Beautified Naturalism

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Fri, 12/14/2012 - 00:00 -- Nick Dager

After almost twenty years as a professional cinematographer Jendra Jarnagin has reached the point in her career when she doesn’t have to take every single opportunity that comes her way. Her personal style which she describes as “a beautified naturalism ” keeps her in demand for all kinds of work. So despite the fact that one of her passions in the business is independent narrative film she hesitated when she was approached about shooting writer/director Jeff Lipsky’s new feature Molly’s Theory of Relativity. The budget was extremely low even by independent standards and the shooting schedule was limited to only ten days. Creatively the script called for nearly the entire movie to be shot in a single New York City apartment. Then there was the fact that Lipsky just doesn’t like digital cinematography. “He was pretty resistant to it ” says Jarnagin with a laugh as she describes Lipsky’s attitude to digital filming. “But he ended up liking it enough.” Lipsky does not hide his disdain for digital acquisition: “If we’d had an extra $125 000 in our budget we would have shot Molly’s Theory of Relativity on film rather than digitally. That said I’m thrilled with the look of Molly the color saturation in particular and most of that credit goes to Jendra’s talent as a DP not to the finicky Red One she had to tame.” Lipsky is not refusing to accept the realities of the digital transition; he just believes that film acquisition still cannot be truly matched by digital. “I’m a huge advocate of 2K and 4K digital projection provided the movie originated on film ” he said in an email. “The DI process is nothing short of miraculous. But I still prefer the texture and the relative constant nature and permanence of film.  My third film Once More With Feeling was also shot digitally using Sony cameras; there’s no question we’ve come a long way since then (only three years!).  Apart from the technical debate of film versus digital on which Jendra is infinitely more articulate than me I have a certain practical bias against digital.”  “Digital requires one or more fairly high profile monitors ” Lipsky said. “On my film shoots I forbid video assists of any kind (except obviously when I’m using Steadicams which for the right shots and scenes I love).  I find monitors are distracting waste time foster insecurity and are a dangerous crutch.  If I’m hired to direct the next Bond film or Avengers sequel then I’m sure I would embrace monitors but until then… All that said I’m fairly certain I’d say 80 percent sure my next film will be a digital shoot.” This was the context when Jarnagin finally accepted the assignment. She says she did so for several reasons. Although she loves to travel (and was packing for a working trip to India when we spoke) she and her husband Alec Jarnagin also a talented cinematographer live in New York and the chance to work at home had some appeal. She also liked the script. But the biggest reason she says was Lipsky himself. “My main reason for accepting the project was to get to work with Jeff Lipsky ” she says. “Having already directed four features Jeff was the most experienced director I've gotten to work with.”   Molly's Theory of Relativity depicts a day in the life of a beautiful twenty eight year old astronomer poised to make the first reckless decision of her life. Her story takes place on Halloween. Aiding her on her day of reckoning are her husband her father-in-law three deceased relatives a precocious trick-or-treating nine-year-old girl her grandfather from Minot North Dakota and an eight-year-old neighbor who may or may not be imaginary. Molly's Theory of Relativity is about the economy how we value and measure the pride we take in what we choose to do for a living the unbreakable bonds of family and the notion that death is merely a relative thing. Lipsky’s distribution company Adopt Films has acquired the U.S. rights to the film and will release it in March. Despite the many challenges the project itself presented there were plusses.  One was that Lipsky is known in the industry for preferring women cinematographers. “As you might already know three of my five films were shot by women ” he said in another email exchange. “I take great pride in my writing in creating complex real full-blooded multi-dimensional female characters (and I’ve got so little competition in this regard sad to say).  But at the end of the day no matter how attuned I am to the female psyche to their uniqueness their indomitable spirit and what makes them tick I’m still a man. I feel it’s equally important to put as many capable key female crew members behind the camera. That sensibility is invaluable to my stories and to my characters. They generally deliver great underused technical skills and offer to me personally a wonderful sounding board. All of my keys are collaborators so not to choose smart women would be to do a disservice to my more female-centric scenarios.” That crew was perhaps the final factor that convinced Jarnagin to say yes. “I’ve never made a movie with this short a schedule and this many pages to cover in such a limited amount of time ” she says “but I said yes because of the people Jeff assembled. They were all very experienced professionals. I’ve never seen a production crew this qualified work on a movie this small.” She says things went so smoothly that there was only one half hour of overtime on the shoot. Still the creative challenges were real. The biggest challenge on Molly was that the shooting schedule was just ten days. That and the fact that with the exception of one subway scene the entire movie takes place in one small apartment over the course of a single day. “We shot [with a Red MX] in Jeff’s apartment ” she says “and the apartment was not very big.” In fact according to Lipsky it’s less than 700 square feet and for several scenes all nine characters in the movie were in the room at the same time. Adding to Jarnagin’s task was the fact that the apartment has floor to ceiling windows. The good news was that the script called for the windows to be blocked with moving boxes for most of the movie. “The windows being covered allowed us to shoot with some consistency ” she says. One of the first things she did when she accepted the project was to understand the precise time of day for every scene in the movie. That way when the story called for it to be a specific time of day or night she could light accordingly. “I didn’t want it to look boring.” She says that Lipsky’s first reaction when he saw the footage was to say “You did a great job of keeping this from being visually monotonous.” Jarnagin understandably took that as high praise. She said that is one of the key goals of any cinematographer. Even if the story dictates that the visual opportunities are going to be limited find some way to make it visually interesting. “It all had to do with my time-of-day breakdown ” she says. “The lenses we used were Arri Variable Primes ” says Jarnagin. “Our lighting package was tiny. For daytime scenes I used 1 or 2 4x4 Kino Flos that I used to extend and/or mimic the window light and for the evening scenes we built a soft box hung above the dining room table. Then we filled in with Chinese Lanterns or a bounced 650 or 300 fresnel. We also had some Rosco Light Pads which were great in the kitchen and stairwell because they were so low profile and made a nice soft source in tight spaces. We used a full Color Temperature Orange gel to gel the very large windows behind the cardboard moving boxes that cover the windows in the story. They were used to filter the incoming daylight to match the color temperature of the tungsten lighting fixtures.” Lighting for digital needs special considerations. “You still need to be concerned about the highlights. Sometimes you’re fighting the limits of the camera’s dynamic range. I’m not a fan girl for the Red ” she says although she was one of the first to ever use the camera on a project. “I love the Red mostly for what it has done for the community.” She says the introduction of Red forced other camera manufacturers to compete better in the independent filmmaking market. “It’s not hyperbole to say that [Red founder] Jim Jannard changed the world.” And she still believes that the Red offers “the best value” overall among available digital cinema cameras. As with all cinematographers she has lenses that she prefers. She owns a set of Cooke S4s because she says “I like the way they work on faces.”  She also likes the small zooms lenses that Angenieux makes because they are “small and light.” Asked to describe her own personal shooting style and if there were any focal lengths that were a key part of that style Jarnagin paused and says she had never thought about the choice of focal lengths in connection with that style. I don't find myself using very long lenses very often she says adding that she rarely shoots with a lens longer than 100mm.  And I used to like wide lenses but not so much any more.  Now I find myself preferring the least wide lens I can get away with in the space only going wider than 24mm when I need a wider perspective to get everything in frame.  In Molly's for example I did often shoot many master shots on an 18mm to get everyone in frame in the small apartment. “I would characterize my style as a beautified naturalism. I enjoy making everything look pretty when that's appropriate but not every project calls for that approach. And as every cinematographer would tell you the cinematography should serve the story. I don’t think there’s a feminine or masculine look.” If being a woman changes how she shoots it’s only in the sense that – man or woman – a person’s gender is one of many many factors that contribute to a particular artistic vision or outlook. Still Jarnagin says “You can’t look at a movie and say a man or a woman shot it.”