As part of our “How I Shot That” series, Indiewire asked cinematographer Eric Lin about shooting Adam Salky’s “I Smile Back,” which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and opens in select theaters on October 23 and On Demand on November 6.
Based on Amy Koppelman’s 2008 novel, the film stars Sarah Silverman as a suburban wife and mother who struggles with depression and addiction.
What camera and lens did you use? Arri Alexa with Cooke S2/S3 Lenses
How do you decide what camera to use? I’m very cautious about the tools I use. If someone is asking which camera we should shoot on and I’m offered up choices, it’s always because it’s either going to fit the aesthetic or the style of production. There’s always something about the medium that makes sense for the project. If I know I’m going to be in very small quarters or there are a lot of scenes in cars, I’ll go for a camera that is maybe more compact. But first and foremost, I’m always trying to get the best image quality. Then it comes to what about the camera is a benefit for the production. If it’s all handheld, certain kinds of cameras are better for that. If it’s all natural lighting, we’re going to figure out which camera is best for that.
At what point did you become involved with this project? I met Adam Salky the director, on a feature called “Arcadia” which was written and directed by Olivia Silver. Adam was second unit director on that. So we met through that. When this was coming together, he contacted me around New Year’s and we met in L.A. It was January of last year. We had a good time meeting and talking and we had very similar aesthetics. I tried not to have that first conversation be about technology. It was more important to talk about what the creative impulse was, what the storytelling is. Then I try to figure out what the right tool was through that. Then I got brought on to the film about five weeks before production started.
This was the most difficult shot on my movie — and this is how I pulled it off: Much of the film is captured with designed handheld shots. Adam and I wanted to do one specific shot that follows an emotionally fragile Laney (Sarah Silverman) as she stumbles down the hallway and into the bedrooms of her sleeping children at night in one long handheld take. We were pressed for time because of the schedule and lighting a scene through multiple rooms where the lights are all off is already challenging if you want it to feel natural.
Given the time we had, Jason Beasley, the gaffer, and I decided to motivate the lighting from the nightlights in the children’s rooms which would make the scene both more intimate and more unsettling with the resulting shadows and silhouettes. We went low-tech and strategically hid simple bulbs on porcelain sockets dimmed way down and wrapped in black wrap in any corners of each of the rooms that wouldn’t be seen. We even tossed Christmas lights into the bathroom sink to give a glow as she walks past. It was a very raw, emotional scene and I think we were able to make the scene work well with Sarah’s incredible performance.
This is my favorite cinematographer, and why: I can’t choose just one so here are three: Darius Khondji, Harris Savides and Roger Deakins. They each have their own distinct style of finding a visual path with their composition, lighting or color that pulls the audience deeper into the emotional core of the story. Their work is deceptive in its simplicity and they are speaking a cinematic language that continues to inspire me. Darius Khondji might have a slight lead over the others because I met him at a theater once and he was warm and open while I bumbled around for something to say.
What’s the best film school for an aspiring cinematographer? Or is it necessary?) There are many ways to learn the technical aspects of cinematography but finding your own voice is the most important thing. Film school is not for everyone but it was great for me. I went NYU’s Grad Film production program for my MFA and there was never another time in my life where I had the luxury of thinking about films, reflecting on the creative process and, most importantly, making mistakes without too much fear of humiliation. It was an important step in developing as an artist.
Do you think the shift from film to digital is good? bad? (or just is?) It’s not about the medium, it’s about the feeling your images are able to impart and sometimes you only able to capture that feeling with digital and sometimes only with film. But, I will say the first short films I shot were all on film and it’s through the texture and colors of film negative that I learned how to see.
The rise of digital acquisition opens up a lot of creative possibilities and that is never a bad thing. Some of the first feature films I shot wouldn’t have been made if we didn’t shoot digitally. But unfortunately, digital’s rise has come at the cost of film’s ability to remain a viable option, economically. I try to be very conscious about how the tools I choose influences the creative process and shooting on film dictates a certain pace and rhythm on set while working digitally can accelerate that rhythm, sometimes to detriment of what you are doing. So when it comes to the hot new digital tech, I try to make sure I am leveraging its advantages and not letting it dictate choices for me. If I am able to do that successfully, it can be as rewarding as shooting film is. Or was. Sigh.
What advice do you have for cinematographers who want to get to Sundance? If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that I’m the least qualified person to predict what film audiences will respond to and ultimately be successful. There are so many variables and it’s a constant surprise to me. All you can do is know who you are as an artist. What motivates you? What stories inspires you? It might be the script or it might be an actor’s performance, or a director’s vision. Shooting requires you to make a lot of sacrifices and knowing what types of stories you want to fully invest yourself into telling is the only path to any kind of success. If you are persistent enough, patient enough and have a high threshold for rejection and uncertainty, whatever your definition of success is will certainly come.
What’s the best career advice you’ve received? Surround yourself with good people. This isn’t easy as it sounds because it also means being truthful with yourself about what your own shortcomings are and what you need help with. The energy of the crew suffuses what happens in front of the camera and you want as little as possible to impede the flow of creativity on set. With the right crew, that creativity comes from all directions, the AC, the key grip, etc.
Editor’s Note: The “How I Shot That” series is part of the Indiewire and Canon U.S.A. partnership at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where we celebrate cinematography at Canon Creative Studio on Main Street. Read the entire series here. Note: this story originally ran on January 30, 2015.