Behind the Lens: Bobby Bukowski, Cinematographer
Santa Monica California USA
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Bobby Bukowski offers an inside look at one of the first features shot with ARRI Alexa ProRes, and how the camera completely reshaped the cinematographer's approach to 360-lighting. Bobby also talks about the DP's role as one of the characters on a set where actors don't rehearse, and preparation is the key.
Based in New York, Bobby Bukowski--who began his career as a still photographer and holds an MFA from the Graduate Film program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts--has shot two dozen films, including director Oren Moverman's breakout Indie hit The Messenger, The Guitar for director Amy Redford, Arlington Road for Mark Pellington, John Madden's Ethan Frome and Kari Skogland's The Stone Angel. In 2010, he shot director Matthew Chapman's The Ledge, which premiered at 2011's Sundance Film Festival, director Debbie Goodstein's Mighty Fine, and director Christopher Browne's Ghett'a Life.
Creative COW's Debra Kaufman had a chance to talk to Bukowski about his latest collaboration with Moverman, Rampart, which debuts on September 10, 2011, at the Toronto International Film Festival. Rampart, written by James Ellroy and starring Woody Harrelson, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, tells the story of the infamous police corruption scandal in 1990s Los Angeles.
Bobby Bukowski received a 2009 nomination for the Genie Award, Best Achievement in Cinematography for: The Stone Angel (2007).
Tell me a bit about your collaboration with director Oren Moverman. How does he like to work?
What he likes to do is not rehearse ever. Our first take is our rehearsal. He talks to actors separately and tells them what he wants out of them. I light for 360-degrees in the room so the actors can go anywhere. On the set, it's just me and my remote focus puller and the boom man, this little unit that goes down rooms, up the stairs, out the door, down the street. Ninety percent of Rampart is handheld. It's quite an exciting way to work.
Often Oren would do more than one take in a row. We were shooting the ARRI Alexa in ProRes and 4:4:4 so it's 15 minutes for each 32-GB card. He would sometimes do two or three takes on a roll. We never do pickups; we do an entire scene. It's always from the top and always two or three takes in a row. When we finally do cut, we confer, and he'll give me feedback, perhaps saying "maybe go a little closer at this point."
Woody Harrelson as Anthony Tony Stone and Ben Foster as Will Montgomery in Oscilloscope Pictures The Messenger. Click to view larger.
He gives me a lot of credit to be eyes and ears on the production, telling me that if I see something out of the corner of my eye that looks interesting, to look at it. I'm like another character in the scene; I'm capturing behavior. It's a freeing and beautiful way to work and I love it and I think the results are amazing.
I understand you were one of the first films to use the ARRI Alexa ProRes.
I believe we might have been concurrent with a few other films doing that. I don't know if those have been finished. It was interesting. At that point ARRI Raw wasn't even an option.
We did tests as always before we shot. We shot with the SxS and the ProRes, did a DI and filmed out and watched them side by side to discern if ProRes would fly on a big screen. You do have slight compression with the ProRes, but very slight. You can see it on a scope but not with your eyes.
ProRes, for us, was really the way to go. We had to be mobile. We would have compromised the very style of the film had we not used those cards in the camera. I would have had cables trailing me and I would have gotten tired of it immediately. It was quite obvious that this was the way to do it and we were happy from what we saw in the test that we weren't compromising anything.
How did this style of shooting impact your camera configuration?
Because we couldn't be tethered to a cable and the focus puller couldn't be standing next to me, I had a Modulus wireless video transmitter on the camera so that we could send the video signal to a monitor in Video Village. All this adds to the weight of the camera, so I used an Easyrig, a really nice harness with a pipe that goes over your head and curves over the top. It's an upside-down U over your head, and you hang the camera from the cable. It takes a lot of weight off your shoulders.
We used zoom lenses a lot. I had Optimo lightweight Angenieux zooms. They're very small, so I also have zoom control on my camera. So there was a lot going on with the camera! For me, it was quite a choreography since I don't know beforehand where I'm going to go. We've talked extensively in prep about the narrative intent of the scene and he trusts me to look for the points of the narrative to be expressed in it.
Woody Harrelson stars as Dave Brown in Lightstream Pictures Rampart
It sounds like prep is crucial in working with Moverman.
Prep, prep, prep. By the time you get to the set, the movie is making itself if you've done the work. You never have enough time in prep. It's the most important part of the film. We're all listening to the director with our eyes and eyes wide open and thinking about how to succeed at this together. The costume designer Catherine George and I had done The Messenger together; I'd never worked with production designer David Wasco before and he's simply brilliant. We didn't have a lot of money and he knew from the very beginning that locations would become very, very key since we wouldn't have a lot of money to change them. Architecture and availability to light and the palette of how it's painted and even furnished is very important.
In prep, David went out with the locations manager and looked at 20 places and eliminated 15. The next day I'd look at the remaining five with him and get it down to two or three and then bring Oren.
The production designer, costume designer and I are the design team, and they're my best friends on the set. If the character is alone in one slit of light and everything else is blackness then it behooves me to go to the production designer and tell him, "I have no room to put flags, the tone of the room has to be already dark, so we talk about what color values we want to paint the walls." Of course, Oren is in on all of this.
Woody Harrelson as Dave Brown in Rampart
How did shooting with the Alexa impact how you lighted Rampart?
The Alexa is amazing, and the more I use it, the more I learn with this camera. I love this camera. I don't think this film could have been made the way we made it without this camera, which is saying a lot. Its sensitivity is incredible. We were shooting 1600 ASA sometimes, sometimes 800 ASA; if we were pressed with available light on a shoot and wanted to get a bit more out, 1600 ASA was fine.
I do my lighting before the actors come in; then it becomes the actors set. By shooting 360 degrees, you have to be able to see all the sources, which makes it makes it a special place for the actor, and very freeing.
It's such a sensitive camera that it sees everything as a light source. If you're shooting in a room in the daytime and hard light is coming in through the window, the bounce off the floor becomes a major source, and it bounces to the ceiling and the walls and that all becomes sources. It becomes a big grip job rather than an electrician job. It's a totally different way of working with light. You're shaping available light by using big 12x12 or 8x8 blacks. If I don't like the source coming off the floor, I'll put black on the floor or the wall.
It's a way of using available light and shaping it. Subsequently, it gives the director a lot of time with the actors...and a lot more time shooting as opposed to setting up the film. Finally, we're spending more time shooting rather than setting up. It's what Oren wants and what he puts on me anyway.
Woody Harrelson as Dave Brown in Lightstream Pictures Rampart
Does that mean you didn't use traditional lighting?
I was looking at various movies with Oren to decide on a look for night interiors and he didn't like any of them. He kept showing me still photos. I realized that what he likes is available light, such as light coming from a street lamp through a window. He doesn't like movie lights. So I said, let's not use movie lights.
That was our aesthetic. We used very few movie lights. I enlisted David, the production designer, to create practical sources for me. So if we were in a bedroom and Oren says, in this scene the actor is lying on the bed and turns the light on. We put the light source on the headboard. I'd tell David that I wanted fluorescent tubes and he'd work with the gaffer to find the right kind of bulbs. The practical light becomes the main light source in the scene.
What else can you tell me about the look of the movie?
A big theme of the film is the corrosive qualities of sunlight in Southern California. It was important for Oren to see the sunlight as a main character in the film. This main character takes a nosedive physically and mentally by the end of the film. One of the things that Oren said to me in the beginning was that by the end of the film, this man should have disappeared. It's interesting when a director gives such a clear and concise directive. How does one encapsulate that in cinematography?
I said to the production designer to have a lot of reflective surfaces, so we can shoot his reflection rather than him; that way we see a piece of him but not him. The costume designer showed that the colors he wore became more in tune with the colors of the set as time passes, so he literally fades into the background.
I also used lenses not coated for flares so the very edges of him became more undefined and vaporous. It was another way to how we make this guy disappear.
Woody Harrelson stars as Anthony "Tony" Stone in Oscilloscope Pictures The Messenger.
Tell me more about how you used these uncoated lenses.
It's interesting that the very glass of the lens is part of telling the story in this movie.
Because of this idea Oren had about this character disappearing and how the sunlight corroded him, we start out in the movie using lenses with coating that would prevent flares. All modern lenses have anti-halation to keep flares out. But older lenses--those of the 1970s and before--are uncoated. So, we had lenses that were very modern lenses, like the Angenieux I mentioned earlier. Then we had Cooke Panchro lenses, which were uncoated. Otto Nemenz, the house we used, uncoated a whole series of prime lenses for us. Then we also had some Zeiss super-speed lenses that are a little less coated than the newer lenses. So we had three gradations of possibilities, choosing when we wanted it to flare or not.
I understand you used FotoKem's NextLAB system for color-correcting file-based dailies. How did that work?
My DIT Teddy Viola and I would set LUTs on set. And those looks would go with snapshots and specs to the lab and would be applied to the dailies. So yes, we had color corrected dailies. I think it's really helpful particularly for producers because then they understand what we're getting. It helps Oren and I because we start to understand the film we're making. We'd go to the DI suite once a week at FotoKem, put stuff up and play with it in terms of contrast and color correction to make sure we were getting what we were expecting. We worked with Fotokem colorist Walter Volpatto, a great guy, who also did our DI at the end.
I know you also shot the pilot for The 2-2, a CBS cop drama from director James Mangold, producer Robert De Niro and writer Richard Price. Are you a go-to guy for gritty cop dramas?
I don't think so! Oren turned me onto it and James was interested in working with me. It was the first time he'd used the digital format and again we used the Alexa and he liked it a lot. The Alexa is pretty much the camera I want to use. It gives me everything I want.
Bobby Bukowski lensed The Messenger
I think of my work as more poetic. In Rampart, there are scenes in the movie that are seven minutes long without dialogue. So yes, it is poetic and I'm extremely proud of it. Your work can only be as good as the director feels daring and free to be. A lot of movies are similar because people aren't brave enough to go there. The big quote on the wall in Oren's office was "F*ck Film Logic." In other words, this is how everyone else would do it, so, as an exercise, let's throw it out and see how we'd approach the scene.
I understand you're on your way to Singapore to teach a cinematography course at New York University TIschAsia campus.
I'll be there for six weeks. Todd Solodnz and Julian Goldberger, another director I've worked with, will also be there, so it's a good group of people. The students are international, from America, Europe, Asia, all over the world.
I'll be teaching these students Super 16mm. I don't know what they'll be shooting when they get out of school but I don't think it'll be film. I wish I had an Alexa.
Look, you can teach the basics of cinematography with any camera. Without a camera like the Alexa, it's really a different approach. It becomes so grip intensive. Usually with film, I'm taking 18K and bouncing them into white to build up the fill levels. It's the opposite with the Alexa when I'm blocking half the sky and shaping a key light. I've been working for 25 years and it's another way of working. I'm really embracing it whole-heartedly.
Photos ©Amalgam Feature and Lightstream Pictures.
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