Eye Piece: How Sarah Adina Smith Shot Three Visual Styles in Midnight Swim

For any filmmaker, switching genres between movies is a tough task. But Sarah Adina Smith decided to switch between genres three times in the same film.

Midnight Swim takes viewers from faux documentary to surreal thriller and then to cinematic drama, all in the space of a single film. The film focuses on three sisters (played by Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur and Aleksa Palladino) whose mother disappears during a deep-water dive into Spirit Lake. The sisters travel to the lake to settle her affairs. Once there, they find themselves unable to let go of their mother and they are drawn deeper into the mysteries of the lake.

Midnight Swim starts with the sisters filming themselves as part of a documentary. The shots are shaky and made to feel gritty and raw, with the sisters as the filmmakers. As they begin to understand that there is more to their mother’s death than a simple accident, the camera eye moves away from a first-person to a third-person point of view. Finally, as the mystery unravels, the film takes on a sweeping cinematic look and feel.

A shaky still from the faux documentary portion of Midnight Swim.

A shaky still from the faux documentary portion of Midnight Swim

Smith chose to shoot with Blackmagic Design cameras and grade the film using Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve.

“We had two weeks to shoot Midnight Swim. This is not much time, especially with the ideas I had for how I wanted the film to look. A lot of what I had in mind was the type of look that films like Picnic at Hanging Rock have, getting a balance of a naturalistic feel with sweeping cinematics,” said Smith. “The Blackmagic cameras and Resolve let me do this.”

Smith used Blackmagic Cinema Camera as the A camera for the film, and Pocket Cinema Cameras at the end of shooting for various close-up shots and scenes shot in tight spaces, as well as to capture the film’s final scene. Smith liked the look of the cameras so much that she also included several of them as props during the fake documentary scenes.

“The Cinema Camera has a really nice range, and gives a natural look. It has a great sensor, which let us do a lot of shooting in low light. We knew that we would get what we needed even in the worst natural lighting,” she said.

“For the documentary scenes, the Cinema Camera also provided a less pretty, more gritty look. And then we started to shoot in a way that gradually put color and vibrancy back into the film, so that there is a real contrast from beginning to end.”

Smith shot in RAW, and gave the footage a quick first pass grade using DaVinci Resolve on set before passing the footage over for final grading.

“RAW gave us the most options later in post, which, with the way we were shooting, was something we had to have. The cameras gave us the leverage to get creative with our shots and take more risks to get the perfect angles and emotions. I could not have done this movie with any other camera. The picture quality was great, I could shoot quickly and it was affordable,” Smith said.

Still of the woods landscape from Midnight Swim.

A forest scene in the “cinematic” portion of Midnight Swim

Midnight Swim is the first feature film directed by Smith, and has earned awards from some of the biggest film festivals in North America. Additionally, the feature Goodbye World, which she produced and cowrote, was picked up on Netflix at the beginning of 2015.

The moviemaker studied philosophy and art in college, and gradually moved into film after school. “In the end, I wanted paintings to move and decided I had to be a filmmaker. It was a long, hard road to get here; I tried and failed a number of times to get big budgets for my films. So I decided to go out there and just start making microbudget films, and slowly worked my way to longer feature films.

“One of the things that made this possible is new technology—like Blackmagic cameras and Resolve. They’ve made it possible for independents like me to shoot films that have the same quality as the biggest budget movies.” MM

Midnight Swim is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD, courtesy of Candy Factory Films.

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