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Sundance Cinematographers Tell Indiewire About their Most Difficult Shots

Indiewire By Ziyad Saadi | Indiewire January 24, 2014 at 9:31AM

Though a film's cinematography is shown on-screen, what happens behind the camera often proves to be much more strenuous than meets the eye. Battling against technical difficulties, budgetary restrictions and even some political strife, the 2014 Sundance cinematographers have certainly had their work cut out for them. As part of our "How I Shot That" series, we asked a selection of cinematographers with films at Sundance 2014 what their most difficult shot was on their respective productions, and just how exactly they managed to pull it off.
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Though a film's cinematography is shown on-screen, what happens behind the camera often proves to be much more strenuous than meets the eye. Battling against technical difficulties, budgetary restrictions and even some political strife, the 2014 Sundance cinematographers have certainly had their work cut out for them. As part of our "How I Shot That" series, we asked a selection of cinematographers with films at Sundance 2014 what their most difficult shot was on their respective productions, and just how exactly they managed to pull it off.

Here's a selection of their answers:

"The most difficult sequence of 'Life After Beth' was absolutely the final scene in the attic with Zach and Beth after they come back from the beach. It's incredibly simple. Two people in a small attic...they make out...it turns a bit ugly and Zach escapes through a dormer window. The director Jeff Baena wanted it to feel very moody with the actors entering pools of light and then receding into pure darkness. Moody, high contrast lighting is always the most time-consuming because you need to be very specific with the angle of the cameras in relation to the angle of light, or else you'll have half your shots look moody and the other half look bright and flat. Cross shooting with two cameras is very difficult in this situation as well, as you then have very few choices of where you can put your lights and still maintain a dark mood." - Jay Hunter ("Life After Beth")

"The Christmas Eve scene was the biggest challenge. Once you fill an environment with that much smoke, you quickly lose the definition of space. So my gaffer and I put almost all of our (few!) lights up outside the house, playing in through the windows and blinds, and tucked small fixtures in the corners of rooms, to make sure we got good silhouettes. Maintaining that level of smoke was tricky, so we closed all the windows and doors, checked all the cues and then left the machine running until we could barely see in front of our faces before calling action." - Ben Richardson ("Happy Christmas")

"Infinitely Polar Bear"

"Pretty much the entire shoot was a challenge. I had a small crew and very few days in which to shoot this film. That all translates to not enough time or resources to set up. As a result, night interiors are lit with carefully selected practical lights. As for daylight interiors, I asked the production designer to supply dark wooden shutters to modulate the light. I find blinds to be the most versatile window-dressing when attempting to light with available daylight. Not only can you have a completely open or completely closed window, but you can modulate the amount of light coming in with just a simple twist of the blinds. The darkness of the wood helped me avoid overexposure on the blinds when direct sunlight hit them. On a low-budget film with limited resources, I always find the challenge to be in how to maintain the integrity of the lighting." - Bobby Bukowski ("Infinitely Polar Bear")

"Shooting a huge night exterior down by a river bank that was a half-mile down a hiking trail. I didn't pull it off--my crew did! We had multiple 18K Arri Max pars on a state highway bridge and other lamps on a foot bridge." - Darren Lew ("Jamie Marks Is Dead")

"I was filming my main subject, Pastor Jay Reinke, in a fly-speck town called Wheelock in the North Dakota oil field when a woman pulled out a rifle and threatened to shoot us both if we didn't leave. I kept filming and wondering if she was going to shoot us, hoping that his position as pastor would provide some form of divine protection. As we were leaving, and still rolling, she attacked me with a metal broomstick. The shot is in the film. I pulled it off by ignoring that rational voice in my head that said run like hell." - Jesse Moss ("The Overnighters")


"The most difficult sequence to shoot was when I had to film two of the characters in 'E-Team' being smuggled into Syria along the Turkish border. It was pitch black as we rode to the crossing and there was absolutely no possibility for lights since we were supposed to be incognito. To top it off we had to run across an open field and could only bring what we could carry on our backs. Luckily, because the car broke down 4 times on the way to the border, it had allowed the sun to start rising and it was right before dawn, so the shadows and colors turned out to look lovely. As we were instructed when the smuggler said run, well that was it and we took off! I held the camera at my hip and ran next to the subjects so they would be back-lit and I could capture the chaotic, frantic moments as we ran towards Syria." - Rachel Beth Anderson ("E-Team")

"We had some big night exteriors that I wasn't 100 percent sure about how to light, and at lunch that day, I made a joke to our key grip Bert Montanari about building a 12x12 booklight on a scissor lift (which for many reasons was a completely ridiculous idea). We went back to shooting inside and I forgot about our conversation. When we went outside to start setting up, and figuring out how we would light the scene, there it was. A marvel of grip engineering. It worked beautifully, and enabled us to shoot wider, faster, and get more angles than I had anticipated." - Zachary Galler ("The Sleepwalker")

This article is related to: How I Shot That, Sundance Film Festival, Sundance 2014, Filmmaker Toolkit: Student Filmmakers, Filmmaker Toolkit: Production, Cinematography, Cinematographers