Since meeting on the set of the cult TV show “Greg the Bunny” back in 2006, Radium Cheung, HKSC has collaborated with cinematographer-director Sean Baker on Baker’s 2012 “Starlet” and, most recently, the Sundance breakout hit “Tangerine.” In between, Radium has kept busy working as everything from a gaffer to a camera operator and lighting technician on a series of films and TV shows, including “Margin Call,” “All is Lost” and “The Americans,” for which he shot a handful of episodes.
But while the Hong Kong native shot “Starlet” using a Sony digital camera with anamorphic wide-screen lenses, for “Tangerine,” he and Baker opted to shoot using an iPhone 5s with a special anamorphic adapter for the iPhone developed by Moondog Labs.
While “Starlet” had a bleached look, “Tangerine,” an unconventional buddy pic of sorts involving two transgendered prostitutes in L.A. on Christmas Eve, pops with saturated, bold colors.
Indiewire recently spoke to Radium, the co-cinematographer of “Tangerine” (along with Baker), about how and why he created the film’s cinematic look using an iPhone.
I absolutely loved “Tangerine,” which is such a gorgeous film. I know you shot on an iPhone, but you also treated the film quite heavily in post to give it its unique look. Was that through color correction?
Yes, color correction. We basically did the opposite of what we did on “Starlet.” We drained the color on “Starlet.” On this one, we boosted the colors more, so we went the opposite direction — probably to do with the fact that the whole movie took place in one night on Christmas Eve. There were a lot of these holiday lights that were all around the environment. Sean wanted to boost that more. Taking advantage of that, we made that more pronounced.
In general, you seem to have a preference for natural lighting. Was that the case with “Tangerine” as well?
In general, for me as a cinematographer, I’ve always preferred more naturalistic when it comes to the lighting. I have very low tolerance for over-lit imagery. The trend in any kind of art form, movies or what not, back say 10 years ago, we had higher tolerance for things looking too manicured, too perfect, too beautifully lit. It was okay then. Now, if we produce that kind of image it takes audience away. They are constantly reminded that they are watching a movie because things don’t look that great, that manicured.
That has always been my philosophy to stay naturalistic and it just so happened that the train went that way in the last 10 years so that really helped me. I’m happy that it is the general aesthetic now. “Tangerine” probably had to do with my aesthetic as well as Sean’s too. He is naturalistic. We also really didn’t have time and resources, the time, equipment, money to do too much lighting. Not that we needed it.
I assume you and Sean made the decision together about shooting on iPhones?
Yeah, it was mostly Sean. I wasn’t a big fan until we did some tests and I was convinced. We shared cinematographer credit [on the film] and Sean really did a lot of the prep work in researching how to make the best looking film with the limited budget.
He first came up with the iPhone idea and he is a filmmaker so he is more open to explore these unconventional ways. Me, as a cinematographer, that is the last thing we would want to do, to shoot a movie with telephones. He did extensive research and testing. He found this combination between the iPhone 5, at the time I believe was the latest model, so between the ability of the phone and it just so happened that this company, Moondog Labs, was making an anamorphic adapter for it. That product wasn’t shipped yet. It was just in its crowdfunding phase. Sean reached out to them and they were very helpful. They sent us some prototypes. We got lucky during that time that these things were available to us. We did some tests and it looks pretty amazing.
Logistically, I’m guessing it helped in terms of not having too large of a footprint while shooting, and then in terms of the final result it worked because the film has a vérité feel to it. Can you talk about those two issues?
The decision to shoot with a couple of mobile phones turned out to be one of the greatest assets to the film. It probably has to do with the mobility of it. When you walk down the street and there is a film crew, no matter how small it is, there are stands, there are people with microphones, there is a cameraman with a camera on his shoulder. Naturally, it would attract attention; you stop for a second to just take a look. Versus if you saw some guys on the street with a couple of phones shooting. You probably wouldn’t pay attention. That really helped us a lot in “Tangerine.”
We had permits and all of that. We were properly permitted to shoot on the streets, but we had no manpower to lock down the street, to block the pedestrian traffic during the take like you would normally do in any movie. We just didn’t have that ability, so we just let passersby walk by. Luckily, with our tiny little set up, people just walked through. They really didn’t care. They saw us shooting, but no one took it seriously. That’s the major difference. It’s not like nobody knew we were shooting. We were obviously shooting.
No pun, well, pun intended, we were making a scene on the street. People can see that. The fact is they didn’t care. They just walked right by us. That really helped us, to capture the authentic and let the actors stay in the moment. That is more of the issue because when it comes to performance, in a scene and a passerby walks by, they interrupt, or they ask “oh what are you shooting?” or they stop in the middle of the frame, disrupting the actors. That distraction impacts performance more than anything. Without that distraction we were really able to get the best performance out, the most authentic, the rawest performance out of the actors. That was really a big plus we didn’t expect. We learned that soon enough. Within the first few days, we realized wow, this is really a great advantage to us, to shoot this way, with a little set up.
I was wondering about the shot where they’re driving through the car wash. What were the logistics involved in that?
That is very challenging, but not so much technical. That is the one shot we really didn’t have proper permit for because it’s on private property. It was on a business. When we shoot on the streets, we have proper permits from the mayor’s office, the film department, and all that. With that car wash scene the only way to really get a proper permit, basically, to do that properly, like any movie, you would need the collaboration form the car wash people. That was just not possible for this. I don’t think they want anything to do with us. Not so much the subject matter, but I don’t think they want to be bothered. They are running a business. I don’t think they want to be bothered with any of this. Basically, we just had Sean, sitting in the back there, in the taxi, and they drove through like normal. As soon as they got in, they started rolling, and they started performing. Then they had to time it just right as the car comes out, and they did that. The challenge is there was only one take. By the time we drove in they knew what was going on, the workers there.
Yeah, I don’t think they knew the sexual act of the scene. They can’t see that, but they knew we were shooting. We tried to not draw any attention but we still have a base somewhere, like half a block down, and some of our vehicle people getting ready and what not. That was unavoidable. They did notice us and we knew that. At the meantime, they couldn’t stop us because we weren’t doing anything illegal. We just had a guy in there driving through with a phone. There was nothing illegal about it, so we just went for it knowing it was just one take. That was a challenge, knowing we had to have the timing right and all that. Technically, it was like any other shot. The natural light there was just beautiful, coming through all the car wash things, and the splash of color on the windshield. That was just beautiful. It wasn’t a technically challenging thing it was just logistical. The pressure was on because it was one take. For whatever reason if that didn’t work, we would have had to find another facility to do that again. [laughs]
You spoke about shooting on the iPhone and what the upsides to that were. Were there any downsides to shooting on the phone?
Obviously, you can’t pull focus that is one of the first things. You can’t pull focus. You have to lock down. There is an app called Filmic Pro that we used. What it enables you to do is you’re able to lock down three parameters before you roll, which is color temperature, so basically light balance, your exposure, and your focus point. Once those three parameters lock, you roll the camera. Those things are set, so you can’t really pull focus. I mean you can’t at all, once it’s locked, it’s locked. You can’t pull focus at all. We can’t design shots where you push in from a wide shot to a close-up. We can’t do a straight-in dolly move. Whereas traditionally you would have the focus pulling to a focus, from a further distance into a closer distance. That is not something you can do at all. However, the lens, in defense of it being so small, the depth-of-field is quite deep, so we could move around. We just couldn’t design a shot where you go from wide shot into a medium shot into a close-up. That was just not available to us. We had a lot of lateral moves. We had all kinds of moves. It just can’t be as extreme, from wide to close, so that was a challenge. It’s not so much a challenge as something you embrace. We designed our shots with that in mind.
That makes sense.
The other one, again, is not really a challenge. It’s something you have to embrace, which is you can’t change lens. The camera is by default a very wide angle. Now you put the anamorphic adapter on it and it is even wider. You can’t change lenses. That is what it is. We basically shot the whole movie with one wide-angle lens. That is basically taking a lot of things out of the tool bag for a cinematographer. The way Sean and I do things is we learned it form the start. We knew that is the problem. We knew that is the parameter. We work with that and embrace that. At the end, it gave this film a very unique look because everything, the whole thing, was shot with a wide angle. On the close-ups, we were literally 2 to 3 feet away from the actor with the camera and all of the other background is mostly still in focus. As opposed to traditional longer lens close-up, where you throw everything out of focus, and your view is quite narrow. On this, your view is still very wide, behind all of the close-ups. It gives the whole film a very unique look. I don’t know anyone who has done that, to shoot a whole movie in extreme wide-angle like this.
Depending on the project, would you be open to shooting on an iPhone again?
Personally, I wouldn’t. It’s something I’ve done once and it was great for what it is. I don’t know if I would want to do that again.
Yet you agree, for this project, it made perfect sense. Theoretically, if a project came along that made sense for it, I guess you would consider it or no?
I would consider looking at other options. This was shot a year and a half ago, technology has advanced so much and there are new products. I would consider other options, but I would not want to try the same one again.
Are you concerned that the fact that you shot on an iPhone is drawing attention away from the fact that it is just an amazing film, you know that people will focus more on how it was shot? Which is funny for me to ask this because it is exactly what I am doing.
Exactly, no that is kind of a blessing. People are drawn to it for that reason, so it is kind of a blessing, but at the same time, none of us want that to take the focus. We made, as I always say, a Sean Baker movie. We didn’t make an iPhone movie. We have no relation to Apple. Personally, I would rather never even talk about the iPhone. We shot with a mobile phone, which is what it is, but it’s not product-specific. There were first-time movies shot when ALEXA was first available. It was a machine. There were talks of it but nobody was going around and saying, “This is the first ALEXA movie.” We didn’t want to be that.
This is actually the first movie shot entirely with an iPhone, but that is not what we’d like us to be known as. It’s a fine balance. We are proud of what we have done given the perimeters that we have and the limited resources. At the end, we made a very good Sean Baker movie. I think we made a good movie that tells a great story, that touches people, and is authentic. It has a lot of truthful moments and truthful emotions in it. That is what the focus should be. I would hate for people to come watch the movie just because it was shot on the phone. That goes back to another question you asked, I really wouldn’t want to do this again because that is what people talk about: Radium and Sean are doing another iPhone movie. That is just not going to happen. That is not what we want to be known for, not what we want to get involved in. We would be open to try some other new technology. Whatever is available. [laughs] If we have to, I would love to do a movie with a pen camera. [laughs] You know those spy cameras on the pen.
I’m just kidding. I’m just saying we are open to these things, but not a product-specific thing.
Thank you so much, this has been amazing and I hope to talk to you again soon. Obviously, we are fans of your work at Indiewire and fans of the film, so congratulations.
Thank you. I really appreciate the time and the attention. Again, credit really goes to Sean. He is a really talented guy and a fun person to work with. There is still a lot we can get out of Sean, in terms of good movies.
Magnolia Pictures acquired “Tangerine” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It will be released in theaters in NYC and LA on July 10th with a wider rollout to follow.