Cinematographers & Cameras: Lensing "Honey Boy," "21 Bridges," "IT Chapter Two"
Natasha Braier, ASC, ADF (l) and director Alma Har'el on the set of "Honey Boy" (photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)
DPs Natasha Braier, Paul Cameron, Checco Varese shed light on their work, collaborations with directors

One DP had a gratifying experience working on Alma Har’el’s first narrative feature film, feeling simpatico with the director’s visceral and poetic approach.

Another cinematographer was drawn to the prospect of lensing an old-school cop film, adding to a recent flurry of work which marked his return to HBO’s Westworld--not just as a DP but for the first time as an episodic director.

And our third lenser reunited with director Andy Muschietti to turn out the box office hit, IT Chapter Two.

Here are insights from Natasha Braier, ASC, ADF, Paul Cameron, ASC and Checco Varese, ASC.

Natasha Braier, ASC, ADF
Honey Boy (Amazon) marks cinematographer Natasha Braier’s first collaboration with director Alma Har’el. Just seeing Har’el’s documentary Bombay Beach was enough to fuel Braier’s desire to team with the filmmaker. “A mutual friend, director Antonio Campos, introduced me to Alma’s  work and told me she was going to contact me about the movie (Honey Boy),” recalled Braier. “I hadn’t seen her work before . When I watched Bombay Beach I was blown away and I immediately knew I wanted to work with her.”

Also enticing to Braier was 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 approach, 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.

“At the beginning we talked about using different textures for the two time periods (LaBeouf’s childhood and adult life),” continued Braier. “We were going to use different lenses, formats  and LUTS, but as we started to film we realized that it was better to keep them the same, because emotionally the adult character is still in that childhood trauma, there isn’t a clear separation, that world is still in him. Later on the script changed in the edit and the two timelines were intertwined, which made a lot of sense. We had felt that coming during the shoot so luckily we kept the same texture as the most fascinating thing in the movie is, I think, how there is no time and space separation really. He is the present adult and he is also the kid at the same time and we just peel an onion and see different layers of the same person. The movie has its own time space which is an emotional time space inside Shia’s psyche.” 

During some six weeks of prep, Braier and Har’el had occasion to talk extensively about the script and the characters. “We developed some visual ideas which were more like conceptual approaches for each scene,” related Braier. “But the real mise en scène only happened on the shoot, once the actors where on set. We would let them rehearse with Alma and then observe the rehearsal and quickly decide how to capture that. That’s in the best cases--sometimes we had no rehearsals. There was a high degree of improvisation, which felt like jamming with the actors and allowing them to be free and helped us capture things in a very raw, real and honest way.”

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 (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.”

As for the biggest creative challenge that Honey Boy posed to her, Braier related, “We had to move fast. We only had a few takes but the  main thing was that we didn’t know what Shia was going to do in the space until he was there. So in terms of lighting I had to prepare for different possible options with very few resources. It was like a chess game. Put everything on wireless dimmers and then right after the rehearsal, or during the first take when there wasn’t any rehearsal, I would jam with my dimmer boards in front of the monitor like a DJ and quickly decide what’s backlight what’s front light, which ones to switch off, colors , et cetera. It definitely kept me on my toes every second.”

Expounding upon the lighting, Braier said she had to “give them (the actors) the freedom to move wherever they wanted and at the same time have a lighting that is not flat and overall but moody and serving the drama. Preparing all those options with limited time and resources and then in one second during  the first take or quick rehearsal decide which one you are going to use and stick with for the rest of the scene, or change it subtly during the take. It was a new situation for me becoming a DJ with wireless lights, dancing with the camera (controlled by headsets) and jamming with the lights (controlled by my dimmer boards) from my monitor away from the actors to let them have room to play free. It was a new challenge that taught me and my team a lot about being invisible, creating a non-invasive lighting that can change and mutate between takes, or even during the take, without disturbing the actors at all. It turned out to be super dynamic and something I can now incorporate in my way of working even if a film doesn’t require that degree of improvisation or jamming around an actor, because in the end, all actors are really grateful the more invisible and less disruptive I can be.” 

Honey Boy, Har’el’s narrative feature directing debut, 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. Braierr’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.

Paul Cameron, ASC
Paul Cameron, ASC has a body of work spanning notable achievements in film and TV. On the latter front, he lensed the Westworld pilot, “The Original,” for series creator/director/writer Jonathan Nolan. The “Original” earned Cameron his first Emmy nomination in 2017, as well as ASC Award and Camerimage Jury Award nods. Cameron recently returned to the HBO series to shoot the highly anticipated first episode of season three for director Nolan. Cameron is also directing the season’s fourth episode of Westworld.

As for features, Cameron and Dion Beebe, ASC, shared a Best Cinematography BAFTA Film Award in 2005, as well as an ASC Award nomination for the Michael Mann-directed Collateral. Other Cameron-lensed motion pictures include Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, directed by Joachim Roenning, Man on Fire, directed by Tony Scott, and 21 Bridges, which is slated for a November release. Brian Kirk directed 21 Bridges, which stars Chadwick Boseman, J.K. Simmons and Sienna Miller. The film is about a disgraced detective in the NYPD who gets a chance at redemption. About 95 percent of the film features night scenes, most of which were shot on the streets of Philadelphia, which some limited time on location in New York City.

Cameron noted, “For this film I went for an older New York City night look when mercury vapor and sodium lights ruled the night. I used some lights I helped design a decade ago called T Pars; you can’t replace the reality of those color temperatures. They also require very little electricity and provide huge savings in generators and manpower.”

21 Bridges marked the first time Cameron worked with Kirk. The DP was drawn to the director’s vision for the film. “The script had a kind of Matthew Carnahan rich drama feel with a slight (Sidney) Lumet sensibility,” assessed Cameron. “Brian wanted to do as much of an old school cop film as we could possibly make. That appealed to me. After shooting the film, then the DI and final cut, I think we did a good job of staying true to the original vision.”

Cameron went with the Sony Venice camera for 21 Bridges. “I had done a number of commercials and a short film on the Sony Venice when it came out,” recalled Cameron. “I was impressed by the camera and its user friendliness for a DP. I’m very hands-on and change my settings on the fly. The camera appealed to me in that regard.”

In a test run, Cameron paired the camera with Scorpio anamorphic lenses, creating “a halation” that was just part of the desired effect he embraced. Cameron observed that he got from the combination of the Sony Venice and the Scorpio lenses “a great energy from the light, a bursting of energy.”

As for what’s next, beyond his work on season three of Westworld, Cameron at press time was slated to shoot this fall the sci-fi thriller Reminiscence directed by Westworld producer-writer-director Lisa Joy and starring Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson. Reminiscence marks Joy’s feature directorial debut.

Checco Varese, ASC
In a heartbeat, Checco Varese, ASC, agreed to shoot IT Chapter Two (Warner Bros., New Line) after director Andy Muschietti’s camp extended the offer. For one, it was a chance to reunite with Muschietti, for whom he lensed commercials years ago in Spain, as well as a short film, and a TV pilot for Hulu. Varese enjoys his rapport with the director, which grew even more on IT Chapter Two.

However, Varese didn’t take on the movie due to any personal attraction to the horror genre. “When I was in my early 20s, I was a war corespondent and news cameraman. I’ve seen enough horror myself,” he explained. But relative to IT, Varese  has also been fascinated with mystery, thrillers and dramas. “When I saw the original IT in an audience I remember thinking it’s really scary but it’s not horror. It’s much more drama and mystery. There are psychological elements.” 

To engage in those elements as created by master novelist Stephen King, this time with the Losers Club grown up as the demonic clown Pennywise looms, was an appealing proposition for Varese. “In ways the second movie is more dramatic because the summer of kids is now the summer of adults, dealing with grownup fears. It became more of an adult story,” observed Varese.

Perhaps the biggest challenge involved the sheer number of prime characters--the Losers Club members as adults, and friends, relatives, et al. “You have a cast of 15 or 16 people whose stories you have to tell,” said Varese. “You have to complete the arc of their feelings and fears. And in terms of the main adults, every 20 minutes of movie has six character arcs. It’s kind of like The Dirty Dozen where you have to complete everyone’s arc.

Varese deployed the ARRI Alexa Mini, the Alexa SXT and Alexa XT cameras on IT Chapter Two, in tandem with Leitz Summilux-C and MiniHawk lenses. 

The DP said that on a professional level what stands out for him on the film is the chemistry on set among the cast which includes Bill Hader, Jessica Chastain, Isaiah Mustafa, James McAvoy and of course Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise. “To witness this cast in the hands of Andy was a joy,” said Varese, noting that Muschietti is also very hands-on visually. “Andy is gifted as a director, musician, designer, a storyboard artist. He has a clear idea of what each frame has to look like, what each shot has to be. My job is to realize that and at times interpret what’s in his head. He’s relentless but at the end of the day the results are wonderful.”

Varese began his career in the mid-1980s, spending nearly a decade shooting news and documentaries within major global hot zones. Varese then diversified into music videos (including Prince’s “Black Sweat” for which he was a Best Cinematography nominee at the MTV Video Music Awards) and commercials. Varese’s narrative feature credits include Their Eyes Were Watching God produced by Oprah Winfrey; El Aura directed by Fabian Bielinsky; The New Daughter directed by Luis Berdejo; 5 Days of War directed by Renny Harlin; and The Colony helmed by Juan Campanella. Among Varese’s TV endeavors are HBO’s True Blood and FX Network’s The Strain.

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