peyrafitte hired Caleb Heymann, a fellow newcomer to feature filmmaking, to shoot the film. Heymann spoke with Filmmaker about shifting aspect ratios, vintage anamorphic lenses and the execution of a tricky long take. As You Are premiered at Sundance 2016 in the U.S. Dramatic program.

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?

Heymann: Producer Sean Patrick Burke had seen my work online and we had mutual friends as filmmakers from the Northwest. He suggested me to director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, and Miles must have liked my reel. We had a Skype chat and hit it off right away, and within the first few pages of reading the script I was hooked and knew this was a story I wanted to shoot. The timing was lucky because I had just returned from months of working in South Africa and was looking for a feature film, and just a couple days after reading the script I was offered the project.

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?

Heymann: As You Are is in part a story about the reconstruction of memory, and at one point in the film the stories told in the interrogation room begin to unravel and contradict each other. This gave us license for a heightened, subjective sense of reality, but we wanted to keep it within the realm of realism and have the subjectivity come more from camera placement and proximity to characters. Miles wanted to shoot the interrogation scenes in analogue with a period 1993 hi8 camera, which would be presented in full 4×3 aspect ratio, and we were excited about the opportunity to juxtapose those with the more dramatic widescreen compositions that would jar the audience as we move between past and present, construction and reconstruction.

We wanted to slowly draw the audience into Jack’s world by beginning the film with the camera always at a distance from him, shooting with longer lenses and more external to his eyeline. Only when he meets Mark does his world begin to open up, and we introduce tighter eyelines to camera, handheld and moments punctuated by lens flares. There are a couple of heightened moments that we wanted to underscore the beauty of without getting overly sentimental. And as things fall apart the lighting gets harsher, dirtier and the camera work more jarring, before eventually culminating in a subjective dreamlike space motivated by the characters’ actions. Hopefully we managed to achieve those things without drawing too much attention to ourselves, and it will be more felt than noticed.

We also understood that the script and photographic approach would be flexible enough to allow for the actors to make it their own on the day of shooting. So after discussing these general arcs and a look and feel for each scene, we kept that in mind but tried to stay reactive to what the actors were doing, in terms of blocking and where the performance was going.

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

Heymann: I wouldn’t say that there were any overarching photographic references. We discussed and watched some work by Gus Van Sant and Harris Savides, who dealt with some overlapping subject matter in Last Days and Elephant, but we were making a very different film. I put together some mood boards for the key locations but it was really just a starting point for our conversations.

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

Heymann: Scheduling was a challenge because we had to work around actors’ availability while also doing our best to tell a story that unfolds over the course of a school year, shot in four weeks. We shot in and around Albany, NY in September and October, so we were right on the verge of the leaves turning and had to be careful of deciduous trees. Yet we needed Jack and Karen’s trailer home to be surrounded by trees, and the trailer was itself a challenge because we fell in love with a particularly derelict unit which was only 12 feet wide. The solution was to find an unused lot that we liked surrounded by evergreens and bring in the trailer, which the production had purchased, allowing us to build in a wild wall that we could remove when needed, which made shooting in Jack’s 8’x8’ room more feasible.

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

Heymann: Because we were going with anamorphic lenses which tend to be heavier, and had some gimbal work which requires the lightest possible setup, it was either going to be the Dragon or the Alexa mini, but the latter had only just been released and we weren’t going to get a great deal renting one. Offhollywood NYC gave us a very good deal on a Red Dragon package and I was happy to use it as I’ve worked with that system extensively and feel comfortable with it. Red’s color science has really improved a huge amount in the last few years, and the highlight retention on the Dragon is really on par with the best cameras on the market. So bang for buck it was the best option available.

I find that the Dragon works very well coupled with older glass, and Miles and I were both very keen to shoot on vintage anamorphic. The older anamorphics have a softer look that helped us sell this film occurring in the early nineties. The shallow depth of field and softer, slightly warped edges help to isolate the subject in a way that feels more subjective, more like a memory. And the way the way the focus falls off into an oval bokeh is beautiful and helps elevate the imagery.

But tracking down vintage anamorphic is challenging. I tested out the available Kowas, the Lomos and the JDC anamorphics in NYC, and found none of them would be right for the project. They all either went too soft wide open, fell apart toward the edges, or had obvious anamorphic ‘mumps’ which made faces look pudgy at close focus. But fortunately I found a set of Hawk C series that had great character but could still hold up at around T2.8, which was a necessity as we would be working in low light levels.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Heymann: The approach to lighting started with finding locations that would be conducive to working fast and telling the story. We were lucky to find a high school that had good natural light and was closing down so they gave us free reign. In fact it was so good that I ended up leaving the overhead lights off for all school interior scenes. I never like the flat overhead fluorescent look that most schools have, and wanted to have the feeling of a dim interior with all the light coming from outside, subliminally calling the students to cut class.

We shot in and around the trailer for about five days, and the approach there was to use many practicals but to supplement them with Jemballs and covered wagons, small, soft sources hidden just off camera, but in such a way that always felt motivated. I never wanted anything to feel lit, but the anamorphic lenses do require a decent amount of light, so was often working on that edge of just barely enough light. My gaffer Justin Newhouse and his team did a great job of understanding what was required and hustling to get it done.

I wanted the quality and color of the light to suggest the emotional arc of the characters. Direct sunlight and flares would be used sparingly to heighten certain moments. When things are spiraling downward, the lighting gets grittier with high pressure sodium and hard, cyan mercury vapor units.

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

Heymann: Miles had written into the script that the moving in scene would all be shot as one take. There were a couple of tricky “oners” in the film but this one was especially difficult because it transitioned from outside the trailer, following two characters up the steps and inside, then into the boys’ room, following the boys back outside and down the porch steps to the truck, where they pick up a bunkbed and back inside again, and of course there were specific beats and dialogue that we had to pick up as the furniture is moved into the house.

Since the windows would be seen on the outside of the trailer, we couldn’t light from outside, so the interiors could only be brought up using small units hidden inside. That meant that the best solution was to shoot during magic hour, after the direct sun had fallen behind the trees which gave us about a 20-30 minute window to get the shot, which spanned about five pages of script.

As luck would have it, our gimbal was acting up that day — we were really right on the verge of its weight capacity with the anamorphic lenses and remote focus and video, and it didn’t take well to the challenge. And we were running a bit behind on the schedule, so we didn’t have as much time as we had hoped to rehearse it, and instead had to basically jump right into shooting it to get enough takes in the can before the sun dipped. Because it required a fast tilt up for the stairs, Miles was actually operating the pan and tilt while I was moving the gimbal around, but the wireless didn’t reach through the walls, so it ended up being this gymnastic feat, with him darting around the floor and squeezing between me and the actors, trying to keep the frame and headroom as we ran in and out of this trailer. It was applause all around when we got it on about the fourth take.

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

Heymann: I didn’t want the look to feel heavy handed or particularly graded, but rather to be consistent and come mostly from the motivated sources. I used Red’s in camera tools to set up a preliminary look for monitoring and mostly kept the color temperature around K4200 to K5000. Then colorist Joseph Mastantuono and I would go through the footage once a week and apply a one light grade, which would render out and be re-linked to the offline editorial files. It’s important to get the footage in the ballpark of what it’s supposed to look like early on, because once everyone gets used to seeing it a certain way it’s harder to change later.

Once we had picture lock I spent about five days working with Joe and Miles to go through the footage and make adjustments, which wasn’t much time but we managed. At that point it was largely a matter of fine tuning and making secondary adjustments, and having those initial one lights definitely helped save time for our accelerated post schedule, as everyone was racing to get the film finished for the Sundance deadline.

  • Camera: Red Epic Dragon
  • Lenses: Hawk C series
  • Lighting: HMI, Kino, Tungsten, LED
  • Processing: Digital
  • Color Grading: Resolve
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