A Holiday Engagement, shooting a Christmas movie at Christmas

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This past October I was approached by the Johnson Group, the company for whom I had shot their previous Lifetime film for that July.  This time they had a holiday comedy they were planning to shoot in December, very different subject matter than my previous crime thriller.  I approached the project with a very open mind and met with the director Jim Fall.  One of the first things Jim told me in our initial meeting was that he didn’t want the film to look like a ‘typical” romantic comedy.  He kept telling me that he wanted me to use my instincts regardless of any preconcieved notions of “romantic comedies”.  We looked at several examples trying to get some solid visual references.  Some of them included, Up in the Air, Meet the Morgans, and The Kids are All Right.  

Wtih romantic comedies, you’re never re-inventing the wheel, however after reading the script and meeting the cast, Bonnie Summerville, Shelley Long, and Jordan Bridges I knew we had a great opportunuty to make not just a great comedy but a great little film.

One of the things early on that Jim wanted to be sure he had was a steadicam.  At first we tried to narrow down the days where we would need a steadicam, however since we had such a short and often times changing shooting schedule it was clear that we needed to have one daily.  Another thing we knew we wanted to have were a couple of crane days, particulary for the ending wedding scene and several of the more romantic sequences in the film.

Jim and I from the beginning wanted to be sure to get a look as close to film as possible.  The production budget dictated that we had to shoot on Red MX, since we were shooting two cameras and at the time Alexa packages were far beyond our reach. 

With film and the Alexa out of our budget range the next biggest choice I had that would affect the final look of the film was what lenses to use.  I knew the look that Jim was after would not be accomplished using Modern Glass.  Cooke S4s and Arri Ultra primes are amazing lenses, however with the MX sensor I knew they would be “too” sharp and “too” crisp for the look we were going for.  I knew from the beginning I wanted to use some slightly older more “vintage” glass.  

Production had a relationship with Simm Video (Los Angeles) and they were once again going to supply us with two full Red MX packages, however they did not have any older glass in house.  I began making calls around town and was lucky enough to find a set of old Cooke S3s over at the Camera House.  To my knowledge the only three houses in Los Angeles at the time to carry  Cooke S2/S3s are Clairmont, The Camera House and Panavision Hollywood.  I feel incredibly lucky to have found a set at the last minute that was available from the The Camera House.

Up untill the day before we started principle photography I was testing the lenses (along with the help of my 1st AC Matt Irwin)  to ensure they would fit all of our needs.  One of the biggest determining factor aside from taking the “digital edge” off the Red was how Christmas lights would render when in and out of focus.  Being that this was a holiday comedy I knew Christmas lights would play a big role as set decoration as well as acting as practical light sources.  Every lense is slightly different when rendering points of light deeply out of focus.  I was determined to try to find a set of lenses that would give us as close to a perfect circle as possible.  When you have a small point out of focus in the background such as a street light at night, what you actually see are the iris blades of the lens, this is why depending on the number of blades you’ll see anything from an octogonal patterns (Cooke s4s) all the way through to a near perfect circle (Leica).  I found that from the selection of glass I had that the Cooke S3s were a perfect fit for the project, as well as being within our price range.

This decision paid off, as one of the pivital scenes in the film when the two romantic leads are falling in love they are both seated at a piano, and the only background are out of focus christmas tree and lights, it really added a magical touch to that scene having these mutlicolored points of light deeply out of focus.

There is nothing easy about shooting a comedy.  Unlike a thriller or suspense where to a certain degree the style can be made in the edit room, a comedy has to be funny onset and in the camera, and its nearly impossible to demand people to be funny.  As Jim always says, you can’t make someone be funny, they just have to be funny and you must create an environment where people feel free and take chances and risks with their humor.

The biggest challange I think Jim and I faced when lensing A Holiday Engagement was the shear volume of characters within the scenes.  It was extremely rare to have a scene with only two characters, more often than not we were dealing with party scenes, dinner scenes, thanksgiving scenes, all of which usually contained up to 6-8 speaking roles with plenty of background to go around.  Needless to say it was a challange to make our days given our short shooting schedule.  

Not only were we dealing with a huge number of cast in each scene, I was also dealing with elements beyong my control such as very few hours of usable daylight.  Everyday it seemed like we’d have to light the house for day at night and a couple of times even the reverse, tenting out and creating night during the day, due to actors turn arounds or schedule conflicts.  It was one of the more challanging movies I’ve been faced with shooting.

My biggest fear going into the film was “overlighting” the movie.  As I mentioned earlier I had never really shot a romantic comedy before, so at first I was affraid I would light it too dramatic for the director’s taste or worse light it too flat.  When you think of romantic comedy, the lighting and the style I think are far more derived more from the script and what is taking place within a given scene at a given location more than it’s just a comedy we have to be sure to see everything.  If you have a scene taking place at a Bridal Store, by it’s nature, it’s probably going to occur during the day, usually they have white walls, few overhead flourescents and a lot of natural light.  This by its nature is going to be “brighter” or “well lit” and I feel the key to shooting a scene like the one mentioned is getting the perfered shade of white, as well as adding modeling and shaping without having it look “lit”.  Jim and I were on the same page from the beginning, we never wanted it to look like a “romantic comedy” we wanted it to feel natural and feel like a movie people could relate to without being too slick or too “Hollywood.”

I had a decent lighting and grip package, carrying a 10-ton Electric and a 5-ton Grip, which was neccesary due to our shooting locations and the need to light more than one set at a time.  Another decision that helped was shooting at a faster ISO on the Red MX than I had prevously done.  Usually I would rate the camera between 320-500ISO, on A Holiday Engagement I tended to rate the camera 500-1000ISO, not only did this allow for me to use smaller units at times it also allowed me to take that extra stop and a half and either open up shooting in lower light levels or to keep adding diffusion to my key light, which helped tremedously when it came to lighting some of the older actors within the scene.  As you increase the ISO of the Red you also introduce more noise in the image, Jim and I were perfectly happy with that as we weren’t going for a super slick image, infact shooting on the older Cooke lenses from the 70s as well as shooting at a high ISO,  really gave the image an organic quality that I think unifies the movie’s look and reminds the audience that they are watching a film and not another tv movie.

Jim and I had a very “classical” approach to the camera direction.  More often than not coming up with our plan of attack on how we were going to cover the scene after we he had worked the scene through with the actors.  It was always pretty obvious once we had worked out the blocking where we were going to shoot the scene from.

We were blessed with an amazing cast and crew that made shooting a Christmas movie in December an absolute joy.  I can honestly say it was one of the best ensemble cast and crews I’ve had the pleasure of working with and I think that comes across in the final film.


Written by John Matysiak