Even though he dislikes the term “mockumentary,” Christopher Guest is forever associated with beloved examples of the genre, including Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind – films about clearly silly people engaged in obviously absurd pursuits, but whose enthusiasm and humanity defy simple mockery and inspire something more like pathos. In Mascots, which premiered last month on Netflix, Guest approaches the WMA (World Mascot Association) the same way. Based around a fictional competition, where grown men and women perform in outsized mascot costumes for top honors in their field, the film is roughly half interviews with the competitors and half the actual competition.
Cinematographer Kris Kachikis recently spoke to DV about his work on Mascots.
How did you come up with a shooting style for the film? Did Christopher Guest say he wanted you to look at his previous films?
Kris Kachikis: That was my first question. What is the vocabulary here? Are we a Polish documentary team that came to America to cover this mascot tournament? What kind of feel are we going for? Chris’s attitude was interesting and evolved. He said, “Look, this is a movie with interviews. It’s not a ‘Christopher Guest movie.’ Don’t copy anything I’ve done before. Let’s find a voice that works for you as the cinematographer and me as the director.”
Chris O’Dowd. Photo by Scott Garfield/Netflix.
How much of the film isimprovisation?
KK: The screenplay for the movie is a 20 page outline. Everything is improv. Every moment. Every word that anyone says is 100% improv. For a second take, Chris might say to an actor, “Talk about chopping the tree down first. Then talk about the ambulance but skip the part about the octopus and go right into the apple pie story.”
How many cameras did you use to cover these interviews?
KK: Usually two.
And how did you light them?
KK: Whenever someone says they want to shoot cross coverage, that can be discouraging because it always involves some kind of lighting compromise. But Chris got onboard early about getting a look that’s maybe a little more dynamic than some of his other stuff and has pleasing lighting for both of the opposing angles.
I like the way Birdman looked. They had the need to shoot overs, two shots, close-ups within those very long takes. Chivo (Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC) was constantly moving his camera around and getting all those kinds of shots in one. So we had two cameras but I thought about Birdman a lot, which has a lot of lighting sources in the shot.
We’d put people at a window and then have an 18K or another other big source outside the window and that was how we lit the scene. Or we’d have fluorescent lighting in a hallway at head level so actors could stop under a light source and we’d have illumination on them.
The decision to have bright light sources in the shot then dictated our lens choices. We needed lenses that were really good at handling flares. So we went with [Panavision] Primo primes and some Primo zooms and then Compact Optimo zooms for Steadicam.
Jennifer Coolidge and Bob Balaban. Photo by Scott Garfield/Netflix.
What cameras did you shoot with?
KK: We had to shoot 4K by order of Netflix. If 4K weren’t required, I might have gone with Alexa but that wasn’t an option. So we tested every 4K camera available at the time and finally chose the Sony F55. We thought it gave us the best skin tone of all of the 4K cameras we tested. And I knew we would have a lot of black in the frame because of the performances that happen on a stage in a darkened room, and the blacks on the F55 came out cleanest of the cameras we tested.
Those stage performances can’t have been improv. They must have been worked out much more carefully. How did you think about shooting those portions conceptually?
KK: We didn’t want to pretend this mascot competition could be too elaborate. We discussed, “What are our resources with WMA?” They’re modest and we wanted to go with that idea as far as we could. If you saw Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2 – these are college a capella concerts with lighting like a Beyoncé concert. I told Chris, “You need to see these movies” and he said, “I don’t actually think I do.” He wanted it to feel real.
But it couldn’t be too down. [The movie] wasn’t all supposed to be the limitations of the stage show. So we tried to ride right there in a perfect zone that was in-between. I hope we accomplished that.
How many cameras did you run for the performances?
Christopher Guest on set. Photo by Scott Garfield/Netflix.
KK: Five. We had a game plan for this before we started production. We’d shoot five cameras, reframe and shoot from five new positions. Then we’d do a pass with a Technocrane or a pass with our Steadicam. Chris really liked a lot of those and we’d do shots [of the acts from onstage] facing the audience.
Everything about the movie was ultimately about playing it straight no matter how strange it might be. Chris doesn’t want to hit anything on the head. We got plenty of coverage of all the acts so Chris and [editor] Andrew Dickler could make choices about when to show a wide shot of the stage and when to break the proscenium and be three feet from the talent onstage.
I think they did a great job of playing those cards because there’s always a delicate balance in the kind of comedies Chris makes, where everything ultimately plays based on how real it feels.