Sean Porter has worked as a cinematographer on features, documentaries, short films and commercials. He was nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography for his work on It Felt Like Love, and his credits include 20th Century Women, Green Room, Rough Night and Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.
His most recent collaboration was with director Peter Farrelly on Green Book, which is currently in theaters. Set in 1962, the film follows Italian-American bouncer/bodyguard Tony Lip (Academy Award-nominee Viggo Mortensen) and world-class black pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali) on a concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South. They must rely on “The Green Book” to guide them to the few establishments that were then safe for African-Americans. Confronted with racism and danger — as well as unexpected humanity and humor — they are forced to set aside differences to survive and thrive on the journey of a lifetime.
Porter chose the Alexa Mini mounted with Leica Summilux-C lenses to devise the look for “Green Book.” End-to-end post services were provided by FotoKem, from dailies at their New Orleans site to final color and deliverables at Burbank.
We spoke to him recently about his rise to director of photography and his work on Green Book:
How did you become interested in cinematography?
My relationship with cinematography, and really filmmaking, developed over many years during my childhood. I didn’t study fine art or photography in school, but discovered it later as many others do. I went in through the front door when I was probably 12 or so, and it’s been a long road.
I’m the oldest of four — two brothers and a sister. We grew up in a small town about an hour outside of Seattle, we had a modest yard that butted up to the “back woods.” It was an event when the neighborhood kids got on bikes and road a half mile or so to the only small convenience store around. There wasn’t much to do there, so we naturally had to be pretty inventive in our play. We’d come home from school, put on the TV and at the time Movie Magic was airing on The Discovery Channel. I think that show honestly was a huge inspiration, not only to me but to my brothers as well, who are also visual artists. It was right before Jurassic Park changed the SFX landscape — it was a time when everything was still done photographically, by hand. There were episodes showing how these films achieved all sorts of amazing images using rather practical tools and old school artistry.
My dad was always keen on technology and he had various camcorders throughout the years, beginning with the VHS back when the recorder had to be carried separately. As the cameras became more compact and easier to use, my brothers and I would make all kinds of films, trying to emulate what we had seen on the show. We were experimenting with high-level concepts at a very young age, like forced perspective, matte paintings, miniatures (with our “giant” cat as the monster) and stop motion.
I picked up the technology bug and by the time I was in middle school I was using our family’s first PC to render chromakeys — well before I had access to NLEs. I was conning my teachers into letting me produce “video” essays instead of writing them. Later we moved closer to Seattle and I was able to take vocational programs in media production and went on to do film theory and experimental video at the University of Washington, where I think I started distilling my focus as a cinematographer.
What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t discover film via fine art or photography, so I didn’t have that foundation of image making and color theory. I learned it all just by doing and paying attention to what I responded to. I didn’t have famous artists to lean on. You could say it was much more grassroots. My family was a lover of popular films, especially American comedies and action adventure. We watched things like Spies like Us, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and The Princess Bride. It was all pure entertainment, of course. I wasn’t introduced to Bergman or Fellini until much, much later. As we got older, my film language expanded and I started watching films by Lynch and Fincher. I will say that those popular ‘90s films had a great combination of efficient storytelling and technical craft that I still resonate with to this day. It’s very much a sort of “blue-collar” film language.
Staying on top of the technology oscillates between an uncontrollable obsession and an unbearable chore. I’ve noticed over the years that I’m becoming less and less invigorated by the tech — many of the new tools are invaluable, but I love relying on my team to filter out the good from the hype so I can focus on how best to tell the story. Some developments you simply can’t ignore; I remember the day I saw footage in class from a Panasonic DVX100. It changed everything!
What new technology has changed the way you work (looking back over the past few years)?
I feel like the digital cameras, while continuing to get better, have slowed down a bit. There was such a huge jump between the early 2000s and the late 2000s. There’s no question digital acquisition has changed the way we make images — and it’s up for debate if it’s been a wholly positive shift. But generally, it’s been very empowering for filmmakers, especially on smaller budgets. It’s given me and my peers the chance to create cinema-quality images on projects that couldn’t afford to shoot on 16mm or 35mm. And over the last five years, the gap between digital and film has diminished, even vanished for many of us.
But if I had to single out one development it’s probably been LEDs over the last two or three years. Literally, five years ago it was all HMI and Kino Flos, and now I don’t remember the last time I touched a Kino. Sometimes we go entire jobs without firing up an HMI. The LEDs have gotten much better recently, and the control we have on set is unprecedented. It makes you wonder how we did it before!
What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
Every time I start a new project, I say to myself, “This time I’m going to get my shit together.” I think I’m going to get organized, develop systems, databases, Filemaker apps, whatever, and streamline the process so I can be more efficient. I’ll have a method for combining scouting photos with storyboards and my script notes so everything is in one place and I can disseminate information to relevant departments. Then I show up at prep and realize the same thing I realize every movie: They are all so, so different.
It’s an effort in futility to think you can adopt a “one-size-fits-all” mentality to preproduction. It just doesn’t work. Some directors storyboard every shot. Some don’t even make shot lists. Some want to previs every scene during the scouting process using stand-ins, others won’t even consider blocking until the actors are there, on the day. So I’ve learned that the efficiency is found in adaptation. My job is to figure out how to get inside my director’s head, see things the way they are seeing them and help them get those ideas into actions and decisions. There’s no app for that, unfortunately! I suppose I try to really listen, and not just to the words my director uses to describe things, but to the subtext and what is between the lines. I try to understand what’s really important to them so I can protect those things and fight for them when the pressure to compromise starts mounting.
On a more practical note, I read many years ago about a DP who would stand on the actor’s mark and look back toward the camera — just to be aware of what sort of environment they were putting the talent in. Addressing a stray glare or a distracting stand might make a big difference to the actor’s experience. I try to do that as often as I can.
Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
It’s hard to reduce such an array of possible experiences down to an “ideal,” as an ideal situation for one film might not be ideal for another depending on the experience the director wants to create on set. I’ve had many different, even conflicting, “processes” with my directors because it suited that specific collaboration. Again, it’s about adapting, being a chameleon to their process. It’s not about coming in and saying, “This is the best way to do this.”
I remember with one director we basically locked ourselves in her apartment for three days and just watched films. We’d pause them now and then and discuss a shot or a scene, but a lot of the time it was just about being together experiencing this curated body of work and creating a visual foundation for us to work from. With another director, we didn’t really watch any films at all, but we did lots and lots of testing. Camera tests, lens tests, lighting tests, filter tests, makeup and SFX tests. And we’d go into a DI suite and look at everything and talk about what was working and what wasn’t. He was also a DP so I think that technical, hands-on approach made sense to him. I think I tested every commercially available fluorescent tube that was on the market to find the right color for that film. I’ll admit as convenient as it would be to have a core strategy to work from, I think I would tire of it. I love walking onto a film and saying, “Ok, how are we going do this?”
Tell us about Green Book. How would you describe the overarching look of the film that you and Peter Farrelly wanted to achieve?
I think, maybe more than I want to admit, that the look of my films is a culmination of the restraints that are imparted by either myself or by production. You’re only going to have a certain amount of time and money for each scene, so calculations and compromises must be made there. You have to work with the given location, time of day and how it’s going be art decorated, so that adds a critical layer. Peter wanted to work a certain way with his actors and have lots of flexibility, so you adapt your process to make that work. Then you give yourself certain creative constraints, and somewhere in between all those things pushing on each other, the look of the film emerges.
That sounds a little arbitrary and Pete and I had some discussions about how it should look, but they were broad conversations. Honesty and authenticity were very important to Pete. He didn’t want things to ever look or feel disingenuous. My very first conversation with him after I was hired was about the car work. He was getting pressure to shoot it all on stage with LED screens. I was honest with him. I told him he’d probably get more time with his actors, and more predictable results on stage, but he’d get more realism from the look and from the performances dragging the entire company out onto the open road and battling the elements.
So we shot all the car work practically, save for a few specific night scenes. I took his words to heart and tried to shape the look out of what was authentic to the time. My gaffer and I researched what lighting fixtures were used then — it wasn’t like it is now with hundreds of different light sources. Back then it was basically tungsten, fluorescent, neon mercury and sodium. We limited our palette to those colors and tuned all our fixtures accordingly. I also avoided stylistic choices that would have made the film feel dated or “affected” — the production design, wardrobe and MCU departments did all of that. Pete and I wanted the story to feel just as relevant now as it did then, so I kept the images clean and largely unadulterated.
How early did you get involved in the production?
I came on about five weeks before shooting. I prepped for one week and then we were all sent home! Some negotiations had stalled production and for several weeks I didn’t know if we would start up again. I’m very grateful everyone made it work so we could make the film.
How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for Green Book?
While 35mm would have been a great choice aesthetically for the film, there were some real production advantages to shooting digitally. As we were shooting all the car work practically, it was my prerogative to get as much of the coverage inside the car accomplished at a go. Changing lighting conditions, road conditions and tight schedules prohibited me from shooting an angle, then pulling over and re-rigging the camera. We had up to three Alexa Mini cameras inside the car at once, and many times that was all the coverage planned for the scene, save for a couple cutaways. This allowed us to get multi-page scenes done very efficiently while maintaining light continuity, keeping the realism of the landscapes and capturing those happy (and sometimes sad) accidents.
I chose some very clean, very fast, and very portable lenses: the Leica Summilux-Cs. I used to shoot stills with various Leica film cameras and developed an affinity for the way the lenses rendered. They are always sharp, but there’s some character to the fall off and the micro-contrast that always make faces look great. I had shot many of my previous films with vintage lenses with lots of character and could have easily gone that route, but as I mentioned, I was more interested in removing abstractions — finding something more modern yet still classic and utilitarian.
Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of?
Not so much a particular scene, but a spanning visual idea. Many times, when you start a film, you’ll have some cool visual arc you want to try to employ, and along the way various time, location or schedule constraints eventually break it all down. Then you’re left with a few disparate elements that don’t connect the way you wanted them to. Knowing I would face those same challenges but having a bit more resources than some of my other films, I aimed low but held my ground: I wanted the color of the streetlights to work on a spectrum, shifting between safety and danger deepening on the scene or where things were heading in the story.
I broke the film down by location and worked with my gaffer to decide where the environment would be majority sodium (safe/familiar/hopeful) and where it would be mercury (danger/fear/despair). It sounds very rudimentary but when you try to actually pull it off with so many different locations, it can get out of hand pretty quickly. And, of course, many scenes had varying ratios of those colors. I was pleased that I was able to hold onto the idea and not have it totally disintegrate during the shoot.
What’s your go-to gear (camera, lens, mount/accessories) — things you can’t live without?
Go-to tools change from job to job, but the one I rely on more than any is my crew. Their ideas, support and positive energy keep me going in the darkest of hours! As for the nuts and bolts — lately I rarely do a job without SkyPanels and LiteMats. For my process on set, I’ve managed to get rid of just about everything except my light meter and my digital still camera. The still camera is a very fast way to line up shots, and I can send images to my iPad and immediately communicate framing ideas to all departments. It saves a lot of time and guess work!
Main Image: Sean Porter (checkered shirt) on set of Green Book, pictured with director Peter Farrelly.