Creating 1927 Mississippi with DP Charlie Cole

There’s no slowing down Director of Photography Charlie Cole, having recently graduated from AFI in 2018 Charlie is already moving on to his third feature. Taking his skills as an illustrator, Charlie transitioned into filmmaking, where he found himself able to perfectly capture the people and events that he found most inspiring. 

He recently took the FF Sigma Cine Prime lenses for a spin on the drama Under the Lantern Lit Sky. The feature explores the new marriage of a young couple in 1927 Mississippi, who in different ways are coming to terms with their sexuality. Charlie walks us through how he was able to achieve the dreamy look of a period piece with the FF Sigma Cine Primes

Setting Up for a Period Piece

What did you find most unique about working on this project?

This project was a very ambitious piece. We essentially shot a period piece feature film in 4 days, with very limited resources. It would have been impossible had it not been for the small army of dedicated and immensely talented people working on this film. Our Director Michelle Bossy knew exactly what she wanted, and always kept everyone’s spirits up. She’s a champion. 

When someone says “period piece”, as a DP what are the first things that come to your mind? 

I knew we would want a specific stylized LOOK for the film. One that could unify all the visual elements into a feeling of melancholic history. This meant limited color palette, specific lighting choices, and above all the right approach with the lenses and filtration to pull away from a strong digital image we all see nowadays. It has to feel of another time, while looking professionally modern.  Our gaffer Jasper Khadjenouri made all my dreams come true, and was an incredible asset for this film. 

When working in a small space, what are some of the first tools/accessories you cut from your kit? 

When limited to a small space, the first thing to go is a Dolly and the idea of elaborate lighting from inside the spaces. Windows and choreographed movements (to keep the shots dynamic) became our best friends.

Which Sigma Cine lenses were you using? 

We were fortunate enough to have a Full Set of lenses from Sigma. It ranged from the 14mm – 135mm. We found ourselves favoring the mid-range lenses most often. 

How did you work with the Sigma Cine lenses to achieve that vintage look?

The Sigma Cine Lenses were a blessing and once I was able to test them they proved to be just as sharp and clean as advertised. This ultimately was our saving grace, as it allowed us to push the lenses dramatically with filtration. Because of their sharpness, we were able to use panty-hose on the Front element of the lens (usually would use the back, as it’s more subtle) to really soften the image, add a warm flattening “haze” across the shadows, and most importantly make our actors look like ‘dreams’ when the light hits just right. I think it added a lot to the melancholy in the story, and helped us to create a 1920’s Mississippi feel. If the lenses hadn’t been so sharp, we wouldn’t have been able to successfully use such heavy filtration. We also used some additional Diffusion filters for specific scenes. The focus had just the right amount of rolloff and sharpness to emulate older lenses of the time-period. With the sigmas, we had the ability to get a clean, sharp image, as well as the more nuanced look of some vintage lenses.

Favorite Stills

Can you walk us through your set up for each one?

In Honeymoon suite: Blanche contemplates Allan’s honesty towards his passion for her.

This shot was a wider, quieter moment than the majority of the film. Michelle (Dir), Kit (PD), and I worked to have as many visual obstacles in the shot as possible. These characters drift further apart the more they get to know each other. This was one of my favorite moments where we captured the emotional distance of Blanche to her husband with the textured lighting and use of the bed curtains. Blanche uses these tools like a mask, and in this small moment we, the audience, see how she is hiding and watching. It is a small pause from the fairy tale life she tells herself she is living.  This shot was handheld, but static.

Blanche, alone in bed, recites Allan’s poetry.

This is the first time we see Blanche in the film. This is the final frame of a slow steadicam shot that streams up her legs from the covers. She is masked in shadow and hidden by a soft curtain. This shot, for me, introduces us to the world of Blanche. It is warm, beautiful, and tragic. This is lit with a tungsten practical and a 2′ Quasar Crossfade that hung above her.

At Casino Hotel room: Blanche, a year after her wedding, sits awake at night next to a man she no longer understands.

This is one of the more dramatically-lit shots in the film. We played the beginning of this scene entirely candle-lit. Which we were able to do thanks to the Alexa Mini and how fast the Sigma’s were. When she gets up, and moves to the foot of the bed, it was a great opportunity to show how tormented Blanche is. We brought in a practical, placed it and it just felt right. Jaclyn played the beat just right so that the lighting didn’t become too stylized. It felt honest

Creating Variety In a Controlled Setting

There seems to be a handful of medium and close up shots, how do you give variety to each shot so they don’t all feel the same? 

Luckily, the script and Direction on-set gave the camera so much to work with. We had a very experienced and talented cast, who were able to adapt to any sudden camera adjustments that would occur mid-shot during our long one-shots. Every character moved differently, and therefore guided the camera differently. We decided to base movement on emotional context, so although we have many Medium and Close-Up shots, due to the size of location, we have a wide variety of camera movements (Steadicam, Static, Handheld, Handheld-static) and use of focal lengths that I feel speaks honestly to the story and each individual scene.

You mentioned how phenomenal your Production Designer was for being able to transform one room into multiple locations. As a DP, what techniques did you use to make each location shift feel like a completely different place? 

We were shooting in one location for our Los Angeles shoot, but we needed to cheat it as 6 different locations. Kit Sheridan, the Production Designer did an absolutely incredible job putting all that work on the screen. Something we had always talked about was embracing shadows in corners, so that she could use her resources “in the light.” When you are working with such kind and talented people, collaboration comes naturally because you want to work with them and make their work soar. 

What is something you’ve learned about working on this period piece that you could take to other period piece projects in the future?  

This is definitely the most I’ve ever played with filtration, and it’s something I’d like to continue to explore. It’s just fun, you can push the visuals so far. Sometimes going further than is normally acceptable can yield incredible results. This film also reminded me how important your Production Design team is, especially for a period film. They are creating the world, you (as the cinematographer) are enhancing it. If the bones aren’t there, it just won’t sell. I had an amazing time working alongside Kit Sheridan, our PD in this film. She was, and is, a force to be reckoned with!

Stay in Touch

What projects do you have coming up? If none, what kind of project have you always wanted to work on?

The next film is a Found-Footage Horror Documentary/Thriller shooting in October-November. We are shooting with 6 different media formats, and it’s been a real treat to play around with cameras I haven’t touched since I was in middle school (mini DV, Hi8…). Digital Tapes have a similar beauty to film, it’s just a different type of aesthetic. I think I definitely carry over some thoughts from project to project, but the thrill is being able to try new things each time. 

If you want to stay up to date on Under the Lantern Lit Sky then click the link here. You can also learn more about Charlie at his website here or follow him on Instagram @charcolevision

As always, if you’re looking to test the FF Sigma Cine lenses then stop by our Burbank Showroom at 148 S. Victory Blvd or just give us a call at 213-699-056

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