The Look of Tumble – a short black and white film shot with a single lens

Antony Berrios was one of the first directors I worked with when coming to LA in 2007. I lensed a short for him called A Nice Day For An Earthquake—it was the first time I used black foam core as flags that I could staple to the ceiling. And that technique has gotten me out of a lot of jams. Tony and I started bonding over arthouse cinema and have remained friends. He is a sought after docu-series editor and writes for the screen and the stage in his spare time while also directing projects in both mediums. The themes that interest him most are mental health, challenging relationships, and awkward situations. He invited me back to shoot his second and latest narrative film project—Tumble—a short black and white film.

Inspired by the shooting philosophy of Gordon Willis (The Godfather), John L. Russell (Psycho), John A. Alonzo (Chinatown), and more. Tony wanted to shoot the film using only one lens—a 50mm. Gordon Willis’s lens of choice was a 40mm (equivalent to 50mm in the format we were shooting). He felt like that lens best expressed the way he saw things. It was a starting point on some films rather than a rule—giving him a basis from which to motivate other options. If he was going to use a different lens, it had to be motivated by a reason that served the story and the scene’s blocking. 

Tony also liked the creative challenge—using the one lens forced us to put the camera in places that we would not have considered otherwise. And because we didn’t take time to think about other focal lengths, the camera would often fall into place very quickly. In turn, this gave us more time to spend on “building the frame”—a time when ideas naturally presented themselves, capitulating on our prep work and understanding of the characters.

There wasn’t much in the budget for lighting and grip. After scouting the location, I decided on one bi-color LED panel—a litemat plus—to augment the Laundry mat’s overhead lighting. We went a little heavier on the grip side to flag off location lighting that spilled on the white walls.

While Tony was editing the film, he experimented with different LUT’s and grew fond of a black and white look for the film. It wasn’t our original intention. If it was, I would have done some things differently in production—tested some different wardrobe options for one. But I agreed with Tony that black and white served the story and location well. It really helped get into the heavy mindset of the characters. And in a literal way represented the predicament our protagonist was in—there wasn’t much room for error (limited grayscale), and if he failed, he’d be spending the rest of his life in prison (black and white).

On my end, when bringing the picture lock into the Davinci, I used the black and white LUT that I created for Butterfly Effect as a starting point. And Tony provided some references from Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, shot by Robby Muller. There were few notes from Tony—he was thrilled to see his vision enhanced by a dedicated color-grade. And never hesitated to express his appreciation for the work I was doing for him:

There is a creative magic that happens when you can work almost telepathically with the people you pick. It’s an amazing feeling when things just click. It’s like being in a band improvising and riffing off each other seamlessly. That is the feeling I get when I work with Matthew Skala. The work he did on my short film Tumble is utterly amazing. Considering all the things we DID NOT have, he made the look of this short film really stand out. His ideas were always really spot on with the creation of this short film.
 
If a problem arose while shooting, Matt, in his meditative way, could get us through whatever the issue was and move on fast. We never had any big issues; everything on this project when very smoothly. The intuitive nature of how Matt works made the exploration and work on this film a great journey and a great process. -Antony Berrios

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Related:

The Look of Butterfly Effect – thematic black and white cinematography
The Look of Harmonia; making an experimental film
The Big Meet – a film noir short film

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The Look of Butterfly Effect – thematic black and white cinematography

black and white cinematography in 'The Butterfly Effect'

When entering discussions with The Human Example about his music video for Butterfly Effect, he shared with me his perspective on climate change, concluding with, “What we do today affects their world of tomorrow.” And he was referring to our children.

He wanted to invoke a sense of missing, of gone, of what’s left is only in our dreams and imagination, but even that is limited because as children, their experience is limited. 

He shared his love for black and white cinematography with me and suggested we chart a course to achieve a look that is both authentic and thematic. I agreed immediately. We shared references and did some tests. And I created a black and white LUT that we used on set to make sure our lighting ratios and exposure were within the parameters of our final look.

Our primary lighting sources were large and soft. We dropped 12×12 rags of diffusion in front of 2K tungsten fresnels—which were often pulled back up to 20 feet behind the diffusion to enhance the softness. We used 4×4 floppy flags and 12×12 black rags to help control the spread of the soft light. Haze was used to envelop the themes of missing, gone, neglected, polluted, dreamt, remembered, and imagined.    

In post, I used the LUT as a starting point for the color grade and overlayed some 4K scans of 35mm film grain. With a scan of just one type of film stock, I was able to fine-tune the final result to further augment the themes and authenticity of a black and white look.

“The Human Example” is an emerging LA-based artist. Butterfly Effect was produced and released pre-pandemic as part of a compilation of LA based label/collective—Tone and Manor.

black and white cinematography in 'Butterfly Effect' black and white music video frame grab 'Butterfly Effect' black and white music video frame grab 'Butterfly Effect' black and white music video frame grab 'Butterfly Effect' black and white music video frame grab 'Butterfly Effect'

Related:

The Look of Harmonia; making an experimental film
The look of Separated, a miniature short film about adventure and romance
The Big Meet – a film noir short film

New Cinematography demo reel

Matthew Skala Cinematographer Demo Reel

Spiritually and scientifically, light is life. And a movie is often a lifetime of emotions. So before thinking about equipment or logistics, I have to spend time with the director and try to get inside his or her head to understand light from the director’s perspective—to understand her vision and where it is coming from.

I dedicate myself completely to the director and must be an absolute slave to the screenplay—using my poetic sensibilities to translate the written word into a merging of light, shadow, color, shape, and pattern. 

I read the script and find something that motivates and inspires me. I read it again and again until I completely understand the conflicts between darkness and light, the fundamental truth, and how it all comes together to make up the story.

This allows me to approach each film as its own universe stemming from the director and what he wants to express. And to represent the characters’ lives through a journey of light reflecting the drama’s unfolding nuances. I want the director to feel like we created something original that belongs to us—the filmmakers. That belongs to the movie and identify’s with the movie as a sort of branding—a completely self-contained work of art. 

It’s not mechanical. It’s emotional–you feel it–and it comes from the soul.

After wrapping The Republic of Rick, Director Mario Kyprianou told me this, “I call you the Doctor because it was like watching a surgeon at work, and I was proud to have you on our production. I think you’re what every director would look for in a director of photography. You need to be commended for your work ethic and ability to lead the crew. And also for your steadfast focus on what will be aesthetically best for the film.” – Mario Kyprianou, director of The Republic of Rick.

Related:

The Look of Harmonia; making an experimental film
The look of Separated, a miniature short film about adventure and romance
Three examples of how cinematography serves a film director’s vision

Three approaches to color correction on a low budget film

Color Correction on a low budget film seems to elude a lot of filmmakers. When meeting with new directors I often find myself discussing the process and why it’s so important. Often times the discussion can go on for awhile and distract us from what the meeting should really be about–the director’s vision. So, in lieu of these distracting conversations I am writing this article to point people to. 

Color Correction is not just merely a tool for fixing mistakes. It is the crucial last step in fulfilling a director and cinematographer’s vision. And reinforces the illusion that every shot in a scene was captured in real time, even though some of those shots might have been filmed hours, days, or months apart using different cameras, lenses, and film stock. Moreover, it allows the director and cinematographer to emphasize certain locations, scenes, and emotions, resulting in an emotionally enhanced experience for the audience. But as schedules shrink and budgets tighten, color correction becomes more challenging. A well sought after solution is to manage the look of the images on set with one of many workflows currently available. However, this isn’t always a practical approach for color correction on a low budget film.

Here is a breakdown of three different approaches on three of my low/no budget films. 

Akira

When shooting this 35mm short film for director Ray Vernazza–we spoke at length regarding our approach to the post-production workflow. We wanted to color correct and finish on film but didn’t know if the funds would be available when it came time to conform the digitally edited movie. So, to be on the safe side, we decided to supervise the dailies transfer at Technicolor and rough in the look of the film–knowing that additional corrections would be simple enough for the editing software to handle. the approach paid off because we never got passed a digital release of the film. Moreover, I was always confident the film would look good when screened during earlier stages of the editing process.

Living With Moffet

For a digital sitcom pilot I shot recently for director Eric Somers there was no money available for color correction and the director was doing the picture edit himself. He had assumed we just wouldn’t do any color correction but when I offered to help him find a solution and donate some of my time, he became enthusiastic. I knew he was editing the film with FCP X, so I spent about an hour watching some tutorials and familiarizing myself with the color features before sitting down and attempting to use the software for the first time. I calibrated Erics monitor using a Spyder 3 pro device and after working with the first few scenes, became comfortable enough to move forward with confidence. The end result wasn’t ideal but I was able to achieve the basic look we had in mind and fix any shot-to-shot matching issues resulting in a quality finish.

Little Black Box

For another digital project directed by Jon Hampton there was a small amount of money available for the color correction. I had just seen a series of great shorts at the LA Film Festival and noticed they were all colored by Color Space Finishing. We contacted Peter at Color Space and he told us about his career working as a studio colorist on shows like NYPD Blue. Then he told us how he started a boutique color correction business so that he could cater to passion projects and up and coming filmmakers. And while his rate may have stayed the same, he didn’t have to charge clients any facility fees–he was running his business out of a room in his apartment. 

So we told him about our project and its short running time, then discussed the look we wanted. He agreed to work on the film within our budget and by the time I came in to look at the progress, I was 99% satisfied. We did one tweak and it was ready for final output. This led me to hire Peter for my 2nd feature, Teacher of the Year directed by Jason Strouse on a micro/no budget. Peter finished the Color Correction last week, just in time for the Sundance Film Festival submission deadline. The Producer, Director and myself are very happy with Peter’s work.

Regardless of your system of choice, its best to collaborate with a professional colorist whom has access to good color balanced monitors. Recently I have found this route to be at least approachable for color correction on a low budget film project. Its also a great way for up-and-coming directors to become familiar with the process and discover the ways color correction can enhance a film’s visual impact, raise production value and compete with and/or surpass bigger budget projects.