small time storyteller

S. Darko

S. Darko was photographed by Marvin V. Rush, ASC, and takes place 7 years after the tragic death of Donnie Darko. The story follows his youngest sister, Samantha, who has run away from home, unable to deal with the loss of her brother. The old adage of “cameras don’t shoot movies, DPs do” certainly rings true with this movie. Shot with an early build of the Red One camera, Marvin’s masterful cinematography adds credibility to this bizarre ‘sequel’ of a cult classic.

S. Darko by SILVER NITRATE © 2009

For S. Darko, Marvin was working with a constrained budget. This meant that in order to be able to afford such goodies as a techno crane, he needed to make compromises, and this came in the selection of older and cheaper Zeiss Super Speed lenses. Despite having less sophisticated coatings and not being as sharp compared to modern ones, older lenses are finding a new lease of life being paired with new digital cameras. “Resolution is only one aspect of production. If you a photographing a woman then you don’t necessarily want more resolution”, he quips.

Knowing Your Tools

The majority of filming occurred 50 miles west of Salt Lake City, Utah in the late spring of 2008. This is evident in the dramatic mountain ranges and brilliant clouds floating overhead. “Clouds contain a tremendous range of exposure. If you want to capture all of that detail, you have to bring your exposure down and expose for the brightest part of the cloud”, and thus knowing the ‘native’ ASA of the camera is essential. For the Red One Mysterium sensor, almost all DPs I’ve worked with agree on an ASA of 320 for daylight and 200 for tungsten. Understanding the limits of the capture device is essential. “Doing an accurate latitude test is imperative. What are the blackest blacks and the whitest whites”, Marvin asks rhetorically.

This is a cinematographer who knows his tools. When the gorgeous images rolled into the DI suite, I was pleasantly surprised by just how much detail there was in the clouds, but not at the expense of the faces. I felt that Marvin had captured the maximum amount of latitude the camera was capable of. This allowed me to to really isolate and saturate the sky while bringing out the clouds at the same time. A separate qualification on the faces was used to lift them out the shadows.


Just as you’d expect with a name like S. Darko, this movie has an oxymoron or two: looming mountain ranges frame rusty graveyards and rinky dinky motels in the middle of nowhere. The Production Design team must have had a hell of a time filling every nook and cranny with the million and one chachkas hanging from the walls. When appropriate, I pushed the colours a little further, made the landscapes a little bolder, and turned those cheap motels a little rustier. There’s a fair amount of folklore strewn throughout this tale, and each scene required a slightly different ‘treatment’ in order to bring out the photography.

The three images below show such a treatment. In the first picture, the RedLog file has the usual low contrast and desaturated look, but the colour separation and strong shadows are still evident. The second picture shows the effects of the LUT and a base grade. Note that the overall temperature of the scene feels cool, and in this instance the RAW file was debayered using 5600K (daylight) and 320ASA. This is how the camera was rated for this scene, and provides a good starting point: the colours feel ‘natural’, with clean blacks/whites and good colour separation. However, this scene takes place much later on in the day, and so I wanted to add a ‘rustier’ tint to it. I did this by adding a good amount of mid brown to the blacks and red to the highlights, but left the mid tones alone; this was to preserve all the subtle blues in the jeans and pamphlets, as well as the greens in the book keeper’s shirt. I finally brought down the shadows and removed some of the red tint from the blacks.

RedLog file
Base Grade + LUT
Final Grade


In addition to the Red One camera, Marvin used his own Sony EX1 for a very specific reason: time-lapse. The camera’s built-in intervalometer makes up for the fact that it’s a fixed lens camera, producing ‘spectacular’ HD images that cut well with the Red One footage. Marvin shot a time-lapse sequence of a motel in the middle of nowhere during the day with the intention of transitioning the shot into a Day-for-Night during the DI.

The blazing sun…
…turns to soft moonlight

Achieving a good Day-for-Night effect is all about good planning. There are certain steps you need to follow in order to get a convincing result.

Usually I start off by bringing down the overall gain and saturation. You can also bring down the lift as well, as long as the blacks don’t get too ‘blocky’. Even though we’re trying to create a night look, we still want to retain the integrity of the image. If you can’t bring down the gain without turning the image into mush then you can pull a luminance key and bring the highlights down by themselves. If I use this approach, I always make sure to use a good amount of softness in the key to avoid any banding.

The next step is to start identifying problematic areas: long shadows indicating a setting sun, bright roads, distracting backgrounds (in this case the rock formations) – all of those need to be treated separately, either by qualifying them or by using custom shapes. Many times I tend to actually bring up the gain on foreground objects, while bringing down the lift and overall density to simulate reflecting moonlight. Sometimes, it also helps to use soft grads to effectively ‘burn off’ distracting areas. In the example above, I have a separate correction on the road, the motel, the cars, the sign and the rocks, as well as a grad on the top part of the frame.

Now with all that sorted, you can finally go in and tint the overall image blue, while further reducing both saturation and gamma. This global adjustment has a unifying effect on all the corrections below it, and is one of the reasons why I wait until this point to tint the image. The other reason is because I want to retain my colour separation as late as possible, retaining the green in the trees, the reds in the sign and the earthen colours of the rocks.

For more S. Darko stills, click here.

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