Cinematography in Tight Spaces: Trees of Peace

How would you approaching filming a project if you knew that you only had a 5’x5′ space to work in and only one source for practical lighting? That was the exact challenge that cinematographer Michael Rizzi needed to tackle for the film Trees of Peace. Now streaming on Netflix!

Trees of Peace is set in 1994 during the genocide in Rwanda. Four women from different backgrounds and beliefs are trapped and hiding in a small underground room for weeks on end and must find a way to put aside their differences, work together and fight for their survival.  While not based on one specific event it is inspired by many, many true stories that unfortunately happened during that time.

Writer/Director Alanna Brown created this beautiful story based on many of her own interviews with survivors, perpetrators, and others touched by the conflict. This was also the first feature script that she had written her feature directorial debut.

What drew you to Trees of Peace?

Like most of us involved in Trees of Peace, I was initially drawn to the project by Alanna’s incredible script.  Despite the story being about a very specific time and place, the basic human themes explored in the film are universal. I would guess that just about anyone can find something they relate to in this story. There are very heavy emotional themes like guilt, grief & loss but on the other end there’s forgiveness, unity, courage, hope. Beyond the obvious external dangers of the war going on around them these women are forced to confront some of their own inner demons while in captivity. Each has their own distinct character arc and backstory which you slowly learn about as the film progresses the layers unfold.

Also, I think I can speak for most cinematographers and say we love a good technical challenge and a film taking place in one room definitely presented itself as one.

You had to work in an extremely tight and limited space, tell us about your pre-production process?

This film was challenging in so many ways.  Like many productions we built the set on a stage. We didn’t have the benefit of creating our shot lists based on a practical location that we could walk around in and visualize. But unlike many productions, nearly the entire film takes place in one small 5’x5’ room which we affectionately called “the box”.  There aren’t many other films we could use as a direct reference but one film that we pointed to a lot was “BURIED” with Ryan Reynolds. It’s a completely different genre and story but it was all told from the point of view of the character who was buried alive in a coffin and it was done to great effect.

We found some helpful information about how to approach telling a story set primarily in one room.  One trick I picked up from watching a behind the scenes video of BURIED was how they used miniatures of the coffin and Ryan’s character to pre-vis shots. On our first shot listing meeting I presented Alanna with a clear acrylic cube big enough to hold a basketball and four different Barbie dolls to represent the box and our actors respectively. This was our miniature set, “The Barbie Box” and it proved to be very helpful to visualize how we wanted to block our actors and cover scenes.

A huge challenge for us was keeping the film visually interesting and fresh from scene to scene while also keeping it grounded and not feeling too gimmicky. Alanna and I decided early on that we couldn’t block and cover each scene the same way otherwise we felt the audience would get bored very quickly. Alanna came to the table with a lot of great ideas and references for each scene and we tried to incorporate them into our approach. We also focused on creating purposeful visual transitions. I knew we could always cut to black between scenes but a well thought out transition to me is always a more elegant way to keep the flow of a film moving. 

One idea that Alanna was very adamant about keeping was to only tell the story from the point of view of these four women. There’s a shot in the very beginning where the camera follows one character down through a hatch in the floor, into the box and the hatch closes above her. From that moment forward we almost never leave the room and the camera essentially becomes another character inside the box only seeing and hearing what these characters are experiencing. The goal was to create a sense of claustrophobia and constant uneasiness from not knowing what’s happening around them. Also it kept the story macro focused on these women and their story within the broader context of the war.

After breaking down each scene visually with Alanna we discussed our needs with our Production Designer, Christian Zollenkopf. He built us a wonderful modular set where all four walls, ceiling and floor of the box could be removed. He also built an additional floor with a hold cut out in the middle for a few shots where the camera needed to maneuver around the middle of the women.

When it comes to limited lighting, how were you able to get the most out of one main light source?

Lighting the box presented its own set of challenges. Besides the hatch on the ceiling of the box which only opens a handful of times in the film, the primary source of light was a small opening on one of the walls looking out into a dirt alleyway. In the script it was only a couple of inches wide but during our tests I implored Christian and Alanna to make it a little bigger, so we settled on 12” x 6” which is still quite small!

It was important to me to keep the lighting as natural, realistic and motivated as possible inside this box. I adhered to a general rule that the light would need to feel like it was coming from one of two sources, either directly from the window opening or indirectly bounced from the walls on the box.  We also needed to motivate light from many different outside environments, sunny, overcast, and rainy days, clear and rainy nights and everything in between.  My long time gaffer Dilip Isaac designed an incredibly versatile lighting plan including a semicircle rig of par cans aimed at the window to simulate hard sun light in a sun path arc. We could dial in any time of day and the sun would rise and set at the desired angle accordingly.

Behind the sun rig we hung a sky blue 20×20 and bounced ARRI SkyPanels and KinoFlo Freestyle RGB LEDs into it to motivate a large skylight. We created different sky looks like cooler sunset, brighter midday, warmer morning, etc. Inside the box obviously there wasn’t a lot of room so we kept it very simple. Our workhorse unit was a 2’ Quasar RGBX with an eggcrate to control spill. We used this unit to help gently wrap the window source or add in a bit of eye light or fill depending on which direction we were looking.  Everything was controlled via Dilip’s dimmer board which he also operated. 

Oh, and haze…lots and lots of haze.

What was your camera package?

Because of our limitations I knew I needed to have flexibility and versatility with the camera placement and mobility. A traditional tripod just wasn’t going to cut it on this one so a few options were explored. A Technocrane was cost prohibitive and a standard triangle jib didn’t allow us to achieve some of the shots we were planning. Ultimately at the suggestion of my Key Grip Will Waters we went with the Mini-Scope 7 by Chapman/Leopard. It’s a small, compact telescoping crane with just enough travel on the arm to give us what we wanted. We shot full frame 6k 3:2 cropping for 1:85 on the Sony Venice almost exclusively using the Rialto attachment. There was only one one short sequence where we reattached the sensor block to the camera.  The Rialto was always flown on a DJI Ronin 2 on the Mini-Scope 7.  I operated the Ronin remotely with the DJI Force Pro on a little 75mm Sachtler head that I’ve had forever. I used the SIGMA CINE primes for everything except for a short sequence when I used a PL mount Lensbaby. 

What was it about the SIGMA CINE lenses that helped to tell this story?

When deciding on lenses there were a few requirements that needed to be checked off my list. Because of the tight shooting space and limited lighting I needed glass that was compact & lightweight, had a fast aperture, and a decent close focus.  I considered using zooms for speed and efficiency but I couldn’t find a full frame zoom with enough focal length range that also fit my aperture and close focus requirements. I couldn’t take the time to take on and off close focus diopters and rebalance the Ronin every time I wanted to get the camera a little closer. 

I’ve heard SIGMA CINE lenses sometimes being described as clinical or too sharp or too clean.  That sharpness & precision is not necessarily a bad thing depending on the project.  Because this story takes place almost 30 years ago I also tested a few vintage primes that have a little more character. What I found in my testing is a lot of the idiosyncratic look of vintage lenses comes from the bokeh but because most of the time our characters were sitting with their backs against a wall there really wasn’t much in the background to throw out of focus so those lens characteristics didn’t really make much of a difference. I quite preferred to capture a clean, sharp image in camera and then during the color grade which was done by Alastor Arnold at The Lodge @ FotoKem we added some film grain, halation and chromatic aberration to give it more of a filmic look. 

The SIGMA CINE lenses ticked off all the technical boxes for me and as a bonus they have a wide range of focal length options from 14mm up to 135mm.  As a double bonus they also have a 24-35mm t/2.0 full frame zoom! In most other applications where I’d use a zoom this wouldn’t have enough range but it became my go-to wider lens. It was like a variable prime, saving us precious minutes on lens changes and gimbal rebalances.  We used a Sony E-mount set which allowed the lenses to mount directly to the Rialto without a PL adapter making our build even more compact.

Why was it so important to work in full frame for this film?

This was my first time doing a long form project both in full frame and also with the Venice and I was very pleased with the results. The larger sensor allowed us to get the camera very close to our characters without distorting their faces using wide lenses. I was surprised how often I could get the field of view I wanted with a 35mm or 50mm when in super 35 it may have been an 18mm or 25mm. Full frame also allowed us to have more control over the depth of field and pull our subjects away from the walls a bit with focus. 

What are some tips you can provide for cinematographers that need to film in a small spaces?

This is true for any project but very simply…prep, prep and more prep. Alanna and I put in months of prep time going through the script over and over plotting out as much as we could. If you can go into production with a solid plan of action you’ll be able to pivot more easily when something goes wrong as it always does. This may be only be true for this specific project but I would also say keep it simple. Often the best solution to a problem is the most obvious.

Where can we watch Trees of Peace and find more information about you?

Trees of Peace is exclusively streaming on Netflix right now!

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