'The Hate U Give': DP Mihai Malaimare on Filming a Truer-Than-Life Racial Tragedy
Following the murder of her good friend, a high school student finds her place in the divided states of America.
Based on a novel by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give (take a look at the first letter of each word in the title and see what it intentionally spells) is both timely and timeless, a coming-of-age drama in which the coming-of-age narrative comes complete with police brutality, prejudice, and murder. Unfortunately for the African-American community, this is in many cases a fact of life screaming out to be interrupted.
Following a young girl named Starr as she navigates her way through an affluent, white private school and a more dangerous home life, The Hate U Give takes a sudden shift when Starr's good friend from childhood is gunned down by a police officer. Taking a stance against the injustice put upon her slain friend, Starr discovers the complexities of the situation and sadly, the simplicities of it as well. It's a testament to director George Tillman Jr. that the film has mapped out every possible argument (and counter-argument) to the severity of the situation, and the film screams loud that, when it comes to the victims of police brutality, we all lose if we don't stand up and push back against those in power.
As The Hate U Give continues its theatrical run in over 2,000 theaters, No Film School spoke with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare about the visual contrast between Starr's home life and school life, using real bodycam and dashcam cameras to film a tragedy, and how being prepared allows for you to be extra free on set.
No Film School: How did you get involved with The Hate U Give and what kind of initial conversations did you have with George Tillman Jr. about the visual feel for the film?
Mihai Malaimare: I remember receiving the script and reading it really fast (if I'm not mistaken, the next day) after I already had a meeting with George. What struck me was that George was amazingly prepared, not only with digital references and all that, but that he knew from the first moment that he wanted to create a difference between the two worlds, the private school that Starr attends and the neighborhood where she lives. That's what one of our first conversations was about and so we began, early on, noting the visual difference.
NFS: In the film's early sequences, the story feels like it will be a coming-of-age high school drama, complete with witty narration and slow-motion introductions. How did you complement that tone with your camera?
Malaimare: Well, that's true. While we didn't have those intentions, we were influenced by other moves that had already been established and I think everything fell into place nicely. We didn't exactly know how to achieve the difference between the private school and the neighborhood and so I remember a lot of ideas coming from our initial visiting of the locations.
I remember that most of the private schools, if not all of them, had blue lockers for some reason. They also had many window panes with glass that reflected the sky, and so the blue came to mind to identify with the private school from that moment on.
On the other hand, we saw so many houses in "Starr's neighborhood" that had really interesting drawings or red curtains that were filtering the sunlight rather nicely. That was one of the things we realized right away, that "Okay, the neighborhood needs to be warmer and the private school colder." That was one of the elements we came up with.
Regarding the camera movements, well, we went back and forth with a lot of ideas. If I'm not mistaken, we initially wanted to do more handheld to put more static in the private school, but we realized at one point that it's so much about Starr's character (the whole story revolves around her) that we came up with this rule that the camera movements should be dictated by her emotions.
We ended up doing handheld even in the private school and Steadicam in the neighborhood as well. I think what you were talking about, in the beginning of the movie, also followed each of these rules, but you're right, it had more of an approach toward a youth movie than what it actually turns out to be.
"We shot each of the neighborhood scenes in anamorphic and a big percentage of the private school scenes in spherical."
NFS: Speaking of the private, upper-class high school that Starr attends, it feels cold and sterile in comparison to the sun-lit environment she calls home. Could you describe how you crafted a color strategy that contrasted the two?
Malaimare: It was interesting because by already having these visual pallets (as a result of our early scouting), each of the departments was involved [early on]. From a production design point-of-view, they added more blue elements in the school and more curtains and interesting textures in Starr's neighborhood and its houses. It was kind of the same approach. We also wanted to add a little more early on because we didn't know how big of a difference we wanted to make them and we didn't know how drastic we'd go with the school, in terms of making it even bluer than it already was.
We also came up with another element, a little more technical, that was the real deal regarding the implementing of an additional visual style. We shot each of the neighborhood scenes in anamorphic and a big percentage of the private school scenes in spherical. We used a 1.3 to squeeze anamorphic so that it's not as big of a distance as if you're using the 2X anamorphic. I'm pretty sure the audience perceives that as well, this difference between the two worlds.
NFS: What does filming with Panavision Primo 70 lenses bring to an image?
Malaimare: What we knew about the Panavision DXLs, which was really new at that time, was that it had a larger sensor than a regular movie camera. It's the film equivalent of VistaVision. For some reason, we were trying to find some visual references from other movies and I'm a huge fan of still photography and started looking for stills and things like that with George. One of our main references was the photography of Eli Reed.
It's interesting when you don't think of it too much, but still photography has the same size, the frame has the same size, as VistaVision, because the negative travels horizontally in a still photography camera, and so even from that perspective when you have stills as references, it's the same as going with a movie camera that has exactly the same gate. That's one thing that helps, but what it did for us is allow us to use it in a spherical world, with wide lenses and without too much distortion. It got us closer to the characters. If you do that with a regular Alexa and you put 16mm on the camera and go close to somebody, there will be a lot distortion that is not necessarily very pleasant, but you can achieve the same field-of-view with a 32mm.
The Primo 70s, which were the spherical lenses we used (they cover way more, up to 65), were really great. We needed those lenses because if you take a regular 35mm and put on those cameras, only the tighter lenses will cover the transfer. So just by our choice of camera were we forced to go for large format lenses. On the other hand, the anamorphic ones with the Ultra Panavision 70s worked so nicely with the DXL and with the VistaVision-size sensor.
"The party scene was an interesting one because we knew we wanted to do something really different from both the neighborhood world and the private school world."
NFS: How did you come up with a way to introduce Khalil, Starr's friend, who's impending murder sets the rest of the story in motion? It's important that he stands out and carries a certain kind of allure and presence about himself at the party.
Malaimare: The party scene was an interesting one because we knew we wanted to do something really different from both the neighborhood world and the private school world. I think George found some still photography references with really saturated colors, and it's interesting because he realized that when you have a lamp with a red scarf on top of it, it creates this really interesting red glow. I remember when George showed me those few photography references, we knew right away that that was the right approach.
I think it worked really well for, you're right, presenting Khalil for the first time because it's such a different look from anything else in the movie and it worked really well for the party itself.
NFS: When the shooting takes place that leaves Khalil murdered in cold blood, we're introduced to the police via dashcam footage, a roaming POV that indicates a sinister presence. What went into introducing the police officer that way?
Malaimare: While our main goal for the entire movie was to have the camera stay and deal with Starr in every single scene, I remember, for that scene, George particularly telling me, "We really need to see everything happening from her perspective" and the camera stayed with Starr and it doesn't leave the car until she does.
It would have been very easy for us to use a GoPro or another small camera device to simulate a bodycam or a dashcam, but we decided to do as much as possible to get the real deal and we actually got a real police bodycam and a real police dashcam to film with.
It was a real, beautiful, technical nightmare to figure out how we could use those (and then to use the footage in the actual film), but having that as opposed to a smaller camera like a GoPro made everything you saw real and unquestionable. Even the audio is, unfortunately, so familiar with that type of imagery, and so when you see it, you never really question it.
Of course you can degrade an image from a GoPro and make it look similar, but I think it wouldn't look as real as the real device, and that was the only time we broke the rule and said that we have to use those images and take the audience out of the car, filtering them through this type of device.
"I remember that we wanted to use a lot of cameras and yet we ended up using only three (plus some other devices)."
NFS: How storyboarded was that sequence? It has to be very precise, considering we revisit it in one of Starr's nightmares later in the film and remember each sudden movement that Khalil takes...
Malaimare: We had storyboarded it because it was one of our main scenes, that and the riot [that happens later in the film]. It's such an important scene, but what was really great about it is that the scene before that (in between the party and the shooting) with them together in the car, was shot first so that it was way easier for us to ease into the harder scene by observing their chemistry and everything there. We did have storyboards for all of those.
NFS: Later in the film when the protests and subsequent riots do take place, the film grows in scope; an entire city is rising up to battle the injustice their community faces. Did you adjust your shooting style for when the film grows larger in cast and intensity?
Malaimare: I remember that we wanted to use a lot of cameras and yet we ended up using only three (plus some other devices). I enjoy using a real certain device, like the bodycam and the dashcam, but we applied the same rules for the broadcast cameras and instead of using one of our DXLs, we used one of our film cameras for that and then degraded the footage. We decided to use a real broadcast camera and then to shoot some footage on a phone.
I remember we watched a documentary about [the protests and riots in] Ferguson, Missouri and what was really interesting about that documentary is that it didn't have too much news footage. It had a lot of phone footage and amateur camera footage from people that were right in the middle of everything. That was something we really liked and we decided that it was the right approach [for our film] because it's especially crazy when you have 300 extras and all of these things are happening.
It's very tempting to say, "Oh, let's put on a really long lens and stay far away and shoot through all these people," but it's so much more interesting if you're only four feet away from your main character and you feel like you're in the middle of the crowd. It was, of course, a challenge to do that with three cameras and with 300 extras around you, but I think it was the right approach and that was our intention, to make sure the audience felt like they were in the middle of everything.
"I enjoyed working with George a lot and what I really liked about him (and it's something that I see in a lot of other directors) is that he's really prepared and has a really hard but great prep period where you come up with all these ideas, these references, and tries to set rules."
NFS: How did you come up with the final shot in the film where we pull out of the bedroom and into the street where all of the residents are gathering together outside?
Malaimare: We came up with this idea from the very beginning and it was probably the only movie reference that we decided to use. It's a tribute to Spike Lee. The camera floats around and orbits from the street going through the window and we decided to end the movie the same way. It was a long 50-foot technocrane on dolly tracks, and so it was a long complicated move, plus we had to navigate through some power lines and all that. But yeah, it was a technocrane on dolly tracks.
NFS: Having worked with directors as diverse as Taika Waititi, George Tillman Jr., Paul Thomas Anderson, and Francis Ford Coppola, what do you find as the key to a successful director/cinematographer relationship?
Malaimare: I enjoyed working with George a lot and what I really liked about him (and it's something that I see in a lot of other directors) is that he's really prepared and has a really hard but great prep period where you come up with all these ideas, these references, and tries to set rules. That way, when you're in the middle of everything on set, you can rely on each other.
That's something I really enjoyed and it's always interesting because, a lot of times, you can plan really well only for everything to change once on set. There are many reasons that can happen but if you're prepared (and if you have certain rules in place, like we did), then you know exactly what the next best choice would be.