Editor’s Note: For his directorial debut, James Schamus chose to adapt Philip Roth’s “Indignation,” which tells the story of a Jewish boy who leaves home to go to college in Ohio during the Korean War. To help create the early 1950s period feel of the film, Schamus turned to cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (“Night Moves” and “Low Down”). IndieWire recently asked Blauvelt to breakdown the process of how he created the film’s understated and elegant look. What he supplied was a detailed description of how he used today’s cutting edge digital technology to simulate the Kodachrome film stock that defined the era’s color photography.
Reversal Film Stock
The starting point in conversations with James about the look of “Indignation” was Gordon Parks’ color photography from the ’40s and ’50s. Reversal film was a great part of how people saw the world from this time period. When I was doing research of images from this era, there was a romantic feeling that comes from these photographs. There’s just this way the early color reversal stock holds hard contrast in the blacks, but still keeps primary colors soft and pastel looking, but then turns red on fire. There’s still nothing like it.
So we explored this as an aesthetic and decided it would accentuate the time period in the best way. The look and style was of course a culmination of many people and departments. Production designer Inbal Weinberg, costume designer Amy Roth and I would have color meetings with James to make sure we were all on the same page and pool together the ideas of how best to achieve a unique look for our story using these color photographs as a starting point.
Alison Cohen Rosa
The Alexa was the right camera for “Indignation” due to the softness and color spectrum the sensor records. It turned out to be a complement to the structure we were creating in our aesthetic design and it’s a very production-friendly camera in regards to efficiency.
We used the Arri Alexa Plus at 2k. I projected footage from the Alexa and RED Dragon at higher resolutions and landed here due to the feeling you lose when you start bumping up the resolution. I understand wanting a ton of numbers [higher resolution] for a heavy visual effects film, and we had a fair amount of vfx shots, but it doesn’t make my eyes happy when the image is too high def. My films are typically these dramatic stories that want the viewer to feel like it’s a memory. I believe that if you don’t think about the numbers and just simply ask yourself how the image makes you feel, you will find the equation you’re after.
Alison Cohen Rosa
The Right Recipe
Once we agreed on the color palette, I had to find the right approach for how to shoot it. I pulled out a number of lenses and filters and shot extensive tests. At the same time I was working with our post production colorist Alex Bickel. Alex had been working with his color scientist on an emulation of the Kodachrome photography that we were referencing. Alex worked with his color scientist to create a custom LUTs [acronym for Look Up Table, which are customized settings that adjusts how color is captured by the camera], which manipulated the color and contrast to mirror the Kodachrome stock.
I would screen test footage for James, our producers and the key department heads. We all knew it when we found the right recipe. There’s no feeling quite like the moment when you find the right look and everyone is in agreement.
Once we started shooting, the LUT was just a foundation to keep us thinking in the same realm, but obviously we had to make adjustments for the different environments. Jessica Ta, the on set DIT [Digital Imagining Technician] would take the LUT and use it as a jumping off point. Sometimes it wouldn’t work under more extreme lighting situations, but it was still a useful reference point.
Alison Cohen Rosa
The Need For More Light
The lenses we chose were very old. My AC Jennie Jeddry collimated the lenses at Arri in New York and much to my dismay many of them were falling apart around a 4 f-stop. That’s also in combination with the LUT, which had the image pushed down another couple of stops.
So needless to say, we required more light than usual to preserve the look we were after. Gaffer Jason Valez and grip Rob Harlow helped make this an easy transition. Also, when shooting at such a deep stop, especially on this project, I like to slightly under light and let the subjects blend into the background. I want to stay clear of that cardboard cutout look that happens when shooting digitally. Personally, I think this can be distracting.
Alison Cohen Rosa
A Restrained Camera
James and I would meet for hours shot listing, discussing compositions and justifying the movement of our lens. Through this we discovered our restrained ethic in letting our characters tell this story.
We really tried to not move the camera, so it held more weight when it actually did move. I like to set a nice composition and see if we can’t get the actors to stay in it. We really liked when the characters would break frame and then come back into it. To me there’s nothing worse than a really fast tilt to keep someone in frame when they just pop out for a second. I like when we keep the camera locked down and let the actors go.
If you constantly remind yourself that you are here to tell this story and what makes sense for the script, I believe you will find that the only reasons to move the camera are in the blocking. It’s always fun to have cool shots — I love the opportunity to do them myself — but I think it’s the right thing not to show your hand as a filmmaker or cameraman. When people think your movie is great, but might not even mention the camerawork in articles, I believe that’s a job well done.
Editor’s 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 here for more information about Arri’s products.