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Repost of interview for Abel Cine:
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your previous work?
Hailing from the South and Midwest, I fell in love with literature and writing before stumbling into film-making in college. I have such a deep and yearning affection for stories and visual story-telling and I feel utterly privileged to make my livelihood as a director of photography, doing something I love. I live in North Hollywood with my wife, Renee, and our neurotic rat terrier, George, who have supported me through the last few years of this crazy journey called filmmaking.
How did you get involved with this project?
I interviewed with the producer and director after hearing a short synopsis of the project, which I found compelling, and I guess we hit it off because they called me back a few weeks later.
Can you give us the name of the feature or any details on the project?
Jackrabbit 29 is an unconventional character-driven thriller by writer & director Kyle Klubal. When a young couple goes missing, a large reward is issued for their return. The reward attracts an eccentric mix of characters to the town including bounty hunters, hitman, and more. We follow them as they cross paths and search for the missing couple. Full of bizarre characters, a nonlinear story-line, and all sorts of twists and turns, it was quite the adventure shooting this picture with my fantastic crew and it allowed us to capture a wide range of experimental photography.
What type of shooting locations did you have and what kind of lighting situations were involved?
We shot everywhere from seedy hotels to the desert to gaudy nightclubs. We had high-contrast daytime exteriors and daytime interiors – where consistency was key. Additionally, we had a range of moody club lighting and bar interiors. In fact we even lit a theatrical play that happens in the middle of the film and utilized a full team of stagehands and theatrical lighting director to pull off a range of colors and cues. Our biggest challenge was lighting for a 5 ½ minute steadicam oner that drifted through the majority of a nightclub. We ended up using all the club lighting and rigging a huge range of our own practicals and units into the club.
Although the film is present day, our locations meant that everything felt aged, worn down, rusted, and squalid. Because of the dark undertones in the story, I wanted to create a contrasty, yellowed palette that went from light to dark as tensions mounted and drifted from the muted tones of the hot Texas desert to gaudy reds and yellows in the saturated nightclub and bar interiors. Our visual journey would let us explore this dark, seedy town and the unforgiving nature of twisted happenstance and fate. My gaffer, Cole Pisano, was my right hand man and trusted ally in achieving these looks consistently, efficiently, and beautifully throughout the entire shoot.
What was your shooting schedule like?
We had a 24 day schedule, which was quite tight with the unconventional length of the script, the amount of locations we shot, and the large number of speaking roles in the film.
Why did you choose the Alexa? Have you used it on any projects in the past and/or are you planning to use it on any future projects?
Production is expensive and it’s measured in time. Independent productions that I’m on rarely have the money for a backup body and with us shooting almost two hours away from the closest reliable rental house, we simply couldn’t afford dealing with camera glitches. That is why I treasure the simplicity and reliability of the Alexa. I’ve used the Alexa previously for narrative and commercial work and was confident it was the right choice for this film. Shooting with the Alexa 4:3 did not disappoint.
In 24 days of diverse conditions and shooting almost non-stop, it performed exceptionally. We were not dealing with glitches, black-shading, overheating, error messages, or corrupted footage. We were not digging through menus to change things. Functionally it is a German tank. And that is to say nothing of the image quality of the camera. Its generous and gorgeous dynamic range captured our daytime exteriors like a refined filmstock and it held so much detail out the windows when shooting interiors we had to make sure our units weren’t showing! Its terrific low-light sensitivity meant that my small lighting package could accomplish a lot and the practicals we set could play in large nighttime interiors where I couldn’t hide units. The grain on the camera is quite filmic even in the most underexposed areas. The sharpness and color rendition present creamy yet defined skintones. Unless the story or budget dictates a more sterile look the Alexa continues to be a great go to camera.
What was your day-to-day workflow like? Did you shoot in ARRIRAW at all?
We shot in 2k ProRes 4444 on SXS cards. We simply didn’t have the funds to shoot RAW and I didn’t want to deal with the extra weight and hassle of the Codex Recorder while shooting handheld. Kyle likes to let the actors explore the scene and we frequently shot 8 – 12 takes, which is very uncommon for a film of this budget. Needless to say we burned through huge amounts of data and shot almost 4 TB a week.
My 2nd AC, Ben Steen, did a fantastic job wrangling all that data. We would dump the footage onto three separate drives which went to separate locations every night and we were able to instantly desqueeze and preview footage with a LUT I created using DaVinci Resolve and a color calibrated monitor. The footage was then passed off to our post-team with the LUT I created accompanying it.
How did this project become anamorphic?
Kyle, the director, and myself are in love with the anamorphic look, and from our very first conversations we were dedicated to making this film in anamorphic. On a digital sensor, anamorphic lenses are beautiful way of bringing a cinematic edge and distinctiveness to the photography. And framing for the 2.40 aspect ratio with anamorphic felt right with these scenes featuring 5 or more characters, the desert, and for the epic scope of these moments.
What lenses did you use and why did you choose them?
With the clean, perfect look of modern digital sensors, lens choices really create character and texture for the image and are a way of making sometimes rather perfect images look organic. I think nostalgia and that are a lot of what’s causing a resurgence in vintage lenses and anamorphic. We decided to embrace the imperfections of the lenses and used them wide-open for certain scenes, letting their flaws add to the intense, off-kilter, and psychedelic world we were creating.
We chose to use the Optica Elite Anamorphics because the set had a huge range from 24.5mm to 240mm and it had such distinctive optical characteristics. These lenses are sharp and contrasty modern Russian lomo anamorphics and are the same make as was used on another intense and perverse film, Dogtooth. Kyle and I used this set on a test short we shot prior to the film and fell in love with its unique look – it certainly defines the imagery of Jackrabbit 29.
The 24.5 mm became one of the signature lenses for this film. (Due to the 2x squeeze of the Elite Anamorphics, the 24.5mm has the same field of view as a 12.25mm spherical lens.) It is obscenely wide and frequently we’d see three walls and a ceiling. Every time I called for the lens, I think my AC smiled and my gaffer would sigh. Although it created many challenges when lighting for it, it let us get these Kubrickian wide shots. At times it created distance from the characters and presented them quite stoically and formally, at other points it immersed the audience right into action.
Would you consider this a low-budget feature? If so did this make it any more challenging to shoot anamorphic? How does anamorphic effect the budget, does it cost more?
This was a low-budget feature with a tight-knit crew where everyone wore many hats. When you shoot anamorphic, you are dedicating to that choice and it does have a monetary impact upon the film. Typically the lenses cost more than spherical lenses, and they are slower lenses, so you may need higher output lights than with spherical and everything that goes along with that. Most the time when shooting anamorphic you’re trying to buy a yourself a couple stops to minimize the distortion, aberration, and softness of the lenses, which are more noticeable wide open. Ideally I was shooting at a T4, but with the locations we were shooting at, we neither had the time nor the money to relight some of the extravagant spaces we shot. Despite that, with the sensitivity of the Alexa and the fast stop of the Elites (T 2.1), we could let practicals and well-placed units do much of the work for us.
Focus is a greater struggle with anamorphic because the 2x squeeze means you need longer lenses to achieve the field of view you’re used to (e.g. 100 mm has the fov of a 50 mm spherical lens). Furthermore, most anamorphics have a close focus of 3 feet which can be problematic to certain shots or require a diopter. My 1st AC, Michaela Angelique, was terrific holding focus during a variety of complex moves shot with longer lenses. Additionally, flaring can be a distraction as the anamorphics have that signature flare which you either love or hate. We never went out of our way to flare the lens, but it happened plenty on it’s own.
The size and weight of the lenses is another challenge for the anamorphics especially with the lenses we used. These lenses were all varying sizes and weights and lens changes took longer than a more standardized spherical set. Handholding and steadicam work had to deal with the weight of the lenses, especially when I would handhold a 100mm anamorphic for a 10 minute take or when my steadicam operator, Orlando Dugay, did a 5 ½ minute steadicam oner 17 times in one scene! In fact the lenses are so big that they each require there own case, so transportation becomes a little more complicated.
I think we proved that you can shoot a low-budget independent feature film on the Alexa with anamorphic lenses!
How did AbelCine get involved in this project? How far along in the process were you when you started working with AbelCine?
AbelCine was my go to choice from the very beginning. My first introduction to Abel was through their many online resources for filmmaking. Additionally, a number of my classmates from filmschool work at AbelCine LA in both the rental and sales department. Abel worked with my tight budget to provide me with a terrific camera package with the best price in town. We never once in 24 days had issues with Abel’s gear and the prep techs were devoted to helping answer our questions and figuring out reliable, pragmatic solutions for our camera package.
Did you use our checkout bays? If so, what was your experience like?
Abel Cine provided a comfortable, professional atmosphere to prep gear with the space necessary to test and pre-configure our various rigs. Additionally, we were able to schedule a series of camera tests during preproduction that helped us finalize the image of the film.
Did AbelCine Rental meet or exceed your expectations? Do you find anything unique or exceptional when working with AbelCine?
In my experience, AbelCine cares about empowering filmmakers to make great films. Whether it’s provided high-end cinema tools to independent features or training seminars or hosting their documentary contest, Abel wants to be a part of great films getting made. I loved working with Abel and can’t wait to work with their team again.
It’s an honor to make films for a living and it was a privilege working with my terrific crew and all our various vendors to bring this project, Jackrabbit 29, to life.
(to view more of Nicholas Matthews work or get in contact with him visit nicholasmatthewsfilm.com)
Vendors: Abel Cine LA, Slow Motion Film and Digital, Inc., Acey Decy Lighting, Camadeus Film Technologies