Shooting Broken Lizard on Super 16mm
In September of last year I had the pleasure of working with director Rod Blackhurst on the one-shot short film known at the time as The Runner. There was no script, just a single page treatment with a still image of an empty desert road and a brief description of the actions that take place. The film, now known as LIFE, premiered this week as a Vimeo Staff Pick.
In our first meeting about the project, we hashed out a number of creative and logistical details. Rod knew that the Runner, played by Kevin Heffernan (Super Troopers, Beerfest), was being drawn along by a vehicle, but rather than show the vehicle, we decided to remove it from the frame and use it as a platform for the observing camera.
Rod also liked the idea of being able to zoom in or out on the main character to amplify certain moments, in combination with the varying distance between the Runner and the camera. We ran through the treatment to orchestrate these changes in distance and frame size, but it was on set during the rehearsal where we really found the appropriate rhythm.
We also discussed format. When I mentioned super 16mm among the options, Rod latched on to the idea. The visible grain of 16mm contributed to the grittiness of the desert image, and the format was a natural companion to the somewhat old-school zoom style we used. I was also keen on shooting film as I knew that it would be able to hold the exposure range between the backlit desert sky and the shadows in the foreground.
Perhaps the most important part of the production was the location. We wanted something that looked isolated and lonely, yet provided plenty of visual interest. We also needed a road that was aligned so that we would get a nice 3/4 backlight at the right time of day. After scouring Google Earth for desert roads within driving distance of Los Angeles, we made a scout up to Mojave, CA and the surrounding areas. We finally found an excellent stretch of road 30-minutes outside of Mojave. Using the Sun Seeker app for iPhone, I was able to determine the path of the sun and estimate the ideal time of day for the shoot.
Because the entire short is one shot, we knew that the time consuming aspect of the shoot would be the set-up and rehearsal. Once everything was figured out and ready to go, the actual shoot should just be a matter of all the pieces falling into place at the right time. Based on my info from Sun Seeker, we decided that the best time to shoot was about an hour before sunset. We showed up at the location several hours early to give us enough time to get ready.
As a camera vehicle we used a minivan with the back seats removed. The camera was mounted on baby sticks in the rear of the van where I operated and 1st AC Mack Fisher pulled focus. Rod had a monitor up front with the driver, and Steve Lemme (Super Troopers, Duke of Hazzard), the character supposedly driving the vehicle rode along where he could step out for his moment in the story.
For lighting we just used the sun, plus a 4×4′ beadboard bounce rigged to the back of the van to fill in the Runner’s face a touch.
We shot on the Arri SR2 using Kodak Vision 3 500T 7219 which I rated at 320ASA to tighten up the grain a bit. I also eschewed the use of an 85 filter, being sure to shoot a gray card and asking the telecine colorist, Brian Kahovec at Fotokem, to bring the color back to normal. One of our biggest challenges was fighting flares from the sun as it dropped lower and lower into the sky. Our lens was the Canon 8-64mm T2.4 with a Microforce zoom control and Heden motor.
We ended up shooting about 7 takes, which took up less than two 400′ rolls of film. Our last couple of takes were shot after the sun had gone down and my light meter was reading “error.” Though Rod ended up choosing one of the sunnier takes for the final edit, the film impressively retain a great amount of detail, even in the darkest shots.
I had a great time shooting LIFE. Kevin and Steve kept the mood light, and Rod was full of positive energy as director. Plus, there’s always something magical about shooting film. Digital cameras can capture some beautiful images, but there’s something about seeing images from your film come up for the first time in the telecine that just can’t be replaced.
Long live film,
Colton Davie, Cinematographer