Posted on April 2, 2021

By Matthew Skala

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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