Cinematographer Sean Price Williams found himself in a bind just prior to production.  In prep, he and director Michael Almereyda were going to lean on film to detail the visual language behind Tesla, a period piece that explores the revolutionary innovations of Nikola Telsa (Ethan Hawke) and his distaste of Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan).

At the rental house he found out film was no longer an option. “We were going to shoot Super 16mm on a reversal film stock [EKTACHROME] that Kodak reintroduced which has a very low sensitivity, but at the last minute, we had to change,” says Williams. “We wanted to shoot on film so we could light faces and let things fall off into total black. I wanted to embrace the contrast of that look.”  

While the unexpected change was not ideal, the cinematographer used the moment to surprise himself and chose a camera he never used before, the Sony VENICE. The switch to digital wasn’t a total loss of prep.

TeslaTesla (Ethan Hawke) & Philanthropist Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson)Credit: Cara Howe

The two had worked together before, developing a shorthand on the feature Marjorie Prime (2017) and the short The North Wind's Gift (2018) as well as a project about poet John Ashbery. “Michael and I share a kind of non-commercial cinema passion that helped create the look for this project,” says the cinematographer.

They referenced Edvard Munch (1974) by Peter Watkins and Caravaggio (1986) from Derek Jarman. “We looked at films that had a limited budget but big ideas… films that embraced that artifice,” says Williams. They also referenced the color and tone of Edgar Degas' paintings for certain scenes and imitated archival photos of Tesla himself for others.

For lighting, Williams kept the original concept he was going to use for film. “We did tests with the reversal Kodak stock with different light technologies and I was getting thrilled discovering that good old tungsten units were winning me over. When we switched over to digital, I decided to embrace the mix of old and some very new LED units.”

The look also grew in part from being faithful to period. “We kept it dark and let things go into black but we also took liberties with props and history which are very obvious. In fact, we showed Astera Tubes in a scene as if Tesla invented them himself. I thought this way a fun way to not make it look old fashioned because Tesla was someone not from his time at all.”

TeslaThomas Edison (Kyle Maclachlan)Credit: Cara Howe

Visiting old churches was another element of the style. “You get to see how it was before electricity in some of these places – before they added light fixtures. We thought a lot about how our eyes could have been more sensitive to light back then and how candles wouldn’t be able to light an entire church to even read a bible.”

The story starts with electricity already established and takes place mostly in cities. However, there is a sequence with a power outage that Williams lit naturally by lantern. Other scenes were guided entirely by candlelight. “We wanted organic lighting like that. We wanted you to notice the light fixtures you see.”

The warm palette was splashed with color through LEDs and the frame was well-mannered with only a few handheld shots. Williams did use a Lensbaby kit to “mess with the tilt-shift” making the frame feel slightly awkward to give Tesla a larger than history feel. “When people are stationary I try to make it more dramatic or dynamic. We also had lenses that would go mushy on the sides so I used the aberrations as part of the composition.” The lenses: Super Baltars. “Each one has its own properties but I picked one focal length more often than not knowing it would give it character already.”

Throughout production, Williams was driven by Hawke’s performance. “He gave a very artistic performance. It was a totally new character for me and I was serving what Ethan was doing and what Kyle did for Edison. I tried to match the expressive performances with the camera.” The film has been awarded Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at Sundance. 

For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and SmallHD.