Last Update: March 9, 2014 Web Author: Chuck Barbee
©1999 Charles L. Barbee - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
THE LIGHTING & GRIP PACKAGE
Because of the extremely low budget nature of the film we could only afford a single, 5-ton grip/lighting truck and a very small lighting package. Because of my background in documentaries I knew I could make it work. With the truck came a modest assortment of grip equipment including a Chapman Pee Wee (standard, not super), my Sachtler Pro 20 fluid head and standard sticks, babies and hi hat (couldn't afford a gear head). I also had two 12'x12' and three 6'x6' complete overhead sets. To this we added a small assortment of tungsten lighting, the biggest of which were two Juniors. We also had four babies, two Mole Pars, and one or two of just about every type of small unit. We also had a couple of 4-foot KinoFlos with 3200 and 5600 tubes and a Mini Flo car lighting kit. My HMI package consisted of two 400-watt "Joker" pars and one 1200-watt ArriSun par. I also had a heavy duty 30 volt/inverter lighting pkg. which could run several different tungsten units or one of the 400 watt HMI's for up to 50 minutes. Since we didn't have an insert car, the Mini Flo kit and the 30-volt equipment proved indispensable for running car interior shots.We had a small generator capable of servicing the HMI's properly and plenty of feeder cable to do some of the bigger night exteriors. I had wanted some kind of night ambience lighting trick such as a Musco or some form of balloon light, but we just couldn't afford any of it. I was going to have to make things work with what I've listed above.Because of the hard work, talent and commitment of those involved, we did make it work. In particular I owe a debt of gratitude to four very key people. Geoffrey Maynard, the production designer/art director/set decorator did a masterful job of designing, creating and maintaining the look of our practical locations. Andrew Neerdaels, the gaffer, (also an accomplished commercial still photographer) was a dream to work with and did much to help me give NEBRASKA the lighting look I wanted. Most importantly, Linda Cohen and Conrad Hunziker III, the 1st A.C.'s kept me in focus under the most demanding conditions.We all made it work very well indeed and NEBRASKA just might have a chance at recognition because of the excellent contributions made by everyone. As low budget projects go, NEBRASKA was a shining example of what such a project could and should be. Michael Nash put an unlikely team together and somehow made it work smoothly.We had a 17-day schedule and we came in on time and on budget almost to the penny. According to the script supervisor's daily report, we shot a total of about 203 hours over the 17 days. That's an average of less than 12 hours per day. In actuality we had one 15-hour day, two 14-hour days and three 13-hour days. All the rest were 12 hours or less. We even had two days under 8 hours (7 and 6.5). During that time we completed 329 setups, averaging over 19 setups, or 5 1/2 pages, per day, yet there was never any yelling and almost never any confusion. In spite of the speed with which we worked this may be my best work ever. Michael encouraged me to push some limits visually and then trusted me to do it my way. A cinematographer could never ask for more.As of this writing NEBRASKA is being edited. What happens next remains to be seen. Whatever happens, for me it has already been worth the price of admission.Ready when you are, Michael!
THE CAMERA PACKAGE
Fortunately we were able to put together a good quality Arri SR 3 package from Alan Gordon Enterprises. Again, because of budget considerations, I decided to shoot the film with prime lenses only. The cost of a zoom lens with attendant accessories would have been over $1,000 per week which was more than 10% of the camera budget. Actually there were some creative reasons as well. I wanted the speed advantage of the Ziess Super Speeds because we would have a very small lighting package and would have to rely on fast film and lenses and lots of "natural" light. Furthermore, I've always believed that one of the major qualities of the look and feel of high quality theatrical motion pictures is the relatively short depth-of-field of 35mm and larger formats, when compared to 16mm or 2/3" video cameras. For a given frame size at a given distance, 16mm will always require a lens of 1/2 the focal length of 35mm. Thus, if are no other changes made, the 16mm product will always have much more depth of field than larger formats. In some situations this may be an advantage. When trying to get the best "theatrical" look I think it is a definite disadvantage. So by using Super Speed primes and shooting wide open all the time and by using the longest focal lengths practical for every shot, I was able to address the depth-of-field problem to my satisfaction. I think this helped the look of the film tremendously. Shooting only with primes would also keep us honest with respect to our desire not to use the zoom in place of the dolly. On the down side, shooting wide open might compromise sharpness a bit. When blowing up to 35mm this would be critical, so I tested to be sure I had a very good set of primes.
Night Interiors in this central, and longest, part of the film were lit with a mixture of warm, often practical, tungsten sources, and soft bounce from 4' x 4' bead board, with very soft blue light through any windows, or open, exterior doorways. Night Exteriors were lit with blue ambiance and rim light on actors and objects and I often let the actors go into full silhouette, or let them be lit only with rim light, whenever it was appropriate or natural to do so.
Once away from the city, the natural intensities of desert light and dark are allowed to play fully. From rich sunrises and sunsets to the indigo blues of night, to the warm, white-hot crispness of the hot desert midday, we followed and exaggerated the natural desert palate. I emphasized the build-up of desert heat by gradually adding heavier coral filtration, from 1/8th to 1/4 to 1/2, as we progress toward midday. Then I reverse the process until we're back to blue-black of night again.
Then I chose 7248 for all day exteriors as well as a couple of high-key day interiors in the desert. Finally, I chose 7231, Plus X Negative for the black & white. Based upon consultation with Chuck Kemmerer at Foto Kem and personnel at Du Art in New York, I was advised that overexposing the 16mm color negative up to one full stop was a must for a good blowup to 35mm. I shot a test (16mm only) to verify the latitude and grain structure at various exposures and liked 7248 overexposed 2/3 of a stop, and 7277 overexposed 1 full stop. That meant I would rate 7248 at EI 64 tungsten and 7277 at EI 160 tungsten. On the other hand, the same people advised that the 7231 be exposed normally. I opted not to test the Plus X since I would be rating it normally and was already very familiar with it from other black and white projects.
I soon realized that this was a guy who wasn't just tap dancing. With a degree in international finance, Michael Nash had achieved financial success by his late twenties. Then he discovered that he wasn't happy with money alone and now, in his mid thirties, he was using his business talent to further his artistic talent. He would make NEBRASKA alright, but he would do it his way, with his own money. This wasn't going to be a low-budget, made for video or wherever else you can sell it film. This was to be as much a work of craft and art as we could make it. The film was designed to be a film festival showcase for the director and everyone involved.Michael promptly sent me the script and I liked it. It is a moody story about Johnny Mack, a failed actor, a lost soul, who journeys back home to Nebraska, in search of his final failure, his own suicide. Only when his car breaks down in the middle of the desert does he glimpse a second chance at life.I responded with some ideas about how I visualized the story and we found we were very much in tune. Then he told me what the budget would be and hair stood up on the back of my neck! This wasn't low budget. It was NO BUDGET - under $100,000. The good news was that he wanted a director of photography who could take charge of the visual side of the film while he concentrated on acting/directing, etc.Michael had me hooked; he also had a bunch of skilled and talented people committed to the project at all levels. Some were working professionals of varying levels of experience, some were recent graduates of AFI and some were first timers looking for a way to get into the business. He cast actress/model Michael McCraine in the roll of the female lead, Emily. Mikey, as she liked to be called, recently played a recurring character in the Dream Works TV series "High Incident". Veteran TV actor Joey Vieira (Timmy's friend Porky from the Lassie TV Series) was cast in the major supporting role of Sam, the wise but lonely proprietor of the desert gas station where Johnny finds himself stranded. Veteran New York stage actress Fiona Hogan (Generation X) would play the "Madam" in Johnny's recurring dreams. The supporting cast including James Chase, Justin Hogan, Ricki Dale and Damon White, just to name a few, were all extremely professional.
I've had many interesting projects and experiences in my career shooting documentaries, specials, commercials, corporate, series, MOW's and some feature and special effects work. Since ending a three year run on Night Court over four year ago, my bread and butter has again been news, magazine shows and documentaries, with a couple of commercials and a 70 mm Ride Film thrown in for good measure. Recently, though, I've begun to feel a strong desire to stretch myself in the direction of feature films. In an attempt to build a solid reel of narrative film work - between paying gigs - I've volunteered to shoot a couple of theatrical short films and videos for young directors and actors trying to build their reels. Among them Michael King, who wrote and directed "Deadly Illusions" and Michael Adams, who wrote and directed "Love Bites", a theatrical short co-starring an actor named Michael Nash (I think there is a trend here). During the production of "Love Bites", Michael Nash (the actor) whose work I was admiring, approached me regarding a full-length feature he was preparing to do. He said he had written a story called NEBRASKA and was just about to begin producing it. He would also finance it, star in it, and direct it. Right!
An abriged version of this article can be seen in the October 1997 issue of
International Photographer Magazine.
© 1997 Charles L. Barbee. All rights reserved.
Photographs: ©1997 Michael Nash. All rights reserved.
The third level of reality was that of the childhood flashbacks and the gypsy fortuneteller. These scenes would be stark, stylized, high contrast black and white, the "Silver Screen" kind, with velvety blacks and silvery whites and plenty of detail in between. These scenes were lighted for higher contrast; wardrobe colors were selected for maximum contrast. Then the scenes were photographed through heavy yellow (9Y), green (56) or red (23A) filtration, to increase contrast even further. In the case of the 23A, the skin tones are also rendered more pale or pasty, thus apparently increasing contrast still further without losing all the detail in the blacks.
For Day Interiors I always let the natural light occurring in the space, at the indicated time of day, show me where and what color and intensity the lights needed to be. The interiors of Dry Creek Station were a sensation to photograph. The walls were a dirty pastel and the window glass in almost every room was frosted with the patina of age and the grime of the desert sand. Direct sunlight or the indirect brightness of the noonday sun always lit each room in a moodily beautiful way. During scouting I pointed this out to Michael and we agreed that we would capture and amplify that kind of light whenever we could; or we would create it whenever it didn't exist -- which was rare. We were extremely lucky that way.
The second reality level is where most of the story occurs. It begins at the point where Johnny Mack, sick to his stomach, is looking at himself in the mirror in a sleazy public bathroom. From this point forward, until just before the ending of the story, we are in Johnny's dream (or nightmare) but we just don't know it. The photographic look remains essentially the same at first, but slowly changes to a cleaner more pure feeling as Johnny leaves the depressing grime of the city and heads toward his destiny.
THE PHOTOGRAPHIC LOOK
Michael and I spent a lot of time during pre-production getting to know each other's style and taste, likes and dislikes. We each got into the other's head by sharing favorite films. The film that came closest to what we both had in mind was "Spitfire Grill". To my mind the fine film was notable as much for its low-key, naturalistic lighting design and unobtrusive cinematography as for its powerful story and fine performances. Michael and I both dislike zooms for the sake of adjusting shot size when a dolly move or appropriate blocking would accomplish the same end. To my utter delight he wanted to do something that I love. He wanted to try to play most scenes in master shots that could stand on their own. He wanted to block the action in such a way that with few exceptions the actors would move rather than the camera. Actors would come to the lens for their close-ups. The camera would serve the story and move only when motivated, never for the sake of movement. Blocking would also emphasize the lateral dimension of the 1:85 format for which we were composing; and we wouldn't have to protect TV composition. This didn't mean the camera wouldn't move at all. In fact it moved quite a lot, but with two notable exceptions the moves were simple linear moves to change or maintain composition when motivated by the action.Due to budget restraints the lighting schemes were kept simple. I let practical sources dictate the look of the lighting. That doesn't mean I didn't add or subtract "practical" sources when or where needed. It's just that the look is always completely natural and believable.The story called for three separate levels of reality. The first is Johnny Mac's basic reality: Grim! He lives in a cheap apartment in Hollywood, drives an old hearse for Grave Line Tours and he leads a miserable, monotone existence, sacrificing all while waiting for his big break as an actor. We kept the look real, edgy, documentary-like, but with muted, monotone colors, high contrast, rich blacks and a depressing starkness.
By mid March most of the key players were firmly committed and we immediately began scouting and prepping. By April 1st, I was in full pre-production with April 7th scheduled as our first shooting day. It would be a three week long schedule of 17 twelve-hour days.
FILM GUAGE AND RAW STOCK
Because we were shooting in Super 16, I wanted to do everything I could to maximize image quality in terms of grain and sharpness. In choosing a film stock, I would also need speed, because our very-low budget demanded that I work at or near the ambient nighttime light levels of actual locations. We were at about 15 foot-candles for the key for most of the interiors. I had recently shot a project using Vision 320 (7277) from Eastman and I was favorably impressed with the film's wide latitude, tight grain and good blacks, especially in overexposure. After doing a little research and based on gut feeling as much as experience, I decided to shoot 7277 for all of the night interiors and exteriors and most of the day interiors.