One of the potential hidden gems Indiewire is keeping a close eye on at SXSW 2016 is "Operator," an offbeat story of the marriage of Joe (Martin Starr) and Emily (Mae Whitman). Joe's life is dictated by data. He tracks everything, including his sex life, and turns that information into beautiful charts that help him control his often overwhelming anxiety. At work Joe designs personalities for digital customer service voices, but when his latest robo-agent is a disaster, he enlists Emily to serve as the template for the redesigned voice. The project goes well until Joe’s obsession with replicating his wife's empathy threatens their marriage.
For first time feature film director Logan Kibens, who developed the project at the Sundance Screenwriting Lab, the unique film required an equally unique look. Indiewire recently talked with Kibens and her cinematographer Steeven Petitteville about how they achieved the subtle and specific style of "Operator."
Kibens: Film is this awesome intersection of so many incredible art forms – acting, photography, sound design, music, color theory – each one of these art forms alone is capable of creating an interesting thought or experience, and with film we get to have them all happening together. I love to play when those elements are in unison, but also when they are disharmonious.
When the film starts, Joe is in sync with his charts, as seen by the full screen graphics that express his self-tracking. As the film goes on, because we’ve learned the language of his charts, we can see that he is no longer in sync with them. This is true of his environments, his musical themes, the way his scenes are shot, and the way his costume design changes. All our designers were working with these same ebbs and flows, so we are able to express these character shifts in multiple ways, some subliminal, some overt, all working towards the same effect.
Petitteville: We really wanted the look to be character driven and subliminally give Joe and Emily their own color, like a theme in music. Joe is in a cyan/cold palette, while Emily is on a warm golden side. We wanted to surround the characters with their own mood and tone.
Kibens: Steeven and I talked a lot about creating subtly contrasting spaces for Joe and Emily, according to the growth and change that they’re going through as characters. Joe gravitates towards a controlled, predictable lifestyle, and at the start of the film, he feels that this control is what makes him happiest and calmest. He’ll do anything to avoid uncertainty and panic. His environments, and the way they are photographed, reflect this. His world is full of calm, blue tones, and most of his personal spaces are shot in graphically composed static shots.
Petitteville: The camera movements are also based on character feelings. When Joe gets into a panic and starts freaking out we use a handheld camera to capture the energy. We’d alternate between handheld, to an almost static, just breathing camera, to slow dolly moves. The camera movement is based on how we wanted the audience to understand what was happening to Joe.
Kibens: We used the ARRI Amira, which was the perfect flexible tool to capture the multiple looks we wanted in "Operator." This was the camera we most wanted, and we were fortunate enough to get a grant from Arri to use the Amira, which was a budgetary and artistic lifesaver. The camera allowed us to compose graphic wide shots for Joe, interiors and exteriors, as well as capturing the more fluid, intimate moments that Joe and Emily share.
Petitteville: The Arri Amira had that great latitude which is great for skin tones and the contrast we wanted for this film. And the lenses of course helped tremendously. With digital cameras the lenses are almost as important as the camera’s sensor. We shot with an old Zeiss standard set 2.1 and a 12:1 Angénieux. We also used the Sony A7S camera in the theater because we wanted a different texture for those scenes and we needed a good low light camera because the theater was painted such a dark color.
Kibens: We shot Emily’s Neo-Futurist plays with three cameras – the Amira, and two Sony A7S DSLRs – so that we could capture the live experience without having to go back take after take. Steeven did a thorough test of five different DSLRs to check image quality, motion artifacts and contrast, and the Sony was our hands down favorite. The natural image quality of the camera’s sensor accentuated the dark, high contrast environment of the theater, and with the three cameras we were able to capture three different shot sizes with every take.
Kibens: Chicago was always the setting for "Operator." I met my wife and co-writer Sharon Greene in Chicago, it’s where our relationship began, it was our artistic home, and where we got married. The running path on the Chicago lakefront is still one of my favorite places to go running. We lived in and love so much of the character of Chicago, and have rarely seen it reflected in that detail in film. We knew we wanted to showcase the northside of Chicago as real Chicagoans, to let that environment also be a character, and to influence Joe and Emily.
Our production designer and location managers embraced this fully and found us incredible places to shoot. We spent two days shooting on Hollywood pier, and it was a dream come true. I used to live blocks from there and sit on the end of that pier and think. We shot in the Chicago Cultural center, with its incredible Tiffany glass dome – I was pinching myself shooting there. I love shooting on location, and Chicago was an excellent place to bring our film.