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Spotlight: Lawrence Sher, Cinematographer, ‘Wish I Was Here’

Nearly a decade ago, actor Zach Braff directed Garden State and a cinematographer fairly new to features, Lawrence Sher, shot it. The two have reteamed for Wish I Was Here, an intimate story about a family at a turning point. Aidan Bloom (Braff) faces a stalled career, an unhappy wife (Kate Hudson), a sick father (Mandy Patinkin), and the challenges of parenthood (the children are played by Joey King and Pierce Gagnon). Sher, now with many studio films under his belt (including the three installments of TheHangover franchise), was happy to use his “indie” filmmaking muscles for the ambitious 24-day shoot.

Mandy Patinkin (Gabe) and Zach Braff (Aiden) in

Wish I Was Here

. Photos by Merie Weismiller Wallace, SMPSP/Focus Features.

Garden State was shot widescreen on film. What camera did you use for Wish I Was Here?

I used ARRI Alexa with the full-frame sensor and Primo anamorphic lenses. Almost every movie I’ve shot was 2.35 [aspect ratio]. Zach and I both thought the intimate story could benefit from being 2.35, just like Garden State. That was shot with spherical lenses and cropped, but we both agreed that for this we liked the look of the anamorphic lenses.

Are there any particular tricks to stretching such a tight budget and schedule?

From a cinematography standpoint, the use of natural light and being very involved in scheduling the day. I get really involved with the AD—we use a leapfrogging system in scheduling locations. If we have one scene where we know we’ll need lights, a generator and grip support, we make the next location something we can shoot with very little of that so the lighting and grip crew have a chance to put all that stuff back on the truck and move to the third spot while we finish up at the middle location. You never want people waiting on camera and lighting.

Was there a particularly challenging scene on the project?

The first day of the shoot was one of the hardest days of any shoot I’ve done. It’s with Zach and the two children at Joshua Tree [National Park]. They get there in the day and there are important scenes with a lot of dialogue at sunset and then another one around a campfire at night. It was hard to get to the location. It was very sandy and windy. Then we had two child actors, which limited our time even more. When the three of them are on those rocks having that discussion at sunset, we had a tiny window of opportunity to shoot. Even if we’d had a lot of money, it would have been tricky.

One of the scenes at Joshua Tree

The kids must have been real pros.

We could only do one or two takes at the most for these big, emotional scenes and they nailed it! That’s a testament to their abilities and to the casting. We wouldn’t have those scenes if they hadn’t been up to the challenge.

Did you shoot ARRIRAW?

We had intended to use a [Convergent Design] Gemini recorder but we had issues with data management, so we decided to go with SxS cards and ProRes 444. The production just got hung up on the big file sizes and waiting for things to download and we got behind. You never want to compromise the image, no matter how big or small the movie, but I recalled the first time I shot Alexa for a small section of The Hangover 2. There was no such thing as ARRIRAW then and I really liked the results.

There are a few scenes in the movie with some visual effects. Zach’s character has this fantasy where he’s a spaceman—we shot raw for those elements so the VFX people would have more to work with. Otherwise, it was almost entirely ProRes to the cards, and I really don’t think it hurt the image in any appreciable way.

How did you cover scenes in general? With one camera? Multiple cameras?

About 70 percent of the movie was two cameras. I’m so used to that with the movies I’ve done lately, so I’ve gotten into a nice place where we can find two positions for the cameras where they don’t feel redundant. They complement each other. When you just stack the cameras right next to each other so one’s a close-up and one’s a medium shot, you end up compromising both shots. I operate A-camera and always try to get that B-camera far enough off-axis or a big enough frame size that it’s getting substantially different coverage of the scene.

Lawrence Sher.

Do you have to light a specific way to be able to have two cameras off-axis?

My style of lighting is I light the space. I approach it as if no actors are in the room. Or course, I have a general understanding of where they will be and where I can put the light so that it works for them, but I want to give them a lot of freedom to move around the space once it’s lit and I try not to do much relighting for different camera positions. Once the lighting is set, we’ll basically pound through the coverage—swapping lenses and positions but moving quickly. We can usually find a good position for B-camera because I’m not lighting specifically for one particular shot and relighting for every new setup.

Would you say that approach helped you shoot so many locations on such a tight schedule?

Yes. But I think that the biggest thing that helped was the fact that I was able to use so many members of my regular crew. That was such an important factor in making this schedule work.