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LENS CRAFTER
The Mini DV filmmaking revolution has allowed filmmakers to throw away scripts and produce improvisational gabfests, but it’s also inspired directors and d.p.’s to undertake bold experiments in visual style. Greg Harrison set out to change all that with November, an InDigEnt production that won the cinematography prize at Sundance for d.p. Nancy Schreiber. Jason Peterson figures out how they changed the look of Mini DV on a $150,000 budget.

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Courteney Cox in Greg Harrison's November.

It took a bit of coaxing to convince veteran cinematographer Nancy Schreiber to shoot a feature on a $2,800 Mini DV camera, says director Greg Harrison, whose InDigEnt-backed film November won this year’s Sundance Excellence in Cinematography award.

November portrays the grieving process of a photographer named Sophie (played with surprising grit by Courteney Cox) whose boyfriend (James LeGros) has been shot to death in a convenience store robbery. The tragedy has badly shattered her psyche, making her, as they say in literature class, a very unreliable narrator. In a kind of Rashômon of the mind, we witness the same loose cluster of events play out three times, each time with telling, and sometimes wry, variations that ultimately lead Sophie, and us, to apprehend the true reality of events.

Harrison says he knew when he approached Schreiber, a past Sundance Excellence in Cinematography award winner, that he wanted to help audiences navigate the film’s challenging structure by marking its three movements with distinct color casts (blue for Sophie’s denial, orange for her despair and white for her acceptance). He also knew he wanted to push beyond the “immediate, handheld, natural light aesthetic” that Mini DV films have tended to emulate. In short, he wanted each frame of the film to be artistically worthy of its photographer protagonist.

HOW THEY DID IT
Production Format
Mini DV.
Camera Manufacturer and Model
Panasonic AG-DVX100.
Digital Film Stock
Fuji 250D.
Editing System
Avid Xpress Pro.
Color Correction
HD color timing on a Da Vinci.
This challenge ultimately won Schreiber over to the project, as did her respect for the director, script, cast and the InDigEnt brand. She admits to approaching November with some trepidation, however. It’s not that she’s a “snob to technology,” she says — she has shot plenty of video as well as film in her long career — but she had previously refused all invitations to shoot on consumer-level equipment out of concerns for quality

To capture the film’s award-winning look on its tiny shooting budget of $150,000, Schreiber would adapt to the Mini DV medium the skills she’d mastered in shooting more lavishly funded commercials, features (including Neal LaBute’s Your Friends & Neighbors) and documentaries (including Barbara Kopple’s The Hamptons). This was a role that didn’t feel so very different from shooting a music video (like one of the hundred or so she’s shot for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Sting and Van Morrison) where budgets are often lean and solutions improvisatory.

She and Harrison agreed on some shooting rules for the production, one of which was to keep effects in camera as much as possible. Both knew the fallacy of the fix-it-in-post mentality (Harrison keenly so as an editor), especially when working with footage as highly compressed as Mini DV. So capturing the color casts called for some old-fashioned stagecraft. To help get the blue of the first movement, Schreiber pumped machine-generated smoke into the locations. She supplemented this effect with lighting gels and the manual white balance and color temperature controls of the two Panasonic AG-DVX100s on which November was shot.

She used the same techniques, minus the smoke, for the orange and white movements, as well as the convenience store scenes, which are rendered in a pallid green that came from white-balancing the camera to the sodium street lamps outside the store.

Another rule was to eschew handheld camera moves, except when, as Schreiber puts it, scenes “got chaotic” (for example, at the convenience store). Both she and Harrison wanted a more locked-down, controlled look, which meant yoking the little cameras to a whole assortment of downsized dollies, tripods, jibs and car mounts.

Schreiber articulates three more rules, perhaps the most guiding of the whole production: “I find that these little cameras look better with lower light levels, almost wide open [apertures] and as long a lens as you can use.” (In fact, she finds these rules apply to all video cameras, no matter how high-end.)

GO BACK AND WATCH...
Fearless: Peter Weir's 1993 movie starred Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez in a meditation on death and grieving that was informed by the writings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.
Jacob's Ladder: From the classic Ambrose Bierce short story "Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge" to the upcoming Marc Forster movie Stay, films informed by the world between life and death have always captivated our interest. In Adrian Lyne's 1990 feature, Tim Robbins plays a traumatized Vietnam vet struggling to identify the source of his bizarre visions.
Traffic: Steven Soderbergh used simple, contrasting color palettes to help his audience orient themselves within the various storylines of this drug-world thriller.
In lighting November, Schreiber particularly appreciated the AG-DVX100’s ability to shoot at the standard film rate of 24 frames per second (fps), as opposed to the typical 30 fps of NTSC video. (This feature, the most widely touted of the AG-DVX100, also dramatically smoothed the postproduction process. Previous InDigEnt films, says Harrison, had been shot on nonprogressive, 25fps PAL cameras, creating retiming and field-merging hassles in the preparations for film blowups. The AG-DVX100, by contrast, yielded one seamless digital frame per celluloid frame.) This slower frame rate gave the camera the equivalent of an extra stop’s worth of exposure, and gave Schreiber the freedom to minimally light the film’s locations with just an artful smattering of Kino Flos and fresnels. Only rarely, for just a few exterior shots of the convenience store, did she use higher-powered setups requiring a generator. (Low light, however, does not mean no light, she cautions. Underlighting scenes, she says, is a common mistake for video novices.)

Frederick Elmes, one of the film’s Sundance judges and cinematographer to David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Ang Lee, says of Schreiber’s use of light: “She lit it and used colors in a way that the camera responded. And I don’t think that’s the kind of thing you do by accident. That’s completely designed.”

So was her use of wide apertures and long lens. Wide apertures kept the depth of field narrow and the look more filmic. And long lenses, says Schreiber — or, in the case of the AG-DVX100, which doesn’t have interchangeable lenses, zoom settings in the telephoto range — helped avoid showcasing the lack of resolving power that’s so evident in video wide shots, even in the high-definition realm. (The film has just a handful of wide shots: a few establishing interiors and exteriors.)

The end result, aided by smart editing (also by Harrison) and the judicious use of After Effects–generated visual effects (Lew Baldwin), is a film that, says Elmes, “pushes the limits [of Mini DV] further than I’ve ever seen it pushed before in a dramatic situation.”

Go to Sidebar: Producing November: The Power of a Brand

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