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‘Goat’ Cinematography: How to Film the Dark Underbelly of College Life

Director Andrew Neel and cinematographer Ethan Palmer counter Hollywood's brightly lit, sanitized version of college.

“Goat”

Courtesy of The Film Arcade

Editor’s note: With “Goat,” director Andrew Neel looks at the ritualistic and animalistic side of fraternity culture in his adaptation of author Brad Land’s 2004 memoir about rushing a faternity at the University of Clemson. In doing research for the film, Neel and his cinematographer Ethan Palmer were dismayed by the way college had been visually portrayed by Hollywood. Not only was this colorful and sanitized look the atmospheric opposite of what was needed for their behind-closed-doors examination of fraternity hazing, it stood counter to the messy, cramped and darkly lit interiors of student life.

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IndieWire recently asked Neel and Palmer to break down how they approached shooting their Sundance hit. What we received was this insightful look at how the two collaborators leaned on their documentary roots and created a visual compelling look with limited resources.

Palmer: I was surprised that all the college movie references I could find were comedies — brightly lit, colorful and visually pretty mainstream.

Neel: We felt like most college films feel too cleaned up; slathered in sentimentality. They have big sweeping shots of groomed campuses — everyone’s shirts are too new. Their rooms are unrealistically large. So in every department we tried to work on making everything look shitty, stinky and cramped because that’s the way it really is. We wanted it to look dirty, dim, and grimy and drunk. Like college… [M]aking things look shitty can be hard. You need to do a lot of work to make things shitty in a good way. It still has to be visually engaging.

Palmer: For [the color] palette I found myself looking a lot at [cinematographer] Greig Fraser’s work in “Foxcatcher”: a slightly muted, unadorned look where the presence of the actors and a sense of place take precedence but we also find moments for a bit of stylization. Also “The Hunt,” “Breaking the Waves” and Abu Ghraib prison photos.

Neel: We wanted the colors to feel muted and realistic and yet we wanted to avoid the overly desaturated look that a lot of indies are employing these days. We wanted it to look grimy and drab but still rich. Ethan worked hard on trying to find a color profile that would give us this combo. But beyond the camera, Ethan and I were always collaborating with [costume designer, Sarah Mae] Burton and [production designer, Akin] McKenzie to make sure we were keeping the clothes and the sets balanced in this way too.

"Goat"

“Goat”

Courtesy of The Film Arcade

Neel: Ethan and I agreed to avoid any big sequence shots or dolly work as much as we could when we were filming at college so much of it was handheld.

Palmer: It’s hard to ignore the documentary roots in “Goat” that Andrew and I bring to the table from years shooting docs together. Capturing a live, unpredictable subject in a doc is in many ways similar to capturing great performances from an actor, and we strove to create setups that allowed the actors as much freedom as possible to really get into their roles.

Neel: We didn’t get too rigid with the setups and coverage. We often lit the scene broadly — which we felt matched the dingy look of college anyway — and then let the camera move around with the actors as they worked. Especially in the hazing scenes actors had tons of space to play with.

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Palmer: Shooting mostly handheld single camera with broad lighting schemes, I was able to follow the action in front of me without a lot of technical interference. Andrew would often roll through multiple takes or, in the case of some of the hazing scenes, create scenarios that would take on their own momentum and direction. Adding to this doc feel, we employed a lot of servo zooms on the lens. Von Trier uses these a lot – there’s almost a postmodern effect to them, calling out the mediated frame you are looking through.

Neel: We would zoom with the servo when it felt right. Sometimes Ethan would just do it instinctively. Or I would guide him. We have shot a lot of doc material together so that came naturally to us.

"Goat"

“Goat”

Courtesy of The Film Arcade

Palmer: The Arri Amira [has] quite possibly the best ergonomics of any digital cinema camera for handheld work. And an Alexa sensor to go along with it. I like the result of putting high end camera gear into challenging available light scenarios, and the Arri sensors yield great images.

Neel: The Amira was light, sturdy and captured pretty images. We figured we were gonna be putting Ethan through a lot of hand held work and getting down-and-dirty with the camera too, so it seemed like the right fit.

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Palmer: The handheld scenes are offset by some selectively locked off camera work in the film, and two very selective steadicam shots. As the hazing and violence gets intense in the film, we wanted to create some rest stops along the way to take it all in. The last couple scenes in the film are much more locked off and traditional and serve as an exhale. I remember in prep debating with Andrew about how much we could mix locked off and handheld – we ended up being much more free to do what felt right than we initially thought.

Neel: We wanted the world to feel like it was choking the characters sometimes. In “Lord of the Flies,” the world beyond the limits of the island slowly melted away giving way to insanity and violence. We wanted the same to be true in our film. Suddenly the world becomes very small, the climax being when they are all trapped in the cabin at the end of hell week. They are trapped inside this masculine vice grip. We used a lot of tight shots and cluttered frames to help give the audience that feeling.

Editor’s note: This feature is presented in partnership with Arri, a leading designer, manufacturer and distributor of motion picture camera, digital intermediate (DI) and lighting equipment. Click here for more information about Arri’s products.

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