Back to School: Michel Gondry Gets A Digital Education for 'The We & The I'
In 2011, Michel Gondry turned heads by accepting a directing assignment that is unique among the films on his resume, which includes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind, Human Nature and many visually groundbreaking music videos. The Green Hornet was a would-be Hollywood blockbuster that brought a comic book property to the big screen while folding in the comedic talents of Seth Rogan in the title role. The budget was reportedly $120,000,000.
With The We & The I, Gondry is back in more familiar territory. It’s a low-budget indie feature film with a playful approach to structure, character and cinematography. “If I look for inspiration, I prefer to go back to something that is so different that you can’t be influenced by the form or look of things,” Gondry has said. “Only the energy and the innovation and the modernity. There is always room to explore and try something different.”
The We & The I was described by one reviewer as having “a scrappy charm that springs organically from the characters and their stories.” The film grew out of a three-year-long workshop process Gondry engaged in with kids from The Point, a community program in the Bronx that offers exposure to arts and activism. Gondry says that he got the kernel of the idea from riding the bus in Paris 20 years ago, where he noticed that the kids came out of school shallow and aggressive and became more personal and philosophical as the bus continued on its route and the passengers thinned out.
The framing device of The We & The I is a long bus ride home from the last day of school. The result is an impressionistic mélange with multiple, overlapping narratives that reveals casual cruelty as well as unexpected tenderness as the bus riders interact. Interspersed are interesting tangents, fantasy reveries and quirky video fragments seen on smartphones. Power and personality are among the themes.
The shoot took place on an actual bus driving through the urban landscape. The camera is nonjudgmental, taking at face value the dynamics of the nonprofessional cast. Still, the film is scripted. To capture this balance while shooting handheld on a moving bus, Gondry worked with cinematographer Alex Disenhof and camera operator Jordan Kinley to develop an unusual approach. Disenhof says his youth was an advantage, because it was seen as a way to put the young cast at ease. Kinley, who operated a second camera, served as Gondry’s creative partner and had been involved in the workshop. As a result, he had solid relationships with many of the kids.
“The biggest fear was that the kids would be uncomfortable,” says Disenhof. “For the most part, they did a really fantastic job. They modified the dialogue with their own language sometimes. You could never really count on their words for a cue—you just had to react. It was much like shooting a documentary, with a free-flowing pace. Stopping to change a filter or a battery wasn’t always possible—sometimes we had to just go. Michel told me to always keep my other eye open and be aware. You might catch a really magical moment when two kids behind you are doing something unexpected. Jordan and I were able to trust one another, which was so important.”
In early conversations about camera and format, DSLRs were considered, but Disenhof sold Gondry on shooting with RED EPIC cameras. “Michel wanted to be able to see the outside world through the bus windows,” says Disenhof. “We weren’t sure we’d be able to control the windows with gels. We also knew there would be a lot of movement, a lot of vertical lines passing, and a lot of vibration—all problems for the Canon EOS 5D. I knew the RED would provide a nice image on the big screen, and it was still small enough that we could get three of them on the bus. Michel wanted it to feel real and honest and full of energy. Ultimately, he was happy with the results.”
Gels proved impractical on the bus windows, so Disenhof balanced interior and exterior light by bringing up the levels inside the bus with fluorescents and LEDs. These were powered by car batteries because the crew was not allowed to alter or tap into the bus’ electrical system. Sixteen car batteries were loaded onto the bus every day, and two at a time would power the lighting. The bus windows had the equivalent of ND 3 built in. Mixed color temperatures added to the raw, documentary feel. Light Gear in Los Angeles provided LED Light Ribbons in various sizes.
Disenhof had to scramble to control levels as the weather changed and the bus passed under bridges and through the shadows of buildings.
The cameras were almost always set for a one-stop underexposure. The ASA was usually set to 800, with the stop being a 4 for most situations. Occasionally, ND filtration was used on the cameras.
“I found that the RED, underexposed, still left a lot of detail in the shadows,” he says. “I knew we could dig up some of those shadows in color correction. The kids had dark skin tones, so I underexposed and tried to protect my highlights as much as I could. In post, I would bring up the mids a bit to get detail back.”
The crew had about 21 days to shoot the 160-page script, roughly in chronological order. Streets were not shut down. For each day or half-day, production planned a certain loop in which certain action takes place. The bus would run that loop repeatedly. The crew devised a system that told the driver when to stop for continuity, which was tricky, to say the least.
Numerous gadgets were used as camera support, including partially deflated soccer balls, memory foam, bungee cords and shock absorption pads designed for telescopes. Conferences with the editors at day’s end helped refine the process.
The lenses were lightweight 15-40mm Angenieux Optimo zooms. Carl Zeiss Super Speeds were used in several night exterior, existing light situations. “The Angenieux Optimos are great lenses, and you can really shoot a whole movie on them now,” says Disenhof. “Michel liked the flaring and veiling that you get sometimes, so we went with that.”
Disenhof used HDR extensively—The We & The I is one of the first feature productions to do so. “It’s a method of double exposure, basically,” he explains. “You can expose normally on your standard recording track. Right after that track exposes, the camera makes a second exposure that, in our case, was basically exposing for the highlights at three stops under. Later, with software, you can combine the images. It wasn’t a solution to every situation, but it worked about 40 percent of the time, and you can see out the window because of it.”
Each memory card afforded about 45 minutes of shooting time, or about 13 minutes with HDR on. Disenhof and Kinley had to coordinate battery and memory card changes so that at least one camera was always up and running.
The production tested a number of methods for creating the kids’ cellphone videos that appear in the film. Ironically, video from the Apple iPhone 4 was deemed too high-quality. An older Nokia phone, the front–facing camera of an iPhone 3, and an inexpensive Canon point-and-shoot digital still camera communicated the desired low-fi feeling once their 640 x 480 images were translated to the big screen.
“Each one handled light completely differently,” says Disenhof. “In the party scenes, I couldn’t light for one or the other. I just lit by eye and let them pick up whatever they picked up. Luckily, that inconsistency is part of the aesthetic. Some really important plot points happen in the cellphone footage, which ends up being at least ten minutes of the finished film.”
With the DSLR frames, that meant adding nearly 10K of information per frame into the pipeline. With three cameras running, the production was generating between 5 TB and 8 TB of data per day. For final color correction, the post team worked with native 5K files in post. The DI was done at Technicolor in New York with Nat Jencks. Both DCP and film prints were made.