Written by Parker Keye Eisen
As mentioned in the previous blog post, which can be found here, The Lovers was an attempt to exert as much control over the image as possible. To shape the light, shadow, and mood of the entire film. During the pandemic, if I wasn’t watching movies, I spent much of my time obsessing over the “Lighting Phantom Thread” video by Michael Bouman, the lighting cameraman on PTA’s Phantom Thread. Being able to see, watch, and listen to Bouman, First AC name, and Gaffer Johnny Franklin talk about their approach to lighting the film was like cracking a code for me. I’ve seen the video at least 10-15, maybe more. I’ve lost track. Whenever I felt lost or discouraged, I would watch that video, not to mention the PTA camera tests. It’s not that it gave me the technical tools or terms, but they just talked about how they did shit and that’s how I learn best. I began taking extensive notes on terms, and tech they talked about as well as going through Phantom Thread and trying to cross reference with the video to breakdown set-ups.
Phantom Thread was influential in more ways than just the lighting. For one, it’s a chamber drama, but also the film just has a certain texture and grittiness that I really wanted to achieve with The Lovers. It’s hard to explain, but you can just feel the texture of the world and it brings you into it. It’s gritty, and the colors are a bit desaturuated, the contrast is lower, and it’s covered in a layer of haze. I learned from the video that they used Black Pro Mist filters to get one layer of haziness, so Brennan Huizinga, the cinematographer, and I began experimenting with them. We also knew the film would require a lot of haze. I wanted the texture of the image to start to reflect the haziness and confusion in the character’s minds. And I think there’s haze in every shot.
Way before I really knew what The Lovers was, I began some camera tests with my mother, bless her heart, because she hates being on camera. I would write down a lighting plan in my journal, try to set it up to my immense frustration because I didn’t have any of the right gear, and then force her to sit down on camera as I tinkered with my shitty DIY set-up. Some of the shots I set-up actually ended up being quite close to shots in the film. Thanks mom.
I also knew that camera movement and dolly shots were going to be very important for this film, something I had been wanting to experiment with for a long time, which comes from my obsession with Andrei Tarkovsky and Bella Tarr. There’s an Ingmar Bergman quote somewhere that says something like “Nobody does it better than Tarkovsky.”. The way Tarkovsky’s camera moves is like the soul ascending to heaven, or an angel gliding through the frame, watching over the characters. And while The Lovers may not be as spiritual as a Tarkovsky film, I wanted that aspect in the film, that slow, aching camera movement, like the Room is God watching the character’s play out their domestic drama.
Of course, dolly shots mean you need a dolly, which there was no money for in any capacity, so I spent much of my time in pre-production building DIY Dolly Track, which there will be a future article about.
The next step in parsing out the look of the film was lenses, color, and lighting. I wanted the film to have a soft, dreamy look, but I also knew that I wanted to be able to use zooms for the film. They give the camera that extra tool to get close to a character when the camera has nowhere to move. Shot on a Black Magic Pocket 4K, with vintage Minolta Rokkors, a 28mm, 50mm, and 135mm. We also used a Voightlander 16mm photo lens. For the zoom lenses we used a Fujinon 18-100 Zoom lens. We used promist to soften the glass and the sharp digital.
Lighting was to be as simple as possible. Cinematographer Brennan Huizinga brought the film to life. We used lots of practicals, and I had every bulb type from 25w to 100w ready on lamps, with dimmers. For the night scenes, this got us nearly all of our exposure which we would modify by rigging film lights above or slightly out of frame. Also, haze. Lots of haze. The haze was critical not only for that soft, low-con look, but it boosts the entire baseline exposure ½ a stop to a stop.
For the daytime scene, we used a Godox VL 150w outside of the window, which was on the second story, so we had to use scaffolding to get the light where we wanted it. Brennan and Dylan Kissel (audio/gripping jack of everything on a film set) are experts at taking minimal gear and making a great image. Through cheap lights, fast digital cameras, and creative rigging we were able to craft beautiful images that tell the story.
The final piece to all of this is color grading, an ongoing process for myself. I wanted to approach the color of this film from the very beginning. On our first test shoot Brennan and I set up many different lighting scenarios that would be in the film. From this test footage, I began to extrapolate how the film would look and feel, creating multiple custom LUTs (Look up tables) for the film. In the LUTs was the amount of contrast, saturation, and color in the film, treating it like a film stock. A camera is a box. It is a special box, but not because of the construction of the box, but what the box captures. A digital camera captures light data, nothing more, nothing less. Every camera interprets that data in its own way, but the shooting in RAW leaves the creative decision to us--the filmmakers. I approached The Lovers with this mindset.
By creating the look of the film before production, Brennan and I knew how the colors would react, for example I wanted muted tones, especially muted reds, so when we look on the camera and see the red curtains exploding with saturation, we already know this will be controlled. For me, knowing what a draft of the image would look like before being on set was instrumental to the look of the film. We know what we want, so let’s capture the light, well-exposed images, and camera movement, color has already been figured out (and still is). Because that’s the best part, it’s the last opportunity to guide the audience’s eye. Like Jean Renoir says, the director’s job is to direct the eye. Color is nothing more than a compositional element.
All of these elements work together to give the film its overall look, texture, and feel. The most important part is that they bring us into the world of the characters, this gritty, hazy, confused world.