Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey
DP Jeff Cutter on Shooting 10 Cloverfield Lane in Near-Sequence, Dragon vs. Alexa and Six Specific Shots
Because the wheels of the movie machine turn slowly, timeliness is not among cinema’s primary virtues. Thus when a movie reflects an aspect of the cultural zeitgeist, it’s either an act of Nostradamian foresight or sheer luck.
I don’t know which is the case with 10 Cloverfield Lane, but there’s something about this tense three-hander—which finds a paranoid middle aged white man (John Goodman) fighting to preserve his notion of American ideals inside a bomb shelter alongside a young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who refuses to accept his envisioned role—that feels right at home in a world where a President Trump is suddenly plausible.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a smart, original genre gem—a formula that doesn’t always equate to a multiplex full of eyeballs, as the solid but unspectacular box office performances of It Follows and The Witch can attest. However, neither of those films had the marketing acumen of J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot cohorts behind them. Aided by a tenuous link to the Abrams-produced Cloverfield and a stealth marketing campaign that sprung the trailer on an unsuspecting public just two months before its release date, 10 Cloverfield Lane hauled in nearly $25 million during its opening weekend.
The movie’s cinematographer Jeff Cutter spoke to Filmmaker about the alchemy of a set, the subconscious allure of anamorphic, and how shooting in continuity kept the crew from going crazy.
Filmmaker: The marketing of 10 Cloverfield Lane is getting a good deal of attention for not divulging the movie’s existence until roughly two months before opening weekend. When did you actually shoot the film?
Cutter: We started prepping in September of 2014 and I think we started shooting in October of 2014. We shot for about seven weeks—five weeks on stage and about two weeks of exteriors and location work.
Filmmaker: Where did you build the sets?
Cutter: In New Orleans.
Filmmaker: Did that come down to tax incentives? Are the stages there pretty solid?
Cutter: No, the stages weren’t solid at all. (laughs) They were more or less converted warehouses so they weren’t particularly great. So, it was about the rebate and also because John Goodman lives in New Orleans and that made it appealing to him to want to do the movie.
Filmmaker: What was your preproduction prep like? Did you storyboard or shot-list extensively?
Cutter: We did both and previs as well. [Director] Dan [Trachtenberg] and I sat and talked a lot about what the scenes were about and the emotion and the mood that he was after. So we shot-listed, we storyboarded the more complex sequences, then the opening car crash and final sequence were actually previs’d by the effects guys over at Bad Robot.
Filmmaker: I understand that the bunker set was built almost in its entirety.
Cutter: Yes, you could walk into almost the entire set of the main floor, including Howard’s bedroom [Goodman’s character], Michelle’s bedroom [Winstead’s character] and the staircase that leads up to the airlock. The only thing that was its own setpiece was the air filtration chamber that Michelle has to crawl through the vent shaft to reset. That was the only piece that wasn’t connected to the rest of the set.
The main room had a hard ceiling. there was no taking it off or on, so there were no overhead lights that were coming in, and I really wanted to treat it like a practical space. While we did have a removable ceiling in Michelle’s bedroom and Howard’s bedroom, I tried not to remove them to put in some light that I didn’t believe or that wasn’t motivated. As much as possible, I wanted to light the sets with practicals so that the actors had freedom and so you could believe all those light sources. It was really important to Dan and I that everything feel grounded and real.
Filmmaker: It does increase the sense of claustrophobia to not remove walls and ceilings in order to place the camera in a position that would not be possible if the location were a practical space.
Cutter: To be fair, we did pull a couple of walls. It was a debate that Dan and I had a lot in the beginning, discussing whether or not if we pulled a wall, are we breaking that space and will it pull the audience out of the film? But, as much as possible, you try to keep the walls in. I also tried to shoot on wider lenses closer to the actors as opposed to longer lenses further away and I think that also helps keep you in the space as opposed to [the audience] feeling like they’re outside of it and observing.
But we definitely pulled walls multiple times, specifically the first time that we reveal Michelle in the bunker. She’s chained to the wall. We start on a close-up on her face, then wrap around her in one continuous move all the way to the other side of the bed. We reveal this giant scary metal door over her shoulder as she sees it for the first time. As we wrapped around on the dolly, as soon as the camera was not pointed at that wall, a couple of the grips wheeled the wall out and the camera was able to keep moving.
Filmmaker: To further heighten that sense of realism you were striving for, the movie was shot pretty close to in continuity.
Cutter: That was one of the great joys of this movie. We started in Michelle’s bedroom. That shot that I just described—the first shot that we see of her—was the very first thing we shot. In a lot of ways it also stops you from losing your mind. If we spent two weeks in a row in Michelle’s bedroom I think we all would’ve just gone crazy. Because the set was lit in a way that, for the most part, you could just bounce back and forth between the different rooms, we really could go from one room and back to another without it being a big production issue.
Filmmaker: Did shooting the film in essentially the same order it appears in the script cause the visual grammar to evolve any differently than it normally would?
Cutter: I think on any film the look is going to evolve to a degree, and some of those things are choices you make but also it evolves for reasons beyond your control. Maybe there’s a piece of equipment you used the first time around that you no longer have. Or maybe lights get moved that you didn’t want to get moved. (laughs) One of the things that I think is great about the process of moviemaking is that it’s not all math and science—there’s a degree of alchemy where a little bit of magic happens. For example, I’ve had somebody be moving a light and they’ll point it into the ground as they’re moving it and I’ll say, “Wait! Stop! I love that.” Those happy accidents happen all the time.
Filmmaker: We’re at a point where the Alexa is so prevalent that I usually don’t even bother to ask people why they use it. But you opted to shoot 6K with the Red Epic Dragon instead. What factors led you to go that route?
Cutter: A couple of things. Because we were in the bunker and we didn’t want to have to pull walls any more than we had to in all these really tight spaces, I wanted a camera that was as small as I could get. So, the three or four inches [in camera body length] that you buy by using the Dragon instead of the Alexa can make a big difference between having to pull a wall or not, which then saves you 15 minutes in a set-up. That starts to add up through the day.
Besides that practical side, from a creative standpoint we tested both cameras and I really liked the way that the Dragon rendered skin tones. Under warm light it gave us a really pleasing skin tone that I wasn’t getting with the Alexa. And also, for exactly the reason that you just said, everything shoots on the Alexa and at a certain point everything starts to look the same. So, it was refreshing to shoot on the Dragon and notice, “Oh, this looks a little different.”
Filmmaker: You shot anamorphic using Panavision G Series lenses. The whole idea of anamorphic lenses in the 1950s was to make use of more of the film negative when shooting widescreen aspect ratios. When you shoot anamorphic on a Dragon, it crops in so that you’re actually using less of the sensor. Is that just a tradeoff you have to make in order to get the look of anamorphic?
Cutter: anamorphic characteristics—like oval bokeh, lens flares, even the sort of bending of the lenses—have an emotional quality that people respond to, even if they’re responding on a subconscious level. I think it’s a difference that they feel, even if they are not aware of it.
Anamorphic lenses just have a feeling that reminded Dan and I of what it used to be like watching these great widescreen movies when we were kids that were shot anamorphic. It just makes it feel like a big movie and that was something that we really, really wanted. You’re inside this pretty small set with three actors for 90 percent of [10 Cloverfield Lane], but we still wanted the movie to have a big, cinematic feeling.
Filmmaker: Let’s break down a few shots from the film, starting with the first scene in the bunker where Michelle awakens chained to a bed. You talked earlier about trying to use practicals as much as possible, but I’m guessing the light from that wall sconce isn’t carrying all the way to Winstead.
Cutter: This is the space that I feel like I did the worst job with. In order to light this room and light her, I had to bring in light panels over the top [of Winstead]. This was, for me, the one space where I don’t buy it, where I don’t look at it and believe that it’s lit by the practicals. But [once we established that look] I couldn’t really change it when we returned to the space [later in the shoot] because I needed it to stay consistent. So, I had to keep going with the same mode.
Filmmaker: How about this shot from the bunker’s dining room?
Cutter: This is a perfect example of using practical lights. There’s a hanging practical over the table that’s been established in many other scenes, there’s the two lamps you see in the background, then there’s a warm practical wall sconce that’s deep in the right side of the frame. Then we do a little of what Conrad Hall used to call “room tone,” where you just basically bounce a light into the ceiling or use a china ball just to pick up the overall light levels without it feeling like a source at all.
In a wider shot like this I don’t do much, if any, augmentation [to the practical sources]. Then when I do come in for coverage it’s really just about softening that same practical and/or bringing in a little bit of fill. But I don’t change the source. I don’t switch suddenly to a 2K through a 4×4 frame and do something different.
Filmmaker: These next two images are from two scenes set in the exact same space, yet you’ve molded them into very distinct looks.
Cutter: Because we’re in the bunker for so much of the movie, having very distinct looks for all the different rooms was a big thing that we discussed. For Michelle’s room we went quite warm. There’s a hallway where Emmett [John Gallagher Jr.] stays and that went a cyan. Then Howard’s room goes a bit colder. But even within that, I wanted more variety. The thinking is, Howard has got two modes of lighting for the bunker, because it’s a human desire to feel like there’s a time cycle. So, he has a day mode—fluorescents that are kind of blue and basically wash the whole space—then, at night, he goes into his night mode.
Filmmaker: What type of bulbs did you use for the fluorescents?
Cutter: We used RGB LiteRibbon, which essentially gives you the full color spectrum in one strip of ribbon. All the fixtures were gutted housings that we ran the ribbon inside and then added a little bit of diffusion. With that ribbon we just dial in whatever color we want and whatever brightness we want. So we can easily make one room orange, one room cyan, one a bit more blue. Then every single practical, every single fluorescent, every inch of that set, is on a dimmer board.
Filmmaker: At one point in the film, the air filtration system goes down and Michelle has to climb through the bunker’s duct system to reset the unit. How much duct did you actually build to shoot this?
Cutter: We made about 16 horizontal feet of duct, I think, then there was maybe six vertical feet and a little turn in the horizontal section. Dan really wanted the super non-movie version of the ducts. He wanted it to be as tight as it could be. Kudos to Mary for crawling through that thing, because it would’ve freaked me out. We did have vents [in the duct] that we could uplight from below, but this was mainly lit by Mary’s flashlight. Then, when we went in for coverage, we would have a little white card or bring in a little LED panel to give her a pinch of fill so you still see her but she didn’t feel like she was lit.
The trickiest thing about this was getting a camera inside there because Dan wanted to travel with her for quite a length continuously. What we ended up doing was taking a 16-foot steel I-beam, mounting it on a dolly, and putting the Dragon with the lens on the end of it—no [tripod] head, we just hard-mounted it on there and then poked it into the duct. You couldn’t operate the camera in any way other than moving forward or backward.
Filmmaker: Finally, tell me how you pulled off these close focus shots where the camera is placed inside Michelle’s air filtration mask.
Cutter: These were the most annoying shots in the movie. We basically had a slightly oversized mask and took the Dragon and put it on a Doggy cam harness mount that Mary would wear. We used a lightweight spherical lens because the anamorphic lens was too heavy and it was a close focus 18mm or 21mm, something like that. It didn’t work unless she was in the exact right spot. It wouldn’t look right if she moved at all, if the thing came loose a bit, or if she just looked up—then you’d suddenly be looking up her nostril. It was really fussy, but Dan loved it. (laughs) So, we ended up doing it multiple times. I liked the result but hated having to mess with it.
Filmmaker: Did you have problems with lens fogging when Mary would breathe?
Cutter: That was another giant problem. It would fog up all the time. We’d put the [rig] on Mary and she could do it for like a minute and then it would completely fog up. So you’d have to open the mask up and wipe the lens and try again. It was a mess.
Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.