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Catnapped! Jas Shelton Discusses “Keanu” During NAB ICG Panel

By: Marjorie Galas

NAB isn’t all tech talk and gear.  The International Cinematographers Guild made things a little fuzzy, and funny, by highlighting the phenomenal work of DP Jas Shelton in a special panel presentation moderated by David Geffner, Executive Editor of ICG Magazine.   The story that follows is taken from comments shared during the ICG’s special presentation:  “Catnapped! Key and Peele’s ‘Keanu’”

Director Peter Atencio wanted Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s first feature, “Keanu,” to have a completely different aesthetic than their Emmy nominated variety show, “Key and Peele.”  Working of a list of cinematographers with diverse feature film experience, Atencio focused on DP Jas Shelton.  He’d first seen and admired Shelton’s work on the critically heralded short “Bloom” and was fond of the cinematic style he brought to indies including  “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” Shelton, a fan of the comic’s variety series “Key and Peele,” didn’t hesitate to set a meeting with the director.  The two hit it off immediately.

“After I read the script, I saw some fun cinematic possibilities,” said Shelton.  “Peter was like-minded about experimenting.”

“Keanu” follows the adventures cousins Rell (Peele) and Clarence (Key) engage in when Rell’s kitten, Keanu, is abducted by a drug gang.  Posing as thugs to recover Keanu, the two men become increasingly entrenched in gang lifestyle.  While the story hinges on Key and Peele’s brand of comedy, Shelton’s visual style was influenced by films including “El Mariachi” and “Heat.” The DP focused on developing a gritty, textured look that reflected the film’s urban environment.

“Grounding the story in the gritty reality helped to inform the comedy,” said Shelton.

Although budget prohibited his film preference, Shelton found Cooke anamorphic and Vintage 74 glass lenses used with the Alexa XT manipulated light and created flares to his desired effect.  To ensure interior lighting was top notch, Shelton relied heavily on First AC Zachary Sieffert and local New Orleans crew – many of whom he’d previously collaborated with – to find the best lighting and blocking that worked in the city’s hot summer days.  In some locations, such as an old church that stood in for a drug assembly plant, the crew flooded lights through windows to heighten the dramatic element of a shoot out.  For the dingy club – a location that proved extremely authentic (“Good thing you can’t smell it in the film,” joked Atencio) the lighting crew used tungsten and LEDs that enabled them to easily manipulate color temperatures within scene to emphasize emotional changes. To give texture to outdoor locations, a PhotoKem grain was added to the film’s final print.

Eager to maintain authenticity throughout the film, Atencio insisted only real kittens would be used throughout shooting.

“So much centers around (the cousins) finding that cat.  The audience has to make that leap in that logic.  If it was a CG kitten there would not be the true emotional connection,” said Atencio.  “There is not a thing in the world cuter than a kitten.”

Eight different kittens portrayed Keanu.  The trainers would start working with them at two weeks old to ensure they could hit their marks, particularly for the church shoot out scene.  At four weeks old the kitten “pros” were introduced into the stunt sequence.  To ensure the safety of kittens, actors and crew, choreography was meticulously storyboarded and rehearsed.  With the exception of some fill lighting, capturing the trained felines proved a synch.

“They hit their marks every time,” said Shelton.

Want to learn more about Shelton’s work on “Keanu?”  View this video featuring the DP discussing his process that was presented by ShareGrid!

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