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Imitation Game: Solving the Puzzle of Production on ‘The Arbalest’

"We wanted the film to be really designed and stylized," says cinematographer Hugh Braselton.

Winner of the Narrative Feature Grand Jury Award at the 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival, director Adam Pinney’s The Arbalest is one of the more distinctive and polarizing films of recent memory. It tells the story of famous recluse Foster Kalt (Mike Brune), inventor of the world’s most popular toy, the Kalt Cube. After concluding a 10-year vow of silence, Kalt requests to be interviewed by a television news program, whereupon we learn about his life—in particular, an obsessive relationship with a woman who scorned him long ago.

The film was shot by cinematographer Hugh Braselton in Atlanta. Braselton, Pinney, Brune and producer Alex Orr all met at Georgia State University, where they collaborated on a 16mm student film. Since college, they’ve been making movies on and off together under the film collective Fake Wood Wallpaper (Twitter @fakewoodwallpaper), which produced the Adult Swim viral video “Too Many Cooks,” among other projects.

Braselton shot The Arbalest when he had some time off from his job as a 2nd AC for features. “Adam is a really great writer. We all saw the script in different stages because he would send it out and ask what we thought of it,” reveals Braselton. “I was finally like, well, why don’t we just make it? We could do it on a tight budget, shoot for 20 days, get what we want to get, and not have to worry what people think.”

Tallie Medel as Sylvia

During prep, Braselton and Pinney went through the script to figure out transitions and the mood of each scene. The film was storyboarded for main and establishing shots but not for inserts. If they didn’t have a scene storyboarded, Braselton and Pinney would draw up shot lists. Says Braselton, “Our prep was only a few days. I would go through and make notes on my own script on how I wanted to approach the look. We were very specific about framing, even though, when we would get to any particular scene, things could change. It could also all go out the window during editing.”

The one thing they agreed on was to ban handheld shooting. “I really like handheld work when it’s done correctly,” says Braselton. “It was just something we didn’t want to do for this film. We wanted the film to be really designed and stylized.”

The Arbalest has an unusual tone and slow-burn pace reminiscent of films from a different era. For the look and feel of the film, Braselton was influenced by movies such as Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971), Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) and Jean-Luc Godard movies from the 1960s.

The film was shot with a Blackmagic Cinema Camera, capturing 2.5K raw files to SSDs. A camera that retails for less than $2,300, some of its features include 13 stops of dynamic range, a built-in raw and ProRes SSD recorder and a 5-inch touchscreen. The team selected that camera because one of their friends owned one and had had good experiences with it. “We didn’t have the budget for an [ARRI] Alexa,” explains Braselton. “We tested the camera and it looked great for what we were trying to do. We knew going in there was going to be a lot of stuff added to bring a different kind of look, but the image by itself is still very impressive.”

Braselton mounted a Wooden Camera PL mount and used Zeiss prime lenses from the 1970s, as well as an Angenieux 25-250 zoom. “I’ve always liked zooms when they’re used in an interesting way,” reveals Braselton. “[Director Robert] Altman was always zooming in, even if it was a lanky frame. Our zooms were very specific and controlled. The scene in the hotel room where we go from a wide shot to a close-up on Sylvia was very planned out. We tried it on the other side of Foster, but in the edit Adam liked the single zoom on Sylvia because he felt it was the most appropriate for the scene.”

From left, costume designer Karen Freed, hair/makeup artist Katie Ballard, director Adam Pinney (at monitor), cinematographer Hugh Braselton, 1st AC Brett Bagwell and actor Mike Brune

When using his primes, Braselton mainly stuck to a 16, 25 and 50mm. The Blackmagic Cinema Camera has a small sensor (15.81mm x 8.88mm) when compared with Super 35 with a 1.6x crop factor. Because of that, his 16mm lens essentially had the field of view of a 25, his 25 a 40, and 50 was closer to a 75.

Braselton used a Tiffen Black Pro-Mist 1/4 filter at all times. “We would do that just to take some of the digital look off,” he explains. “We tested all sizes of Black Pro-Mist and the 1/4 was the one that wasn’t too bloomy or too soft.”

Due to the Blackmagic’s subpar internal battery, he rigged the camera with an Anton/Bauer battery pack so he could keep the camera running all day. The 7-inch TVLogic LCD monitor mounted to the camera allowed Braselton to frame shots and his camera assistant to pull focus. “It’s a very quirky system,” he admits of the camera. “Even though it was a little difficult, we were able to get around it. Because of its small size, we were able to shoot pretty fast.”

In terms of camera settings, he kept it at 800 ISO exclusively. For tungsten-lit interiors he set his color temperature at 3,200°K, and 5,600˚K for daylight scenes.

For a small movie, Braselton also had a small lighting package, rented from Paramount in Atlanta. It consisted of 2K zip lights, Kino Flo units and small ARRI fixtures. The most difficult scene to light for Braselton was a stylized hotel room set, which the team built in an Atlanta warehouse. They lit entirely with zip lights hung from the ceiling with diffusion in front to create a soft light. Each light was wrapped in duvetyn to keep harsh spill off the walls. Braselton also had each light put on a dimmer. “It was the old-school dimmers from the ’70s,” he says with amusement, “and you could hear them buzz when they came on.”

The film was graded remotely in Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve on a Microsoft Windows machine by colorist David Torcivia. According to Torcivia, they ended up transcoding the raw files to ProRes 4444 to cut down on the total file size and to avoid having to send out multiple large hard drives.

In shaping the film’s look in post, Torcivia also looked at a lot of reference films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), The Graduate and Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman (1961), although he didn’t think there was a single unifying look to emulate. “We identified a series of stylistic tropes from the period, and imitating them gave us a more convincing period look than simply copying our reference scenes,” explains Torcivia. “These tropes were narrowed down to saturated orange skin tones, blooming in the highlights, slightly lifted blacks, softness on the high end, boosted highlights, a general warm tone and heavy grain.”

The Arbalest recently played the Atlanta Film Festival, which was a great homecoming for the team, according to Braselton. From there the film will travel to the Nashville Film Festival, and the Montclair Film Festival in New Jersey. Although the film has garnered mostly positive reviews, the film’s style and tone have been divisive with audiences and critics. Says Braselton, “It’s almost like an experimental movie with a traditional narrative going through it, so it’s different than a lot of current movies. Also, for a tiny movie to be a period piece was pretty crazy.”