After a successful premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, New Republic Studios’ Sister Aimee screened at this month’s SXSW. The movie tells the story of an infamous American evangelist of the 1920s, Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, who gets caught up in her lover’s dreams of Mexico and finds herself on a road trip toward the border.
Sister Aimee shot at the newly renovated New Republic Studios near Austin, Texas, over two and a half weeks. “Their crew used our 2,400-square-foot Little Bear soundstage, our 3,000-square-foot Lone Wolf soundstage, our bullpen office space and numerous exterior locations in our backlot,” reports New Republic Studios president Mindy Raymond, adding that the Sister Aimee production also had access to two screening rooms with 5.1 surround sound, HDMI hookups to 4K monitors and theater-style leather chairs to watch dailies. The film also hit the road, shooting in the New Mexico desert.
Co-written and co-directed by Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann, the movie takes some creative license with the story of Aimee. “We don’t look for factual truth in Aimee’s journey,” they explain. “Instead we look for a more timeless truth that says something about female ambition, the female quest for immortality and, most of all, the struggle for women to control their own narratives. It becomes a story about storytelling itself.”
The film, shot by cinematographer Carlos Valdes-Lora at 3.2K ProRes 4444 XQ on an Arri Alexa Mini, was posted at Dallas and Austin-based Charlieuniformtango.
We reached out to the DP and the post team to find out more.
Carlos, why did you choose the package of the Alexa and Cooke Mini S4 Primes?
Carlos Valdes-Lora: In early conversations with the directors, we all agreed that we didn’t want Sister Aimee to feel like a traditional period movie. We didn’t want to use softening filters or vintage lenses. We aimed instead for clear images, deep focus and a rich color palette that remains grounded in the real world. We felt that this would lend the story a greater sense of immediacy and draw the viewer closer to the characters. Following that same thinking, we worked very extensively with the 25mm and 32mm, especially in closeups and medium closeups, emphasizing accessibility.
The Cooke Mini S4s are a beautiful and affordable set (relative to our other options.) We like the way they give deep dimensionality and warmth to faces, and how they create a slightly lower contrast image compared to the other modern lenses we looked at. They quickly became the right choice for us, striking the right balance between quality, size and value.
The Cookes paired with the Alexa Mini gave us a lightweight camera system with a very contained footprint, and we needed to stay fast and lean due to our compressed shooting schedule and often tight shooting quarters. The Chapman Cobra dolly was a big help in that regard as well.
What was the workflow to post like?
Charlieuniformtango producers Bettina Barrow, Katherine Harper, David Hartstein: Post took place primarily between Charlieuniformtango’s Dallas and Austin offices. Post strategizing started months before the shoot, and active post truly began when production began in July 2018.
Tango’s Evan Linton handled dailies brought in from the shoot, working alongside editor Katie Ennis out of Tango’s Austin studio, to begin assembling a rough cut as shooting continued. Ennis continued to cut at the studio through August with directors Schlingmann and Buck.
Editorial then moved back to the directors’ home state of New York to finish the cut for Sundance. (Editor Ennis, who four-walled out of Tango Austin for the first part of post, went to New York with the directors, working out of a rented space.)
VFX and audio work started early at Tango, with continuously updated timelines coming from editorial, working to have certain locked shots also finished for the Sundance submission, while saving much of the cleanup and other CG heavy shots for the final picture lock.
Tango audio engineer Nick Patronella also tackled dialogue edit, sound design and mix for the submission out of the Dallas studio.
Can you talk about the VFX?
Barrow, Harper, Hartstein: The cut was locked in late November, and the heavy lifting really began. With delivery looming, Tango’s Flame artists Allen Robbins, Joey Waldrip, David Hannah, David Laird, Artie Peña and Zack Smith divided effects shots, which ranged from environmental cleanup, period-specific cleanup, beauty work such as de-aging, crowd simulation, CG sign creation and more. 3D
Artist Connor Adams used Houdini, Mixamo and Maya to create CG elements and crowds, with final comps being done in Nuke and sent to Flame for final color. Over 120 VFX shots were handled in total and Flame was the go-to for effects. Color and much of the effects happened simultaneously. It was a nice workflow as the project didn’t have major VFX needs that would have impacted color.
What about the color grade?
Barrow, Harper, Hartstein: Directors Buck and Schlingmann and DP Valdes-Lora worked with Tango colorist Allen Robbins to craft the final look of the film — with the color grade also done in Flame. The trio had prepped shooting for a Kodachrome-style look, especially for the exteriors, but really overall. They found important reference in selections of Robert Capa photographs.
Buck, Schlingmann and Valdes-Lora responded mostly to Kodachrome’s treatment of blues, browns, tans, greens and reds (while staying true to skin tone), but also to their gamma values, not being afraid of deep shadows and contrast wherever appropriate. Valdes-Lora wanted to avoid lighting/exposing to a custom LUT on set that would reflect this kind of Kodachrome look, in case they wanted to change course during the process. With the help of Tango, however, they discovered that by dialing back the Capa look it grounded the film a little more and made the characters “feel” more accessible. The roots of the inspiration remained in the image but a little more naturalism, a little more softness, served the story better.
Because of that they monitored on set with Alexa 709, which he thought exposing for would still provide enough room. Production designer Jonathan Rudak (another regular collaborator with the directors) was on the same page during prep (in terms of reflecting this Capa color style), and the practical team did what they could to make sure the set elements complemented this approach.
What about the audio post?
Barrow, Harper, Hartstein: With the effects and color almost complete, the team headed to Skywalker Ranch for a week of final dialogue edit, mix, sound design and Foley, led by Skywalker’s Danielle Dupre, Kim Foscato and E. Larry Oatfield. The team also was able to simultaneously approve color sections in Skywalker’s Stag Theater allowing for an ultra-efficient schedule. With final mix in hand, the film was mastered just after Christmas so that DCP production could begin.
Since a portion of the film was musical, how complex was the audio mix?
Skywalker sound mixer Dupre: The musical number was definitely one of the most challenging but rewarding scenes to design and mix. It was such a strong creative idea that played so deeply into the main character. The challenge was in striking a balance between tying it into the realism of the film while also leaning into the grandiosity of the musical to really sell the idea.
It was really fun to play with a combination of production dialogue and studio recordings to see how we could make it work. It was also really rewarding to create a soundscape that starts off minimally and simply and transitions to Broadway scale almost undetectably — one of the many exciting parts to working with creative and talented filmmakers.
What was the biggest challenge in post?
Barrow, Harper, Hartstein: Finishing a film in five to six weeks during the holidays was no easy feat. Luckily, we were able to have our directors hands-on for all final color, VFX and mix. Collaborating in the same room is always the best when you have no time to spare. We had a schedule where each day was accounted for — and we stuck to it almost down to the hour.