DP Decisions: Loves Me Not

published 19 Jul 2011 & updated 26 Jul 2011 in Cinematography tagged w/ DP Decisions

One of my good friends who is outside of the film industry recently asked me what blogs he could visit to read up on cinematography. I poked around through my bookmarks and was surprised by how few links I found for him. Combine that with my own longstanding desire to start sharing some of my techniques online, and I have decided to write about some of my past projects.

This is the first in a series of blog posts about cinematography that I’m tagging with “DP Decisions“. These posts will mostly focus on the lighting side of my work as that is really the heart of cinematography. My hope is that the information I share will help inspire new techniques—that you will, in turn, share with the interwebs.

The first project I want to break down is Loves Me Not. It is the story of Helena, a 20-year-old girl and her lover Jon. What seems like an ordinary day spins out of control when Helena has a flashback revealing that she had been kidnapped. Loves Me Not explores the world of love from the perspective of a woman with Stockholm Syndrome.

When writer/directors Rebecca Hodges and Ewa Pazera came to me with this project, I immediately knew it was exactly the sort of story that I’d love to shoot. It was dark, gritty, and almost schizofrantic.

The scene I want us to look at in particular is the kitchen. This is the context for the entire film. The 20 minute short starts and finishes here. But inside this space, there is a whole range of emotions—from bliss to fear to hatred. Most of this happens within the mind of Helena who is experiencing Stockholm Syndrome.

INT. KITCHEN – DAY

It is a rundown kitchen. Sunlight shines through the bars on the windows highlighting the dust in the air. The walls are covered in sickly green tiles; some have fallen off. Dirty vinyl tiles cover the floor.

To view select shots edited from these scenes, scroll to the right.
This scene presented me with a lot of challenges. Here we have a very vivid image of beautiful sunlight flooding this room. This is certainly great for the opening, as only a few lines later, it turns into a love scene between Helena and Jon. However, two pages later, the audience is taken back in time ten minutes in the same kitchen where they witness violent domestic abuse. Things get dark quickly.

From a visual standpoint, I wanted both of these scenes that happen in the same space to be each emotionally rich. Scene 1 needed to be full of love and beauty; scene 2, dark and hateful. But both opposites had to coexist in the kitchen.

To overcome this problem, I employed a few techniques to film one space several different ways.

The first time we see the kitchen is during the love scene. So I shot this mostly in close up with longer lenses with the window in the background. This did several things. One, the grunginess is cropped out and blurred. Two, the window light would often flare up the lens, reducing the contrast and making it an overall softer scene. And finally, the bright window in the background brightens the frame—literally and emotionally.

These techniques combined work to clean up the kitchen. One of my favorite still photographers, David DuChemin, says that what’s more important than what you put in the frame is what you leave out. In this case, that is very true.

For flashback, I flopped these techniques around. I used wider lenses and filmed perpendicular to the windows. The wider frames revealed more of the filth. And now the same lighting as before is hitting them from the side. This gives everything a bit more contrast.

Additionally, we moved a lot of the action into the corner of the room near the fridge, which was intentionally the dirtiest part of the set. I placed two sources over here. One, a lamp with a yellow shade. This cast an eerie vibe on the actors and messed with their skin tones in a uncomfortable way. The second source was a different boarded up window. The art department gracefully allowed me to personally attach the boards to give me the exact sort of slits of light I was looking for.

To light both of these scenes, my lighting package was simple. Two 5K fresnels. One out each window. One practical lamp on the fridge. Then there were several other small fresnels that I moved around and softened with silks for particular shots.

Loves Me Not won Boyd the 2011 ASC Student Heritage Award for outstanding cinematography in an undergraduate project.
Write-up in American Cinematographer
Full Sail Press Release
More frame grabs