ASC Awards Preview: Reflections From First-Time Nominees
Natasha Braier, ASC, ADF (l) and Alma Har'el on the set of "Honey Boy" (photo courtesy of Amazon)
Natasha Braier in the Spotlight with "Honey Boy"; Lawrence Sher gains recognition for "Joker"

Natasha Braier, ASC, ADF is the only Latina woman nominated this year for an American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Award in the features competition. She’s a first time nominee in the Spotlight category for her lensing of Honey Boy (Amazon), which marked the narrative feature directing debut of Alma Har’el. The Spotlight Award, introduced in 2014, recognizes cinematography in features that may not receive wide theatrical release.

Braier was drawn to the chance to work with Har’el after seeing the director’s documentary Bombay Beach. The DP was also enticed by the Honey Boy story, based on actor Shia LaBeouf’s childhood and turbulent relationship with his father. LaBeouf actually wrote the script as a therapeutic rehab exercise, and wound up starring in the film. 

“I love unconventional narrative, and as the daughter of two Freudian shrinks, I’ve always been fascinated with the therapeutic process and somehow gravitated towards stories that have to do with identity, transformation and liberation,” said Braier. “When I read Honey Boy, I was fascinated by this very particular and personal space between narrative, documentary and art therapy. That really attracted me to the project--and to work with Alma and her poetic and visceral approach.” 

In terms of the creative approach to Honey Boy, Braier shed light on the nature of her working connection with Har’el. “Our discussions during prep had a lot to do with feelings, what where the core feelings and dramaturgy dynamics in each scene, understanding the essence of what’s happening to Shia’s character in each moment and then trying to translate that visually from a very visceral place, not logical. We didn’t storyboard or plan setups; we mostly built an emotional language together to then in the moment jam with what the actors were doing, allowing the camera and the light to follow those emotions instead of being a premeditated plan.

Braier chose to deploy the ARRI Alexa Mini on Honey Boy. “I love the look of Alexa. It’s my favorite digital camera. Mini was a no brainer because it was all hand held. We had mostly one camera operated by my Steadicam operator Matias Mesa, whether it was hand held or Steadicam. Some days we had a second camera, especially when we had Shia and Noah (actor Jupe, as a youngster), so that we could really capture the first and sometimes only take with the rawness and truthfulness of a documentary. 

Sometimes I would operate the second camera if it was outside and I didn’t have to play with the dimmers. Sometimes Alma would operate it and on a few occasions we got another operator. We used the Xtal Express anamorphic lenses by Joe Dunton; these are my favorite anamorphic lenses ever.”

Honey Boy is the latest entry in Braier’s standout career. The DP made her first major mark in 2006 with director Alexis Dos Santos’ Glue followed by Lucia Puenzo’s Argentinian drama XXY. Braier’s wide range extends from the Oscar-nominated foreign language feature The Milk of Sorrow--written and directed by Claudia Llosa--to a pair of director David Michod films, Animal Kingdom and The Rover. Braier then received acclaim for lensing director Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, and then the Sebastian Lelio-directed Gloria Bell.

Braier described the ASC Spotlight Award nom as “a huge honor” reflecting recognition from her colleagues. “It is truly humbling to be named among such talented cinematographers. Honey Boy was a real labor of love and such a fulfilling and challenging artistic experience--thanks so much to my incredible crew and intrepid director Alma Har’el and fearless partner in crime Shia LaBeouf. I’m overwhelmed and truly grateful.”

Joker
While all three Spotlight DPs are first-time ASC Award nominees, so to is one of the five cinematographers in the running for this year’s marquee feature film ASC Award--Lawrence Sher, ASC, for director Todd Phillips’ Joker (Warner Bros. Pictures).  Sher has also earned distinction with his first Best Cinematography Oscar nomination for Joker.

While it marked Sher’s sixth film in 11 years for Phillips, Joker broke new ground for both the filmmaker and the DP--a departure from their collaborations on The Hangover series of movies, Due Date and War Dogs.

Sher recalled reading the script by Phillips and Scott Silver, and in his mind committed to the project immediately. 

“Not only was it a fantastic script but it enabled us to stretch slightly different muscles than we had in the past,” said Sher, noting that Joker is a character study, delving into Arthur Fleck and subsequently the Joker.

For Sher, addressing a prime challenge posed by Joker was “a bit of an extension of what Todd and I had done over previous films, creating the flexibility to allow the actors to do whatever they want. For a cinematographer, that’s always a challenge--how can I create artful lighting and cinematography but within the parameters of giving Joaquin and Todd the flexibility to go 360, to even rehearse, set new marks, explore the scene in real time. This greatest challenge is also one of the greatest thrills and satisfactions, discovering a scene in real time with Joaquin, moments for the first time as they happen.”

Thus the film feels different from others in the so-called superhero/villain genre. “The movie feels handmade, a little bit dirty, very real, constructed by human beings, not a pre-vis lab. Humanity is the best way to describe it. Joker introduces us to a human being who happens to transform into something that exists within a superhero context.”

Sher deployed a large format ARRI Alexa 65 on Joker.  As for the lessons learned from his Joker experience, Sher said, “To be present every day. Great preparation allows you to be flexible and present on the day. If you are really present when you make the movie, you can find these amazing opportunities and moments you couldn’t have planned for. Joker had so many of these moments.”

The 34th Annual ASC Awards for Outstanding Achievement will take place on Jan. 25 at Hollywood & Highland’s Ray Dolby Ballroom in Hollywood, Calif.

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