Further to my work on the music video I also worked as D.O.P on Cellular, a short drama directed by Mantas Beginskas.
The project wasn’t just a polar opposite in terms of genre and content, but also process. Mantas has a firm grip of exactly what he wants for the project and from each team member and has no difficulties expressing his ideas and desires. I had various short meetings with Mantas to discuss the themes involved and how we could create a look that befits this project but also references others from which it was inspired. Mantas stated early on that it needed to be “steady” and “slick” – to quote some of the adjectives used.
My first point of call was to look at other works that might have been of inspiration to Mantas when writing the script. The obvious choices were Her (2014, Jonze) and The Social Network (2010, Fincher) – two films that I admire greatly. Both of these films raise questions about the direction that society is heading as a result of our use of and reliance on technology. I re-watched many Fincher films and noticed how he seldom uses camera movement within a scene. In all most all of his films (Fight Club the exception) he moves throughout a scene with different focal lengths or, sometimes, a new camera position. This was my preferred take on things as well and a strategy/style I was adopting for my own film. In my opinion, overuse of camera movement can undermine the drama that takes place within a scene. Often I think that excessive camera movement is used to mask the lack of drama or poor framing and mis en scene. My favourite cinematographers are Wally Pfister, Roger Deakins , Vittorio Storaro and Nestor Almendros – although none of them had a visual style that lent itself to this project – I explored their writings and interviews for tips and advice.
We discussed which camera to use and what format to shoot in. My GH4 was available but I had neglected to use it for my own film as I was unconvinced that it looked cinematic enough. Mantas wanted to do a lot of work in the colour grade to manipulate the aesthetic further than what could achieve in camera anyway – so the clear choice would be the black magic.
The shoot was extremely straight forward. If Mantas thinks he has the take, he’ll watch it back and then move on. This was almost always the case within the first one or two takes. We shot for two days at a rented apartment in Tottenham and had to capture about 25 shots in total. I had Sam with me as camera assistant which helped speed up the set ups. We ploughed through the shots at an almost alarming speed. Personally when directing, although I feel an element of impatience to get shots captured and progress made to calm anxieties, I still decide to do a few takes more to explore different possibilities. For example, I might ask the actors to depart from the script and ask them to improv the scene how they interpret their characters might play it out. Nevertheless, this is Mantas’s style of directing and he seemed to be in control of the set and the actors.
Mantas left me in complete control of setting up which was nice. Once the actors were positioned, it would be my responsibility to choose camera position, lenses and advise the lighting guys. This definitely helped me feel like I had responsibility of my own role and the trust of the director – something which in previous years had been quite rare for most taking up technical roles. Mantas had created a multi page document for the technical crew named – “The Art of Cellular” – something for which he received huge amounts of teasing. Mantas is a self confessed ‘Nolanite’ and although this was a serious attempt at making things easier for the crew, we couldn’t help but see the funny side having all remembered him turning up at uni the Monday after seeing Nolan’s Interstellar with the companion book – The Art of Interstellar – like a kid in christmas morning grinning like a cheshire cat. That said, his intentions were honest and it did actually serve its purpose. Mantas had included reference stills from films that illustrated the type of composition he had in mind or he had drawn small floorpans to work from.
We shot the remainder of the film on campus and were lucky to have permission to shoot in the library. The conditions were perfect; smooth and level floors, clean environment; light, spacious and empty. Again, Mantas was very quick with the shot turnover and after starting at 7am, the day was completed by 3pm – having captured 15 shots in 3 locations. I do remember wondering how on earth a film was going to be made out of what we had captured. By my calculations we had around 40 shots in total and I struggled to see how 40 shots from 4 locations would span a 12 minute film – even when you take into account the narrative function of the on screen graphics.
I really enjoyed working on this film. Mantas gave me almost complete autonomy when on set and, for the most part, allowed me to be creative – so long as it be integral to the tone of the film. There were, of course, many suggestions I made that were not chosen and the decision was always made final by Mantas. It has to be said that our relationship throughout was a healthy one where ideas were encouraged and explored – yet in the event of them not being chosen, no offence was taken. Communication between us was clear and concise and I found it very easy to interpret what he wanted.