09-03-2021 - Case Study, Gear, Technology
Justine Bateman Shoots VENICE Rialto to Get Intimate for Violet
By: Seth Emmons
In Violet, writer and director Justine Bateman delves deep into what empowers the voice in our heads to push us into making fear-based decisions. Olivia Munn stars as Violet while Justin Theroux embodies The Voice. Immersively captured by cinematographer Mark Williams, Violet is a film that creates a palatable experience for the audience as they follow the successful but tragically unhappy main character through conflict after conflict to the roots of her fears. Violet will have its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and go on to theatrical release later this year.
JUSTINE BATEMAN: Violet is a story about a woman and The Voice in her head, the one we all have that pressures us to make fear-based decisions. Violet realizes that The Voice has been lying to her for her entire life and the negative things she’s afraid of, that she has sacrificed so much happiness and honesty to herself to avoid, aren’t actually going to happen. After this realization she begins to question everything, but The Voice is relentless. The roots of those fears go very deep and are often unknown until we start digging them out and looking at them.
MARK WILLIAMS: The Voice is a primary character and the most important moments in the film center around its confrontations with Violet. The Voice is intense, agitated, and sometimes it actively pursues her. Justine and I had a lot of conversations about how to convey this cinematically and getting the camera close to Violet’s face, bringing the viewer in close, was always part of that visual language.
JUSTINE: The film is crafted as an immersive and intimate experience for the viewer, like a coat they can put on, and thereby go through the experience themselves. We designed the visual and auditory components of the film to accentuate that feeling.
MARK: We needed a small camera and lens package to create intimacy and after a lot of testing we chose to pair the Sony VENICE Rialto Extension System with the Leitz M 0.8 lenses. For more than half the film we shot with it mounted on the DJI Ronin 2 gimbal, either as a remote head or handheld with the dolly grip wearing a backpack rig holding the camera body.
We only had 17 days to shoot and we needed to be able to move between setups quickly. I didn’t consider using zoom lenses because balancing a zoom on a gimbal can be time consuming. And I could cut myself some slack in micro-balancing the rig because the camera and lenses were so light. We rented the VENICE from Keslow Camera Los Angeles. They had modified the Rialto sensor block with extra ¼-20 and rosette mounting points on the sides, top and back, which allowed me to keep the gimbal dovetail on the camera permanently so swaps from studio configuration to gimbal were less than five minutes.
JUSTINE: We were shooting 7 to 8 pages a day, often getting into small spaces and trying to set up quickly. Sony’s VENICE Rialto system and the Leitz M 0.8 lenses enabled us to do that. But the camera system helped us in other ways, more than just speed. There’s one scene in the kitchen of Violet’s office where there is a reflective surface behind the characters. We were able to shoot it with just the camera head in frame and in the reflection it just looks like a napkin dispenser on the counter. You can’t make out that it’s a camera.
MARK: There’s another scene in Violet’s car where The Voice is accosting her and the camera is right in her face. We didn’t have the resources to pull out windshields but we were able to quickly mount the Rialto using just suction cups and Magic Arms to the inside of the glass. We screwed in an 80mm +1 diopter on the 21mm lens to get the close focus just right. The whole rig weighed maybe four pounds. I kept expecting weird distortion or some adverse effects with this setup, but we were getting inches away from her face and the image looked great. Occasionally with this setup we wanted to change the angle of view and punch in a bit. In those situations we would just push a button to switch from 6K full frame to 4K S35 capture. No lens change or re-rigging necessary and much less interruption for the actor.
JUSTINE: To create the immersive experience, I wanted to have a really tangible visual intimacy. I wanted it to feel raw, but in an inviting way. Not raw like open heart surgery, but raw in its intimacy and authenticity, like using very little makeup on actors and giving them room to access their emotions. The compactness of the camera setup helped give them this space.
MARK: When you put a big camera loaded with accessories and crew in front of someone’s face, it’s just one more thing for them to get past when delivering their performance. Even the best actors are sensitive to commotion around them and there are moments in this film where Olivia gets deep inside herself. It was an emotional challenge. It’s so helpful to remove the presence of the camera, keep the set low-key, and leave the space to the actors so they can go there without distraction.
The Rialto is so small and unobtrusive that it doesn’t scare people when you put it in their face. On so many jobs I’ve felt like I was compromising with the camera package, unless of course there are unlimited resources. But with the Sony VENICE Rialto and the Leitz M 0.8 lenses I felt like there were zero compromises. They fit perfectly into this style of filmmaking.
JUSTINE: Most of my direction to Mark was from films I’ve seen or paintings I’ve seen. I’d rather use stills than storyboards. I prefer to point to a still and say, “I want to get THAT feeling.” Mark was really good at technically delivering what we talked about. It’s one thing to be aligned in the vision but another thing to be able to translate that.
MARK: One of the great things about the Sony VENICE is that the color space doesn’t really have a flavor. It’s so perfectly neutral and allows the lenses to do their job. If I switched lens brands in the middle of a scene you would immediately tell the difference. So when it came time to choose lenses I knew I wouldn’t be able to match the quality of the images Justine shared with me without great prime lenses. She doesn’t compromise, and even though it was a small budget film she said from the beginning it was going to get onto big screens so we shot it that way.
MARK: That big screen aspiration and our unwillingness to compromise our image was one of the reasons we chose to capture on the VENICE in 6K. Resolution-wise, we wanted to make sure we had a negative capable of being seen on something larger. And we wanted the flexibility to move around the negative if needed, although in the end we never did.
The other consideration for us about 6K capture was hard drive space. It’s another thing that sold us on the VENICE, being able to create HD proxies simultaneously when recording 6K X-OCN XT. We didn’t have a DIT on the film, just a digital loader and a tech. Avoiding transcoding and creating proxies separately saved us a lot of time and money and meant we could ship fewer hard drives to editorial and do so more quickly.
We tried to do as much in camera as possible as the film is not meant to be hyper stylized. We had created a custom LUT for the proxies but after a few days found we preferred one of the standard onboard LUTs. And sure enough, when we got to telecine we didn’t have to do a tremendous amount because it was all there already.
MARK: There were a couple of scenarios where I would boost the ISO of the camera. Better than half the film was shot at night, including some scenes shooting through the car windshield driving through the streets of East Los Angeles with just available light, and they all came out great. In the trickier situations I would also lean on the lens. If I needed a little extra stop and the assistant could make it work we would shoot wide open at f/1.4.
The most challenging scene in this regard was shot at dusk and I didn’t have the ability to drop lights in. But we got it without needing anything extra. I remember dayplaying as an AC on LA Confidential with Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC and the amount of light he would have to push in to get this same look. He’s a master, but that was the technology of the time. I spent my whole career learning to shoot film and now we have cameras and lenses that can achieve these shots so confidently. It almost seems unfair.