Preferences and References: Developing the Distinct Visuals for 'Dear White People'

Inspired by Stanley Kubrick as much as by Spike Lee, 'Dear White People' is highly stylized, employing high-frame-rate cinematography and customized lighting setups to define its distinct visual style.
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Winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent, Dear White People is a sly, provocative satire about racial identity in a supposedly post-racial society. Directed by Justin Simien and filmed by director of photography Topher Osborn, the movie follows four African-American students at a fictitious Ivy League college who have very different ideas about what their ethnicity means. The action, which takes place amid heightened racial tensions, culminates in a riot sparked when a group of white students throws an inflammatory African-American-themed party.

Drawing on his own experience at college, Simien wrote the first draft of the script in 2005, and the indie project garnered national attention in 2012 when a trailer, originally shot as a pitching tool, went viral. Supported by a @DearWhitePeople Twitter feed, an Indiegogo campaign easily surpassed its $25,000 funding goal, topping $40,000.

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Photo by Ashley Nguyen.

Inspired by Stanley Kubrick as much as by Spike Lee, Dear White People is highly stylized, employing high-frame-rate cinematography and customized lighting setups to define its distinct visual style. The film was shot over 23 days primarily at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Osborn used a RED EPIC camera to acquire 4K footage for the film, including several sequences captured at 96 fps.

“We planned to use a lot of zoom moves, so it was important to find a zoom lens that made sense,” Osborn recounts. “We eventually settled on the Cooke Varotal 18-100, as we adored the soft quality it gave to the RED EPIC’s crisp, modern sensor. Eric Steelberg, ASC, recommended the lens, and it worked beautifully, but it meant that we had to shoot in 4K rather than 5K.”

The remainder of the movie was shot with Cooke S4 prime lenses. “We didn’t want to do the whole film on a soft zoom,” Osborn explains. “The zoom was also very slow, so for a lot of the night work it just wouldn’t have been practical. The S4s are actually softer than the zoom but still matte surprisingly well. Sometimes you can tell when we’re on the zoom and when we’re not, but I think for the most part it blended really well.”

Osborn and Simien previously partnered on a number of shorts and a TV pilot. “Justin is very particular in terms of framing and composition, and we have a great shorthand,” Osborn says. “It helps create a strong collaborative process.”

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Director of photography Topher Osborn. Photo by Ashley Nguyen.

In a sequence toward the beginning of Dear White People we see Sam and Gabe—played by Tessa Thompson and Justin Dobies—in heated argument as they leave a classroom and walk across campus into an upstairs dorm room, where they begin removing their clothes in preparation for sex. It’s witty, fast-paced, and one of Osborn’s favorites. “It’s one of the few times where the movie gets a chance to breathe,” he says, noting also that it is one of the few sequences shot with a handheld camera.

To light the tiny dorm room and silhouette the two actors for their kiss, Osborn employed a pair of K5600 Joker Bug 400W HMI lights. An adjacent building served as a 100-foot bounce to give the window the right amount of plume, and a 4x4 Kino Flo was added for fill. For coverage on the bed, the window setup was mimicked with a Joker 400 and 6x6 muslin, with another Joker used for the background.

“It’s a simple approach, which to me is always the best,” Osborn says. “We’re not overflowing the room with grip, and everything that’s happening—mixing handheld into a scene like that, motivating from a natural source—is working great with the story’s arc.”

A long dolly shot through the school’s newsroom presented a separate challenge. The script called for daylight and nighttime setups, but there was time to shoot only one. “We started with a daylight look and then changed the Kelvin on our camera, motivating the whole night scene with a blue, moonlit look,” Osborn relates.

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Director Justin Simien with the film’s Tessa Thompson. Photo by Ashley Nguyen.

Racing to complete the film in time for submission to Sundance, much of the editing took place concurrently with production. Color correction was handled by colorist Elodie Ichter at EFILM over the course of five days. ‘We had an amazing colorist,” Osborn says. “She was incredibly helpful in finding the final look for the film.”

In the absence of a DIT, Osborn created a rudimentary dailies workflow using Vignette Pro to create screen grabs of each shot as they were offloaded for editing. The screen grabs were then loaded onto an iPad, where Osborn would apply a low-contrast LUT using Apple’s Aperture.

“In a sense, my iPad became our dailies,” Osborn says. “I could show Justin what we’d done, the look that we had going, and we could show other members of the crew. On any long project—feature or documentary—you can get halfway through and kind of forget where you started, the look that you’re crafting, so it really helps to be able to look at everything you’ve shot.”

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