In HBO’s emotionally devastating limited series I Know This Much is True, Mark Ruffalo portrays identical twin brothers Dominick and Thomas Birdsey — a pair of men who might look alike and share the same difficult childhood experiences but who are actually quite different. Thomas has schizophrenia that has caused him to frequently act out in frightening and erratic ways, usually leaving Dominick to pick up the pieces.
The series, directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) and shot by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Manchester by the Sea) presents this fraught and touching relationship so seamlessly that it’s very easy to forget both characters are the result of a single actor’s performances knitted together by VFX supervisor Eric Pascarelli and his team of compositing and effects experts.
Colorist Sam Daley of Company 3, who has worked with Lipes regularly for over a decade, has the utmost respect for Lipes’ somewhat old-school approach. “I came up through telecine and film laboratories,” he says, “and I strive to always respect what’s on the ‘neg’ — digital neg or celluloid. I’m not interested in ‘breaking apart’ an image to make it something it isn’t. My job is to help the director and cinematographer tell the story. I want everything I do to be in harmony with that.”
Lipes and Cianfrance definitely wanted to shoot the period piece (portions take place in various eras from 1913 to 1992) on film, both for the actual texture and feel it can bring to imagery and its characteristic look that evokes the past. Lipes shot tests using several formats through to a final grade and the filmmakers decided that 2-perf 35mm (with a 2:1 extraction from the full 2.66:1 image area) presented the perfect compromise between the too-clean look of 4-perf 35 and the rougher feel of 16. By shooting 2-perf they could also shoot multiple takes without cutting lasting 22.5 minutes (the director’s preferred way of building performance).
Lipes shot with ARRICAM LT cameras, Optimo 24-290 zooms and Cooke S4s and Canon K35s. He rated Eastman Kodak’s fastest stock, 5219 (500T) “under-exposed” by one stop, increasing the apparent grain, letting shadow information fall to almost nothing and letting some highlights blow out, all in the service of enhancing some of the attributes that make film feel like film.
Daley, who graded in Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 16, leaned into these same qualities. Lipes, he reports, “likes what we call a ‘low-contrast’ or ‘faded film’ look even when he shoots digitally. We did something similar for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. When he shoots for this kind of look, he exposes in a way that compresses the values in shadows, whether shooting on film or a digital sensor so that when we lift everything in post to brighten it, the process results in something of a photographic print quality, especially in the blacks.”
Daley also created a film print emulation LUT for Lipes, which the two tweaked before principal photography commenced so that Lipes and the director were in sync on the intended look from the start.
“I always want Sam to be there for the whole process,” Lipes notes. “If you call a colorist up the day before you’re supposed to start grading and say, ‘Here’s the footage. Take a look,’ you’re not going to get the same quality. The whole time I’m working, I count on Sam’s feedback. During testing and production, watching dailies, the whole time — and his feedback affects how we shoot.
“Sam has a holistic approach to storytelling and that goes beyond the technical job. It’s about storytelling, and he’s always a creative force in the process. He also catches the tiniest details. He once was a QC guy, and he’ll catch the smallest little thing that I might not see until the 50th time watching it.”
The VFX shots that including both Dominic and Thomas were shot with Ruffalo as Dominick first and then, after all the character’s scenes were complete, the actor returned about 30 pounds heavier to shoot Thomas’ scenes. Lipes shot these on the same 5219 in 3-perf format, exposing the same way and shooting using the exact same negative area as he did for the 2-perf portions. The picture information captured outside that surface area of the negative was there only as a safety measure in case Pascarelli’s team needed a bit more image beyond the frame to create a seamless composite.
“They removed the grain before they did the work and then put it back on top of the finished shots,” Lipes explains. “They did an excellent job of making sure the effects shots matched everything else, and then Sam was very meticulous about making sure that anything that didn’t sit exactly right in the scene was melded in with his color grading tools.”
While colorists sometimes are expected to make images that pop and look snappy, Lipes says of Daley, “He’s the one who sometimes scales me back. I might propose something extreme and he’ll say, ‘Yes, we could do that but…’ and then show me something that isn’t visually distracting from the story, which is ultimately what we both care most about. Sam is subtle and quiet in his work, and I like that. Look at what he’s done with Christian Springer or Andrij Parekh or Ed Lachman. The work is understated but it’s very good and highly-respected, and that’s exactly where I want my work to be.”
While I Know this Much is True has concluded its first run on HBO, episodes will continue to be available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Max.