Tim Orr Shoots Raising Victor Vargas
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With credits like "George Washington" and "All The Real Girls" under his belt, director of photography Tim Orr brings to screen yet another soulful rendering with "Raising Victor Vargas." Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Peter Sollett, the film follows the young and cocky Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) over a couple of hot summer days on New York's Lower East Side. The film has an organic beauty not seen much in today's slick-looking Hollywood fare, which was in part produced by shooting Super 16mm on location in cramped apartments with naturalistic lighting choices. The small sense of space translates onto the screen and lends an intimate mood to this heartfelt story concerning Victor, his troubles with a girl named Judy (Judy Marte) and his frustrated grandmother (Altagracia Guzman). In this interview, Orr talks to us about the task of creating a "real" look, one with sensuality and vitality to accentuate the natural performances.
To start off, what are you working on right now?
I am wrapping up production on "The Undertow," my third collaboration with David Gordon Green ("George Washington," "All the Real Girls"). It is the tale of a couple of kids on the run from a villainous uncle who killed their father for a stash of cursed gold coins. It is set in the outlying areas of Savannah, Georgia -- swamps, railroads and mudpits. A lovely adventure in the tradition of "Night of the Hunter" and "Huckleberry Finn." It stars Jamie Bell, Josh Lucas, and Dermot Mulroney.
How did you get involved with "Raising Victor Vargas"?
I had been introduced to Scott Macauley, a New York producer and editor of Filmmaker magazine. He did an interview with me for the New Faces of Independent Film issue a few years ago. He was one of the producers on "Raising Victor Vargas" along with his partner in Forensic Films Robin O'Hara. He thought I would be a good match for the material and that Pete and I would work well together. We ended up getting along very well and more importantly, saw the film in the same way. I got the job, and had a wonderful time working on the film, certainly a highlight of my career thus far.
(l-r) Orr, 1st AC Matt Petrosky
and director David Gordon Green
How long of a prep time did you have?
Two Weeks. Most of this time was used scouting locations and shot listing with Peter.
I did get to do one day of testing. We were shooting Super 16, so I did an exposure test for the blow-up and a filter test to find the right look for the day exteriors. I settled on Corals for the day exteriors, primarily the #1 Coral. I was a bit concerned about shooting Super 16. This was the first time I had shot that format for blow-up, and I had seen few good examples. Most blow-ups I had seen were too flat and grainy for my taste.
To get a good blow-up you actually need more light because you're working with a smaller negative. I found that overexposure, coupled with a deeper stop produced the best results. I overexposed the negative by one stop and shot most all of the interiors at a T4. In 35mm I will shoot faster film and work at more open apertures, like T2 or T2.8. I like to work with low light levels, to keep the look as natural and real as possible, so it was a challenge using more light and still maintaining a natural look.
How long was production?
Twenty-seven days during Aug. and Sept. 2001. We were shooting in the family's apartment in the Lower East Side the morning of Sept. 11th. With a week to go, we were shut down for 11 days. We did two days of additional photography in Jan. 2002.
It seems like a lot of shots were done on zoom lenses. What motivated you
to shoot this way?
Peter and I both like zooms, and we thought it would be appropriate for the film to lend it a kind of New York street photography/cinema verite quality. We are also fans of films of the '70s, when zooms were popular. They have since fallen out of favor, but I have always liked them if they are used in the right way. You can do things instinctively with the zoom, go with the moment and the emotion within the scene, or to tighten up into a close-up at just the right moment.
What kind of film stock did you use?
crew to shoot on location in the
What kind of camera package did you have?
An Aaton XTR Prod and an Aaton A-Minima from Abel Cine Tech in New York. We shot the film in Super 16, with the majority of the work on the XTR Prod. The A-Minima became invaluable for shooting scenes in tight quarters, like the family's bathroom for instance. All of the shots in the bathroom were done with the A-Minima. I don't think it would have been possible to get the shots we got, without that camera. I used 35mm format Zeiss Super Speed Primes and a Canon zoom.
Victor's apartment was shot on location and seems very small. Was
this a challenge for you to shoot in? How did you overcome this?
That was one of the biggest challenges actually. A primary concern was freedom of movement for the actors. I tried to keep the set as free and clear of moviemaking gear, lights, grip equipment, etc., as possible. The actors performances were the most important thing to Pete, so my job was to allow the actors as much freedom of movement as possible. It made lighting more difficult, especially since we were shooting in Super 16. There was a debate about shooting 35mm or Super 16. We opted for Super 16 for several reasons, some budgetary, but mainly to have the luxury of a bigger shooting ratio and because most of the interior locations were very small. Using 35mm equipment would have been too cumbersome and would have created an undue, intrusive burden on the performances.
The film has what I like to call a very "real" and "raw" look to it, you get a feel of all the textures. What kind of discussions did you and the director have during pre-production in terms of how you wanted the film to look?
I took cues from Peter's short "Five Feet High and Rising," upon which the feature is based. His short film felt very real to me, primarily in the emotion and honesty of the performances. Pete used the handheld camera and tight close-ups very effectively and I wanted to continue this spirit and embellish it in the feature.
We ultimately wanted the film to feel real and natural, and let the performances carry the story, with the cinematography underscoring the emotional content of the scenes. We talked about what summer should look and feel like. We wanted to portray a hot, sweaty summer in New York that you could feel and touch. We knew we wanted a warm look for the film, to accentuate the feeling of hot summer days. I used Coral filters for the day exteriors and warm gels (1/4 CTS) for the lights coming through the windows for day interiors. We also knew that we would pick up a certain amount of grain from shooting Super 16, which I tried to limit as best I could, but what grain was there I wanted to use as romantic texture and not grit.
Were any visual references made (paintings, photography, other movies)? If
so, for what kind of values?
The Jimmy Cliff movie, "The Harder They Come," mainly for camera movement. Some really nice handheld camerawork in that film. We also looked at photography of Spanish Harlem from the '70s and '80s. I also saw "Apocalypse Now Redux" the day before we started principal photography. I think the French Plantation sequence influenced some of the interiors in our film.
With so much of the movie taking place in the small apartment, were you
ever worried those scenes would become mundane?
We designed a different way of shooting each scene in the apartment -- a slightly different look for each room. Scenes in the family's living room started out handheld, and then shifted to a more locked down, static or fluid style. The living room had a bit more fill light than the kids' bedroom, which was darker and more contrasty. The bathroom had the dirty incandescent bare bulb feel. The kitchen was slightly flatter overhead light.
How did you light the scene where Judy and Victor get very close to one
another, in what looks to be like a shed?
behind the camera
That was a scene I was really looking forward to, ever since I saw Pete's short film. His short ended with a scene in an alley of sorts that is essentially a first kiss. I thought it was an amazingly real and beautiful moment. I wanted to keep the shed dark and intimate, with the only light provided by ambient window light. We used an ND 9 hard gel for the window, so I could expose more for the exterior in the two-shot master. I used a 12K below the exterior of the window bounced into a 12x12 Lt. Grid above the window. An Image 80 Kino-Flo through unbleached muslin provided the fill behind camera.
How did you light the bedroom of Judy's friend Melonie when she is intimate with
her boyfriend Harold?
When we arrived on set that morning, our plan for lighting had to be altered as a result of a problem with the location. We were shooting on the third floor of an apartment building in the Lower East Side, and our plan had been to light from the balcony of an adjacent apartment building. We were denied access, and with no Condor or scaffolding, we had to come up with an alternate plan. There was a fire escape, but it was deemed unsafe for anything heavier than light grip equipment and one 1.2 HMI. The 1.2 HMI became our only hard source, which we used as more of a highlight on the back wall. I had asked the production designer, Judy Becker, who did an absolutely wonderful job on the film, for yellow curtains for Melonie's room. Since I couldn’t get anything really hard coming through the windows, I decided to try and fill the curtains with light to get them to glow. This became my exposure for the scene, since everything else in the room was really down. We used a 12K and 6K on the sidewalk below bounced into a series of 4x4 shiny cards rigged to the fire escape above the windows. This ended up working pretty well for a subtly romantic look. Three four-foot, four-bank Kino-Flos were rigged to the ceiling for the fill, each gelled with 1/4 CTS and Opal Frost -- usually burning only one or two bulbs.
I ended up being very happy with the results. That scene could have been a real disappointment in terms of lighting, but ended up as one of my favorites.
Is there a shot or scene that you are especially proud of? Which one is it
When the family goes to church after the grandmother threatens to kick Victor out of the house. It is played in one long master, which is about five minutes long. We only had two hours to light and shoot that scene. Initially we had three shots in mind, but due to our time constraints, we had to tell the story of that scene in one. I am especially proud of the zoom out with the family as they enter the church and make the long walk to the coin-operated candles for an offering and prayer. We had no servo for zoom control on the film, that was an aesthetic choice. It is very hard to do a slow, steady hand zoom, and I was pretty happy with that one. I also like the way we lit that scene as well. It was somewhat of a large space to cover in one shot.
How was it working with Sollett?
Working with Pete was terrific. He is tremendously talented with actors. He knows story very well and has a strong visual sense. It was a little hard at first for Pete to let go of the responsibilities of the camera. He shot his short film himself and this was his first experience working with a cinematographer. He ended up trusting me with the camera and gave me a good bit of creative freedom. The most important aspect of our working relationship was that we shared the same vision for the film and both had a passion to make it the best that it could be. Pete and I both wanted the cinematography to become another character, one that supported the film overall, which was consistent but not overbearing. I dearly hope that I get the opportunity to work with Pete again in the near future.
Anyone on the crew you'd like to mention?
The crew on "Raising Victor Vargas" was fantastic. The gaffer Scott Miller has a great eye for lighting. It was a pleasure working with him. The key grip Matt Hale, came up with some ingenious rigging solutions which saved the day on a couple of occasions. The production designer Judy Becker did a beautiful job, providing the film with so much authentic texture and color that it made my job much easier.