Winner of the Special Jury Award for Visual Excellence at SXSW 2015, Benjamin Dickinson's Creative Control takes us inside the world of corporate ad agencies trying to sell the next big thing: augmented reality. Through searingly fresh visuals and sharp acting, this satirical drama puts privileged modernity in the crosshairs and forces us to explore how we interface with the modern world.
I spoke with DP Adam Newport-Berra (First Winter, Greenwood, Intimate Semaphores) during the film's current theatrical release about his process of creating a near-futuristic look on a tight budget, working with a director who is also the lead actor and the philosophical qualms of the increasing overlap of art and commerce.
There is such a sense of entitlement that comes with today's technology; it appears to make us so much stronger or more viable. That sense can get internalized—I see it even within myself. I found the main character—an ad exec who uses VR glasses to have a virtual affair with a hologram of his friend's girlfriend—to be a great exploration of those ideas. I think this film will really resonate with anyone who has qualms with technology.
"It takes itself so seriously that you don’t realize how absurd the world is."
NFS: Being an independently produced film with a lot of good friends involved, what were some of the biggest risks you were able to take photographically?
Adam: The one big one was shooting black & white. I think it's becoming more widely accepted but I think a lot of financiers were hesitant. Some of the producers were unsure if it was the right choice, but by the end everyone was on board with it. The fear is that it starts to pigeonhole the film into something, but the whole idea was to play off a lot of tropes that we find familiar. The goal was the create something that was very serious and very self-centered. A lot of reviews say that the film is showing off, but the film is a satire; it takes itself so seriously that you don’t realize how absurd the world is.
NFS: What were the challenges of achieving a "future-look" on a black & white and with a small budget?
Adam: We knew we couldn’t make it a fully futuristic film and we wanted to keep it relevant to modern day culture. It’s a sci-fi movie in a way, but we wanted to keep it grounded and real and present. A lot of it was finding locations that really worked for us because we didn’t have a lot of lights or resources for production design. It was about picking our battles, finding locations that felt familiar but also slightly futuristic.
John Ferguson (production designer) was really smart about helping us pick locations that really helped tell the story. All these patterns start to emerge when you see people in them, enclosed in these glass walls, a lot of times having these beautiful views but being trapped inside a bubble. In a way that became a theme: encasement, trapping ourselves in these shaped houses and technology. Always being able to see the outside world but never really fully immersing yourself in it.
NFS: How tight was the schedule?
Adam: Every indie movie I’ve done has been 25 days regardless of what the script is or what the budget is. It’s like a strange formula has been created that every indie movie is 25 days. It's tough when you have a lot of locations and shooting in NYC isn't easy, it's a logistical nightmare. But that's what also makes it great too, if you can pull it off it makes it special. We wanted to make a New York movie, something really timeless but that also felt real and modern.
NFS: How do you work with a director who is also the lead actor?
Adam: Fortunately Ben and I are good friends and I’ve directed Ben in the past and worked with him a lot, so we trusted each other. But it’s really exhausting to be directing and acting at the same time, and it put a lot more work on everyone else. It's a pretty intense character to play and it really drained Ben a lot. I stepped in a lot more than I normally would because the story was very near and dear to my heart and I know Ben and felt like I was inside his brain, so I was able to help direct the blocking and the visuals.
At the same time we had a lot of disagreements about how things should play on camera, and I think often he was right in ways I didn't see until I saw the finished film. But I helped design the scenes a lot more than I would with a director who's not acting. For me, I love taking as much responsibility as a director wants me to, because I'm a filmmaker and I like to shoot movies that I really connect with and feel like I understand.
NFS: For the opening tracking shot that follows through the office, how do you about lighting a scene like that?
Adam: That one was really tough because there was nowhere to hide lights. There were maybe 3-4 lights hidden in that scene, and then some lights were built into the set, the conference table had a fluorescent tube built into it. A lot of the off-screen lights were bouncing into the ceiling just to create ambiance because there's so much hard daylight coming in. We did a lot of scouting and figuring out what time of day was best for these scenes so we could spend more time shooting and less time lighting. So we tried to nail it within that time, but it doesn't always work out that way. I try to be as precious as I can about that stuff but at the end of the day, if the light isn’t in the perfect spot but the performances are spot on then you just accept the fact that that's what's carrying the scene.
"A huge problem with digital filmmaking is everyone wants to roll everything and every rehearsal and by the time you know it you’re on take 6 and everyone's freaking out because the scene's not going right."
That's a challenge too: trying to do something that’s technically sophisticated but also giving the actors enough time to nail it. And the actors didn't necessarily nail the performance on every take that I nailed the camerawork. It was a big growing pain for me, because I can't just expect the actors to nail it every time or wait for me to nail my move. It taught me a lot about being really meticulous about blocking a scene out and getting the marks and doing it right and not just rolling.
A huge problem with digital filmmaking is everyone wants to roll everything and every rehearsal and by the time you know it you’re on take 6 and everyone's freaking out because the scene's not going right. So it's something I really try to push for. Thankfully we had really patient actors and everyone understood that the camerawork is a character in the story and if we nailed that it's really complimenting the actors performance. Once they realized that and saw the shots they were really on board with that.
NFS: From what I remember in our last chat, you're really into more traditional fixtures. Did you have a lighting philosophy going in? What was your lighting package?
Adam: For this movie we used a lot more fluorescent and LED lighting than I normally use but I think it suited the world they were living in. We used a lot of practical lighting as well. In general, I think I was a lot more at the whim of our locations than I normally would be. There wasn’t an overall story arc to the lighting as much as there was for the composition or depth of field, it was more suited to the location. Office scenes were shot deep focus to give it this really overwhelming feeling that everything is sharp and potentially involved in the scene. The later scenes the depth of field are very shallow and it’s about David's existential crisis.
We had a very small lighting package, a couple of 1200w HMI, a couple of 800w HMI, some smaller HMIs, some Kinos, a small Tungsten package and some LEDs. We day played a couple big units to bounce into the ceiling for ambiance, like in the yoga studio where there's so much sunlight blasting through the windows. I hate how digital looks when it blows out so I tend to underexpose everything digitally. Also, because we were shooting black and white, we could mix color so that was super helpful.
NFS: How did you shoot for VFX in mind?
Adam: The process was pretty all over the place only because we had ideas for what the VFX were going to look like. But we didn’t have the regular pre-production process of having a VFX supervisor. It was like “We’re gonna shoot this and it’s going to be overlaid in the post somehow.” I think Ben had a much clearer idea of what we were doing, but we were giving ourselves options and being strategic so we didn't have to pay for VFX in every shot. Our post house wasn't involved until after we shot the film, so they figured it out with Ben. One thing Ben wanted was the 3D representation of the Sophie avatar, so we used a Canon 5D 3D capture rig which would create a scan of a performance.
NFS: I always think about the first shot and the last shot of a movie and how filmmakers choose to use those images. I found the last shot of this film really says it all. Did you design that shot or was it inspired by location?
Adam: That whole location felt like this glass bubble, where they felt connected to the city but at the same time hermetically sealed. They had a tiny little patio that was like 4x4’, which I found hilarious—you have a "patio" but literally all you can do is walk outside and stand there. It totally epitomizes NYC—that's luxury, being able to go outside and be blasted by traffic and wind and not be able to spread your arms out. I loved that spot because I was able to shoot from outside to look in on them. To me it was the simplest way to express that even though they’re in the same location they are disconnected.
NFS: More and more the world of creative storytelling seems tied to corporate interests. There are so many fear-based decisions that the concept of "creative control" can be deceptive. There is such a sense of entitlement that comes with our technology; it appears to make us so much stronger or more viable. That gets internalized a lot in our culture and I thought the main character was a great exploration of those ideas.
Adam: Commerce is so seamlessly integrated into our culture and our pop culture, marketing has come so far to the point where we don't feel like we're ingesting advertising. So for people who are hired to create advertising it's exciting to be given control or responsibility of creating something that a lot of people are going to see, but at the same time you're tied to their decisions and their fears.
It seems harder and harder to be an artist in NY, because in order to be in the city you have to make a pretty decent living. So it’s very difficult to be an artist for art’s sake. So you find these people who were once artists who are finding ways to commodify their work and you start to run the risk of becoming another “sell out” or something. Though I don’t think it’s entirely fair to call someone a sell out—everyone is just trying to make a living. It’s like trying to be a rebel, but at the same time working for big corporations that you’re trying to make a lot of money for. It’s a funny juxtaposition.