'We the Animals' DP Zak Mulligan's Incredible Advice For Natural Lighting
Cinematographer Zak Mulligan shot 'We the Animals' on 16mm with an emphasis on available light. The result is a dreamlike vision of cinema verite.
In my recent interview with Jeremiah Zagar, the director of We the Animals, I described the film as "a lyrical coming-of-age ballad of disillusionment and self-discovery." Much of this lyricism is owing to Zagar's directing style, which, in the interview, the director described as "radical intimacy." This approach cultivated an atmosphere on set teeming with creative possibility. It also gave the actors the courage and space to be vulnerable on camera, whether in a dramatic scene or in a moment of solitary character reflection.
But there is one other major ingredient to the poetic, immersive experience that is We the Animals: Zak Mulligan's cinematography. Together with Zagar, Mulligan captures the fleeting, nostalgic, dynamic, impressionistic feeling of memory on 16mm film. The DP brought nine-year-old Jonah's (Evan Rosado) world to life using mostly natural light. The camera is often handheld, and frequently at Jonah's eye-line, evoking a sense of unmoored discovery as it wends its way through the volatile environment that is Jonah's household. Through the film's cinematography, we're transported into the volatile world of a half-white, half-Puerto Rican child growing up in rural upstate New York with three raucous older brothers, two pugnacious parents, and a vivid imagination that knows no bounds.
No Film School sat down with Mulligan to discuss exactly how he harnessed natural light to create a dreamy cinema verite aesthetic on 16mm.
No Film School: The cinematography in this film evokes the experience of memory. How did you specifically incorporate that intention into the way that you shot the film?
Mulligan: The feeling of memory is built upon the format—the film stock, the Super 16—but I think it's also built on a few other elements.
One is our perspective. The camera usually exists from Jonah's perspective, so that means it's usually from his side of the room, seeing what is going on. The lens is at his eye-level. We're experiencing it in a first-person way, almost, as if we were a child. So I think that's one subtle thing that hopefully takes the audience back to childhood.
There are these other more visual and lyrical elements that are weaved in throughout the story. These magical realist elements more overtly have the quality of a dream. The way that it's woven into [the audience's] reality is that there's this fuzzy, blurry line between the reality and the dream. It creates the essence of what a memory feels like. We can remember a feeling and grasp the thought behind it, but it can be dreamlike sometimes as well.
"So much great lighting can be done with no units and just some great planning."
NFS: You mentioned shooting handheld from Jonah's perspective. It's something I noticed and appreciated. As I was watching, I was imagining it must have been difficult for you to maneuver on set. Was there anything new that you tried to make it easier to operate the camera?
Mulligan: Yeah. Most of the time, the camera's handheld. Because we're shooting film as well it created an issue to shoot at Jonah's eye level. Normally, a film camera rests on your shoulder, and you look into the eyepiece that way. I'm six feet two inches tall, so obviously if the camera's sitting on my shoulder, it's not going to be at a nine-year-old's eye level.
So we did a variety of things. We developed something almost like a guitar strap so that I could swing the camera over my shoulder and hold it at my waist level, and then I could use a long eyepiece to really get that correct perspective and also have free maneuverability. I would also do things like sit on the ground or sit on a rolling chair with the camera on my shoulder.
"We developed a guitar strap so that I could swing the camera over my shoulder and hold it at my waist level."
In some scenes, we used a Movi. Jeremiah and I had done a few commercial spots using a Movi with digital and really enjoyed the way the camera moved on that setup—the of freedom that allowed, to just kind of take the camera anywhere—and so we were interested in using that for certain sequences. The problem was the film camera, Arri 416, was just too big for that gimbal at the time—the Movi M15. This was before the Pro came out or any of these other ones, so I think it would be much easier to do now. At the time, though, I think we were probably the only people dumb enough to try it.
I had my Movi sent to Los Angeles to have the rods extended, so it would be bigger to be able to hold the 416. Then, we just experimented with a lot of weights and figured out how to monitor things. Normally, with the film camera, you're looking through the viewfinder. You're not normally operating it off of a monitor like we do with digital. But the Movi setup required that we do that, so that was interesting. We kind of set up the film camera as if it was on a Steadicam and then put some counter-weights on it.
But we got it working and then that allowed us to do some really interesting, dynamic shots, such as running with the kids through the woods. There's not an easy way to get those kinds of shots and I felt this was a really nice solution.
NFS: Can you think of some other specific shots which were very challenging things to shoot? How did you approach those obstacles?
Mulligan: There were a few. For one, any time you're shooting underwater, it just slows down everything. We did the underwater stuff in open water, in a river, in a lake, where the visibility was very bad. You could barely see your own hand in front of your face. We weren't able to secure an underwater housing for the film camera, so we had to shoot digital for some of those underwater sequences. If I could get the camera in a splash bag or a fish tank, I would often use that at the surface, or just below the surface. But when I had to be really low, for example, looking up at Jonah as he's nearly drowning in the lake, we just had to go digital and use a proper underwater housing.
There were a few other digital elements here and there that we spent a lot of time in pre-production figuring out. We worked with Seth Ricart at RCO. He and I shot a lot of tests and ran them through Da Vinci and just figured out how to match the shots. You know, we got to the point where we were showing tests to different producers and different people and most people couldn't tell the difference, so we felt like we got close enough.
NFS: What was your rig?
Mulligan: We primarily shot on the Arri 416 using Kodak 500T and Kodak 250D 16mm stocks. For lenses, we used Cooke S4s and Cooke SK4s. There were a few sequences involving VFX that we used a Red Weapon with a Dragon 6K sensor.
NFS: Can you talk about the decision to shoot 16mm?
Mulligan: When we made the decision to shoot film, everyone got on board and was totally game for whatever that meant moving forward. We worked with a lot of people who had shot film in the past, but hadn't in years. It's just not as common anymore.
Everyone had such a respect and a reverence for the format that you get a very different kind of feeling out of the work—specifically, out of the crew, and the style of their work. You don't have this ability to look at an HD monitor where you can see everything exactly how it's going to be in the end, so everyone, from the props and the production designer has to look at the whole of the room as an entire space. Rather than necessarily dressing a single frame, they're dressing an environment in a very naturalistic and real way.
"When you hit the button and it's rolling, and you can hear the film going through the gate, everybody is on top of their game."
That goes for everybody. So when you hit the button and it's rolling, and you can hear the film going through the gate, everybody is on top of their game. Nobody wants to waste any of that film or jump in front of the camera and unnecessarily adjust a small detail that's not really that important. So I think [shooting film] creates a different workflow—a different rigor on set. I think that's something that we've lost a little in the transformation to digital.
NFS: The lighting in the film felt very natural, as if you mostly used available light. Can you talk a little bit about your approach?
Mulligan: The ethos of this film did borrow a lot from cinema verite. We didn't want any contrivances. Everything had to look real and natural. We had to be present, and the language had to have this immediacy to it. So, you know, that [affected] the lighting.
There is kind of lighting with a capital "L," and then there's lighting that looks not like lighting, but like natural light. We were always striving for that. Even though we're shooting the scene over a full hour period and have to block out the windows and light through the windows, we were doing these things to make it look as natural as possible.
Mulligan: I was also lighting to allow us to be able to see in any direction. I'd often light the scenes so we could see, maybe, 270 degrees of the set. That let the kids have the freedom to move around and not have to worry about hitting their marks. They're not actors; we wanted them to have as few worries as possible, and to just exist and perform and be kids. So the fewer constraints we could put on them, the better, which informed some of these lighting decisions.
"We gave ourselves more shooting time and a smaller crew."
At times, we did go for a more stylized approach. It was appropriate for some of the more magical realist moments. But for the most part, we were really looking for naturalism.
NFS: That immersive lighting approach sounds very labor and time-intensive.
Mulligan: Yeah. It would involve rigging a light up above frame somewhere that you might normally not want to rig it, so you're taking a little bit more time to do that. But often, you'd have lighting that's outside of the trap. If we were shooting in the house location, we would keep the light outside, or we'd have a single lighting unit inside, if needed, that I would move around pretty quickly.
We also did a lot with scheduling to create more time. Very early on, I remember having a discussion with some of the producers about scheduling. Some of my experience with independent film projects is that I always feel like we need more time. I'd rather put more money into less crew and having more shooting days. I think everyone agreed with that sentiment early on, so we gave ourselves more shooting time and a smaller crew. That let us creatively schedule, which meant taking advantage of every magic hour that we could.
Usually, in the morning, we'd be outside shooting, and then in the middle of the day, we'd go inside and shoot. In the evening, we'd come outside again and continue shooting. It was a challenge because sometimes that meant splitting up certain scenes over two or three days, but I think that everyone got into the groove of that.
NFS: What are some fundamental bits of advice that you would give a cinematographer shooting his or her first verite-style project?
Mulligan: There are a few challenges with that approach. One is whenever you shoot a scene of any length—say you have a scene that's three pages long—it's going to take several hours to shoot that, typically. During that time, the sun will move. So you have a problem right there: using the actual available natural light, which would obviously be my preference, just isn't possible because of the time it takes to shoot the scene. The first thing to consider is how you want to approach doing that—whether you want to shoot it faster with less coverage and use the available light, or totally block out the available light and re-light it from scratch. You can get away with just augmenting the available light... perhaps blocking the direct sun if it moves, but then adding your own element of hard sunlight to keep it consistent.
I think the other big challenge is when you get into nighttime exteriors. To make it look right, nighttime work usually takes a sizeable crew and a decent lighting budget. There are a lot of logistics that go into making a really nicely-lit night exterior.
"You don't want to set up a light and have it feel like, 'Oh, there's a light there.'"
Here's a trick: On We the Animals, we'd shoot right at dusk, so I could split up the scene over two or three nights, shooting just after the sun goes down for a very convincing dusk/night time look on a very modest budget. But that takes the will of the entire production. The AD has to be on board and the producers have to be on board because it is absolutely a challenge for scheduling to make this happen.
Otherwise, shooting cinema verite-style takes a good eye and lots of observation. You should always be observing what interesting light looks like in any given space and time. You can do this by doing light studies or just taking notice and being present. It can really inform the lighting you do on set in a naturalistic way.
It kind of comes down to experience and faith. You don't want to set up a light and have it feel like, "Oh, there's a light there." I don't know any other way to explain it. It should feel like this is how this space would just normally look.
NFS: Despite the fact that everything looks natural and verite, there are so many beautiful shots in the film that could be standalone still photographs. For example, there's one that I remember where Jonah is looking out the window, and the light is creating a mosaic behind him. Did you think about these ahead of time?
Mulligan: We shot a lot of lyrical moments where we were constantly picking up just additional ideas as we would see something beautiful or particularly interesting. Often, the kids would have ideas—they would start slapping each other's hands and doing some line that you'd never heard of, and we would just go photograph it. There's a lot of real things like that in the film that were never planned. Some of those moments were done with available light.
"I have such a love for natural, available light. If it were up to me, I would never shoot with a movie light."
But that particular image you're talking about...I got that idea from a light study. In the morning and the evening as the sun's going down, I photographed every room of the house for maybe an hour and a half and just watched the way the light changed. We knew, at a certain time of the day, that the light would come through the windows and [create that pattern], if it wasn't cloudy. So that was an image we did plan on collecting. We just kind of timed it out. With lighting, so much great stuff can be done with no lighting units and just some great planning.
NFS: Absolutely. I don't often hear cinematographers talk about light studies.
Mulligan: I have such a love for natural, available light. If it were up to me, I would never shoot with a movie light. I only use lighting units when it's necessary, you know, to control the light in a scene.