In a Valley of Violence DP Eric Robbins on Shooting Ti West’s New Film in 35mm
Don’t let the title mislead you: In a Valley of Violence is only Ti West’s second non-horror film. This time around, West tackles the Western with a tonal twist. In an inspired bit of expectation-reversing casting, this classic saga of a violent town on the frontier has John Travolta as the good guy and Ethan Hawke as the villain. The film premieres tomorrow at SXSW. In advance, cinematographer Eric Robbins answered some questions about shooting on 2-perf 35mm, lighting in the desert and his longtime collaboration with West.
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?
Robbins: Ti, [producer] Peter Phok, and I went to the School of Visual Arts together and have been friends for over a decade. We made The Roost together straight out of film school (thanks to Larry Fessenden and Kelly Reichardt), and I was lucky enough to reunite with Ti and Peter on The Sacrament. When Ti, Peter, and Jacob Jaffke were getting the movie started with Ethan Hawke and Blumhouse, they included me in the conversation. So, it had a lot to do with good vibes and working off of past friendships, really.
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?
Robbins: I always strive to make my work look invisible. I feel a DP’s job is to support the script that has been handed to them. In this process, you must serve the director’s vision and do your damndest to make it easy on the actors by making them feel comfortable and feel supported.
I also am not a DP who gets hired for a “look.” I just want to bring lighting and lensing that is appropriate to the story. Granted, that’s very subjective; so I suppose my interpretation is my take on it. I really hope to make something radically different on my next project and I hope it’s a different genre.
As a DP, I look at my narrative work as a representation of my outlook on life. Hopefully, in the end, the kinds of stories I chose to shoot all fit together with a common thread, almost like a painter’s body of work. On the contrary, I shoot a massive amount of advertising, and for me, it’s purely unemotional and allows me to try new things out, travel the world, and survive. The process allows me to meet interesting people, see and hear things that are inspiring and learn about how landscapes and light vary. All of this I take to narrative filmmaking and have a fair amount of varied experience to get right to the core of what a movie needs in each instance. Commercials are a great training ground to bring tricks to features.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they are other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Robbins: Originally, Ti wrote the movie in the vein of High Plains Drifter, so that was a very early reference for us. We also watched Sam Rami’s The Quick and the Dead for its camera direction and tone. It’s a goofy western that has a comedic edge, much like In a Valley of Violence. Sergio Leone’s movies were a huge influence to our framing. Ti and I really liked the look of the colors in the older westerns; we like the colors to be stripped away a little bit — less saturated — as opposed to the warm dusty tones that you would inherently go to. We ultimately decided to go this direction because it felt right for the story. In a way, the movie is a noir meets a comedy.
Additionally, I looked to fine art paintings — particularly old west paintings from the 1800s — to understand what gestures were attractive to people representing the time period. Thomas Hart Benton is a major influence to me as a DP. He painted later during the social realist movement, but he did paint a ton of “out west” scenes. I really like how overly dramatic and cartoonish the characters are in these paintings and in a way, I feel as though I was subconsciously referencing that in our funnier scenes…
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Robbins: Considering we are a low budget movie on location with movie stars and a short schedule, we had to haul ass. We had 25 days to shoot the movie. We shot in New Mexico, which was a harsh environment to photograph. The environment was windy, very arid, at high altitude, and at times, reached about 110 degrees. It also was monsoon season, so we had to contend to losing time to wind, rain and lightning. Granted, that atmosphere gave us gorgeous clouds to work with. We simply did not have time to wait for either cloud cover or the sun, so lighting in a scene would occasionally just have to not match. When you watch westerns, this is actually fairly normal, so I don’t feel too bad about it.
Also, shooting film in 2014 was not the easiest thing. Kodak was on the brink of collapsing its motion picture department and all the labs were gone in the USA. We could only go to Fotokem in LA. All the film would get shipped every day to LA from New Mexico. On top of that, they were running baths only four days a week, unlike the six days a week in the past. At times, we would not see footage for several days.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Robbins: Film was absolutely paramount to Ti and I. We never really felt like there was an alternative for the movie. The grain and texture of film were critical to us, as was the motion signature of film being exposed mechanically on individual frames. In our genre (western) there is a rich history before us. We grew up on westerns, our parents did, and it was Hollywood’s lifeblood for quite some time. There is a certain connotation of what a western should look and feel like. In my opinion, it would be a misstep to not take this in to account when shooting one. Having said that, when we started discussing this film in 2013, westerns were not yet en vogue like they are now, and we felt that the movie would look false if shot digitally.
Furthermore, film has tremendous highlight capacity and we where going to be shooting in extremely bright locations where highlight retention was going to be a huge part of the visual language. More importantly, we knew that the movie was going to have beautiful women in it but would also have movie stars. I owe it to actors to make them look as great as they can on screen and I knew that film would render skin tones in the most flattering way. It’s simple: everyone looks better on film. Film has a certain “glue” to it; a way of melding planes of an image together in a very natural and organic way. This can never be replicated in any format in HD and I think this registers subconsciously with how an audience reacts to the believability of things that are from the past. The “glue” and the “motion” signature are what truly drove us to shooting on film. Not to mention both Ti and I have had a past history with it, together and independently.
As far as the lenses go, it was crucial to me to shoot Panavision. They’ve been in the industry forever and therefore have an arsenal of creative choices to pull from in the lens department. In a perfect world we would have shot 4-perf anamorphic 35mm. However, due to budget challenges and financial justification of staying on film, we opted to shoot spherical 2-perf 35mm. Knowing this, I needed to have lenses that could emulate certain aspects of anamorphic that I knew would help tell the story. Months before production, I opened the conversation up with Rik De Lisle and Guy Mcvicker at Panavision Hollywood, whom I have been working with for a long time. We came up with a couple of ideas about which sets of lenses to bring to the job and presented them to Ti. We opted to shoot on softer lenses to emulate the look and feel of older westerns that would render skin tones extremely well. We also wanted the mustache distortion that anamorphic has at times, especially in wide angle close ups. We went for Panavision Standard Primes for our primary lenses. I spent months finding the right combination of lenses out of Panavision’s standard primes. I hand-selected each focal length and a few of the lenses were modified by Guy to have certain attributes. Most of which was getting them to close focus down even further than they currently were set up to. I tested the primes on a handful of commercials prior to bringing them on the movie; in both formats HD and 35mm.
In addition, we selected a bunch of zoom lenses- primo 25-275 (older softer serial number), a sharper Angenieux HR 25-250, a sharper primo 24-275, and a 135-420 primo zoom. We also had the nicest Cooke 20-60mm I have ever seen in my life. It had similar attributes as the standard primes yet could flare in the most majestic and non-conventional ways. For the one night scene we used Panavision Ultra Speed Z series speeds, as I could not afford the fire to overly veiling glare the lenses, which would have happened on the standard primes. For cameras we had Panavision Platinum’s modified to 2 perf with custom built HD taps, as well as a Panavision lightweight for our steadicam work.
I owe it to both Peter and Jacob to back Ti and I up all the way to the end to stay on film. The team at Blumhouse were generous enough to allow us to shoot film, and I realize it was a big risk for them as they had never made a motion picture on film prior to ours. In addition we were shooting it out of town many states over from a lab; that required extra care and coordination.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Robbins: The concept for lighting was to go for a combination of classic western lighting and comedy lighting, with a mix of beauty and noir.
Being that we wanted to move the camera around a good bit, I needed to light very broadly to give the frame flexibility and to give the actors plenty of room to work within the space. I also wanted all the interior light to work through windows, which meant that during daylight scenes, we were pushing 18Ks, 12Ks and 6Ks. Sometimes, we would rig them on condors to get up high enough; at other times (when working at ground level) they would come through on stands. In addition we would fly a “flyswatter” to either block or diffuse the actual sun, so that I could maintain ambiance. For fill light, I would use Joker Leico bounces, the occasional kino in small rooms and book lights through grid cloth (in larger spaces). In a few select sets, I would hang gem balls and pass them through diff frames in the ceiling. Almost every HMI had Straw to match the color temperature of the warm bounce the sun naturally had off of the ground.
One of the things to take in account, is that I shot almost all the film on Kodak 250D and I would rate it around 160-200 iso (scene dependent) to enrich it just a bit. So, getting an interior to around a F4 or F4 2/3 requires a lot of light.
For scenes with John Travolta, I would always make sure to give him an ambient front light. I watched a ton of films with him prior. In almost all his movies he looks really great in a front light. So, I took this into account when designing my lighting plots. For the ladies, I always made sure to give them soft sources and to have their skin reflect the sources versus having them lit. Not to mention, there scenes have a lot of humor so I could bring a little bit more comedy into the lighting. For the darker scenes I would try and work with as much sidelight as possible, this often played with Ethan and P.J.
For exterior scenes, I tried to work with as much natural light as possible. We shot during the summer; when the sun was up, there was a tremendous amount up light from the ground bounce, which worked really well because all of our characters had hats on. Occasionally I would work 12x12s for fill or 4×4 bead boards. Very rarely did I force light outside. In the rare event that I did, I would use an ARRImax.
One of the things I always do in pre-production (once the production designer and I have worked through the sets and the locations) is to hand draw my lighting plots on an architectural plan. It allows me to think about where I want my lighting fixtures. I feel like this gives my gaffer and pre-rig crews a map to work from and allows for the best boy to plan cable runs and have the right lighting fixtures for the days. In the end, it takes more time in pre-pro that production has me on for. However, it saves a fortune and keeps everything polished and moving. I also think it allows us to be reactive on the fly when things happen naturally. I occasionally bring this approach to television commercials and have switched to using the lighting designer app in my iPad.
In the end, I wanted to light the movie like a classic Hollywood film and I really did not want the lighting to be felt too much. I really believe in things looking natural and passive.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Robbins: The entire night scene was a really difficult scene to work with. We were on top of a canyon in the middle of the desert, in pitch black. We could never afford to go for the moon light vibe, as we would have needed at least a half dozen to a dozen beebee lights. So, I had to rely on the campfire look to motivate from. The only problem was getting the angle of the source to look natural. There was no way to bring a lift up the top of the canyon, so all the light had to come from the ground. On top of that we wanted to move the camera around as much as 200 degrees in a shot. So, hiding the lights was challenging. In this scene, we also had to do a stunt and throw an actor off a cliff. Which, once again, was away from the campfire and the whole scene was not motivated off of the moon. This scene still stresses me out today. In the end I think it’s pretty dramatic but it’s where I felt like our budget was modest for a very natural looking scene. Not to mention all the actors had a tremendous amount of challenging performances to give on top of a canyon at night.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Robbins: The beauty of shooting film is you basically work the look right into the film with a little bit of flexibility. I think at least 90 percent of the looks of films shot on film are done in the contrast ratio and exposure decisions. All you ultimately do is smooth them out in post. Of course we power window areas down and do sharpening tricks here and there. I would say we only really peeled the color back and cooled off the film in the DI. The biggest benefit of the DI was that we scanned at 4k and we are delivering at 4k. This gave me a tremendous amount of latitude to work with on the film. I was able to bring all the clouds back to a point of surrealism; which was my favorite part of the process. I hope that in the future I am able to shoot a film and finish it photochemically. I feel as if the quality of the look would be more natural and less involved. I had the experience in my early career to have steered dailies this way and actually work with printer light numbers. I felt like it made the process very introspective about my choices as a DP and also had a consistency to it that was very natural. However, in today’s age this is not very practical and most of my work these days is on the Alexa or Red platforms.
Camera: Panavision Platinum (2 perf movement), Panavision Lightweight
Lenses: Modified Panavision Standard Primes, Primo Zooms, Angineux HR zoom, Cooke 20-60mm zoom, Panavision Z Ultra speed Primes
Lighting: available light, HMI, Kino, a little bit of tungsten (night only)
Fotokem LA, Kodak 250D, Kodak 500T (5219)
Color Grading: D.I. : Mystika, Cognition LA; Colorist: Michael Eaves; Dailies: Rank , Fotokem LA Colorist: Christian Soleta