Finding Strength: Dame – The American Society of Cinematographers

Cinematographer Katharine White adds a sensitive visual approach to this short film about actor Elizabeth Taylor.

Few classic Hollywood stars were more recognizable for their professional and personal lives than Elizabeth Taylor. Writer-actor-producer Grace Kendall wanted to give Taylor’s story a nuanced treatment in Lady – a short-lived production that follows the deceased actor on his first day back at work on the set of Cat on a hot tin roof following the sudden death of her husband Mike Todd.

“I’ve wanted to tell the story of Elizabeth Taylor for a long time,” says Kendall, who looks physically like the icon of the Golden Age. “I wrote about this moment in Elizabeth’s life to tell the story of a woman who overcomes tragic loss and takes her power.”

Gather the team

Kendall assembled a predominantly female production team for the short, starting with the director. Foster Wilson. “As I learned more about Elizabeth’s personal story, I became truly connected to the human, the woman who went through this loss and bravely came out to the other side,” Wilson explains. “When I first met Grace, we kind of instantly connected to persevere in the mourning. And the first thing I said was, ‘You have to hire Catherine Blanche to shoot that.

Wilson and White had collaborated as director and cinematographer on five projects since 2017 before teaming up again for Dame. “Katharine thinks of the lighting first, I think of the camera first,” Wilson continues. “It’s part of what makes us a great team.

On the importance of hiring a diverse team, White says, “Early in my career I met several female directors, including Foster, who tried my luck as a young cinematographer. They created inclusive sets that it was exciting to be a part of, and I saw first-hand how the conscious use of the hiring power can make a difference. Every decision has the potential to move the needle forward. It is extremely important for me to use all the means at my disposal to continue to create space around the table for women, people of color and other minorities. The diversity behind the camera only benefits the stories we tell and the visual language we create to tell them.

Cinematographer Katharine White stands on camera as director Foster Wilson chats with Grace Kendall.

Design looks

Together, the filmmakers created a mix of visuals for the eight-minute short – a classic Hollywood look on set and a more intimate, modern aesthetic for Taylor’s private moments. “At the beginning of Lady, our cinematography is a lot more clinical – it’s about how audiences perceive Elizabeth, so we’re removed from her, ”White says, adding that they’ve accomplished this by using larger lenses. “When we move into his dressing room, we wanted it to be a personal moment – an intimate moment in which we share his grief. Being able to go up to 75mm and even 100mm with the opening wide open gives us such a lag. visual We wanted that contrast, compared to the beginning of the film.

The production features two long Steadicam sequences that essentially encompass 360 degrees of the set, then follows the protagonist through puddles of light along a backstage passage as she moves from one look to the next – from the stage to the lodge – then again.

Camera / lens support

White shot Lady with a Arri Alexa Miniand Cooke Panchro / i Classicpremium lenses. “I think pairing the Cooke lenses with Alexas gives you a much more filmy feel,” she says. “I shoot a lot with vintage lenses, sometimes even untreated. They help break down the digital barrier.

The filmmakers bought their camera and lens set from BeCine, a rental house founded by cinematographer Bianca Halpern and operated primarily by women. “BeCine has given me incredible support,” notes White. “They are very supportive of young filmmakers and women filmmakers.”

The company’s offerings include childcare on prep days. “This is the idea behind the name: to be cinema, ”says Halpern. “Live the cinematic life. This is how you can continue to grow and find work-life balance.

“It’s also important for me to allow filmmakers who don’t yet have big budgets to have access to good glass, because I had this problem as a director of photography,” adds Halpern. “For Lady, I recommended the Cooke Panchros to Katharine, and we were able to introduce her to different sets and find what works in a creative way.

Lighting preparations

LadyThe main photography took place over a single day, so careful preparation was vital. “Grace had been doing intense character work with her acting coaches,” Wilson said, “so ‘Elizabeth’ was already there when we started filming, and Katharine and I could be there in the moment and focus on filming. creation of this story. “

The main challenges, White says, were lighting the space to achieve the shots they wanted, especially the 360-degree views. “We knew it wouldn’t all come together overnight,” says the cinematographer. “We spent a full 12 hours on the first day pre-lighting, so we could get all of our lights off and start snoozing the cameras. This left the final settings for the morning of the day of the shoot.

“There was no overhead grid at the site, which is a big part of why we needed a full day of pre-lighting,” says White. “My longtime gaffer, Dave Wilwayco, has done wonders with this space.

White walks up to Kendall with a light meter.

Three environments

“Foster and I conceptualized three different lighting environments,” White explains: the stage set, the dressing room, and the hallway that connects them.

“The set, which was supposed to evoke the look of the classic Hollywood soundstage, brilliantly lit, was our most intricate. For ambient light, we installed a 12 by 12 softbox with 8 foot two-tone Quasars and ½ Silent Grid on a pulley system above the assembly. A Skypanel S60 with a chimera gave us a soft front light. 150 Watt Tungsten Mole-Richardson Fresnel was used as edge and hair lighting. Tungsten Fresnel 650, a 2K, and a 5K all worked as practices and flared the lens in various places.

“The dressing room is warm and intimate. The ambience was created with six practical lamps; each had a 50 or 60 watt soft white incandescent bulb on its own dimmer. Elizabeth’s main light was a [LiteGear] LiteMat 4L on a menacing arm filling the vanity mirror frontal thrust, which was also on a dimmer.

The hallway, which leads from the stage to the lodge, “has puddles of light and shadow, creating a transitional space,” White explains. “We used three 300-watt Mole-Richardson Tungsten Fresnels, and [fitted them with] muzzle. Down the hall was the entrance to the locker room, where a red light wash was produced by a two-tone 2 ‘Quasar Science Crossfade with Lee Primary Red gel – which Taylor walks in just as her tragic loss is verbally addressed for. the first and only time in the room.

The sequence in which Taylor walks through puddles of light from the stage to her dressing room is “White’s favorite moment in the movie,” she said. “There’s all the fuzzy texture of the background scene and the subtle lens reflections of the tungsten bulbs, and then we turn to that red Quasar punch at the end of this walk. It was great fun mixing newer and older sources in this way.

A Steadicam sequence through puddles of light to a wash of red.

A Steadicam sequence through puddles of light to a wash of red.

Parallel arcs

White found shooting Lady be very rewarding, in part because his own professional background in some ways mirrored Taylor’s emotional arc in the narrative. “When I started in grip and electric, it was very common for me to be the only woman, which could be an isolating experience. We start Lady with Elizabeth feeling very lonely, and we end with that moment that sort of recontextualizes her as triumphant and respected – someone who truly came into her power. As we filmed this moment as a director of photography working with a predominantly female team and BIPOC, I felt like we were shooting the moment when many of our own stories began.

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