Capturing Sweet Innocence: DP Ellie Ann Fenton on the Cinematography of Slash
Expanded from his 2013 short of the same name, Clay Liford’s Slash is a comedy of youthful sexual awakening set against the backdrop of slash fan-fiction, the amateur writing pursuit that places beloved pop culture characters in previously-undreamed-of erotic situations. In his first feature since 2011’s Wuss, Liford gives himself an extra challenge by committing to filming the sci-fi universe of Vanguard, a fictional character made up for the film (to duck the cost of obtaining intellectual property costs to existing characters). We interviewed Liford prior to the film’s premiere; below, DP Ellie Ann Fenton discusses being equally inspired by the cinematography of E.T. and Melancholia, shooting sci-fi in location, and using LUTs for on-set reference.
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?
Fenton: It’s a really funny story actually! Clay, our director, also works as a cinematographer and last April I wound up shooting the thriller Follow, directed by Owen Egerton. Originally Clay was going to shoot Follow; however, due to the overlapping schedule with Slash prep, he wasn’t available. While I was shooting Follow, some conflicts arose with the schedule of Clay’s original DP and they began reaching out to me about shooting Slash. As things unfolded it turned out we had tons of mutual friends, it’s funny that we hadn’t crossed paths sooner!
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?
Fenton: To me, there is a sweet innocence to this movie that really strikes at the heart. I wanted the cinematography to represent that. It’s a slice of life during a very awkward time in life. I wanted to create a world that was honest but safe, and I wanted to reflect that without sugar coating anything, because we watch the characters learn some very important lessons. Clay has very specific tastes with what direction he wanted the film to go in. He did not want the movie to be lit like a comedy and I think we were both more interested in what the natural light of the locations presented to us. We went for wide lens lengths with deeper depth of field, so that you can see the world that these kids are operating in.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Fenton: I always pull a lot of references when prepping for a movie from other cinematographers, painters, photographers etc. I found the paintings of J.M.W. Turner to have this really beautiful soft quality about them that was very inspiring for color, lighting and lens choice. For lighting approaches, the biggest influences on me at the time were E.T. and Melancholia. What Allen Daviau did in E.T. was really close to what we were thinking for the film. And Manuel Alberto Claro’s approach to lighting for Melancholia was fascinating. It worked really well in that movie and was very applicable to what we were shooting and how to approach the locations we were in.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Fenton: Hands down the biggest challenges were the sci fi unit in LA. There was so much to do in such little time and it was such a big vision; we worked really hard to make sure it all happened. We were chasing the sun while shooting the fight scene and working with the costumes as they came off at different moments in the blocking was very challenging.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Fenton: For the Austin unit, we shot on the Sony F55 with owner/operator Chris Archer. I had worked with him on Follow and was quite happy with the process. It can be complicated on the back end with post; however, as far as image quality, if you’re given the proper prep and test time, I think you can create quite nice images with that sensor. I pushed production to consider using it again, and after a few tests, they were all on board with it.
For the LA unit we shot with a Panavised Red Dragon on Kowa Anamorphics. We wanted to give the sci fi stuff a totally different look.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Fenton: My lighting is dictated by the story, the locations or set design, and the blocking. I came up through lighting, however; I prefer a more collaborative approach with my gaffer and key grip. At the beginning of the film we decided on the basic style we were interested in taking and then adjusted and adapted that to the different scenarios we were in. John Knudsen, my gaffer, and my two rotating key grips, Alex Diamond and Carmen Hilbert, were wonderful collaborators as we created lighting set ups that allowed for the actors to move around in the space but also get away from a more dirty, indie underlit feel.
For the LA unit, I worked with gaffer Jose Barocio Jr. Together we came up with the color palette and running lights. It was fun to go into such a stylized approach after working to keep everything else more natural.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Fenton: I don’t really feel like any scene was the most difficult scene to realize. The story was quite clear in what needed to be seen and felt in each scene. I would say the last hotel room scenes between Julia and Neal were extremely important to us in how we approached them. We tried to keep the environment as intimate as possible and stay true to our lighting aesthetics as we get close to these two in such vulnerable moments. We’re all very happy with how they turned out.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Fenton: I prefer to test as much as possible before the shoot. On this one it was a wonderful experience because my colorist Joe Malina, was operating out of the same offices as production at Arts & Labor. We shot RAW so there isn’t really any “baking” going on, maybe a little “toasting” to lean the image in one direction or another. We were able to test make-up, lighting, look at locations and take everything thru Joe for everyone to see and decide together. Joe and I came up with a couple of LUTs to have on set for me as I was lighting. That had a big impact on my lighting while making sure I was keeping a healthy exposure. During the color, Joe had the LUTs to give him an idea of where I was going and we dialed it in from there. It was a wonderful experience.
Camera: Sony F55, Panavised Red Dragon
Lenses: Angenieux Optimo DP 16-42, Kowa Anamorphics
Lighting: Tungsten, HMI, LED, provided by MP&E & Cinelease
Processing: Arts & Labor
Color Grading: Joe Malina