The award-winning ‘Dragonslayer’ tells the story of ‘Screech’, a lost kid falling in love in the suburbs of Fullerton, California. “[Dragonslayer] is a portrait of a new generation of kids from the rotting suburbs of inland California, and a celebration of what makes them so unique” comments Tristan Patterson, the director of the documentary.
Dragonslayer was lensed by Eric Koretz, and was my second collaboration with this Cinematographer. The documentary was filmed off and on over the course of a year and a half.
Most times documentaries can pose a challenge for a colourist; the very nature of these narratives usually leads to compromised images, hastily filmed in order to ‘capture the moment’. However, I found that with Dragonslayer, this wasn’t your typical documentary!
Eric used the Canon 5D Mk2 as his primary camera outfitted with a variety of lenses: the Canon L series 24-70 and 70-200 zoom lenses, a must in the run and gun world of docs, as well as an 85 T1.2 for all the low light night stuff. When time permitted, a set of Zeiss ZF 21, 35, 50 and 100 lenses were used. The superior sharpness and optical quality offset the inconvenience of using the primes.
Dragonslayer differs from many other skateboarder movies I’ve seen in that it is shot with a more filmic aesthetic, both in terms of the framing and the pace; crazy wide-angle lenses and crash zooms are out, replaced with a more sensitive approach that feels fresh and less pretentious. The colour choices reflect this, and I worked hard to bring out what was already there, striking a balance between the rawness of the ‘negative’ whilst striving for cohesiveness and uniformity. For a colourist there is something very satisfying about the fact that the audience will never see what the ‘befores and afters’ looked like!
The filmmakers also gave Screech a Kodak Zi8 to record his own stunts with. The camera is capable of capturing HD @ 720p, but in one of the those ‘fortunate’ accident moments, Screech flipped the switch to record standard definition!
Instead of fighting the ‘compromised’ images or trying to find a way to ‘fix’ them, I accentuated them further by pumping a lot of saturation in the blues and greens while keeping the skin tones ‘healthy’. One thing I didn’t want to do was stretch the contrast like crazy in order to bury the noise. Instead, I floated the blacks a little and pushed in some grain to hide some of the more offensive noise. The vibrant look goes with Screech’s ‘elevated’ state as he skateboards his way through life. And let’s just say that the use of recreational drugs are rampant in this movie!
Another scene we had a little fun with was the Tattoo Parlour. We really wanted to accentuate the intricate tattoos on display, as well as the vibrant colours bouncing off the walls and the posters. Compared with the natural and softer palette of the rest of the documentary, we wanted this to feel more grungy, more raw. I achieved this by pushing a good amount of cyan in the blacks, and offsetting the coolness with yellow in the mid tones. I then punched the oranges and the reds but protected the skin tones so that they wouldn’t go nuclear! Saturation can be a powerful tool for storytelling, but you need to know where to use it; without being selective you can end up with an image that looks like it’s made of candy!
‘Dragonslayer’ has been an award magnet ever since it hit the festival scene. It recently won the Best International Documentary at the hotDOCS Canadian International Documentary Festival. That’s in addition to the two awards it won at SXSW – Grand Jury Prize For Documentary Feature and Best Cinematography.
To stay up to date with Eric Koretz’s latest work, visit his website.
My collaboration with Cinematographer Salvador Lleo continues with Tsuyako, a story set in postwar Japan, where a factory worker and mother must decide between duty and love, her family and freedom. The short was directed by Mitsuyo Miyazaki in her home town back in Japan.
The five and a half day shoot was a gruelling one, with 14 hours of footage for a running time of 27 minutes. Capturing that amount of footage in that short amount of time also meant that compromises had to be made, specifically with the lighting setups of each scene. Welcome to the world of Indy filmmaking!
The images that Salvador has captured for Tsuyako do justice to the textures and the nuances that come from hundreds of years of aging. This is the kind of stuff that is hard to reproduce on a soundstage, and from the images below you can see why. The weathered wood, the scratched steel, the dirt and grime and hard graft are all on display. For Tsuyako, Salvador used a set of standard speed Zeiss lenses T2.1, along with his Red One camera. He felt that “the low contrast and soft quality of the glass helps to round off the ‘digital edge’ of a super high resolution digital camera such as the Red One”. And he’s right, because in the absence of film stocks, you need to make the glass work harder in order to create the images that you want. Salvador’s philosophy is that “the pairing of old and new was optimal for creating a more organic and filmic image that is in tune with the period piece”.
The factory scenes were a lot of fun to colour time, specifically because of the way that Salvador used fluorescent lighting: as a fill light to his warmer tungsten key light. The secret to working with any fluorescent source from a colour timing perspective is avoiding clipping. Although this may sound like common sense, it is even more profound when using this kind of light source, because fluorescents tend to leave a horrible green ‘residue’ around the clipped areas vs. daylight or tungsten. Keep the whites legal though and you will get some strong yellow/green seeping through the image that will add body to any industrial-type setting.
Tsuyako recently won the Future Filmmaker Award at the 2011 Palm Spring International Shortfest. You can read about the awards in the festival press release here, as well as in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety.
For more stills from the movie, visit the Gallery.
You can reach Salvador Lleo’s personal website here.
This is one of the prettiest pieces that I’ve ever worked on! Animator extraordinaire Jonathan Ostos Yaber combines stop motion animation with CG and matte paintings to bring to life the story of a Puppet Artist who chases his dream all the way to the big city, leaving behind what he loves for what he desires most.
There is a specific discipline when working with images that are already both vibrant and exceptional, quite often the case with stop motion and CG. The very richness of the images can also be the problem, and focussing the attention of the audience becomes the main task. For Sr. Alambre, I used many soft vignettes to create some ‘spot lighting’, and also blurs the foreground and the edges in some shots to simulate shallower depth of field.
As beautiful as these three images were to begin with, they all had their challenges. The first one felt flat and looked like a night scene lit up by a tungsten moon! I simulated some mixed lighting by pushing some blue in the shadows around the characters, but kept their skin tones warm to indicate the light reflecting off the canvas. Some soft vignetting also helps focus the eye. The second image is much more surreal, and therefore I augmented much of the pastel colours with some saturation in the mid tones while retaining cleaner highlights. The third image is all about drama, and shows an example of selective blurring to simulate a shallower depth of field. I also isolated Sr. Alambre using some qualifiers to lift him from the background, and snapped the contrast to create an almost Hi Con look.
Sr. Alambre is one of those shorts that’s a real labour of love. The thought and effort that’s gone into it is evident, and the story is relatable to any artist who’s struggling to make it big. It’s been an Official Selection in so many festivals the filmmakers have lost count!