DP Matthew Clark Tabs Panasonic VariCam 35 for Amazon Studios’ Late Night
From Amazon Studios, Late Night, directed by Nisha Ganatra from a screenplay by Mindy Kaling, follows late-night talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) teams up with new writer, Molly Patel (Kaling), to help revitalize the program…and her career. The comedy feature, which had its premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, was shot by cinematographer Matthew Clark (Pitch Perfect 3, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates) with the VariCam 35 camera.
Clark got involved with Late Night through Ganatra, whom he had worked with on several projects since they both attended NYU Tisch School of the Arts years before. For Clark, one of the toughest tasks in shooting comedy is to make it look and feel natural for the audience while allowing the space for them to laugh. “The visuals has to have some depth to them, but you need to let the actors work things out on screen,” he explains. “That was a big part for this film knowing the way Nisha likes to work. She’s visual but she’s also very actor oriented, so one of the things I wanted to do was make our technical footprint as small as possible to give the actors room to work and to find those comic moments.”
For Late Night, Clark describes the look as “heightened naturalism.” He created a look book that contained images from still photographers Gregory Crewdson’s “artificial reality” to Robert Frank’s “super naturalism” images. He also worked with Light Iron colorists Corinne Bogdanowicz in Los Angeles and Sean Dunckley in New York to develop the look during prep. “There were three distinct kind of looks we wanted,” describes Clark. “One was for Catherine’s home, which was more elegant with warm tones. The television studio needed to be crisp and clean with more neutral tones and for the writers’ room office, the look was more chaotic and business-like with blue or cooler tones.”
Late Night was shot with the VariCam 35 with a small crew in a short 25-day schedule. During prep, Clark, gaffer Ken Shibata and key grip Tommy Kerwick, Jr. decided that if they went with a traditional lighting and grip package, there would not be enough man power to complete the days since they would be shooting sometimes three to four locations on the same day. “We didn’t have the money to put up condors three blocks away with four generators, so we went with the idea of going with the VariCam because of its native 5000 ISO,” explains Clark. “The camera allowed us to move fast and have a good base when we moved out to those night exteriors and even the night interiors. For example, working with a China ball, we could light an entire room. It’s a valuable resource to have if you need to shoot that way and in this instance we did. We were able to get that base and still have time to make it better on top of that, as well as allow for motion in and out of the light.”
With the VariCam 35, Clark captured 4K (4096×2160) 12-bit 444 AVC Intra files in V-log. With Bogdanowicz, he developed a basic 709 LUT. For any night exterior or interior, Clark utilized the VariCam’s native 5000 ISO and for daytime sequences, he captured at native 800 ISO. For lenses, he used ‘70s era Superspeeds and Ultraspeeds from Panavision, which he feels added warmth and took some of the digital edge off. “My ACs, Pedro Corcega and Adriana Brunetto-Lipman, were so on it,” explains Clark. “When you’re shooting with a 100mm lens and you’re on your fourth location of the day, people can get pretty tired, but they were always on top of things.” Clark occasionally made use of an 11 – 1 Primo zoom, which delivered a similar look to his primes.
Clark and Shibata cut generators out of their lighting package and went with smaller instruments that they could plug into a wall socket or run off a portable Putt-Putt. They mainly lit with small LED lights and an ARRI M18 1.8K open faced lamp. “We did it as lo-fi as possible,” explains Clark. “We had one day where we had a 4K and that was because we had a big window outside this house, and I wanted to light it from outside at night with no lights inside.”
Perhaps the most challenging location to light was the writers’ room office set, since they were several stories up and there were two half walls that were windows. “Whenever we wanted to have light come from one side,” explains Clark, “we put up ND 3 and ND 6 hard gels that we’d either stack on one side and then allow the light to come in clean from the other side. It gives you that contrast so instead of getting two sides with a lot of light, you can expose for the outside, open up, and the light is coming in from one side of the building giving you your key light. When we turned around and looked towards those windows then you could move the hard gels to the other side.”
For shooting New York City night exteriors, Clark used a China ball for walk-and-talks. “New York street lamps used to be orange sodium vapor but now they’re changing everything out for these LED street lights that are super bright white and they’re hard,” reveals Clark. “There’s no romance about them. That was hard because they would sometimes overpower the 5000 ISO sensitivity and you’d have to figure out how to get something up on that light or when they walk under, you had to swing something out over them. We often picked streets based on the street lights they were going to walk under because we really couldn’t fix that in the middle of the night.
“At 5000, you see everything so it’s about shaping what you see,” continues Clark. “You can shoot 5000 ISO at night under a street light, so your ratios have to be there. You still have to light it, but you don’t have to pull out big instruments to give you a good exposure. It’s more about figuring out where you need to be and then shape that exposure.”
Proper pre-planning with post made the color grade more effective. For Clark, he had to make several compromises throughout production, but he made sure he never compromised his look. On set, Clark’s main goal was not to clip his highlights so he could move up or down while maintaining the same contrast ratio. During the color grade, he lessened the contrast a bit to benefit the faces. That’s pretty much the only difference I did in post from the LUT we created. Because we were shooting with such minimal lighting equipment, all of our day interiors were like exterior scenes where you’re beholden to the sun. If it’s cloudy one take and sunny on the next, that’s what your scene will look like. We didn’t have enough lights to overpower when you have a wall of windows. That was a battle. But from the VariCam’s perspective, technically speaking, I didn’t see any slide. It was pretty much a one to one where we landed. Working closely with Light Iron beforehand, I knew what to expect.
“I was very happy with the end results,” reveals Clark. “The VariCam 35 was the right camera for that project and I would choose it again for that scenario without a doubt.”