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The Psychology and Methodology of Making ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’

Stanford University professor Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 psychological experiment became international news when his mock prison, consisting of volunteer students assuming roles of inmates and guards, went off the rails. The “guards” turned quickly into vicious sadists, using their newfound power to torment and abuse their charges, while many “prisoners” started to exhibit signs of a complete mental breakdown. The experiment has been cited countless times in texts and later studies about the horrible acts otherwise decent human beings are capable of given the right circumstances. In recent years, Zimbardo has applied what he learned in 1971 in an analysis of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.

Michael Angarano (Christopher Archer), Ki Hong Lee (Gavin Lee/3401),
Brett Davern (Hubbie Whitlow/7258), Tye Sheridan (Peter Mitchell/819),
Johnny Simmons (Jeff Jansen/1037), Ezra Miller (Daniel Culp/8612),
and Chris Sheffield (Tom Thompson/2093) in The Stanford Prison Experiment
Photo courtesy of Steve Dietl

The Stanford Prison Experiment—which received the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award (Tim Talbott, screenwriter) and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival—is the first direct retelling of the brutal events of the experiment that caused Zimbardo to end it just six days into its planned two-week duration. In it we see Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) and the “prison” he created in a campus hallway with two dozen volunteers, transforming from an amusing role playing game to a nightmare.

Director/editor Kyle Patrick Alvarez became interested in the project three years ago when he read Tim Talbott’s screenplay. He responded to the straightforward way it tells the story, which had previously been the subject of documentaries and the underpinnings of some fictional features and TV shows but had never been presented as a straightforward narrative. “There’s very little embellished,” he says. “A lot of the dialogue is taken from transcripts and it’s based on Philip Zimbardo’s book [The Lucifer Effect]. It’s amazing it took so long to become a movie.”

James Wolk (Mike Penny), director Kyle Alvarez, Matt Bennett (Kyle Parker),
Gaius Charles (Paul Vogel) and Billy Crudup (Dr. Philip Zimbardo)
Photo courtesy of Steve Dietl

As with most indies, preparation involved a long juggling act getting money, cast and crew and when those elements aligned, he had less than four days to start shooting.

While set in a small number of locations—primarily a single hallway that production designer Garby Barbosa re-created in meticulous detail on a Los Angeles soundstage—the film involves 25 characters and some serious drama. He had 21 shooting days budgeted. Because the pieces didn’t come together until just days before shooting was scheduled to begin, the production had to turn to wigs and mustaches, since there was no time to grow out hair. The limited effects budget went into Adobe After Effects compositions designed to cover up some of the unavoidable fakeness that comes with wigs and false mustaches.

Cinematographer Jas Shelton shot with two RED Dragons to move through the coverage of so many characters sharing scenes together. The entire experiment was captured on late-1960s era video cameras, and the production found vintage tube cameras retrofitted to record out in ProRes 4:2:2 to an Atomos Samurai Blade. This gives the monitors within scenes a realistic look.

Photo courtesy of Steve Dietl

As director/editor, Alvarez used Adobe Premiere Pro to import the R3D files right from the cameras’ drives to his Apple iMac to start piecing scenes together each day during lunch and after wrap. “I started using Premiere two years ago with my last film,” he says of his 2013 indie, C.O.G. “We were shooting on RED EPIC at the time and I really liked that I could cut in native R3D. I want to be cutting footage during lunch break, putting it together, and I like idea of staying away from proxies. We don’t have to transcode anything or wait for anything. I think it’s a great way for independent filmmakers to work.

“If there was a shot I didn’t feel great about or there was an insert I thought I’d like to have, I could get it while we were still there,” he says. “We had a very tight schedule and I couldn’t take advantage of that all the time, but it really was helpful to have the option if I really needed it.”

In order to achieve the natural rhythms and allow for some degree of improvisation, Alvarez had sound mixer Rezza Moosavi body mic all the actors for every scene in order to capture their dialogue to individual tracks. “All these guys were ‘leads,'” he says of his actors. “That’s how I treated it. Even if they were just in the background, they were mic’ed. I think that by mic’ing them, we were telling the actors they’re important in the scene, which they are. And you’re allowing the opportunity for something spontaneous to happen during a take.”

Billy Crudup (Dr. Philip Zimbardo), Nelsan Ellis (Jesse Fletcher),
James Wolk (Mike Penny) and Matt Bennett (Kyle Parker) in the film.
Photo courtesy of Steve Dietl

When he brought footage into Premiere to work on, he put all the tracks on the timeline so he could bring up the audio on any additional dialogue or outburst in a rough mix as he pieced scenes together. “I knew we would have a very fast editing process in order to submit to Sundance, so I layered in all the live sound from the start. Between that and the full R3D video files, that was a lot of material to be moving around, but Premiere and my iMac never lagged. I was doing [technically] crazy things and it never felt crazy.”

Picture wrap was hardly a time for Alvarez to settle in to an extensive period to carefully edit, re-edit and massage the film. “We had to have a cut ready for Sundance to see in three weeks,” he recalls. “After that, we had about two and a half more weeks to lock picture. The filmmaker notes that he thinks about editing beginning in his early preparation and starts to cut during production. “Here we have scenes of maybe 12 characters and they could play out many different ways,” he notes. “You could play off this person’s reaction or that one as he gets more and more upset. I had to constantly ask myself those fundamental storytelling questions, more than I did in my other movies.”

Photo courtesy of Steve Dietl

Alvarez wanted the style of the cinematography to subtly suggest the cinematic techniques and conventions of the period, and 1970s movies are full of zoom-ins and zoom-outs. He created a number of zoom-like effects in Premiere. “Changing from a prime to a zoom can take 10 or even 15 minutes,” he says, “so we left that to do in the edit. Since we were shooting in 5.5K for a 2K finish, I could go into my effects panel and push in and really see if the shot would work in a way that I couldn’t if I had been working with downconverted ProRes files.”

He would create the “zoom” or re-frame shots in his Premiere project and then, prior to the digital grading, a 2K timeline was created from the original files such that any extraction larger than 2K could translate without any degradation.

Alvarez, who has also edited other directors’ work (primarily short films and music videos), notes that it’s always a bit more emotional to edit a project he directed himself. “It’s one thing to be just the editor,” he says. “You’re given the footage and you say, ‘This works,’ ‘This doesn’t work.’ But then when you’re the director, you’re like, ‘Oh my God! That actor worked so hard on that moment! The focus puller hit those marks perfectly!’ When you plan it out, it can be whatever you want it to be. Then you shoot and give yourself options [for the cutting room]. But when you’re editing, you have to be able to say, ‘This is it! This is how the movie is going to play on screen.”