Measure of a Man: DP Denson Baker on Making a Period Piece Feel Modern, and Avoiding VFX During a 23-Day Shoot

Measure of a Man marks my fifth collaboration with director Jim Loach. Each project was a voyage of discovery where we learned more about each other and developed a shorthand—an understanding. We pursue a new aesthetic for each new film we make together.

I have always likened a film crew to a band—you need to be able to jam. If you can jam, you can create a great movie. This film is quite different to Jim’s previous projects. Our last collaboration, Oranges & Sunshine examined much heavier subject matter. With Measure of a Man, we wanted to make a film “lighter on it’s feet” and have some fun. In doing so, we explored the experience of adolescence with a series of minor key events via diary entries that accumulate into a transformative summer for the film’s lead character, Bobby Marks (Blake Cooper).

Capturing the Period

Measure of a Man is an adaptation of Robert Lipsyte’s acclaimed 1977 novel, One Fat Summer. Originally set in the 1950s on a lake in Upstate New York, the novel was required reading for many high school students in the 1970s. Our version updates the story to the summer of 1976 as the nation celebrates the United States Bicentennial.

Jim grew up in London, and I was born in New Zealand and grew up in Australia. All of our understanding of this period in the US was based on the films we watched as kids along with books, photography and documentaries. I feel that this gave us a unique perspective on 1976 America.

We wanted the film to feel of the period, not as though it was a film made in the ‘70s, but rather a film that felt and looked like a modern film shot during the 1970s.

In order to achieve this we had to carefully consider what we put in front of the camera; lighting, camera, lenses, filters and visual style. We worked closely with production designer David J. Bomba and costume designer Amela Baksic. We talked a lot about color palettes and textures. Textures are the key to creating realistic, lived-in worlds on screen—whether it’s the texture of a wall, worn down fabric, a piece of furniture, or the rust on a car. We used smoke and haze to fill our interior locations, and we used dust particles floating in front of windows to create a sense of a lived-in world. All the decor of the family holiday cabin had a backstory, passed down for generations.

An important consideration when shooting period is that nothing should look brand new (except, perhaps, food packaging). The film is set in 1976, but the car they drive is a ‘60s Volvo. The family doesn’t drive a brand new car, but rather a car they either bought eight years ago or used secondhand.

Fortunately I was able to shoot camera tests at Arri Rental. We knew we wanted to shoot with Alexa cameras, but I was able to test a wide variety of lenses, both spherical and anamorphic, modern and vintage, and also a vast array of filters. I edited a selection of the tests together, then held a screening in Jim’s hotel room with him and our producer, Christian Taylor.

Donald Sutherland as Dr. Kahn in Measure of a Man. Image courtesy of Great Point Media Limited.

We watched the tests a few times, and Jim gave me his impressions based purely on the aesthetics and the “feel” of images. We landed on the choice of Cooke S4s with Tiffen Black Satin filters. Coincidentally these are the lenses we used for our first feature together. The Black Satin filters give a softness to the image and enhance the lens flares. I also used Tiffin Smoque filters for a couple night scenes. They lend a beautiful smokey look, as well as funky, multi-colored lens flares.

The Director-Cinematographer Relationship

Measure of a Man was shot in 23 days in Rhode Island. This very tight schedule, dictated that we shoot very efficiently. We were shooting an average of five to seven scenes a day. Preparation was key in order to achieve what we needed. Jim and I worked together on shot lists and storyboarded a few key sequences.

I’ve operated A-cam on every collaboration with Jim. This isn’t the norm for US union films, but because of our established working relationship and methods of working, we appealed to the union so we could continue to work as we have always done.

There’s a benefit to the DP also operating camera. Personally, I work faster, closer to the action and can quickly respond to production changes. Since Jim and I have worked together so many times, I have a instinctual understanding of what he does and doesn’t like.

We like to keep coverage simple but interesting, such as shooting “developing master shots.” For example: a shot that starts on a detail or an interesting establishing frame, and then the camera is motivated to move by the entry of a character, or the movement of a vehicle or object. This keeps it interesting, but we often discover that we only need one or two more angles on the other cast members to cover the entire scene, so it can also be fairly efficient too.

DP Denson Baker gets wet to get the shot on the set of Measure of a Man.

A Few Clever Tricks

There were a couple of moments in the script that read simple enough, but we discovered that we needed to come up with a few clever tricks to be able to achieve them in ways that didn’t require VFX.

One that comes to mind is a scene where our 14-year-old protagonist, Bobby Marks, after raiding his parents liquor stash, drunkenly walks with his sister, Michelle Marks’s (Liana Liberato), back to the cabin through a forest at night. He vomits through his fingers onto his sister’s shoes.

The tricky thing was that he goes from talking to suddenly vomiting. Two approaches immediately come to mind on how to shoot this: One: he’s talking, acts the motion of vomiting, and we add CG vomit in post—VFX. Two: he’s walking and talking, then we cut to practical spew (warm pea and ham soup, the best substance for realistic, not unpleasant tasting vomit)—SFX.

We wanted to avoid VFX, but also wanted to avoid feeling we cut around the action to make the gag work. Ultimately, we made it a hidden cut, so that it appears to be a single shot. We tracked the camera along trees in the foreground and had Blake and Liana walking diagonally towards us, so that the shot went from a loose shot to a mid-two-shot by the end of the track.

We performed the whole scene in a few takes. Blake faked the vomit at the end, then we shot a take where he had the pea and ham soup loaded in his mouth. We matched the speed of the track, then he spewed at the same point that he did in the previous takes, and we used a tree wiping through the foreground to hide where we combined the two shots. It looks like a single shot take which has the impact and surprise that we wouldn’t have achieved if we had to cut up the scene. MM

Measure of a Man opened in select theaters May 11, 2018, courtesy of Great Point Media Limited. All images courtesy of Great Point Media Limited.

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