Sundance : The Tale Of Three Cinematographers

Cannes Film Festival

Overture Films, Sony Pictures Classics and Benaroya Pictures


Producers bartering over million dollar distribution deals.  Directors promoting their creations.  Stars strolling down Main Street, schmoozing, skiing and attending an endless stream of parties.  The Sundance Film Festival has been known as the hub of independent movers and shakers.  Yet the pilgrimage to Park City, Utah isn’t just for the marquee names of the industry. 

Sundance provides an opportunity for the cast and crew to reconnect, enjoy the success of their efforts and dedication, and in many cases, participate in the film’s first public screening.   411 Publishing spoke with three cinematographers who traveled to the 2010 Sundance Film Festival to discuss their work.


"Jack Goes Boating" cinematographer Mott Hupfel

Sundance 2010 marked Mott Hupfel third festival visit.  He previously attended Sundance in 1998 for the screening of "Frat House" and again in 2001 for "The American Astronaut."  The premiere of "Jack Goes Boating," the directorial debut of Variety’s 2010 Indie Vanguard Award recipient Philip Seymour Hoffman, brought Hupfel back once again.

"It was exciting," said Hupfel.  "The turnout was huge.  It had one screening on Saturday night that was a little bit more of an industry crowd and it was completely packed and they really liked it.  The next morning’s screening had more regular folks, and there was a standing ovation for it." 

In addition to networking with peers, Hupfel enjoys the feedback he receives after screenings.

"It’s usually the first time you get to see anyone else beside people you’ve been working with see the film, which is always great," said Hupfel.  "And I like to hear criticism.  I like to hear what people do or don’t like about what they see."

"Jack Goes Boating," a drama involving the relationships of two couples, originated as a stage play.  Hupfel found first-time director Hoffman very easy to work with as the two developed a style for the script that would evolve into a visual story.

"Phil had been in the play, and he knew that although it was a great story, it also lacked action," said Hupfel.  "He looked to me to think of ways to keep it visually interesting and keep it moving.  He was really into using the opportunity to go into things you can’t do on the stage.  I would suggest things and he would immediately say, ‘Great, we’re going to do that.’  With the visuals, he wanted to go as cool and suggestive as possible."

With a very short turn-around time from the point of being hired to the rapid pace shooting schedule, Hupfel felt the handling of rehearsals aided in a comprehensive and successful shoot.

"Phil didn’t want to do any of the normal things I’ve done during pre-production," said Hupfel.  "A lot of the scouting was done by Terese (DePrez), the production designer who sent in pictures.  We’d go to the places and OK them.  We just rehearsed the whole time with the actors in taped-out rooms.  Sidney Lumet does that. I think Phil thought about all the directors he’s worked with, and picked what he thought were the best ideas in order to make a good movie."

In designing the visuals for the film, Hupfel chose to create as natural a look as possible to ground the characters and their developing relationships, while employing a series of camera tricks to add an impressionistic element when Hoffman’s character fantasizes about his life.  

”Weaving in visualizations helped differentiate the movie from the play.  They become a theme in the movie that I think is beautiful and nice,” said Hupfel.  “We did simple DIY effects shots.  There’s one where Jack is working in a kitchen.  We do a dolly shot of him working from behind.  We also did the exact same shot on a dolly on a stage where he’s in a totally black environment, lit by one bright light.  This could have been motion control, but we put the dolly where we thought it was close and we used the same lens and monitor to line him up as much as we could.  Brian (Kates, editor) layered the two shots and you see the two different layers.  I like that.  They’re special effects that you can do on your home computer.”


"Mother and Child" cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet

Xavier Perez Grobet is also a Sundance vet, returning to the festival with longtime collaborator Rodrigo Garcia and the film Garcia wrote and directed, “Mother and Child.”


“The movie premiered last September in Toronto and screened again in Spain’s San Sebastian Festival   Rodrigo has been involved with Sundance and their other activities, so they wanted to bring the movie to Sundance,” said Grobet.  “It’s always exciting to see the movie with an audience.  It’s a good moment: you have people who like movies and people who make movies as well, so it’s great to see what the response is.  It’s what you make a movie for, to be seen and to reach people.” 

Grobet, a fan of Garcia’s writing, was enthusiastic to work on a project he felt an audience would have a strong emotional connection to.  Having worked together on television pilots for “Big Love” and “In Treatment” as well as other features, Grobet enjoys the directing style of the former director of photography.


“You would think with having been a DP and working on the set, Rodrigo would be telling you how to do things,” said Grobet.  “But he knows how to treat all the crew and how to let people do their jobs.  After we work out the blocking, he’ll ask me ‘What do you have in mind?’  He doesn’t say what he wants, he’ll propel off what you have to say.  That’s how he works with a lot of the departments.  If he doesn’t like it he’ll let you know but if he does he’ll let you do it and it’s very collaborative.”


Garcia wanted a very natural shooting style that left the emphasis on the characters and their emotional moments throughout the script.  Keeping the camera very still, Grobet worked with framing, lighting, and some focusing tricks to aid in the film’s storytelling.


“Our goal was to not have to move the camera unless it was absolutely necessary,” said Grobet.  “We set the blocking and then found an angle that would play for the scene. Sometimes the faces were out of frame.  Sometimes the actors stood up and walked out of the frame.  That was part of the plan. 

”I treated the focus like the framing, where we didn’t want to wrack the focus much.  We chose a focus and let it play there.   For the birth and the emotional moments I did use a hand-held diopter which made the focus nowhere and everywhere.  We played with those limits.  Everything was very tight and static, this technique brought energy to the shot for those little moments that I wanted to accentuate."

Although Grobet prefers shooting on film, he’s been working with digital systems for roughly fifteen years.  When he learned that the feature was to be shot digitally, he pushed for the Panavision Genesis and arranged a meeting with his colorist.


”Even though the Genesis has five-year-old in technology, it’s one of the best qualities you can get out there," said Grobet.  “I felt the results were really great and the image quality was exactly what we were looking for.  After doing tests and talking to a colorist, we came up with the look I wanted; very soft, no hard contrasts.  We worked on that before we started shooting.”


"The Romantics" cinematographer Sam Levy


The last time Sam Levy attended Sundance, two films he crewed on as camera operator were screened: “Pieces of April” and “Party Monster.”  This year, he returned as a former Sundance Institute cinematography fellow and as the cinematographer for the premiere of Galt Niederhoffer’s “The Romantics,” a film she adapted and directed from her book of the same title. 


“I came specifically for the premiere.  Galt and the producers and all the cast were there, and it was a great experience,” said Levy.  “It’s always nerve-wracking to see a movie you’ve done for the first time with an audience.  The premiere was at the Library, sort of a moderately-sized screen.  But it was a great place for the premiere; the image had the right density and look. “

After reading Niederhoffer’s script and being inspired by the visual possibilities the story offered, Levy prepared a series of manipulated photographs expressing his initial impressions as to the color and style he’d employ if hired for the job.


“I just got a great sense of this world she created and what visual opportunities would be available," said Levy. “I prepared a group of photos I color corrected in Photoshop so they would have a semblance of unity for when I did meet her.  She responded really strongly to the images I presented, and at the end of the meeting she hired me, and we went scouting the next morning.”

Prior to shooting, Levy and Niederhoffer’s first step was to go through each act of the script and discuss the essence of the character’s relationship and determine the scenes’ blocking. 


“Initially we wanted to go through the entire script and write down what we thought each scene would require, and that was a very comprehensive process for this film because it’s an ensemble cast,“ said Levy.  “There are a lot of characters and a lot of dialogue, and neither of us wanted to get trapped in shooting in a television coverage style.  Galt never had any doubts about what direction to go in.  She’s a very forceful yet open leader and director”


Much of the film’s story takes place during the evening.  Levy had to find ways to achieve a warm golden hue during evening shoots.  Working closely with costume designer Danielle Kays and production designer Tim Grimes, an effective palette was developed.


”We shot at a fantastic estate on a vineyard in Greenport Long Island.  Except for a few scenes, everything transpires on this estate. We were heavily relying on this house and what was in it: the wall paper, a lot of the furniture,” said Levy.  “There was a lot of activity that happens at night, so it was very important for me to decide with Galt what the quality of light should be.”


To maintain a golden hue, practical lights were used in the house and decorative lights outfitted with orange bulbs were used on the grounds.  Using Fuji 500T film stock, Levy shot with various lenses and exposures. He then worked with colorist John Bontano at Company 3 to achieve a suggestion of warmth that wasn’t overbearing.


“The principle reason we shot on film was because it was nicer for this narrative feature,” said Levy.  “The Red cam has a 250 ASA.  That doesn’t give you much latitude in the shadows and the black part of the frame.  I knew with so much black space, the gaffers and grips would have to work extra hard to light the scenes.  You don’t want to use more equipment than what’s necessary.  Galt had a great sense of trust.  She really responded to my instinct.”