Cinematographer Sam Levy and director Noah Baumbach first collaborated on the small, DSLR-shot Frances Ha, which was highly regarded, in part because the filmmakers made the most of the low-tech, run-and-gun shooting style to capture the essence of the character Frances (Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote with Baumbach) and her chaotic environment. For their follow-up release, While We’re Young with Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller, the two relied on high-end gear and a much larger crew. Here, Levy compares the two productions.
Was the idea of shooting Frances Ha on a Canon EOS 5D something Noah had decided on from the start?
Sam Levy: No. We arrived at the 5D after testing [ARRI] Alexa and RED cameras and also film. The production concept was about being small, light on our feet, able to shoot whenever we wanted. But Noah was very interested in testing a lot of options on both the films.
Sam Levy shoots Frances Ha.
After that we shot Mistress America, which hasn’t come out yet. It was similar in scope to Frances Ha and we considered every format around. In that case we decided that the look we got from the Alexa was the deciding factor. While We’re Young has a much larger budget and crew and we went through the same process—not the DSLR, but we tested a lot of cameras and saw how hair and makeup and the locations looked. Everything pointed us back to the Alexa Plus.
Overall, would you say that when you’re shooting a movie, the more money the better?
Both ways of working have merits and drawbacks. We made Francis Ha with a very small group of people: myself, a 1st AC, a DIT/2nd AC, a sound mixer and a production designer who worked alone and also did all the costumes. A lot of times there were just three or four people in a room, including actors, which is wonderful and freeing in a way. But on While We’re Young … we had an incredible production designer and costume designer and their whole teams, we had an amazing gaffer and key grip with their teams. These people are all excellent filmmakers, and having that kind of support and that layering to the visual language is a great way to work, too.
Any tips for people working on the Frances Ha end of that continuum?
Yes. Don’t try to make a “big budget movie” on a small budget. A lot of them try and they have campers and equipment trucks and crew without the resources to back it up. So then you shoot for 20 days, instead of the 50 we were able to do on Frances Ha. You’re rushed and you end up being able to do only a couple of takes and the finished film suffers.
On Frances Ha, we looked at Zeiss Compact Primes. They’re very nice lenses but they’re big. That was at odds with what we were doing, so I ended up using Canon lenses optimized for still photography that could sit in my backpack.