Green Room DP, Sean Porter, Discusses Adapting for the Narrative

He’s gone from Mini DV, to the RED One, to the current Gold Standard the Arri Alexa. His way with digital photography: beat it up til it has some character. Read below our geeky splurge, to see how Green Room acquired its noxic texture and classical form. 

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Jeremy has a bit of a cinematography background, how does that affect the conversations you guys have, and how collaborative is he? How intricate is he frame for frame/ with blocking etc?

It’s always unnerving walking into an interview with a director who’s also an accomplished D.P… and I remember watching Blue Ruin and being totally blown away by what he did both from a director’s perspective and a D.P as well. Knowing how little crew and equipment he had, the movie still never shows its cards and looks as high end as anything else I’ve seen. There’s a part of you that’s wondering “what can I bring to the table that he can’t do himself?” And luckily I’ve had this experience before working with directors who have D.P’ed prior. And it’s always been a good positive experience. Not just because we can both geek out about camera stuff, but it makes the collaboration that much narrower, that much more pointed. We can have meaningful conversations about how we’re going to lens a particular shot or how we’re going to block a particular shot with less of that learning curve, and I don’t have to be like “maybe we can play this over here closer to this window” or find ways to make it more visually appealing because they get all of that from the get go.  So it’s much more of a concise workflow, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s nice to work with a director that knows the difference between a 40mm and a 50, and what that will do to the image and why you’d choose one over the other. Having said that, we collaborated a lot on the shot making, and he had a lot of specific ideas on how he wanted to shoot it. But he was always very open to my ideas about how I wanted to light the film. 

What was the sort of broad aesthetic goal Jeremy set for the film? 

He wanted the shot composition, movement, and visual language to be very classic. He didn’t want to go with the new wave, handheld, filming in a room and see what happens — which more and more directors are getting interested in — and there’s nothing wrong with that necessarily. I wouldn’t call it a cop-out, but it’s also putting more of the energy of the film into the camerawork. And that either emphasizes what’s going on on screen, or it can possibly dilute it. I think it was a riskier, ballsier, and ultimately better move for Jeremy to shoot classically’. So we used dollies and sliders and sticks and jibs, and it really sounded like he wanted focused compositions that let the actions play out, which relies on the actors talent. If they’re not bringing their game and they’re not creating the sense of tension on screen, then you don’t have anything to fall back on. And initially, we said okay, eventually we’re going to free the camera and we will shoot handheld to raise the tension. But a funny thing happened on set when we got to these moments on the schedule and we kind of look at each other and decided ‘this isn’t working so well’. We felt so confident in this language that we had been building that we decided not to shoot it that way, and stuck to our guns, and it worked really well. 

Certainly in the Green Room, physically, there wasn’t a lot of space, and Jeremy and I work in maybe this more “indie” way where we wanted all the set pieces to feel like a real location too, we didn’t want to cheat necessarily. So even though the walls were all fly away we treated it still as if it were a real venue, and we put light fixtures in the wall, and we were like ‘this is the room we gotta shoot in’. I think the audience can pick up on that you know? If all of a sudden you get a wide shot of everyone in the room, and clearly the camera is not in the room and it’s somewhere else up in an impossible location, I think the audience picks up on that and it takes you out of the energy and spirit of the film. So we tried to find comps that just worked in the space, and for others that might be very limiting, but Jeremy and I were constantly finding new ways to reinvent the language in the room itself. In some scenes, we’d play it with a bunch of singles, and shot-reverse-shots, and reaction shots… In other scenes, we would play as longer fluid takes and kind of roamed around shooting past and through people and kind of grabbing bits and pieces. And it’s great to kind of think about the scene tonally and find the right approach. So we never repeated ourselves.

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Did you ever have to “compromise” on focal lengths within that tight space? 

Good question. I don’t know it’s a funny thing. I think both D.P’s and Directors would go ‘Well I’m stuck in a room and I need a 3 shot with a 35, but there’s not enough room so I gotta use an 18 and all of a sudden you “compromise the vision”. I totally see that, and I think you just have to look at it differently. Breaking those barriers wouldn’t be so much compromising aesthetics, I think it would be compromising the story telling. And if you break that wall, and put the camera where the wall was to be able to use that lens, what reality are you really in? If you want the film to be claustrophobic and intense, and intimate in a lot of ways, then you’re naturally guided to use the right tools for that job. So yeah, if I want a wide shot I’m gonna use a wider lens. But that’s also going to feel a little bit more intense and maybe that’s actually more of the right tool for the job. 

What focal lengths did you primarily stick to?

I was using an older set of Cookes that had been rehoused. I really love them, and one of the things I love about them is that they have a… I think the needs were a little bit different back in the 40’s and 50’s, they have a set of focal lengths that are closer together. So there’s a 32, a 40, and then a 50. So you can interchange for the subtlest of differences. I think we shot on the 32 a lot, and that was sort of the default. Anytime we were doing blocking rehearsals I had a little Sony A7, a camera with a PL mount, so I’d just take a whole buncha pictures during the rehearsals and Jeremy and I would look at them afterward to see what we’d like. 

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Was there a particular reason why you went with the older Cooke S2’s? Did you want a ‘vintage’ look to match Saulnier’s nostalgia? Or was it a quality preference? 

It’s funny, when I was shooting film, it was always about getting the best quality possible. What were the sharpest lenses? I think that’s because there’s an organic quality already there. There was the moving emulsion — the film stock that was alive. And at that point, you just want to celebrate it and get as much out of it as you can. Whereas with digital, it’s very technical, clinical, cold, and I tend to want to beat it up a little bit and push it and see where it breaks and how it breaks, and I tend to find things there. So I tend to underexpose it quite a bit and beat it up later to get that natural grain out. You know Jeremy and I did all kinds of tests, and we tested all different types of lenses. Some more modern and sharp and some older. And I just think that there’s something inherent with something like a Cooke, a lens that somebody carved to a specification.  And when you do that there’s a handmade element to the image, a character to it that you can’t really get anywhere else. It’s nothing you can get in post really. And it is very subtle things like maybe the way the frame has a slight aberration or maybe there’s a little spot where the focus doesn’t catch sharp or it flares or veils at a certain spot. And all of those things add up to not necessarily a vintage look, but to a look that has character. It takes a digital signal and breathes life into it. And ultimately I think Jeremy and I are happy with it. 

On the philosophy for the exterior scenes…

I think once we get outside the venue it was a little bit different and Jeremy had this idea of circling or swirling around the Green Room, alluding to wolves circling their prey. So when we were outside we came up with different ways to move the camera. We tried some things with Steadicam, but neither of us liked the craney floaty quality that that can give you. So we had some cool gear (such as a Zero Gravity Jib)  that helped us get those multi-axis moves without using a Steadicam and I think that really worked out.  

In the diner scene you used haze effects, did you use it in the venue too? 

I tend to really shy away from it now. I remember in the days of small chip DV Cameras we used haze a lot as a way to create layers. Because you couldn’t do that with focus, since everything was sharp. So we used it to separate the foregrounds from the backgrounds. And really I’m not as into it unless it’s totally practically warranted. So in the diner and in the venue itself we would work with a couple different levels of haze. It’s such a drag to get those levels right, and it can actually blow a take if that stuff’s not really on point.

So I just worked with the A.D and was like, if we want to make it seem like people are smoking in here, just take 60% of the crowd and give them cigarettes (herbal cigarettes). Just them doing their thing is going to give you a more natural and actually really consistent look without worrying about your levels. So that’s what we rolled with in the venue and the Mexican restaurant. It was a whole other thing doing the fire extinguishers. And we had to do a lot of tests because you can’t use real fire extinguishers. They’re actually really bad to breathe in whenever they’re emitting. So we had to find the fine chemicals that were okay to push out and the quality of haze that would match. So we could start the take with the fire extinguisher and then build up the haze in the room. Color match it and keep it consistent. And not only consistent, we had to figure out how long it took to die down and dissipate, and that was all pretty tricky and took a lot of coordination. 

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You guys shot on one location, and a studio for the venue scenes, right? How did you go about mimicking daylight through the ceiling windows? 

I mean the original plan was to find an exterior and interior that was one building that would work. And there was probably something out there that we’d need to compromise on and seemingly may have made things a lot simpler for all of us. But I really applaud him [Jeremy] for not giving in. He was so specific about the geography of this place, and he wrote a script around the particular architecture and layout. And in some sense yeah, maybe someone could have broken that down and maybe that would work, but something would have suffered at certain points. Because it’s all about the intersections and people just missing each other, or friends just finding each other, or friends taking a wrong turn and getting killed, and all that’s part of the story telling. And at a certain point, we’re like, this doesn’t exist, we really need to build it to work. And so we did. And it was awesome, and Ryan Smith the PD just did an awesome job recreating this giant space inside a soundstage. So for me and my gaffer —  I wanted to work within the venue as if it were a practical location and not get super Hollywood about it.

So all of the venue’s practical fixtures were really the lights that we used to light with… We just picked every fractal bulb, every type of  fixture… We talked with the production design department about how to integrate it and where to integrate it. And everything was connected to a board, so I could just point to a light and say bring that light up or down and we could work from there. But everything was built into the set, we did have some things outside the windows of the venues just to light for different times of day. It really takes place over the course of an evening, so you have to be very careful and controlled about dusk and night and then dawn. So we had to make lights outside of those overhead windows that we could bounce in and kind of simulate that overcast sky and convert into a sort of greenish sodium vapor and maybe more of a greenish blue thing at a certain point. And those were differences in control. But yeah, I think it worked pretty well.

What conversations did you have with Jeremy and your gaffer Jeremy Mackie? 

Again we put a lot of emphasis on tests, and after the cameras and lenses, we did a bunch of camera filter tests where I would try out different colors. I don’t use filtration a lot but when I do I tend to use it and then kind of fight against it. So if I was gonna use a low-con filter  then I would add contrast later to try to cancel out the effect, or attempt to cancel out the effect, to see what happens. And the same thing with color. We used a tobacco I think for almost the entire show, and pulled a little bit of that tobacco color out, but the effect was kind of muting everything in kind of a pleasant way. So if we’re shooting at dusk or dawn I might add a blue filter on top of that tobacco and then attempt to cancel them both out in an attempt to get something maybe a little bit more silvery and muted out. So we had a lot of fun playing with those things. But Jeremy my gaffer was really good in playing along with whatever the right lighting was to work with those filter choices. And we tested so many different fluorescent tubes to get the exact right skin tone that we wanted for the venue. And it had to be like that dingy — you know we wanted it to be like this waning institutional green room, so it had to have the right quality, and the right skin, and the right amount of green and stuff. So we did a lot of tests, and once we made those decisions it all worked pretty smoothly. 

You know we lit kind of conventionally. We tried to light from the outside whenever we shot on location. I really like not having a lot of equipment on set, in general, so anytime we could we’d light from outside and push things through the windows. We used some LED’s but really all of it was HMI’s. We used black lights too, but that took a lot of testing to make sure it looked good on camera, on people, and on the production design. And ultimately I think we ended up backing off of it. At one point the entire hallway was going to be entirely blacklight. But we pushed away from that, and I think it made it a little bit grittier, and a little more grungy, but ultimately it just looked better on people.  

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It looked like you guys shot pretty open in the interiors, what T-stops were you shooting at?

Yeah for sure. I’m not totally anal about it like I know some D.P’s are. I mean, in general, I feel like you naturally kind of find the stops that you’re feeling good about within that space, and it might be because of the architecture, it might be because of the talent you’re working with, or the way the scene’s working. And in general, I tried to stay at a 2.8/4 Split which I feel like was a good spot. And for daytime exteriors I’d usually hang kinda the same, maybe a little deeper at a 4 or 4/5.6 split, but rarely deeper than that. And you know it totally depends on the job. On some films, I tend to shoot a little bit deeper. So for this film, especially in the beginning, it’s a little dreamy and road-trippy, and as it progresses we started to close down to get a little sharper and a little darker. 

Did you guys up the lighting ratios and contrast as the film progresses further into darkness? 

Yeah, it’s cool when a visual arc happens in response to something in the script. I think of course a D.P can be like this is gonna be cool, as the film progresses we’re gonna shift from X to more Y, or we’re going to shift from red to blue, or whatever. That’s all super cool, but I’m more excited when the script or the scene opens the door for that thing to happen. So if you think about the way it’s structured…  It starts at sunrise and starts with all these soft beautiful towns right over the coast with all this overcast lighting. Naturally it started at a certain place and then we get into the venue. And at first the green room is pretty fairly well lit with different kinds of practicals, but it’s pretty even and soft still. And as it progresses it literally gets darker, like no cheat there it just happens.

And then things get crazy in the green room, the kids pull the fluorescent lights down, they knock over one of the lamps. So naturally the film starts taking on a new visual aesthetic. And things are actually darker, not because we’re getting tricky with the lighting, but because stuff’s really happening in the movie… And I think that’s even more exciting. Of course, we pushed boundaries a little bit. As the green room gets more destroyed my gaffer and I can hone in on that, beef up the contrast a hair and make things a little bit scarier, seedier whatever, but it was all totally motivated. Then you have these visual breaks when you go outside, and things get really stark, like really strong backlighting on the bad guys, or *Minor SPOILER* when they break down into the underbelly into the heroin lab and it’s all industrial lighting. *END SPOILER* It’s fun to play with that stuff and even better when you have a director working that in. 

All the contact and kills in Green Room hit so hard because the logistics and motion of it are always so clear. Did you guys shoot a lot of coverage for these types of scenes/how the hell did you guys pull that off? 

Yeah, a lot of planning does go into it. And at the same time, over the years doing this, the best case scenario is that you’re really prepared, and you use pre-vis, and production design is able to create 3d renders so that we can walk through the space and think about angles and things like that we like. But it’s like, you get it as prepared as you can, and when the time comes, you leave all that stuff in the car. You show up excited about what the actors are going to bring and what the room’s going to feel like on the day, and not get so married to something. Jeremy was really great about that. We had certain things that were like ‘this is how we want to shoot this scene’ and we had others that were like this is way better than we could have imagined so let’s just roll with this other idea. 

But yeah it was really hard, you have 6 or 7 people in this Green Room (laughs), operating in these tiny rooms, and really there’s no way to do it except get coverage. And some of those moments are really grueling because you’re like ugh we’re going to have to film this scene a hundred times to get everyone’s reactions. But in certain moments, it totally warrants that. And when you’re setting up these characters it’s truly critical. Even if you see them for a second it’s good to know what their reaction is to this moment. It really defines who they are, and I think that’s all super critical and worthwhile. But then again there were other moments in the Green Room that could have been a nightmare of coverage, but Jeremy and I found ways to shoot it in like 3 or 4 shots that really sold a certain idea. So it was a little bit of both. But a lot of it was just really paying attention to the blocking, letting actors really work things out, making subtle corrections, and then like [asking ourselves] “okay how do we most effectively convey what’s going on without unnecessarily covering something that we may not need?” 

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Since you’ve worked on a variety of different projects, have you developed a personal preference for the types of collaborations you have? 

You know it’s interesting, I think the interesting thing about the job is that – and I can’t speak for all D.P’s [as] I’m sure there’re D.P’s that just like to work a certain way- but I find that my job is to kind of be a chameleon and to adapt. I worked on jobs with a director who wanted to shotlist/storyboard the whole film, and we’d sit there and go through everything in detail and we’d show up and shoot it just like it was… And I have directors who never shot list, never storyboard, don’t even know what’s really happening — get to set and we just really wing it. And I can’t say I’m partial to one over the other if it serves the story. Both have their — Sure it’s great to be super prepared, but then maybe you don’t have as much creative freedom, and on the other hand if you’re not prepared at all it can be scary, and you go “well geez I don’t know how to stage this”. I think the best is probably somewhere in between, but for me, the joy in the work is in always evolving and trying new ways of working. You know, working with the Zellner’s on Kumiko was totally different. Likewise working with Mike Mills or working with the Brewers. They’re all super different kinds of films, and if anything I’m thankful that I haven’t been pigeon-holed into one kind of genre or film, and that people are willing to try me out on all types of crazy stuff.   

Where do you see the future of digital cameras going? Currently, it seems limited to the gold standard of the Arri Alexa, will the options diversify? Will we get more stops of dynamic range? Or will RED just keep pumping resolution into their cameras? Where will it go?

Yeah totally. It’s been a funny, crazy last ten years. I was lucky to start right in the transition. All my first early work was mostly on video on some level, and I remember when the Sony VX1000 first came out, and it was like the first MiniDV camera that really made an impact. And it was like, you know, 29.97 interlaced, but it had some quality that you couldn’t get with Super VHS or even these bigger industrial cameras. So it kinda set the stage for people to make interesting stuff.  And then I remember when the DVX100(Panasonic) came out and it kinda just revolutionized what student or small productions were capable of getting. I remember seeing, -well I knew a student in class who got their hands on one- and I had been shooting on some fancy JVC ENG camera with a big sensor, and it had all this range but it was still an interlaced video camera.  

And this guy showed this small chip 24p short, and I was like “this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen”. But I was also lucky enough that all of my on set work, when I was working as an assistant or a gaffer or even some shooting gigs at the time, were still on film. It was 35 if you could afford it and if not 16, so I guess I learned both sides. I learned the benefits of both sides and learned what I liked about film that I could apply to my video images. But not feeling that I only understood film and didn’t understand this digital thing. I’ve seen some D.P’s who’s looks are really embedded in film and making that transition’s hard. So I’ve followed it from its inception. I had a RED One and I had an Epic… I’ve been through the motions of the evolution and probably have shot on everything that’s out there, except for some of the newer stuff. But once I tried the Alexa camera, it was like okay, I get this camera and this camera gets me, it’s faithful, it does what I ask it to… And I haven’t really looked back. 

Every job I still do tests just to make sure that it’s always the right tool for the job, but I’ve kind of found my cinematic peace with it… You know it’s not for every job and I’ll certainly be open to new offerings. Now there’s this big push into VR, and I’m interested to see where that takes off. Being in an entire world, 360, all the time, is a very different thing from being like “okay we just have to light this one shot”.  And it takes framing out of the equation… I think range for me and color is more important. I’m definitely more interested in that than — I mean on Kumiko we shot in 2K ProRes and played it on some really big screens and always felt good about it and same with Green Room. I don’t really feel the need for a huge resolution. Then again there’re applications where it makes sense depending on how it’s being presented, but for cinema, I don’t know. I know Arri has their new UHD options now… I think if Arri came out with like a 5 or 6k camera that resolved to 4k and kept the same dynamic range, or a little better, that’d probably be fine for the rest of my time doing this [laughs].   



I appreciate Sean Porter taking the amount of time he did, to talk with me about his work on Green Room. Look for the film when it Wide Releases this Friday on April 29th (With some theaters playing it Thursday night, the 28th). And also keep an eye out for the Nicolas Cage, Elijah Wood Heist flick ‘The Trust’ he shot coming to theaters May 13th. 


My Review of Green Room