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Making the Modern Musical in ‘Begin Again’

'Once' director John Carney returns to the world of struggling musicians, but on a larger scale and with considerably more crew and equipment.

In 2006, the low-tech musical Once turned into a sleeper hit that landed writer/director John Carney enormous acclaim. The small Irish feature, shot on a Sony HVR-Z1 HDV camcorder in a handheld, run-and-gun style, received multiple awards internationally and inspired a successful Broadway show. With Begin Again Carney returns to the world of struggling musicians, but on a larger scale and with considerably more crew and equipment than was available for Once. Begin Again is set in New York and stars Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo.

Cinematographer Yaron Orbach, who shot Begin Again with the RED EPIC, learned during the prep period that despite the increased resources, the director didn’t want to entirely abandon his work methods from Once. Carney used the prep time to get to know his cinematographer and offer ideas about how he wanted the Begin Again shoot to proceed, Orbach explains. “He didn’t want to plan every detail—he wanted to get to the set and learn from rehearsal how to shoot it,” says the DP.

Keira Knightley and Adam Levine in Begin Again.

According to Orbach, the director told him, “I want to get stuck and scratch my head trying to decide what to do next. And I want you to be in the same situation and together we’ll figure something out.”

“I was excited,” the cinematographer recalls. “Sometimes it’s great to have a plan and to shot-list everything, but I also love documentaries. I love watching them and shooting them, so I was also very comfortable working the way John described.”

He stresses that Begin Again is not shot in documentary style—in many ways the story of singer Gretta (Knightly) and cynical record producer Dan (Ruffalo) has roots in old-school Hollywood—but the approach was designed to give the performers freedom to find the scene while Orbach’s camera captures moments as they occur.

The film shot for 30 days, primarily in real locations throughout New York, including an extended sequence in which Knightley’s character records songs on city streets, rooftops and in subway stations. “We set up a few rules at the beginning,” Orbach elaborates. “We used Steadicam but avoided dollies. Otherwise, everything was handheld or on a monopod. There were a few exceptions, but basically we didn’t want a lot of equipment around. We didn’t want the technical parts of filmmaking to get in the way of what the performers were doing.”

Orbach shared operating duties with frequent collaborator Ludovic Littee, using the EPIC (capturing 4K .r3d files to cards) mounted with Cooke S4 prime lenses. “I’m not a big fan of zoom lenses,” Orbach shares, noting that he rarely carries the heavier optics unless it’s for a specific zooming effect. “Otherwise we’re using our bodies to zoom—moving closer or further from the subject—with the primes. That was definitely the way to do it for this movie.”

Director John Carney
on the set of
Begin Again

Lighting was designed to be unobtrusive. A lot of action takes place in various bars—those scenes were all shot at real drinking establishments in the city. Orbach and gaffer Shawn Greene worked with production designer Chad Keith to rig these locations with practicals that could appear in frame while also serving as motivating sources. “People think of ‘practical’ as just a light that was there,” Orbach says, “but to me a light is a light. We placed these [small units] strategically where we needed them. We shaped them. We’d dim them up and down and color them. They were part of the set but they also lit the scene.”

He refined the lighting with smaller tungsten units in China balls and tungsten-balanced fluorescent tubes.

Perhaps the dingiest looking location of all, the tiny apartment of Greta’s street musician friend Steve (James Corden), was actually the only set. Orbach says that the key to creating a realistic feel for scenes shot on a soundstage is to build a ceiling. “There’s always the temptation when you’re on a stage to have light coming from where the ceiling should be, and that’s one of the main things that I associate with the feeling of a soundstage.

“Also, we could have moved walls but we didn’t,” he adds. “I approached it like a real apartment. If I was up against the wall with the camera, then that was part of the language of the film. I lit primarily with practicals and some small tungsten units. I didn’t do anything we couldn’t do in a real apartment that size.”

For the extended sequence involving the on-location recording sessions, Orbach kept things even simpler, using very few lights except for certain accents or refinements. “I generally don’t like to use HMIs,” he says, noting his preference for silking direct sunlight and then bouncing it back into the shot. “There’s a place for big HMI lights, but they can make a scene feel ‘lit,’ and that’s exactly what we didn’t want for this movie.”