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Small Town, Small Budget: Digital Production on ‘Diggers’

Set on Long Island’s North Shore in 1976, the ensemble drama Diggers focuses
on a tight-knit community held together for generations by the vocation of clam
digging. Starring Paul Rudd, Lauren Ambrose and Maura Tierney and directed by
Katherine Dieckmann, the modestly budgeted film from HDNet is small and personal
in scope and gets its strength from its verisimilitude and strong performances.
Regardless, the under-$2 million show is a period piece with a lot of exteriors
and even work on boats, which gave Cinematographer Michael McDonough his fair
share of challenges.

McDonough was delighted to be offered a film set in the mid-1970s because
many of his favorite films and their cinematic style are products of that time
period. “I love zoom lenses,” he says, “and the quality of
film stocks at the time. And I love the freedom that the filmmakers had [then]. The
Deerhunter
’s one of my all-time favorite movies.”

Shot in the area of Long Island in which the story is set, and also on Staten
Island, the production team did its best to find areas that had seen little change
in the past 30 years.

McDonough credits the work of Production Designer Roshelle Berliner, who happens
to be his wife, for transforming the interiors and exteriors on Diggers’ modest
budget. “She was very specific,” he says. “We have this great
house from the 1950s that one of the characters lives in, and this even older
car. It helped make it realistic. Even though it was 1976, we wanted cars and
furniture and everything to come from earlier periods, too, as they would have
in real life.”

As Diggers is an HDNet project, it isn’t surprising that McDonough
shot it with a Sony
HDW-F900/3
. The cinematographer was used to working with
video as his most high-profile work had been done in the digitally-shot portions
of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and in the highly lauded
drug addiction indie Down to the Bone, which he shot with a PAL-version
Sony DSR-PD150. Though he knew he might lose some sky to clipping in the film’s
many day exteriors, he was comfortable with F900 and found the “slash 3” considerably
better with highlights than previous F900 incarnations.

Though he would have preferred to work with a digital imaging technician (DIT),
it was simply not possible to hire one and remain within the budget. But he was
fortunate enough to be able to hire Abby Levine, one of the busiest DITs on the
East Coast, for half a day during preproduction to help create some preset looks
that the cinematographer could dial in during the shoot. “Abby is also
a photographer, so he has a great understanding of photography in addition to
all the technology,” McDonough says. “I showed him my [reference]
notebook, and we came up with menu settings that gave me 95 percent of the look
I wanted on the day.”

The cinematographer elaborates: “There are five potential contrast settings,
and we went with the lowest contrast—the greatest range. The cameras are
inherently very contrasty and saturated, and I wanted to get away from that.
We went off-matrix, which gave the image a more desaturated look. Those were
the major things, and then we gave it a lot of little tweaks.”

The camera also offers two “vista” settings—one to crop
for 1.85:1 and one for 2.35:1 widescreen. McDonough felt strongly that the 2.35
setting cropped too much information for something that would be released theatrically. “You’re
just blowing up more than I think the camera can handle,” he says. “Most
of what HDNet really wants is 1.78:1 for their broadcasts and DVDs, but I composed
for 1.85. It only looks the way we shot it in the film-out, though the 1.78 version
is, of course, very close.”

A great deal of Diggers was shot handheld by operator Peter Agliata,
with the F900 tethered to a 24-inch HD monitor when possible. McDonough and Gaffer
John Woods would generally rough out lighting situations using traditional light
meters and rating the camera at EI 500. Then the light meters usually returned
to their cases and the monitor and waveform monitor were used to fine-tune. In
situations where the full-size monitor was simply too big and heavy to be practical—on
boats, for instance—the cinematographer made use of a portable monitor
from Astro Systems that allowed him to switch between the picture and the waveform
image.

McDonough carried a full set of Zeiss
DigiPrimes
and used mostly medium-range
lenses. “I didn’t use the 5.5mm and the super-long lenses,” he
notes, adding that he really wanted to be able to use selective focus, which
isn’t always easy with cameras like the F900. “It’s hard to
get a ‘cinematic’ depth of field with a 2/3-inch chip,” he
says. “It really gives you about the same depth of field as Super 16mm
film. I used a lot of ND filters so I could shoot wide open as much as possible.
[1st AC] Eddie Rodriguez did a wonderful job pulling focus.”

The cinematographer notes that operating the camera handheld made moving around
the set a bit faster—both within takes and resetting to go in for closer
shots. “The water stuff was tricky,” he adds. “We did that
two ways. We either had a camera boat alongside the boat with the actor, and
[in the camera boat] I could keep an eye on the monitor and the scope, or we
would disconnect and the operator and actor would go off and shoot. I liked the
look of these shots, though I’d be curious to see what the new Makohead non-gyro stabilizing head would have been able to do on a boat. It wasn’t
around [when we were shooting], but I’d really like to see what it can
do.”

McDonough says he lit Diggers essentially the way he would if he
had been shooting film. “I used Dedolights with hard edges, a lot of Kino
Flo
fixtures because they’re so easy to tuck away in a corner, and, when
possible, I’d try to light interiors from outside with big HMIs through
diffusion.”

He used very little filtration, save the ND and occasional polarizer outside,
but made use of an old-school diffusion technique of putting a piece of stocking
behind the lens. “There are extended scenes in a bar,” he says, “and
the actors are smoking a lot. I like the look of a smoky bar, but I didn’t
want to be working in a smoked-up environment for two and a half days, and I
didn’t want the crew to have to go through that. Also, when you use real
smoke, you have to wait for the smoke to be perfect [before you can start shooting]
and we didn’t have time for that, so I used the stocking to approximate
a smoky bar. It worked well.”

“There are always sacrifices: another lens I would like or a crane shot
that never happens,” he admits. “One of my favorite moments in the
film is in the bar scene—just a little moment between two characters. It’s
just so well written and acted. I think it’s a great scene. So you console
yourself by saying, ‘I never got the crane shot, but I did get this great
moment. And that’s a nice feeling, too.”

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