10-16-2023 - Case Study
Shot on BURANO: How DP Stefan Duscio Created the Evocative Color in ‘At the Motel’
By: Oakley Anderson-Moore
When DP Stefan Duscio got his hands on an early model of the new Sony BURANO, he decided to create something that went beyond a typical test shoot. He took a gamble on a new director (actor Sam Corlett) and took to the road to create the incredibly atmospheric, nonlinear short film At the Motel.
Shot on the Sony BURANO and Canon K35 lenses, the beautiful short film captures highs and lows of romance, euphoria, and tragedy. And the technical stats went to great lengths to show bold choices too, from expressionistic color paired with dynamic highlights and detailed shadows.
“I really wanted to put the camera’s dynamic range to the test,” says Duscio. “And the BURANO passed with flying colors.”
How Duscio came to cinematography by trying out every other medium first
Stefan Duscio first became interested in cinematography while studying at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia in a mixed media program that contained musicians, photographers, video artists among other eclectic types.
“I left that course being a bit of a jack of all trades, but master of none. When I finished university, I spent a few years soul-searching in different creative arts.”
From there, Duscio started assisting photographers on fashion work, then cinematographers on commercials and music videos. He dabbled in graphic design, storyboarding, making DVD covers. “I was all on the outskirts of film and visual art and trying to find what stuck.”
What made cinematography stick?
“I started falling in love with the camaraderie and the familial aspect of filmmaking with a large variety of different people, as opposed to making something alone in isolation on a computer. And intimidated as I was, once I gave myself over to it, I never looked back.”
Playing with the brand new Sony BURANO
Duscio met Sam Corlett a few years ago on a film called The Dry starring Eric Bana.
“We got along very well and we stayed in touch after that film,” says Duscio. “We kept saying we should work on something one day.”
A few years went by, including the pandemic, and then they finally got their chance. Duscio heard from Nick Rowe at Sony Australia that there was yet unreleased camera coming out, and would he be interested in testing it?
By now, Corlett had acted in some major projects, including the Netflix series Vikings. This meant that Sam Corlett had been able to observe many different directors at work.
“He'd had a lot of worldly experience since I'd first worked with him on The Dry and was looking to sink his teeth into a drama. This seemed like the perfect fit,” explains Duscio.
What was the idea for their test shoot?
“Part of me wanted to test the camera's capabilities in a variety of lighting situations, environments, and modes,” says Duscio. “And the other part of me wanted to let Sam guide where that would take us. We were interested in themes of escapism, romance, and tragedy. We thought it would be great to do a road trip film that was more improvised with a small cast and crew. When we realized we would only have one weekend to shoot the film, we decided to craft the film out of locations we would like to film at. Sam then wrote a poetic, non-linear script based around a motel, a cliff-face, and car interiors. I thought he did a beautiful job.”
On At the Motel, Duscio used a handful of his favorite LUTs from Sony Cine’s recent collaboration with Jason Fabbro and Josh Pines. Duscio specifically played with Fabbro’s Look 2, based on the Josh Pines Lo Con Base LUT.
“And that was part of the test: how would I use this on an indie film, and would it hold up to all these lighting situations? Whether it's shooting in a car interior with no fill light, but trying to see detail on actors' faces in a car and street detail on the outside?”
Duscio used the talented colorish Trish Cahill (Power of the Dog) for the grade.
“We were bringing on all this amazing talent, and Trish was one of them,” says Duscio. “One of the directions we gave to Trish was, don't be conservative with color on this. Let's push it. And she enjoyed that too, because I think she shared similar feelings to me in that we often have to fulfil a brief of naturalism. Which is great, and we all enjoy that, but it's nice to have a project occasionally where you can just let it out and go with what feels beautiful and evocative. I feel quite adept at working with Sony sensors now after shooting on the VENICE quite a bit this year commercially, and it didn't feel any different to me. It just felt great and familiar and we worked with it as I would any on other Sony grade.”
Duscio also used the BURANO’s high dual ISO rating to dig into the shadows.
“On the Saturday evening, when we were at the motel exterior, we had Sam and Tatiana on the balcony of the motel,” describes Duscio. “I used the high ISO at that point to be able to see all the detail in the sky behind them, because that would've dropped off to black if I was at the regular ISO. So we dialed all our foreground LEDs down to quite a dim level so we could see the depth of the background, the houses on the horizon, the sky.”
Where the compact size of the BURANO really takes off
What was one of the best ways that Duscio wanted to put the small body and maneuverability to the test? In a car.
“We stripped the camera down quite small,” says Duscio. “And I was almost operating the camera backwards where I was sitting in the front passenger seat, able to just hold the camera with a monitor facing me and twist the camera to Sam, who was in the backseat behind me, to Tatiana who was driving. We thought that would be a cool dynamic to see him arrive in the backseat, so I could be sitting in the front and see Tatiana's expression more easily and go to Sam like that all-in-one shot. It was very easy to maneuver in that car.”
Duscio also stripped down the BURANO to bring onto the Ferris Wheel.
“We took off almost every accessory and it looked almost like a stills camera to the Ferris wheel operators. I just walked on with such a tiny body and a tiny lens on the front of it, and it was very surreptitious. It was great.”
Another important aspect that made the BURANO small enough to shoot in the car while still being versatile enough to handle that kind of challenging lighting environment? The internal Variable ND.
“I used the variable ND quite consistently,” describes Duscio. “I used that a lot to do really delicate exposure adjustments and maintain the T-stop of the lenses the same throughout. I might've shot most of the film at T 2.8, for example, and just use the variable ND to control exposure levels. The fact that you could adjust it so incrementally was the best thing for me because you're usually going by a whole stop each time when you're using glass NDs, whereas I was able to do a third of a stop, a quarter of a stop or whatever. Really fine adjustments was something I wasn't used to, so that was exciting.”
For Duscio, one of his favorite moments of the film almost didn’t happen but for the small size of the BURANO.
“There was one shot that Sam was really pushing throughout us discussing the film, where he wanted to have the camera over the top of him and Tatiana on the bed,” recalls Duscio. “He envisioned it as a one shot in the film that we keep cutting back to. In the beginning of the film, it feels like they're two lovers on the bed embracing. But by the end of the film, you realize it's tragic. And I thought, ‘Oh, the room's very small and I don't have the right equipment to do this shot well.’ But I kept trying to make it work for him. And I had a very great trusted grip with me called Mick Leslie, who I've worked with a lot over the years, and he has this small telescopic slider that can slide out. It was an unusual way to achieve an overhead shot with a telescopic slider on a dolly track at the end of a bed. It was a bit awkward, but given how small the camera size was, it could take the weight. It ended up being one of the most beautiful shots of the film, and all credit to Sam for pushing us to keep exploring that. Sometimes I might've taken the easy way out and went, ‘Look, can we just do it in two shots?’ But I love what it brought to the film.”
First time director, first time BURANO
Stefan Duscio says he, Sam Corlett, and his team are already thinking about what they can do to follow up At the Motel.
“We're already talking about what’s next because we both enjoyed it so much. And the crew that I regularly work with really enjoyed the experience, which says a lot. Sam was a very natural fit for the role and was very comfortable on set. It's funny how easily some actors slip into a directing role, because they're so used to sitting back and observing different directors work. I think they pick and choose what they like about directing and what they don't like, and so they come into it quite well-formed. And Sam's one of those people.
For Duscio, the experience was more than just a test.
“Hopefully it didn't look like a camera test. That was the opposite of what we wanted to do. As opposed to shooting bowls of fruit and color charts in a studio, we wanted to do something that felt more like, this is a film we actually want to make.”
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