I had the great pleasure of shooting Austin Smagalski's latest short film Visitation in March, 2016. Austin and I have been collaborating for years so it's safe to say we have a solid way of communicating visual ideas. As with most short form narratives, the budget for Visitation was quite small. I have a fair amount of experience with low budget work and always try to see it less as a constraint and more as a creative challenge. We were lucky enough to get a great location in Calabasas, California that - with some clever set decorating - fit the mood of this short well. Visitation takes place almost completely at night and includes quite a few exteriors so we knew we would have to shoot overnight. Luckily I had a great crew and even with the budgeting and time constraints, I think we definitely gave this story its due.
Story and References
Visitation is a glimpse into the life of Julia, a woman in crisis. She lost her husband and daughter as she fell deep into addiction and - just as we meet her - is heading for desperate measures. Austin's screenplays are always vivid and specific and I immediately got a sense of how to portray Julia's subjective reality visually.
One of my favorite exercises in launching prep for a new project is find visual references that connect to the visual style I'm imagining. I find this process of creating a lookbook is a great way of getting on the same page with my collaborators and communicating visual ideas to my crew.
When I first read the screenplay for this short and started talking with Austin, David Fincher's film Zodiac (2007) came to mind. Shot by the late, great Harris Savides, ASC, Zodiac has some of my favorite color work from the early days of digital. The deep browns and dirty yellows of Zodiac are perfect for the mood of the film and I felt similar colors would help convey the emotional landscape of Visitation's protagonist. Savides soft, contrasty lighting in Zodiac was also a great inspiration for this short. Julia's intentions are clouded for much of the film and the silhouette work in the stills from Zodiac below really fit the experience I wanted the Visitation photography to have.
The other film that I drew from visually is the Coen Brothers A Serious Man (2009) shot by Roger Deakins, ASC. I'm pretty much always thinking about Deakins' work on narrative projects. His lighting and composition is consistently strong and his color work is always focused and rich. A Serious Man has some great sequences set in residential interiors. Like Zodiac, A Serious Man makes great use of deep yellow and brown tones.
A Serious Man (2009)
We shot Visitation on location with a small crew and limited time so having a nimble lighting package and being able to prelight was critical. We used a primarily tungsten package from Wooden Nickel Lighting made up of 2k Mole Richardson Mighty Mole open-face and 750w ETC Source Four Leko lights. We also had small LED panels and I made sure to have a variety of practical bulbs available for use in existing light fixtures.
I keyed primarily with Mighty Moles pushed through unbleached muslin. Muslin creates a great soft light and the unbleached variation adds a subtle yellow quality. This is one of Roger Deakins favorite soft key techniques and it shows. His medium and closeup shots in A Serious Man have a beautiful wrap and color quality.
The Leko is great for creating hard streaks of light. I pushed it through the blinds in our child's room to create a classic moonlight look. I also used this fixture to create hot spots in the main portion of the house motivated by practical recessed track lighting.
One of the biggest lighting challenges on the this short was a long handheld tracking shot that followed our two main characters from one side of the house to the other on a 25mm lens. The nature of this shot meant that we wouldn't be able to have stands of any kind on the floor. All the lighting would have to be hidden around corners or rigged above. This meant that I wouldn't be able to use the primary key light I used for much of the short (Mighty Mole fixtures diffused through a 6x6 frame of unbleached muslin) but still wanted that quality of light. I used a combination of practical lamps and a Leko with a 50º lens to create consistent soft light throughout the house. Daylight-balanced LED panels created hints of moonlight from outside the windows.
Visitation was shot entirely handheld on my shoulder. This look was critical to staying with Julia in Austin and my opinions. It's clear she is fairly intoxicated from the first shot and handheld is a great way to convey that sort of feeling. We also choose to constrain ourselves in terms of focus pulling. We stuck as much as possible to an aesthetic in which characters walk into focus. Another creative constraint we added was focal length. We chose a focal length of 25mm for the entire short. This is a similar focal length to much of the frames in our lookbook from Savides and Deakins.
We used a Veydra Mini Prime 25mm T2.2 however I lit for T2.8 to preserve sharpness. This lens has a native Sony E mount so we were able to avoid the stop loss that comes with some adapters.
For budgetary reasons, we needed to use the new Sony FS5 for Visitation. This camera is capable of 4K, however in order to shoot 4:2:2 with 10 bit color depth (as opposed to 4:2:0 with 8 bit depth) we shot in 2K. Of course, optimally, I would have added an external recorder such as the Odyssey 7Q+ but the budget didn't allow for that. Even so, I was fairly satisfied with the color depth when it came to color grading.
I was quite concerned about video noise from this camera. In order to shoot S-LOG 2 or 3, the FS5 forces an EI of 3000. However, the camera's native EI is 1000, so this is quite a bit of gain. For this reason I chose to not shoot in S-LOG. I try to lock in color in camera anyway, so this wasn't too much of a problem. I've never been much of a fan of Sony's color science, so much of the work in post was finessing the skin tones and adjusting the luminance curve. The Veydra Primes are surprisingly sharp and have a highlight roll off similar to what one would expect from older Zeiss Standard Speeds so I didn't adjust the sharpness in post or add any highlight blur or filtration.
Watch the Film
by Daniele De Marco
Writer/Director: Austin Smagalski
Director of Photography: Khalil Omer
Editor: Noah Diamond
Cast: Serena Lorien, Scott Seagren, Michael Hendricks II
Assistant Camera: Daniele De Marco
Gaffer: Bethany Martin
Sound Mixer: Kiri Lewallen