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Tim Orr Shoots “Snow Angels”

Cinematographer Tim Orr and Director David Gordon Green had the opportunity to paint on a larger canvas for

Snow Angels

, their fourth filmic collaboration. “I believe the budget was around $4 million, which is the biggest budget we’ve had to work with on one of David’s films, but it was still very small compared to other films,” says Orr.

Based on a novel by Stewart O’Nan, the film is a multi-character drama that revolves around a woman (Kate Beckinsale), her estranged husband (Sam Rockwell) and the teenage boy she once babysat. “It’s a slight departure from David’s other movies, because this film is much more plot-driven,” says Orr. “The three previous films we’ve made together were somewhat landscape-driven, while this film is much more character-oriented. It has a bit of a different feel, but I think it will still feel like a David Gordon Green movie.”

Snow Angels

makes its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in the Dramatic Competition.

Though the story is set in suburban Pennsylvania during winter, the movie was shot over seven weeks in Nova Scotia, Canada. This decision was made partly due to the film’s budget and partly because the production required near-constant snow. “Unfortunately for us, it was the driest winter on record,” says Orr. “There were a couple of storms where we got a decent amount of snow, but it would last for a week and then melt away to nothing, so we were constantly having to truck in load after load of snow from the deep valleys of Nova Scotia. We would clear off parking lots, frozen lakes, whatever we could and spread the snow around. It was a production nightmare.”

With much of the film set outdoors against a backdrop of white snow, Orr knew that lighting and shooting

Snow Angels

could prove a challenge. “I was hoping for a fairly overcast winter. I was told that’s usually what you get in that part of the country–deep clouds and very gray skies—that push the palette toward a more monochromatic look, which I felt would be appropriate to the story. What I ended up getting was predominantly clear blue skies and hard sun,” says Orr.

Fortunately, he knew from the outset that the film, shot on 3-perf Super 35mm in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, would be color corrected and finished with a digital intermediate. “We were locked into a DI, which was a good thing for me because I knew I could let certain things go and deal with them in the DI,” says Orr. “For the scenes with a lot of snow or bright, hard sunlight and a very reflective background, I knew that I could use Power Windows to really take those areas down. In places where we did that, it was about managing what else we included in the frame.”

This was the third time Orr had finished a film using a DI but the first he did so at PostWorks New York, where he worked with Colorist John Crowley. “DIs seem to have advanced from the last time I did one. Nowadays they’ve really got these lookup tables honed to precision. We timed to a particular print stock, and whenever we compared film-out tests side to side with the digitally projected image, they looked identical,” says Orr.

Though

Snow Angels

was shot on Kodak 5218 and 5217, it was printed on Fuji 3513 DI print stock. “That was initially a budget decision,” says Orr, “but I also liked what [the Fuji stock] was doing with this movie. I thought the grain was slightly tighter, and it had a touch more contrast than the stocks that I had traditionally printed on. It’s a little greener overall, especially in the shadows, but we easily timed out any area that looked too green.”

Orr generally avoids lighting exteriors, and

Snow Angels

was no exception. “I don’t think I lit any day exteriors in this movie,” he says. “I usually try to shoot in backlight, and I use a 12×12 muslin bounce or and ultra bounce and negative fill.” For several snow scenes, he had the crew lay large black swaths of fabric on the ground to eliminate some of the bounce from the snow.

For the night exteriors, Orr lit with what was already in place at locations, often industrial lighting with widely varying color temperatures. “Some of the locations were restaurants, so you’re dealing with fluorescents, sodium vapor tubes, etc. I mixed color temperatures whenever I could. I might have a pocket of cool, white fluorescent light in the frame, and then, somewhere else in the frame, there would be another element, like a mercury vapor source,” says Orr.

The production couldn’t afford balloons, so, for larger night exterior shots, Orr used either an 18K on a Condor or a pair of Maxi Brutes gelled with 1/4 blue and 1/8 green to create an ambient nighttime backlight. On the ground, he’d generally have a Mini Brute shooting through 8×8 muslin, with an egg crate on that. For tighter shots, he would use a Kino Flo through heavy diffusion, such as light or full grid cloth.

For the sake of both artistry and economy, much of the film was shot in moving masters. “One of the things we wanted to try was to shoot as many scenes as possible in a single shot,” says Orr. “There are several scenes in the movie that are just covered in one shot, whether it’s handheld or on a dolly. We started doing this on

Undertow

, but we really embraced it on

Snow Angels

.”

The crew would lay down one piece of track and the camera–either a Panavision Millennium or an XL–would be placed the dolly, usually with a 11:1 or a 4:1 zoom. Then the scene would be shot in one fluid camera setup, which involved following the actors’ cues with the zoom. “Many times I would use a very slow zoom,” says Orr. “On one take I might start wide and end up tight. On another take I might stay tight but on a different character. On another take I might start wide and end up wide. We could get two completely different angles from one piece of track, which allowed us to shoot scenes very quickly while giving the actors tremendous freedom. They didn’t have to worry about marks nearly as much. We didn’t do any of the traditional shooting from one side, then wrapping and moving to the other side for the reverse. Most importantly, it’s a style that really fit this movie. Many of those setups remain intact in the final film.”

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