By Randi Altman
Being on set is like coming home for New York-based cinematographer Zachary Galler, who as a child would tag along with his father while he directed television and film projects. The younger Galler started in the industry as a lighting technician and quickly worked his way up to shooting various features and series.
His first feature as a cinematographer, The Sleepwalker, premiered at the in 2014 and was later distributed by IFC. His second feature, She’s Lost Control, was awarded the C.I.C.A.E. Award at the Berlin International Film Festival later that year. Other television credits include all eight episodes of Discovery’s scripted series Manhunt: Unabomber, Hulu’s The Act and USA’s Briarpatch (coming in February). He recently completed the feature Nicolas Pesce-directed thriller The Grudge, which stars John Cho and Betty Gilpin and is in theaters now.
Tell us about The Grudge. How early did you get involved in planning, and what direction were you given by the director about the look he wanted?
Nick and I worked together on a movie he directed called Piercing. That was our first collaboration, but we discovered that we had very similar ideas and working styles and we formed a special relationship. Shortly after that project, we started talking about The Grudge, and about a year later we were shooting. We talked a lot about how this movie should feel, and how we could achieve something new and different from something neither of us had done before. We used a lot of look-books and movie references to communicate, so when it came time to shoot we had the visual language down fluently and that allowed us keep each other consistent in execution.
How would you describe the look?
Nick really liked the bleach-bypass look from David Fincher’s Se7en, and I thought about a mix of that and (photographer) Bill Henson. We also knew that we had to differentiate between the different storyline threads in the movie, so we had lots to figure out. One of the threads is darker and looks very yellow, while another is warmer and more classic. Another is slightly more desaturated and darker. We did keep the same bleach-bypass look throughout, but adjusted our color temperature, contrast and saturation accordingly. For a horror movie like this, I really wanted to be able to control where the shadow detail turned into black, because some of our scare scenes relied on that so we made sure to light accordingly, and were able to fine-tune most of that in-camera.
How did you work with the director and colorist to achieve that look?
We worked with FotoKem colorist Kostas Theodosiou (who used Blackmagic Resolve). I was shooting a TV show during the main color pass, so I only got to check in to set looks and approve final color, but Nick and Kostas did a beautiful job. Kostas is a master of contrast control and very tastefully helped us ride that line of where there should be detail and where it should not be detail. He was definitely an important part of the collaboration and helped make the movie better.
Where was it shot and how long was the shoot?
We shot the movie in 35 days in Winnipeg, Canada.
How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project and why these tools?
Nick decided early on that he wanted to shoot this film anamorphic. Panavision has been an important partner for me on most of my projects, and I knew that I loved their glass. We got a range of different lenses from Panavision Toronto to help us differentiate our storylines — we shot one on T Series, one on Primo anamorphics and one on G Series anamorphics. The Alexa Mini was the camera of choice because of its low light sensitivity and more natural feel.
Now more general questions…
How did you become interested in cinematography?
My father was a director, so I would visit him on set a lot when I was growing up. I didn’t know quite what I wanted to do when I was young but I knew that it was being on set. After dropping out of film school, I got a job working in a lighting rental warehouse and started driving trucks and delivering lights to sets in New York. I had always loved taking pictures as a kid and as I worked more and learned more, I realized that what I wanted to do was be a DP. I was very lucky in that I found some great collaborators early on in my career that both pushed me and allowed me to fail. This is the greatest job in the world.
What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
Artistically, I am inspired by painters, photographers and other DPs. There are so many people doing such amazing work right now. As far as technology is concerned, I’m a bit slow with adopting, as I need to hold something in my hands or see what it does before I adopt it. I have been very lucky to get to work with some great crews, and often a camera assistant, gaffer or key grip will bring something new to the table. I love that type of collaboration.
What new technology has changed the way you works?
For some reason, I was resistant to using LUTs for a long time. The Grudge was actually the first time I relied on something that wasn’t close to just plain Rec 709. I always figured that if I could get the 709 feeling good when I got into color I’d be in great shape. Now, I realize how helpful they can be, and that you can push much further. I also think that the Astera LED tubes are amazing. They allow you to do so much so fast and put light in places that would be very hard to do with other traditional lighting units.
What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
I try to be pretty laid back on set, and I can only do that because I’m very picky about who I hire in prep. I try and let people run their departments as much as possible and give them as much information as possible — it’s like cooking, where you try and get the best ingredients and don’t do much to them. I’ve been very lucky to have worked with some great crews over the years.
What’s your go-to gear — things you can’t live without?
I really try and keep an open mind about gear. I don’t feel romantically attached to anything, so that I can make the right choices for each project.
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.