Eye Piece: Porto Used the “Lightest, Most Liberating” Film Cameras to Shoot Its Handheld and Long-Lens Scenes

Porto is a love letter to the timelessness of great cinema. Director Gabe Klinger is a scholar of cinema history, and he was keen to invoke the textures and traditions of older films and filmmakers for this project.

The story didn’t have to be told in Portugal, but it had to take place in an old city that was lost in time. Depending on where you turn a camera, the city of Porto can transport you to any decade or century, and this was essential in creating a feeling of drifting through time and history. It was also essential to Gabe and I that we shoot on film (as opposed to digital), because film has a way of distancing the image from the present.

The film is about two people on separate paths that intersect for one cataclysmic night in a foreign city. We wanted Porto to evoke both the feeling of time passing throughout their lives, and of events happening in the present, and we worked with a variety of film formats to achieve this. Super 8mm was used for the more fleeting memories throughout their lives, almost like home movies. Super 16mm was our verité format, used to document the important events in their lives leading up to and following their night together. We used 35mm for a more formal real-time feel to show the encounter itself, unfiltered by time and memory. Initially these were to be separate chapters, but in the edit they were integrated to strike more connections between the past, present, and memory.

For the 8mm footage, we tested a half dozen cameras and settled on three different consumer models which slowly fell apart as the shoot progressed. We developed our tests with a hand-processor in Porto, something that we were very excited about initially, but the results were too unstable. In the end we sent our final films to ColorCity, a lab in Paris that at the time was still processing color reversal.

Wyatt Garfield, behind the scenes filming Porto

For the Super 16mm, we were watching a lot of direct cinema and verité films, and we were determined to get into the minimal, essential headspace of those filmmakers as much as possible. We even looked into reviving the sound-on-film cameras Robert Drew and associates were using, like, the Auricon, which scribbled the location audio directly onto the camera negative with a pulsing, shuttered light. Ultimately we decided that if those filmmakers were shooting today, they’d be using the lightest and most liberating 16mm cameras, and it was more important to honor their intention than to reanimate the technology. We used an Arri 416 for all the handheld and long-lens scenes following the two lead protagonists, Mati (Lucie Lucas) and Jake (Anton Yelchin), through their solitary existences. After filming several of these scenes, I found I was having a hard time falling into step with Anton. At last, he revealed that he had been honing a nearly imperceptible limp in his right foot for the role, as though Jake had been injured in his youth but hadn’t healed properly. I just had to learn the limp, and from then on we were in perfect sync! Anton was extraordinarily immersed in the role, even limiting his diet to local junk food like “Francesinhas” (meat and cheese sandwiches that are typical in the region) the entire time we were in Portugal, true to his character, who at one point in the film tell us that he doesn’t take care of himself.

For the scenes that take place in real-time the night of the encounter, Gabe wanted to jump up to 35mm ‘Scope to make it feel grander and more immersive, as the evening is experienced for Jake and Mati. We wanted it to feel less dated than the other material, so we shot with cleaner lenses (Cooke-S4s) and designed all of the scenes as single shots or series of shots with as little coverage as possible. Even the lovemaking scenes were designed to feel continuous and unyielding, unlike many love scenes which are minced together from a variety of angles in order to feel discreet. We did, however, shoot them very dark, keying two and a half stops under and filling three stops under from the key side, which veiled them in grain and rendered them in simpler forms, so that the nudity was not awkward and distracting.

Lucie Lucas and Anton Yelchin in a scene from Porto

The thing I love most about shooting film is that it removes everyone from the immediate results. With digital, you’re constantly seeing how the image will be rendered, which takes you out of the moment. When I look through an optical viewfinder and hear film whirring through the gate, I become totally tuned into the event happening in front of the camera, which is the essence of filmmaking. Each take is a unique event which cannot be repeated. An actor cannot do the same thing twice. This is true with digital, but somehow it’s easily forgotten. Seeing the picture on a monitor makes you think you can refine it endlessly, and that the final, flattened image is most important. It’s not. Good directors can maintain that immediacy and intimacy of the event when working with digital systems, but with film cameras it is inherent in the technology. This is why so many films we love from the last century feel so spontaneous and “raw.”

For us, it’s not about the aesthetic qualities of film (though those help); it’s the way film changes the process. With Porto, Anton and Gabe wanted to get back to this kind of filmmaking, which embraces chance and acknowledges that a movie can never be made the same way twice; that it is a product of who you cast and work with, and where and when you shoot. Thousands of factors influence the events that happen in front of the camera, and it becomes a cultural and historical artifact as soon as it is captured. Unfortunately, with Anton’s passing, this philosophy became even more real for Gabe and I. We’re very grateful to have the film as a recollection of our time with him.

Tech Box

Cameras: Arri 416 and Arricam Studio and Arri LT

Lenses: Zeiss Ultra16s and Cooke S4s

Film: Kodak 7219, Kodak 5219, Kodak Ektachrome and Fuji Velvia MM

Porto opens in theaters in New York November 17, and in Los Angeles November 24, 2017, courtesy of Kino Lorber.

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