Pivotal to the realization of this social thriller: Toby Oliver ACS, a veteran D.P of small feature budgets and cutthroat schedules, applied his technical prowess and distinct eye to Jordan Peele’s idiosyncratic vision. His background in documentary as well as narrative features seems to lend him balance and clarity throughout his cinematographic perspective. Get Out, both in tonality & Oliver’s light and lensing, begins grounded and transitions to something more surreal. The language Oliver developed alongside writer/director Jordan Peele helps accennuate this change. Oliver’s depth of field will capitalize on the moments Chris, the film’s protagonist, feels most isolated. And beware his light, that misdirects us as much as it unveils.
Toby’s input is there, every step of the way, guiding us to emotional responses and discoveries most audiences will think they’ve elicted on their own.
Get Out is a Social Thriller, written/directed by Jordan Peele (Of Key & Peele fame), about a black man visiting his white girlfriend’s family for the first time.
- Oliver shot on an Alexa Mini using a suite of lenses consisting entirely of zooms, as this is what Peele felt most comfortable with in tests.
- They are the Angenieux Optimo 15-40, 28-76, 45-120, & the 24-290
- A ¼ and ½ Glimmerglass to take the digital edge off and add a slight glow to highlights (might’ve alternated to a ⅛ for longer lens work)
- Lit primarily with Kino Celebs, Source 4’s, and a 9k, 4k, & 1.8k Arri M-Series HMI’s
- Was shot primarily within the T2.8-T4/T5.6 range (most frequently a T2.8 ½)
- This was duplicated for B-Camera, as Get Out was a 2-Camera shoot for nearly every set up (to be time effective on a rapid schedule).
- Shot in 3.2K ProRes 4444, and finished in 2k.
Budgetary constraints: I was a bit taken aback when I saw the budget ($4.5 million) and I assumed it had been much higher. How did you work around constraints and still deliver a cinema quality image (not to mention in a film with sizeable special effects)? Or, did you not feel too hindered by it?
This movie was produced by Blumhouse, and generally their model keeps budgets low at
around $5m. That also happens to be the budget range of most Australian movies. So, coming
from Australia, I am very familiar with making low budgets look much bigger on screen;
really, I’ve made a career out of doing it. So yes, it’s using my talents and experience to keep
the image looking cinematic, but really the key is also being able to work very fast and
still maintain that cinematic quality on screen, and that’s something we learn we have to
do on virtually every job in Australia. There is no point laboring over the lighting and taking
your sweet old time perfecting every scene on a tight schedule if you can’t provide the
director with enough shots and coverage to actually edit the movie properly.
How were you able to light within schedule constraints and still achieve the film’s
Lighting on a tight schedule just really requires some good planning in advance — often the
night before (or in prep) I will draw up a ‘mud map’ of the next day’s scene with most of the
lamps and rough camera positions marked up on a diagram so my gaffer and key grip have
a plan in place the minute they arrive on set, especially if they have a pre-call to start setting
up before the main unit call. But generally the time constraints mean the lighting plan you set
up needs to work for the scene. There is usually not time to break it down and start again,
so that’s where experience comes into play — to know in advance what effect a particular
light or bounce or flag will have on the image, so the director and actors are not waiting for
me to make endless adjustments before the set is ready and the director can actually start
Do you always light practically? What is your perspective on always having a justified light source? Do you make adjustments based on emotion?
I love using practical lights, or windows in frame to add depth and provide motivation for
light sources — but I don’t subscribe to needing to justify every light source I use. I always
make adjustment to the ‘reality’ of the source if needed for emotional impact or to keep a
consistent feeling of depth and avoid the image becoming too flat.
Is there more emotional honesty in lighting based on the reality of a space? Or in
adjusting it for the emotion of a scene?
Well, of course there are differing views on this, I’ve worked with some directors in the past
who wanted the image to be so representative of some kind of ‘honest truth’ that they
forbid me to use any artificial lights or even a bounce board – I don’t really believe in that – a
movie is an artificial creative construct from the beginning so exercising levels of control
over the lighting in a scene is part and parcel of creating the art. Of course some stories
benefit from highly stylized control of lighting and camera (eg, LA LA LAND) and others
benefit from appearing like they were barely lit or contrived at all (eg, MOONLIGHT) – even
though they usually were. This control can take other forms as well, for example it was
widely reported that Chivo used nearly no artificial lights at all in filming of THE REVENANT,
but he did apparently then spend months in the DI post suite delicately coloring and
shading the images digitally to get the look and impact he and the director were looking for.
What lights did you primarily light with and why?
We had a general small movie lighting package (approx 10 ton truck) but my go-to lights
were the Kino LED Celebs, flat LED panels that can be adjusted for color temperature, they
are a soft flattering source and quick to setup and change color to warmer or cooler. LED
lighting has really become a fabulous tool for the DP, I try to get more and more LED fixtures
in my package on each job these days. Other units I like to use in interiors are the venerable
Source 4 Leko’s, actually a theatre-style spotlight that can be focused into a very sharp
clean beam, very useful for bouncing in tight quarters or creating shafts of light. For the big
guns I had the ARRI M-series HMI lights, in 9K, 4K and 1.8K sizes. I used them for lighting
big areas at night, for example the house and the estate where we see Walter the
groundsman running full tilt at Chris, I had one M90 thru the trees, an M40 in a condor, more
M40’s and some M18s with the special color gels for my version of ‘moonlight’ effect.
IMDB lists only Angeniuex Optimos, was the whole film shot on zooms?
In prep I took Jordan into a rental house to have a look at some lenses on a camera and get
an idea of what he might like to use. Being a first time director his experience with gear and
the technicalities of filmmaking was limited. I demonstrated some cool vintage prime lenses
and the classic Cooke S4’s along with the Angenieux zooms. As soon as Jordan saw the
zooms he said these were what he felt more comfortable with and I was happy to run with
that if it was easier for him to get his head around. While I had not shot a feature entirely on
zooms before, I liked the look of the Angenieux’s, I think they are very cinematic with a
certain amount of warmth and character.
What’s your take on the classic zooms vs primes debate?
I‘ve shot quite a few movies over the years, I think I’m up to my 18th feature now and of
course my early movies were all shot on film. Mostly I did use prime lenses with the odd
zoom here and there, zooms more so with 16mm actually. I actually owned my own primes
kit for a while in Australia and used them often, but recently – actually since Get Out – I’ve
started using the zooms a lot more as the main lenses. Shooting for TV I’ve always used
zooms though anyway for speed and flexibility.
Why the particular lens kit that you used?
I used the full set of Angenieux zooms, the compact Optimo 15-40mm, 28-76mm, and
45-120mm, and also the big kahuna 24-290mm, these were shared between the two
cameras. It worked very well, including handheld and Steadicam, and gave Jordan and I
total flexibility from 15mm (very wide) to 290mm (long telephoto) with 4 lenses, and they are
all T2.8 which is generally fast enough these days with the high sensitivity of digital
cameras, even for the night scenes.
Any use of filters/nets in front of the lenses & why?
I used a slight diffusion filter (Tiffen Glimmerglass) on the cameras at all times to just take
the edge off the digital image and give a little subtle glow to the highlights.
What was the approach to focal length? There’re particular uses of wider lenses. Can you
explain what motivated you to use them/when you felt it was appropriate?
While some directors or DP’s may say for example they shot a film only on the 27mm and
the 40mm, we didn’t have an overriding concept to stick with a particular range of focal
lengths on this movie. I guess i just have a sense of what lens size feels right for a moment,
and Jordan of course had specific lens ideas for some shots. For Get Out I found we
moved closer to the actor and wider on the lens when things were getting weirder; for
example, the scene where Georgina the maid confronts Chris in the bedroom after
unplugging his phone. Initially the rehearsal had her standing still in the doorway delivering
the weirdo dialogue “Oh no no no, we feel like family” etc, and I then suggested she move
slowly forward towards Chris during the speech, and let the camera track backwards
keeping her in a big close up with a distorted wide lens as she steps towards him – and she
gave an incredible creepy performance and the rest is history – I think it’s just about the best
scene in the movie.
I noticed in the scene where Chris spots Andre at the party, that, when Andre turns around and reveals something’s immediately ‘off’ that you decide to open up (your T-Stop) significantly on Chris. I wanted to know your approach to aperture in the film.
Do you tend to hold a stop within a certain setting? You seem to play with it quite a bit.
I like to keep my T stop between T2.8 and T4-T5.6 most of the time. Get Out was largely
shot like this, in fact the zoom lenses open to a max of T2.8 anyway. The most common T-stop would be about T2.8 1/2
Why was 2.35:1 the best AR for Get Out?
For me 2.35 is cinema, 16:9 (or the similar 1.85) is TV. That said, a really amazingly shot
movie is IDA, which was black and white and shot in an almost square 4:3 format.
The opening shot, was it always intended to be a oner?
No it wasn’t, in fact the opening scene now in the movie was done in a reshoot, the original
opener was a similar scene in the same location, but had a lot more elements to it, many
shots, more characters, lots of coverage and was also shot in the pouring rain. In the edit it
apparently just didn’t work that well and when the opportunity came up to do some more
shooting Jordan chose to do it again in a simpler way, which included the oner approach on
Steadicam. (Oliver asked colleague Denson Baker ACS to D.P this reshoot as Oliver was unavailable)
When you’re shooting a scene like that, that’s meant to elicit a shock/scare, how do you feel for it in the moment and know it’s working?
You don’t necessarily know if it fully works when you are shooting for a scare. The proof
becomes apparent generally in the edit. This is where the director needs to have a good
understanding of horror techniques.
Was there a stimulus to make the suburbs and city feel distinct from one another? If so, how did you approach them differently?
After discussions with Jordan Peele in prep, we decided on a fairly naturalistic look and feel,
especially for the opening and middle parts of the film. It was very important that our main
characters’ (Chris’) world was really grounded in a normal reality to accentuate the contrast
to the weirdness he encounters at the Armitage estate and the extreme situation of his
capture and escape leading to the finale, where the imagery becomes more stylized and
perhaps more in keeping with expectations of the horror genre. So there is a somewhat muted but natural cool color and light when we introduce Chris and Rose at his apartment in the city which then leans into warmer tones upon arriving at her parents estate. The warmth in the imagery at the estate was intended as a bit of a visual false security in a way, her parents seem very warm and welcoming with the light and tone backing that up but of course there is something very strange under the surface. I also played with color in the night scenes both inside and outside the house, using some special lighting gels and camera settings to bring a range of cyan, greenish and aqua tones into the ‘moonlight’ and ambiance rather than a straight up ‘blue’ vs ‘warm’ feel.
How much of these visuals are premeditated, how much is intuitively designed or changed on set?
It’s both – in the early prep period Jordan had storyboarded (with a storyboard artist) a
number of the main sequences in the movie. So he had ideas down on paper that illustrated
the proposed coverage and camera angles for big chunks of the movie, which is really
helpful. He also created a great ‘mood board’ of reference images from other movies as
a guide to the visual and emotional ‘feel’ he was looking for. So we had that to start with. I
then refined and developed the color ideas with some more reference images and color
palettes which Jordan agreed with and the ideas kept developing and growing from there.
Jordan is a very smart director and he wanted to be super prepared, so once we had
access to our main house location in prep, he asked me to shoot a ‘photo storyboard’ of all
the scenes that took place at the Armitage Estate – most of the movie – in situ with Jordan
himself and the other producers Bea, Sean, Gerard and Chris ‘acting out’ the scenes in lieu
of the real actors who were not on location yet. Working through the whole script making
these detailed photo boards was very helpful in establishing initial camera positions and
actors blocking, especially considering our time on set on the day to figure all this out
would be limited.
That said, of course the script might change, ideas can change, actors bring other ideas for
a scene to the table and sometimes the original storyboards are ignored for something
new. However, with Get Out it is interesting to see how many of the sequences stick
pretty close to the shots envisaged in the original storyboards. Good planning is everything,
and I always ask for the maximum prep time for the DP that the production can cope with,
and then make the most out of that prep time.
Was the ‘sunken place’ always imagined the way it’s portrayed in the film?
Actually yes, the ‘Sunken Place’ is realized very close to the original concept ideas. While
Jordan didn’t want the character to actually look like he is underwater per se, I had the idea
to use the technique of shooting ‘dry for wet’, normally used to simulate deep underwater
on a dry stage and used in movies like The Abyss; We shot the actor (hanging on a wire
rig) in slow motion (in our case at 200 fps) and had fans blowing to ripple his clothes, then
had the camera dolly past him to suggest the idea of him falling. The wire rig was fairly
static so I had the camera move around the actor to create movement. The drifting particles
and the glowing ‘screen’ were cleverly added in post VFX.
What dictated the decision of whether or not the camera should move?
Camera movement was indicated for several big sequences in the storyboards, and we
often followed the lead in the board to where we would move the camera; there wasn’t a
hard and fast rule, but I usually prefer to keep camera movement largely motivated by the
actors —I often find that big epic camera moves that are not motivated by the characters or
the story (ie by revealing something new) tend to be cut out of the edit!
How does Peele like to work? Does he like to give the space to the actors — or does he lend more emphasis to the images?
Like really good directors, Jordan does both. As an actor/performer himself, he has a great
rapport with the cast and is careful to create the right atmosphere on set and give them
what they need to do their best; so perhaps the actors come first (which I agree with) but
then he is also very aware of the shots needed to tell the story — thus the extended
storyboarding and photo boards to ensure the coverage would be effective. While he didn’t
have a deep knowledge of on set techniques and the more technical side of camera, lenses
and lighting, it’s my job to step in to fill the gaps and make his realization of the movie as
seamless as possible. He was smart, gracious, not scared of asking questions and an
incredibly fast learner, and also very collaborative. The process of working with him was wonderful.
Watching Get Out, even upon second viewing, I had a more difficult time analyzing the
cinematography on a technical level than is typical. It was just so hard to take myself out of the experience of the film and see the raw materials. This is truer in certain sections than others. Some scenes felt visually charged, and in others the cinematography felt totally Invisible.
That’s great to hear. Personally I don’t like it when the cinematography draws attention to
itself at the expense of furthering the story.
Was there a conscientious decision on you and Jordan Peele’s part to let the characters
and story take the reins on certain scenes/throughout?
I always prefer to have the characters ‘take the reins’ in a movie. There would only be very
rare occasions where I could see that the cinematography should be more important than
story and character. Where the imagery takes over the experience moves more towards the
worlds of advertising and music videos in my mind. That doesn’t mean that the images
should not be expressive, far from it, but they should always be in service to the story and
tone; like the Todd Haynes movie Carol, there is not a false note in it but it’s stylized and
Did you watch any films as reference?
The main movie Jordan referenced early on was Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and also the
horror film Candyman; I also referenced Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin for the sunken
place and Funny Games for the house interiors.
There’re some interesting decisions made in the way you introduce Chris & Rose. When Rose leaves the elevator, I expected to follow with her, but we stay. Then the door comes to a close on the first clear view of their faces… on their first embrace. I think I have an inkling, but what were you guys hoping to achieve with this introduction?
I think Jordan was wanting to delay their meeting in that early scene, ie introduce and build
up each character separately for a bit until they eventually meet up and kiss in the doorway
— basically building up a little to the moment of the black man kissing the white girl really.
Get Out has some tonal juggling, to what extent does the cinematography play into making this tonal variety feel balanced and cohesive?
Do you generally approach a comedic scene differently, in anyway, from a dramatic one?
Not really – in the case of Get Out, we wanted the whole movie to feel cohesive and
consistent even when the mood changes from drama to thriller to horror to comedy, so it
was approached similarly. If I was shooting a straight up comedy though, I would approach
it differently to a horror!
Is a film’s cinematic language only formed by the rules you design & the reasons/moments you break them?
The cinematic language of a film is definitely defined to some degree in prep; sometimes that does take the form of relatively hard and fast rules that we stick to to shape the visuals in a particular way; but I find often what happens is the experience of shooting the first 2 or 3 days of a shoot – the decisions that are made on the actual sets with the real actors in those first few days, sometimes in the heat of the moment, also define the ongoing look of a movie. Sometimes in ways we didn’t think of in prep. It’s always good to have a visual ‘backbone’ plan of sorts to work with at the start. A simple example would be to begin the movie with tighter lenses that don’t reveal too much of the character’s environment, then later on in a movie as the main character discovers more about themselves we switch to wider lenses and deeper focus that connects them closer with the world around them; but then the specifics of how we execute this plan throughout the shoot is often a discovery as well. With some stories (and some directors) it can be better not to be overly prescriptive and lock everything down in prep – I love to make spontaneous creative discoveries on set that can be far more interesting than anything we thought of earlier. However, when a sequence relies heavily on pre-planned visual effects it’s prudent to stick closely to the storyboards and pre-vis that everyone involved is familiar with to avoid later cost-overruns.
And, I have to ask…
Where do you see the future of digital cinematography going next? Is there still a desire for more range in the highlights and shadow?
Well, whether there is a huge desire on the part of DP’s or not, the technology is moving
quickly towards a HDR image workflow (High Dynamic Range) where there is more detail
and definition in deep shadows and bright highlights. Most cinema cameras already shoot a
HDR image. Really what’s happening now is that display and exhibition technologies are
catching up with the ability to actually display the full range images that cameras can
record. These much brighter and contrasty images are amazing to look at, with an incredible
depth, but the caveat is that HDR can be more revealing of unwanted details (especially at
4K and above resolution) when perhaps artistically the idea is to keep some mystery or
obscurity in the image. Darkness is an important tool in the visual language of horror
movies, and HDR tends to ‘see into the dark’ more than what we are used to, so
adjustments in technique will surely be needed.
What cinematographers inspire you?
There are many – Roger Deakins; Chivo; Rodrigo Prieto, Conrad Hall, Jeff Cronenweth, Greig Fraser, Seamus McGarvey, Dick Pope, Ed Lachman,
Do you believe the cinematographer’s primary purpose is to be adaptable? A chameleon?
An interesting question – as an artist, a cinematographer should have their own ‘eye’ and
individual way of expression, but also need to serve the requirements of the particular story
they are shooting – so a DP should be adaptable of course, but needs to bring their own
voice as well, otherwise what’s the point ?
What personal tendencies, if any, can you eye that consistently find their way into your
Camera-wise I am always interested in finding frames that visually add to the story and
tone, either in the detail, composition or on a subconscious level. I love to create depth in a
frame, and discover where there can be another layer of storytelling happening in the background as well as the focus in the foreground.
Toby Oliver ACS operating B-Cam through the EVF… 1/2 Glimmerglass/Infrared ND.3 in the Mattebox.
Keep an open eye out for his work on Insidious 4 and Wildling. My review of Get Out here.