Eye Piece: How DP Daniella Nowitz of Live Cargo Captured a Surreal Bahamas in Black and White

Producer Thymaya Payne, during an initial phone call about our film Live Cargo, cut to the chase: “We’re shooting on the island of Bimini. It’s 700 feet wide and has a population of 1,800. There are no fully paved roads and we haven’t yet figured out how to transport the gear.

“We’ll be shooting on boats and underwater, during the height of hurricane season. Are you down?”

I soon realized that the Bahamas, what I assumed would be a dream location, would be a tough uphill logistical battle—during which everyone involved would grow tremendously.

With Live Cargo, Director Logan Sandler was intent on creating a hypnotic, eerie and mystical film which would accurately capture the timeless, almost surreal atmosphere of the Bahamas. I see the film as a poetic thriller dedicated to that location. Logan wanted to share with his audience a complex and authentic version of this special place, presenting it as more than just a carefree getaway. One way in which we explored this paradox was by shooting Live Cargo in black and white.

We began prep during the beginning of storm season, living in a marina in Fort Lauderdale with Thymaya, Logan and our other producer Lauren Brady. Visual references for the film were drawn from 1960s photojournalism, cinema verité and French and Italian New Wave, as well as German Expressionism and classic film noir. After our prep, we loaded a boat with crew and gear, setting sail for the Bahamian island of Bimini—a mile-long stretch of land, where we spent the next four weeks living and filming Live Cargo. The exciting reality of my debut feature began to sink in.

Dree Hemingway in Live Cargo

We voyaged with our gear and crew from Fort Lauderdale to Bimini via sea plane and cargo ship. Bimini is made up of a north and a south island and the only way to travel between the islands is by water taxi. Each island has only one main road, which is narrow and unpaved in large portions. This dictated working with a small crew (including a second unit team with Nico Navia and Jordan Gzesh, and an additional photography team with Eric Koretz) and minimal lighting package.

My key grip, Tyler Winegar, devised a brilliant system of transporting gear in a chain of laundry baskets tied to the back of a golf cart. I minimized the size of my set-ups by shooting available light whenever possible, sometimes accenting with an Arri M18 as a way of separating the cast’s darker skin tones from the background. At night I lit using street lights, flashlights, fire and storms, augmenting with LEDs. Location interiors needed to remain authentic so we went with their pre-existing lighting, adding only a key onto the characters.

This shooting style created a stark and gritty aesthetic which aligned so perfectly with Logan’s vision for the film. Our black-and-white photography was the film’s way of taming the cheerful colors of the Bahamas and allowing the audience to focus fully on our characters. It allowed us to show the Caribbean in a fresh way, in which the muted colors heightened the film’s surreal effect. The footage was recorded in color which enabled us to isolate individual channels and change their brightness and sharpness during color correction.

Weather dictates your day in the Bahamas, especially during the storm season, where the constantly changing weather becomes a big part of everyone’s life there. Thymaya became a burgeoning meteorologist by the end of our shoot, spending hours a day poring over radar maps and shuffling scenes and locations to keep up with the island’s changing weather system. It was important the weather became apart of the film’s fabric. I was particularly inspired by this powerful atmosphere, which I wanted to work into the film’s visuals. My goal was to only capture elements that would not feel contrived. The brooding sultry sky was a perfect backdrop for our noir-ish thriller.

Director Logan Sandler and DP Daniella Nowitz on the set of Live Cargo

The storms proved most rewarding when shooting the climax of the film—a violent stand-off between the characters Roy, Myron and Doughboy, played by Robert Wisdom, Sam Dillon and Leonard Earl Howze respectively. We shot the scene outside an abandoned building at the edge of a dock and lit it by rigging a gas fire into a metal container. While we were prepping the scene, I remember remarking to Logan how I wished we had the ability with our equipment to backlight the water so that we could feel the churning presence of the ocean at this critical moment in the film. The weather gods heard my wishes, and before we started filming, a storm began breaking over the horizon. As the storm came closer inland, dramatic strokes of lightning broke out in the sky, one after another, illuminating the water for a few seconds at a time. We shot the action chronologically so that as the scene became more dramatic, the lightning came closer and got brighter and more frenetic. When we reached the final shot—an extreme wide of the dock with Robert Wisdom’s character standing by the fire, coming to terms with what he’d done—the rain broke out and began pouring down on the location. It was one of those lucky inescapable moments of natural symbolism, in which an unexplainable universal force made itself known to the characters in our film’s climax.

Live Cargo itself is a portrait of an island, and like all islands, it is defined by the sea around it almost more than by the land it contains. Water is a major theme in the film and it was important to Logan and me that the viewers feel as surrounded by water as the characters do. With this in mind, we spent three and half days shooting aboard a small fishing boat and countless other days wading in water and shooting next to the ocean. These were some of the most challenging moments of production. Boats tend to float adrift very quickly when not in motion, thus creating a lack of continuity in lighting direction and background while shooting a scene. After every couple takes we would need to reset the boat back in the same direction in order to maintain continuity. In addition, very few crew members could ride in the boat at one time. It was critical to always maintain an equal amount of weight at both ends of the vessel. Logan and I had devised long, handheld tracking shots as a way of accentuating Lewis’ (Lakeith Stanfield) discomfort on the sea. As my agile camera operator Julian Estrada deftly chased Lakeith from one side of the boat to another, the rest of us would run to the opposite side of the vessel, balancing out the weight of the camera move. Doing this for hours a day while glued to a small director’s monitor is a sure recipe for sea sickness.

Fire was one natural element used to light the sets of Live Cargo

The most exciting part of our water days was spent getting to know legendary underwater cinematographer Peter Zuccarini, a man who spends approximately 300 days a year underwater. There is a stunning sequence in the film in which Dree Hemingway’s character, Nadine, goes out spear fishing and has a darkly ominous encounter with a shark. Logan and I had created detailed storyboards of the scene with the help of talented storyboard artist Josema Roig, but we weren’t sure if the ocean would align with our visions of the uncontrollable forces of the ocean as our palette. Logan and Zuccarini coincidentally are both Miami natives, and Zuccarini subsequently has spent a lot of time in the waters around Bimini. He knows the reefs like the back of his hand and was able to take us to an area where we could swim with reef sharks, a breed of shark considered less dangerous than the infamous bull sharks which concentrated themselves off the docks of our hotel. We snorkeled behind Zuccarini and the stunt team as they dove deep down to the sharks’ eye level. Most of the shoot was uneventful with the sharks luckily ignoring our presence. But in a flash, a younger and bolder shark sped aggressively towards the team and as we held our ground—the perfect shot was captured.

Lakeith Stanfield in Live Cargo

We were blessed to be working with the talented colorist Marcy Robinson at Box Studios who graded the also black-and-white Frances Ha and much of Annie Leibovitz’ black-and-white photography. Together we were able to isolate specific color channels in the film, brightening and darkening them selectively within the black-and-white image. The application of film grain gave Live Cargo the texture of our visual references, lending a timeless feel. MM

Tech Box

Camera: Arri Alexa Classic

Lenses: Zeiss Ultra Primes

Lighting: Fire light, lightning storms, flashlights. Grip shaping natural lighting augmented by occasional HMIs, LEDs and tungsten Fresnels

Color Grading: The Box Digital with Marcy Robinson

Live Cargo opens in theaters March 31, 2017, courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky Distribution. Preorder it on iTunes here.

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