Editor’s Note: As we get ready for Sundance, we asked cinematographer Paul Yee to tell us how he created the unique look of “The Fits.” The film, which will premiere at Sundance on Friday, tells the story of Toni (Royalty Hightower), an 11-year-old tomboy, who joins the dance drill team she watches tirelessly practice next door to the boxing gym where she trains. Toni is drawn to the dancers’ strength and confidence, but her desire for acceptance becomes complicated when members of the tight-knit group start experiencing mysterious fits of shaking and fainting.
“The Fits” is the first feature length film that I’ve shot and the first narrative feature that Anna [Rose Holmer] has directed, so I went into it nervous about our ability to establish a visual language and continuity. After I read the first draft of the script, I assumed that Anna would want to take a handheld, cinéma vérité approach to the photography of the film. The cast would be almost entirely young, non-actors, so it seemed like the safest decision would be to keep the camera loose and flexible and able to adapt to performers who may be unable to hit a mark. However, Anna knew that she wanted deliberate composition, movement, and choreography of the camera movement and blocking. Now I can’t even imagine what the movie would look like if we’d committed to my initial inclination; there’s a suspension of disbelief that is so important to the story that it almost necessitates a more formal visual storytelling style.
We knew that the look of the film should be a representation of Toni’s psychological state. Since Toni is “outside of the pack” with both the boxers and the dancers, we often isolated her in the frame through selective focus and composition. We were constantly pulling her action closer and closer to the camera in order to throw the background out of focus, making the world around her soft, unclear, and confusing to emphasize the uncertainty of her mindset.
Anna has a great deal of experience with films about dance and choreography, so she was mindful of the relationship between the camera and the dancers. Knowing the path of the camera allowed us to make stronger choreographic choices. We were always thinking of the dancing in narrative terms and wanted the other people’s bodies to articulate the internal state of Toni.
Despite Toni’s internal unease, we incorporated a lot of smooth dolly and steadicam shots. I like to think that the camera moved much like a dancer or boxer — gracefully and with intention. While the steadicam provides fluid movement, the dolly shots lend a sense of inevitability and omnipotence to the camera. We made a point to force characters to move within the restrictions of the frame as opposed to allowing them to motivate the camera to follow them. I realize that that’s a strict limitation for any actor, but I do think it adds an unsettling presence to the tone of the film.
I’ve long been a fan of psychological horror movies and their ability to evoke a visceral reaction from the viewer and distill a sense of fear and anxiety. Though “The Fits” isn’t a traditionally scary movie, we were dealing with an intangible element when Toni’s team members start having mysterious fits of shaking and fainting, which we didn’t want to clearly show, nor visually define.
We learned early on that sometimes to express Toni’s point of view meant we should actually show her face, her reaction. Instead of seeing what she’s seeing, you watch her watching. When we did use her direct POV we never allowed for a clear vantage point, it was always obscured by foreground action or cut off by the frame. We wanted the audience to build up that subjective world, so they’re filling in the gaps until the very end.
We made the decision early on to limit Toni’s world to the community center, so she’s basically always confined and surrounded by walls and visual borders. When she goes outside, she’s in an empty pool or covered by an overgrown overpass- we wanted to contain her, that feeling of claustrophobia, we never wanted to let that tension go. Even the one wide establishing shot of Cincinnati is very slowly zooming in, closing in.
The community center was a challenge because there were so many vertical and horizontal lines built into the architecture. Certain rooms and hallways looked crooked unless the camera was perfectly level at a zero degree tilt, so that became another self imposed limitation- we avoided shooting anything high or low angle unless it was absolutely necessary. If Anna wanted a little more head room, we would boom up instead of tilt; it was a small decision that guided a lot of choices on set. Creatively, I think it adds to the personality of the setting, and makes it more jarring the few times that we decide to take on a skewed perspective.
“The Fits” is a low budget movie, even by indie standards. The principle shoot was 20 days from mid March to mid April, which was just about the minimum amount of time we needed to shoot the whole script. Whereas big budget movies have the resources to work around talent schedules and weather, we didn’t have that luxury at all. With so many variables at play, I made a point to thoroughly understand the natural light of our locations. We spent two weeks in the community center before we started to shoot and with the help of the Sun Seeker, which is an iphone app, I knew when the sun would be coming into each room and could take that into consideration for how scenes could be covered.
A good chunk of the movie takes place in a multi-purpose room (basically a gym/theatre), a large open space with high, west-facing windows that let in ample amounts of diffuse light until about 3 PM, after which there’d be piercing beams of light streaming through. Knowing that, we made a point to schedule scenes which required more coverage in the more consistent early light, saving the afternoon for scenes that were one or two shots at most. The weather cooperated most of the time, except for one afternoon when a sudden thunderstorm pretty much cut out all of our natural light. We tried to recreate a daylight look with our small lighting package, but ultimately settled on just using the room’s overhead fluorescents. It drove me crazy to make that compromise, but I think we made the best choice given the situation.
There are so many reasons why the Arri Amira was the perfect camera for us. Great color rendition for dark skin tones, high latitude for natural light situations, and the ability to shoot ProRes4444, which saved us a great amount of money on media while sacrificing very little in post. We were fortunate to do our color grade with the brilliant Sam Daley at Technicolor, who not only ironed out a lot of the lighting inconsistencies, but truly understood and considered the needs of the story. It wasn’t until our color session that we realized how much of a dichotomy we could create between Toni’s worlds just by emphasizing specific tones in the frame.
We shot on a set of uncoated cooke s2 panchros, old lenses that look beautiful and have wonderful imprecise bokeh [blurring of out of focus parts of the frame] and flares, which I think add a lot of character to the image. With those large windows, the way the uncoated surface of the lens flares has a sense of nostalgia to it. Even when they are doing these beautiful dance sequences and Toni is falling in love with that world, there’s a wistfulness about it.
“The Fits” premieres at Sundance on Friday at 6pm in the Tower Theatre.
[Editors 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 herefor more information about Arri’s products.]