During awards season, craft discussions often focus on films in which large teams of technicians create whole worlds of images, effects, and sounds. However, as we saw last year with “Moonlight,” it’s a mistake to dismiss the craft of a low-budget film.
After making Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon,” director David Lowery wanted to shoot “A Ghost Story” with a small crew of friends, in a small home, and in a limited time period. And yet from composer Daniel Hart’s evocative score that works in perfect harmony with Johnny Marshall’s sound design, to costume designer Annell Brodeur’s remarkable feat of turning a bedsheet into a practical and beautiful ghost costume, the level of below-the-line talent was just as impressive as the small cities of people who made “Dunkirk” and “Blade Runner 2049.”
Possibly the biggest challenges on “A Ghost Story” belonged to Lowery and his cinematographer, Andrew Droz Palmermo, in creating the film’s evocative visuals. What follows is the director and DP talking about working with limited space, crew, and a narrower 4×3 aspect ratio to create the film’s distinct look.
Andrew Droz Palmermo
Lowery: I just called them both [stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara], “I’m making this weird thing in Texas. You want to come hang out?” The one ultimatum I made going into this was I wanted to keep it as small as can be and only work with friends.
Palmermo: For the scene where Casey is singing, he suggested we shoot on Saturday, which was our day off. It was just Casey, David, and myself. All those shots made the movie and that plays to the movies’ strengths, which is a very intimate, emotional movie. Sure, the light could have looked a little better, but being that intimate gets you such great material. I certainly don’t care if we have a lack of perfection occasionally for something that’s so raw and real.
Lowery: The big movies are big for a reason. They need that army, but it does get overwhelming at times and it can slow you down. By doing something so stripped down and making it intimately with such a small, tightly knit group of friends, we were able to do more and try more things and go exploring.
Palmermo: On a film this size, we had to schedule around where the sun would be. I would then remove light by blocking out windows that I didn’t want to be active. That’s purely budgetary. We would have loved to overpower the sun, but that wasn’t in our fixtures budget.
When the sun was overhead, it would be bouncing off this green grass and green leaves and it was sending a ton of green into the house. With Rooney, who has very fair skin, when she walked up to a window she would take a lot of green in her face. I laid out big pieces of muslin so it’d bounce warmer white light — that’s all I could really do, besides blacking out windows.
An Evolving Visual Look
Andrew Droz Palmero
Palmermo: One of the things that was challenging was creating a different look – the way the camera moves, the lighting, the look of the house — for each of the different phases of the film. The house and movie is different with Rooney and Casey, than when the Latino family moves in, or the squatters at the party.
Lowery: Visually, the film was initially conceived to be just a series of tableaus, before it expanded and we had the next family move in. I was just conceiving of it as a series of very quiet, haunting scenes in this space between two people and that remained for the beginning of the movie. I knew the shots would last for a sustained length of time and I talked to Andrew a lot about how to create frames that carried emotional weight and where we should put the camera to engage and hold the audiences’ attention.
Palmermo: The house is super small, so we thought it would be great to have a smaller-body camera [Arri Alexa Mini] so we could get it where we needed it to be. As we moved into the future, we had to find a way to make it look different but still feel part of the same cinematic universe. It was at this point in the film that I first introduced fluorescent lighting and seeing modern LED lighting versus the standard house bulbs or practicals we used in the beginning. More than lighting, the camera is doing different things than it was doing before.
Andrew Droz Palermo
Lowery: When the family moves in after Rooney has left the house… we decided just be more fluid and let the camera just sort of float around the space versus being so rigidly formalist in our approach. And that was very conducive to the way time starts to flow in that sequence.
Palmermo: We started going handheld and using a gimbal, so the Alexa Mini’s light weight became key. For this part of the film, I switched to modern lenses. I was using ’60s lenses up to that point and I brought out these ‘90s Panavision lenses, which are sharper and contrast-y in a way that renders things more faithfully. That combination of a new technology and this free-floating camerawork really marks the change in the film. We then did nearly the exact opposite for the pioneer scenes, where we used zoom lenses and long-lens shots that give it the feeling that you are looking in on the past. As the ghost becomes more isolated, I started making things cooler and we’d play with that throughout the film, adding or taking away a little color in the light as the film evolves.
4×3 Aspect Ratio
Andrew Droz Palermo
Lowery: I love the square aspect ratio as a moviegoer, especially because our screens are so wide now. Looking through frames like that makes my eyeballs happy. Thematically, it’s relevant [on “A Ghost Story”] because it’s about a character stuck in box. Also, it’s a movie starring someone wearing a bedsheet, and I wanted audiences to know from the beginning this is not a typical ghost movie, just in case someone comes wandering in thinking, “All right, ‘The Conjuring.’” So if I put the 4×3 up there at the beginning of the movie, everybody will know this is slightly left of center. Also, I wanted the creative challenge.
Palermo: We both think in widescreen. We love anamorphic frames and love utilizing the wide space, so there definitely was a learning curve. When you watch classic films shot 4×3, they don’t feel claustrophobic. They manage to use the 4×3 frame that doesn’t feel suffocating or like everybody is in a closeup. But the way contemporary films are shot, it would feel claustrophobic if you shot it the same way.
Lowery: I thought it would come naturally. “Oh, it’s a square, we’ll just reframe things.” But our minds are so trained to think in rectangles at this point. To adjust to that frame, at least to me, was an incredible challenge and it was uncomfortable. The first couple days of production we shot things wrong.
Palermo: We shot the scene where the ghost comes back home two or three different times. It was just a learning curve. “Oh, when he walks too much he looks really goofy, or if he gets too close to the lens he looks really goofy.”
Lowery: It’s about where the actor is in the frame and how you can’t shoot a closeup the same way. It’s remarkable how much goes into that. You don’t anticipate how every little detail plays differently when you are using that aspect ratio and how you have to think about space in a different capacity. We were learning as we shot, but we were in a situation where we had time to experiment and make sure we liked what we were seeing.
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. Founded by two filmmakers 100 years ago, ARRI and its engineers have been recognized by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for contributions to the industry with 19 Scientific and Technical Awards. Click here for more about ARRI.