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‘Your Sister’s Sister’: Combining Camera Technologies for the Improvisational Indie

In their years of collaboration, director Lynn Shelton and cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke have developed a style of working designed to capture a kind of naturalness in the acting and realism in the environments. The style has landed films such as My Effortless Brilliance (2008) and Humpday (2009) a great deal of attention in the festival and critical communities. By the time they started work on Your Sister’s Sister, an entry in this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the two had developed a unique collaboration method.

As with all their work together, the film is set in the Pacific Northwest, in this case on the San Juan Islands off the coast of Seattle. The story concerns friends Iris (Emily Blunt) and Jack (Mark Duplass), spending time together in a remote house after Jack’s brother has died, and then the surprising turn things take when Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) shows up unexpectedly.

Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt in the film
Photo by Benjamin Kasulke

Though the filmmakers’ first feature together, We Go Way Back, was produced in what Kasulke calls “the very traditional way you hear about so many Sundance-bound movies,” the two have moved on to a different kind of cinematic storytelling since. “[The first collaboration] was shot in 35mm, with a ‘reasonable’ budget, traditional crew, a written script and actors hitting marks.” But as technology developed toward the middle part of the last decade, Shelton became interested in the advantages of shooting with relatively inexpensive digital cameras, which would allow the actors a kind of freedom to improvise their blocking and even their lines that would not have been possible shooting film.

For the bizarre comedy Humpday, also starring Duplass, Kasulke made use of Panasonic AG-HVX200 cameras and about nine crew members in all, both above and below the line. “This was really where Lynn developed the style of shooting very long takes and allowing actors freedom to improvise,” the cinematographer reports.

While there were more crew members on set for this latest production, he explains, the basic work method for Humpday proved so successful that he and Shelton essentially went about shooting Your Sister’s Sister in the same fashion. “The way the sets work, there’s no script, no screen direction. Actors and technical crew walk into a scene and there are flash cards posted that explain what has to happen in the scene, so you can quickly see what happened in the previous scene and what has to happen in the next one.”

Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke

Shelton will conduct a very rough run-through of what the actors might do before they start inventing their lines. “Maybe Marc says, ‘I think I might walk over to the refrigerator at this part,'” the cinematographer offers. Then, working with his gaffer and the sound recordist, he will start to figure out where he can get two handheld cameras and operators into the space and what kind of minimal lighting he can set up that won’t get in the way.

“If two people are speaking,” he elaborates, “we try to [cover] both at once. So we might have two over-the-shoulder shots [in opposing directions]. It really allows the actors the freedom to talk over each other the way real people talk. They don’t have to act in that ‘film actor cadence,’ where one person delivers a line and then someone else waits and says something. They can shout and interrupt each other like two human beings.”

In searching out the right camera for Your Sister’s Sister, the cinematographer would have liked to work with something with a Super 35-sized chip, something like an ARRI ALEXA, but that camera wasn’t available. “Some people might have tried to shoot with a Canon 5D or 7D because of the sensor size and the low-light functionality,” he offers, “but those cameras have a maximum clip size of about 11 minutes, and that wouldn’t be enough. The way Lynn works, we have takes that can go for 45 minutes!”

Director Lynn Shelton

They eventually decided on Sony PMW-EX3 bodies (recording to SxS card) rented from Panavision, as well as a P+S Technik PRO35 adapter and a set of older Panavision Super Speed primes to get the look they wanted.

Despite the obvious technical advantages offered by digital capture and smaller, less-expensive cameras, Kasulke and Shelton retain an affinity for the “cinematic” look that we all associate with film capture—hence the lens adapter (he used P+S units on the HVX cameras for Humpday as well) to give him the depth-of-field characteristics of 35mm film, for example. “Lynn and I talked about wanting Your Sister’s Sister to have a feel somewhat similar to other well known films shot in the Pacific Northwest—films like Five Easy Pieces, First Blood and Harold and Maude,” he says.

In addition to what the environment naturally brought to the film’s look, Kasulke wanted to infuse his photography with that sensibility, primarily through some very traditional technical choices. “I see the sensor itself as a device to record information,” he says. “If you want to record ‘cinema-looking’ information, you have to put the right glass in front of it and the right filtration. You have to meter carefully. It’s trickier to light than film. If you want the kind of look we all grew up with, you have to beat this signal into submission. There’s 100-plus years of film technology that goes in front of the sensor.”

The process of crafting the film’s look began with the Panavision lenses. “These lenses from the 1970s and ’80s really helped give us the look we were after.”

While many shooters tend to eschew optical filtration for a “clean” image to be manipulated in post, Kasulke prefers to get as much of his look in camera as possible. “We were looking for something warm and organic,” he says. “If it was too clean, I wanted to mess it up a little. So if we see a source lamp in frame, I wanted to let it bloom out and not look like jagged HD lines.”

He would generally go with Tiffen Black Pro-Mist or Warm Soft/FX filters in varying strengths depending on the nature of the scene. He would stack quite a lot of neutral density filters in front of the lens for exteriors in order to keep his aperture at approximately a T2.8. For some wide, panoramic shots, he would use some graduated filters, too.

The DP shares what he calls “my ace up the sleeve for shooting in the Pacific Northwest”: he uses a coral filter to “cut through some of the green and add a little separation if we’re in a forest. It gets very green in that region, and this can really help.”

Kasulke says that Shelton’s approach to staging films such as Your Sister’s Sister really helps give them a sense of realism that many films lack. “When we’re at festivals and audiences react to the films, we’ll hear, ‘These people talk like people I know,’ ‘I grew up with these people,’ ‘This is the couple downstairs from me,’ or ‘Nobody writes this way,'” he says.

“I love big, Hollywood movies, but it’s very rare you come out of a big action film and say, ‘I totally understand that character.'”