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Shooting the Natural Beauty and Horror of Sweetheart with Cooke S4/i Primes

Stefan Duscio, DP, lenses J.D. Dillard’s independent thriller in the Fiji Islands

Producing a feeling of dread in one of the most beautiful locations on earth — the Fiji Islands — was the task of cinematographer Stefan Duscio for J.D. Dillard’s horror/thriller Sweetheart. After being stranded on a deserted island and left to survive on her own, a young woman (played by Kiersey Clemons) realises that she is sharing the island with something that starts to hunt her, thus beginning her battle for survival.

Having just finished science fiction feature Upgrade in Australia for Blumhouse Productions, which was also producing Sweetheart, the company put Duscio’s name forward to director J.D. Dillard. “After a couple of Skype calls, it all came together very quickly,” said Duscio. “J.D. is a great leader with wonderful energy and filmmaking in his blood.”

With 25 shoot days on a remote island in Fiji during May/June 2017, the crew enjoyed the microclimate of the island with very little rain. This compared to the mainland, a 30- minute boat ride away, where it rained every second day in the afternoon.

“We wanted this absolute feeling of dread in this beautiful picture postcard location, where every day Kiersey’s character wakes up and has to survive the day and another night,” explained Duscio. “We had this natural beauty that couldn’t bring any calming effect to our lead. I relied on very slow camera movements whenever possible and holding shots a little longer than might be comfortable. And at night, I created a very dark look with just the right amount of detail — which is hard to do when creating realistic moonlight — so the audience doesn’t see too much.”

 

To make this possible, Duscio shot on an ARRI ALEXA Mini in open gate mode with a nine lens Cooke S4/i prime kit consisting of an 18mm, 25mm, 32mm, 40mm, 50mm, 65mm, 75mm, 100mm and 135mm.

“Open gate mode uses the entire sensor,” explained Duscio. “So, a 50mm lens gives you roughly the field of view of a 40mm lens, but with all the depth characteristics of the 50mm. I love getting as much out of the lens and sensor as possible — it creates a mini large format look. We tended to live between naturalistic lens sizes of 25mm and 50mm throughout the shoot.”

A regular user of Cooke lenses, Duscio used natural light and bounce during the day, with some occasional negative fill and overhead scrim. “We got to know the island very well and designed the coverage to work with the position of the sun,” he says. However, night shooting had some challenges: “We used scaffold towers along the beach with M90 and M40 HMI backlights, and thoroughly used battery powered LED SkyPanels for closer quarters. Battery powered lighting was great on the beach, as it helped us to avoid submerging cables in heavily changing ocean tides,” Duscio noted.

While Duscio had a history with Cooke lenses, Dillard needed to be convinced. “I had a strong feeling that Cooke was the right look for this film,” said Duscio. “I showed J.D. footage from my 2015 film Backtrack and my 2017 film Jungle where I used Cookes, as well as other online footage that was relevant. He was very trusting and agreed that Cooke was the way to go. And I knew that I could absolutely rely on Cooke lenses while filming in the middle of nowhere.”

As a very natural look was important to the film, Duscio relied on the ALEXA Mini and Cooke S4/i combination to deliver a look that would not be harsh. “I didn’t want to artificially affect the image as much as anamorphic would, but also didn’t want anything too modern or too vintage. The S4/i primes gave me a great classic look that rendered the colors of our location and Kiersey’s beautiful skin tones very naturally.”

One of the things that Duscio likes about Cooke is the different lenses available. “Cooke has a wide variety of lenses with a look for almost any project. They’re reliable, very user friendly, and ultimately very natural looking.”

Sweetheart was released in the U.S. on October 22, 2019.

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