Tag Archives: Sean Baker

Seasoned pros and young talent team on short films

By James Hughes

In Los Angeles on a Saturday morning, a crew of 10 students from Hollywood High School — helmed by 17-year-old director Celine Gimpirea — were transforming a corner of the Calgary Cemetery into a movie set. In The Box, a boy slips inside a cardboard box and finds himself transported to other realms. On this well-manicured lawn, among rows of flat, black granite grave markers, are rows of flat, black camera cases holding Red cameras, DIT stations, iPads and MacBook Pros.

Gimpirea’s is one of three teams of filmmakers involved in a month-long filmmaking workshop connecting creative pros with emerging talent. The teams worked with tools from Apple, including the MacBook Pro, iMac and Final Cut Pro X, as well as the Red Raven camera for shooting. LA-based independent filmmaking collective We Make Movies provided post supervision. They used a workflow very similar to that of the feature film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which was shot on Red and edited in FCP X.

In the documentary La Buena Muerte produced by instructors from the Mobile Film Classroom, a non-profit that provides digital media workshops to youth in under-resourced communities, the filmmakers examine mortality and family bonds surrounding the Day of the Dead, the Mexican holiday honoring lost loved ones. And in The Dancer, director Krista Amigone channels her background in theater to tell a personal story about a dancer confronting the afterlife.

Krista Amigone

During a two-week post period, teams received feedback from a rotating cast of surprise guests and mentors from across the industry, each a professional working in the field of film and television production.

Among the first mentors to view The Dancer was Sean Baker, director of 2017’s critically acclaimed The Florida Project and the 2015 feature Tangerine, shot entirely on iPhone 5S. Baker, who edits his own films, surveyed clips from Amigone’s shoot. Each take had been marked with the Movie Slate app on an iPad, which automatically stores and logs the timecode data. Together, they discussed Amigone’s backstory as well. A stay-at-home mother of a three-year-old daughter, she is no stranger to maximizing time and resources. She not only served as writer and director, but also star and choreographer.

Meanwhile, the La Buena Muerte crew, headed by executive producer Manon Banta, were editing their piece. Reviewing the volume of interviews and B-roll, all captured by cinematographer Elle Schneider on the 4.5K Red Raven camera, initially felt like a daunting task. Fortunately, their metadata was automatically organized after being imported straight into Final Cut Pro X from Shot Notes X and Lumberjack, along with the secondary source audio via Sync-N-Link X, which spared days of hand syncing.

Perhaps the most constructive feedback about story structure came from TJ Martin, director of LA92 and Undefeated, the Oscar-winner for Best Documentary Feature in 2012, which director Jean Balest has used as teaching material in the Mobile Film Classroom. Midway through the cut, Martin was struck by a plot point he felt required precision placement up front: A daughter is introduced while presiding over a conceptual art altar alongside her mother, who reveals she’s coping with her own pending death after a stage four cancer diagnosis.

Reshoots were vital to The Box. The dream world Gimpirea created — she cites Christopher Nolan’s Inception as an influence — required some clarification. During a visit from Valerie Faris, the Oscar-nominated co-director of Little Miss Sunshine and Battle of the Sexes, Gimpirea listened intently as she offered advice for pickup shots. Faris urged Gimpirea to keep the story focused on the point of view of her young lead during his travels. “There’s a lot told in his body and seeing him from behind,” Faris said. “In some ways, I’m more with him when I’m traveling behind him and seeing what he’s seeing.”

Celine Gimpirea

Gimpirea’s collaborative nature was evident throughout post. She was helped out by Antonio Manriquez, a video production teacher at Hollywood High, as well as her crew. Kais Karram was the film’s assistant director, and twin brother Zane was cinematographer. The brothers’ athleticism was an asset on-set, particularly during a day-long shoot in Griffith Park where they executed numerous tracking shots behind the film’s fleet-footed star as he navigated a walkway they had cleared of park visitors.

The selection of music was crucial, particularly for Amigone. For her main theme, she wanted a sound reminiscent of John Coltrane’s “After The Rain” and Claude Debussy’s “Clair De Lune.” She chose an original nocturne by John Mickevich, a composer and fellow member of the collective We Make Movies, whose founder/CEO Sam Mestman is also the CEO of LumaForge, developer of the Jellyfish Mobile — a “portable cloud,” as he put it — which, along with two MacBook Pros, were storing and syncing Amigone’s footage on location. Mestman believes “post should live on set.” As proof, a half-day of work for the editing team was done before the dance studio shoot had even wrapped.

During his mentor visit, Aaron Kaufman, director and longtime producing partner of filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, encouraged the teams to not be precious about losing shots in service of story. The documentary team certainly heeded this advice, as did Gimpirea, who cut a whole scene from Calvary Cemetery from her film.

As the project was winding down, Gimpirea reflected on her experience. “Knowing all the possibilities that I have in post now, it allows me to look completely differently at production and pre-production, and to pick out, more precisely, what I want,” she said.

Main Image: Shooting with the Red Raven at the Calvary Cemetery.

James Hughes is a writer and editor based in Chicago.

Color plays big role in director Sean Baker’s The Florida Project

Director Sean Baker is drawing wide praise for his realistic portrait of life on the fringe in America in his new film The Florida Project. Baker applies a light touch to the story of a precocious six-year-old girl living in the shadow of Disney World, giving it the feel of a slice-of-life documentary. That quality is carried through in the film’s natural look. Where Baker shot his previous film, Tangerine, entirely with an iPhone, The Florida Project was recorded almost wholly on anamorphic 35mm film by cinematographer Alexis Zabe.

Sam Daley

Post finishing for the film was completed at Technicolor PostWorks New York, which called on a traditional digital intermediate workflow to accommodate Baker’s vision. The work began with scanning the 35mm negative to 2K digital files for dailies and editorial. It ended months later with rescanning at 4K and 6K resolution, editorial conforming and color grading in the facility’s 4K DI theater. Senior colorist Sam Daley applied the final grade via Blackmagic Resolve v.12.5.

Shooting on film was a perfect choice, according to Daley, as it allowed Baker and Zabe to capture the stark contrasts of life in Central Florida. “I lived in Florida for six years, so I’m familiar with the intensity of light and how it affects color,” says Daley. “Pastels are prominent in the Florida color palette because of the way the sun bleaches paint.”

He adds that Zabe used Kodak Vision3 50D and 250D stock for daylight scenes shot in the hot Florida sun, noting, “The slower stock provided a rich color canvas, so much so, that at times we de-emphasized the greenery so it didn’t feel hyper real.”

The film’s principal location is a rundown motel, ironically named the Magic Castle. It does not share the sun-bleached look of other businesses and housing complexes in the area as it has been freshly painted a garish shade of purple.

Baker asked Daley to highlight such contrasts in the grade, but to do so subtly. “There are many colorful locations in the movie,” Daley says. “The tourist traps you see along the highway in Kissimmee are brightly colored. Blue skies and beautiful sunsets appear throughout the film. But it was imperative not to allow the bright colors in the background to distract from the characters in the foreground. The very first instruction that I got from Sean was to make it look real, then dial it up a notch.”

Mixing Film and Digital for Night Shots
To make use of available light, nighttime scenes were not shot on film, but rather were captured digitally on an Arri Alexa. Working in concert with color scientists from Technicolor PostWorks New York and Technicolor Hollywood, Daley helmed a novel workflow to make the digital material blend with scenes that were film-original. He first “pre-graded” the digital shots and then sent them to Technicolor Hollywood where they were recorded out to film. After processing at FotoKem, the film outs were returned to Technicolor Hollywood and scanned to 4K digital files. Those files were rushed back to New York via Technicolor’s Production Network where Daley then dropped them into his timeline for final color grading. The result of the complex process was to give the digitally acquired material a natural film color and grain structure.

“It would have been simpler to fly the digitally captured scenes into my timeline and put on a film LUT and grain FX,” explains Daley, “but Sean wanted everything to have a film element. So, we had to rethink the workflow and come up with a different way to make digital material integrate with beautifully shot film. The process involved several steps, but it allowed us to meet Sean’s desire for a complete film DI.”

Calling on iPhone for One Scene
A scene near the end of the film was, for narrative reasons, captured with an iPhone. Daley explains that, although intended to stand out from the rest of the film, the sequence couldn’t appear so different that it shocked the audience. “The switch from 4K scanned film material to iPhone footage happens via a hard cut,” he explains. “But it needed to feel like it was part of the same movie. That was a challenge because the characteristics of Kodak motion picture stock are quite different from an iPhone.”

The iPhone material was put through the same process as the Alexa footage; it was pre-graded, recorded out to film and scanned back to digital. “The grain helps tie it to the rest of the movie,” reports Daley. “And the grain that you see is real; it’s from the negative that the scene was recorded out to. There are no artificial looks and nothing gimmicky about any of the looks in this film.”

The apparent lack of artifice is, in fact, one of the film’s great strengths. Daley notes that even a rainbow that appears in a key moment was captured naturally. “It’s a beautiful movie,” says Daley. “It’s wonderfully directed, photographed and edited. I was very fortunate to be able to add my touch to the imagery that Sean and Alexis captured so beautifully.”