Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen baked the look—and a sense of love and warmth—into the 35mm film of family-driven horror 'A Quiet Place'.
Charlotte Bruus Christensen—a Cannes-winning shooter for her work on 2012's The Hunt—has been justly praised for her atmospheric, beautiful and story-driven work on the recent runaway hit horror film A Quiet Place. With John Krasinski directing, he also stars alongside his real-life wife Emily Blunt as a couple who must raise their family in silence lest they evoke the wrath of creatures with hyper-sensitive hearing who have wiped out most of humanity and who hunt through sound.
Given the light dialogue in the story (the family communicates through sign language), an even heavier emphasis was placed on the visuals and sound design than in some others in the horror genre. We were excited to speak with Christensen about the some of the nerdier technical details of creating images that evoked sound design so strongly. The film premiered at SXSW 2018, and just in time for its recent home video release, we got a chance to ask her some obscure technical questions, but the conversation couldn't help but drift back to the power of images in storytelling.
"I had to basically be in a wide lens really close because then you would photograph sound."
No Film School: I'm gonna start with a couple nerdy questions. You were swinging back and forth sort of freely between anamorphic and spherical on this whole show, right? What ground glass did you use? [Author's note: with film cameras, frame lines are applied to a ground glass inside the camera for the operator and crew to evaluate framing].
Charlotte Christensen: A scene would be either spherical or anamorphic lenses. So when I went from anamorphic to spherical, they had to change the ground glass. There was a couple of scenes where the scene was anamorphic, and then whenever we went inside Millie's head, it's the deaf girl, we had a special 55-millimeter lens that could go really close focus, on her ear and hearing aid. And that was a spherical lens. So there were a couple times where we had to use just one, do one shot at the end of the scene of a spherical lens, but you know the guys are such an amazing, professional, super team that it takes them not a long time to change that ground glass.
NFS: Gotcha. Okay, cause usually when people swing back and forth, they sort of live with one or the other. So it's awesome that you took the time to actually do it right.
Christensen: Yeah, I mean I needed to have the frame lines correct, because when you see it on film as well, the viewfinder is my eye. I can't have other people kind of trusting the monitor, so you gotta really know that you're framing for the right thing.
NFS: Following up on that, you've done a lot of work lately with actors moving into the directing chair. In projects that they're in, are these high definition video taps or are they watching playback of themselves on a standard definition clamshell?
Christensen: That's something I spoke in detail with Krasinski about is that he was aware, cause he's directed a couple of movies and they were not on film, so just that he was aware what the downside of it is, the lower quality of a film video tap. We did manage to get high definition caps for both cameras. Panavision, you know they always do everything they can to get you the best, but there was only one camera which was I think the 235, the small camera we had for handheld, that was probably standard definition. The rest was HD.
NFS: That is nice, cause there's not a ton of them. I know they made them, I just never thought of them as standard.
Christensen: No there isn't that many around. It's always like you've got one, we have only got one for you and you've got to find another one, and they did. You know, Panavision's been really really great. The high definition or the standard makes a huge difference.
NFS: Well, especially with the director being the star. Was the director watching a lot of playback of himself after takes?
Christensen: He would go and watch a take. You know, sometimes we would do several takes in a row, and then he would go up and watch the playback. But I think once you get used to it, and you know what you're looking for, and obviously, there's a certain trust when you shoot film. You've gotta trust your DPs. You can't really see exactly how things are gonna look. The video tap, even in HD, is always very contrasty, and it looks way too saturated and all these things on the monitor. But I think, he quickly got into what he sees in the monitors and when he then sees the dailies, having a sense of what the difference is.
NFS: In one way it's a gift because you don't get into arguments about the look of the show, you just talk about framing and move along. And you let the DP do the DP. Cause the other thing about A Quiet Place is that some of your shallow focus is so incredibly shallow focused. Especially for 35 and not full frame. Were your first ACs working off the HD tap as well?
Christensen: The 1st AC had his monitor, he would choose. Sammy Fernandez is my first AC's name and he was incredible. There was hardly a shot that wasn't sharp in the edits, he's just amazing. There was a few, but that's it. He did an amazing job. He would choose, whether he could get in there and wanted to do his thing by camera and watching, or if he had his little 7-inch monitor on a stand. So I think, whatever the situation was he would pick whatever works the best for him. But obviously he would be working, when he was on the monitor, he'd be working off that video tap, which his hard cause then you don't have the clear image as most ACs have these days to work from. And they can put all that extra tools on to make it look sharp and all that. He didn't have that.
"You've gotta trust your DPs. You can't really see exactly how things are gonna look."
NFS: Focus is so clearly part of the story choice you made. It's not just that shallow depth of field looks interesting; it's a narrative decision you made, and so doing that sort of in a classic style is very impressive.
Christensen: A lot of it being on anamorphic, and some of them we were mixing the (Panavision) T-Series and C-Series. I love the look of the C-series, but the C-series the old lenses, their close focus is not good. You have to stay 3, 4, 5 feet away from the object. Because we were making a movie where, I had to basically be in a wide lens really close because then you would photograph sound. And because I knew I had to make images that were creating a sound design, so that they could make sound cuts. So basically, if I'm on a 150 mill or 100 mill, 20 feet away, there would be no sound to whatever these guys are doing, 'cause they're trying to be silent. Whereas, if I'm one foot away on a wide lens, there would be a sound to anything.
NFS: Because, the camera would've heard the sound, so you were using the sensation of closeness as a proxy for audience closeness?
Christensen: And as you get closer the depth of field shrinks. Dan Sasaki, the genius lens designer at Panavision, would in LA change the glass on some of the T-series lenses because they have a much closer focus, but look more modern than the C-line. So basically, he made those lenses T-series lenses which gave us the close focus we needed, he detuned them to look like the C-series. He changed the glass, but then we could get the close focus. So we did special work on every lens, to be able to do these close focus. So you're very right, it was a very planned thing, this narrative for certain scenes. And other scenes, we didn't want it.
"The camera work was not so much about amazing movements, but it was about lens choice and being in the right place at the right distance."
NFS: And then, diopters? Cause a lot of times you're sort of going into that close depth of field from certain normal frames, so were you able to work with diopters much or did you really have to build it into the glass?
Christensen: We did use diopters for some shots, we also had a periscope lens. And this one was pretty fast, I think it could shoot like 4 or a 5.6. And it had a closed focus too, so we had this amazing lens also created by Panavision. And we were supposed to have it only a few days, but we had it for quite some time. That means that we could get the lens right on the floor so when they're playing the monopoly game, with these pieces on the board, the lens is basically on the floor. A lot of my prep was about, it had to be the right lenses in the right place. That's what this movie is. And the camera work was not so much about amazing movements, but it was about lens choice and being in the right place at the right distance.
NFS: How early in the process were you able to have these conversations with Panavision?
Christensen: I called them really early on when I knew I was doing the movie. Just to say I'm doing this. I was gonna try and push for film, anamorphic, but at that point, we didn't know. And it wasn't until we were a couple of weeks into prep that we got the film and anamorphic confirmed by the producers. So obviously we couldn't do too much work to anything until we knew that this is the route we're going. So it was, during prep, we had like eight weeks prep so it was you know, five, six weeks we knew it would be film. But they didn't finish the lenses till right up until before the shoot. We had them coming in like the day before.
NFS: Eight weeks is not a lot of time when you're working on tweaking optical design, and flushing things out. So, presumably this is an ongoing relationship with Panavision, this isn't your first job with them?
Christensen: I did Molly's Game with them on the Alexa, I did Fences with them and I did Girl on the Train with Arricam and Masters Primes and they do amazing work too. It's just that I fell in love with these C-series lenses that I love for some of these movies.
NFS: In one of the interviews I read, you mentioned you would take an extra IIC with you so if you saw amazing B-roll on the drive to set you could pull over and shoot it, which was kind of like a beautiful story. Which lenses did you keep in the trunk with you to shoot that way?
Christensen: That was a couple of old zooms, I think I had 18 to whatever, 75 and then a 75 to 120. And they were nothing special, they were just what I could get my hands on. But I felt like that's gonna be fine, you know, I'm gonna go out and shoot moments of sunsets and sunrises, to make the shots and things like that. So, I was just, give me something I'm gonna make it work.
NFS: Well, okay we've all had that experience when you're driving to set and everything looks perfect, and you're like, "I have to get to set as fast as I can and get the camera off the truck and get this". And you never get it. So you might as well get it on the way there.
Christensen: Exactly, I love those things and I love to be able to do things just on my own. You know, things that you were thinking about last night, you go like, "Oh my god, I've passed these scenes last night, I've gotta shoot it". So they were really free, Panavision, to lend me this camera I just had in my car. I'm a bad loaner, though, I fuck up quite a few rolls.
NFS: Finally, I wanted to ask about is color. Is this your first project with Stefan Sonnenfeld as colorist from Company 3?
Christensen: Yes, that was my first. Yeah, I've been working with Technicolor previously.
NFS: Was the decision something that you pushed for to move to Company 3, or was that a company the directors or producers already had a relationship with?
Christensen: We started with Technicolor, I would've loved to continue with Technicolor, and with Michael Hatzer, who has done amazing work on the previous movies I've done in the States. And so we actually started out there, and it was, that was [producer] Michael Bay's decision, they just made a call, and one day they said well we moved all the rolls, he wants to work this Company 3. And I think Michael Bay has done all his movies with Company 3, and I don't know why, he probably knew he was gonna do that, I don't know. But you know, in the end of it, I had a wonderful experience with Stefan, and he was doing the work himself and so I had some good hours with him. He's an amazing colorist, really, truly amazing.
"There's a lot of candlelight, so I felt the warmth of the natural source to that. That was created in camera."
NFS: That wasn't something where you got time together in prep, cause the look is so warm and romantic, and a counterpoint for the story. And I was wondering if a lot of that, the beautiful orange, yellowy, sort of straw glow of the opening scene was something where you had time with the colorist in prep.
Christensen: That was all planned, but not with the colorist. In camera. I had filters, we did filters and some antique rays on the camera. A little bit was filters, and it was light as well, we lit with straw on the lamp. And I was also shooting Tungsten light, on daylight film.
NFS: So you baked it all into the negative? That's awesome.
Christensen: Very brave girl.
NFS: It is the best way to make sure it looks like you want it to look.
Christensen: Yes, I think so. You know, because then they get used to seeing it and also it was Krasinski's wish to make a warm movie. His brief to me was," You gotta make this family look happy, and there's gotta be love in all this. And there's gotta be warmth". So, I went with that. And I think sometimes making those decisions in the base of the directors' vision, cause you don't have so much time together. So when those kind of wishes come to me I go like, "Yeah, absolutely right".
And I felt the same way, I was like, "This is a warm movie, it's about love. It's about how do you survive constant fear and threat?" So, it had to be warm, we knew the character had the red lights up his sleeve was an element, a story element. So we had that to play with, and then we had the coolish lights that whenever there's torches or fire, we had the warmth. There's a lot of candlelight, so I felt the warmth of the natural source to that. That was created in camera.
A Quiet Place is now on Blu-ray and Digital.