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How I Shot That: Filming the Sundance Drama ‘Happy Christmas’ with Minimal Lighting

How I Shot That: Filming the Sundance Drama 'Happy Christmas' with Minimal Lighting

Christmas parties wouldn’t exist without the countless lights used for decoration, which made for an interesting experience for cinematographer Ben Richardson, who most recently went to Sundance with the Oscar-nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and now returns with Joe Swanberg’s Anna Kendrick-starrer “Happy Christmas.” Set during Christmas season, “Happy Christmas” is a family drama about Jenny (Kendrick) who moves into her brother and sister-in-law’s basement after a breakup.

Which camera and lens did you use? Arri 416 with Super Speeds and Kodak 7219 (500T).

What was the most difficult shot on your movie, and how did you pull it off? 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.

Who is your favorite cinematographer, and why?
Harris Savides. I love everything about his work, from his
compositions, to his lighting, to the photochemical and exposure
manipulations he used. Always effortlessly beautiful, Harris’
cinematography also drew you into the films he shot in the best
possible way.

Do you think the shift from digital is good or bad? I think it just is. I’m still a huge fan of film, and will
continue to choose it whenever I’m able. And although I think that
digital capture will catch up eventually, I suspect it’ll be a couple
more generations of cameras before you get that magic that well-shot
film offers. That said, there’s not a camera out there today that can’t
make beautiful images if you use your eyes and put in the work.

What advice do you have for cinematographers who want to get to Sundance? Seek out good collaborators and good scripts. It doesn’t matter
how beautiful your images are if they aren’t in service of a great
story and great performances. That’s the only reason I’m in Park City.

Editor’s Note: The “How I Shot That” series is part of the Indiewire and Canon U.S.A. partnership
at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where we celebrated
cinematography and photographed Sundance talent at Canon 
Craft Services on Main Street.

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