How Far Would You Go for the Perfect Lenses? For the Director of Midnighters, These Were Worth the Effort

It’s five in the morning and I’m starting to shiver. The thermometer hovers at 10 degrees but it feels like it’s negative 20 with the wind. On any other night I’d be eagerly waiting for the sun to rise and warm the night air but, tonight, the sun spells my certain doom.

The light will kill any chance I have of getting the most critical shot of my film, Midnighters, and of capturing a moment we’ve spent months planning. I cue the stunt supervisor to start, and he radios the stunt driver, who steps on the gas and floors the car idling down the road. The rusted-out Honda accelerates down a country road and crashes into a man standing there. With a grunt, he flies into the air and lands 10 feet away, on an asphalt-colored cushion. As the medic gives a thumbs up, I do a merry little dance of joy—it was perfect.

The very next words out of my mouth are, “So, who’s up for going again?”

The journey from idea to screen is usually a long one, and for my brother Alston and me it was no different. He’d read an article some years back about a woman who hit a man with her car. The man plunged through her windshield and, unbelievably, she kept driving. She drove him all the way back to her house where she parked the car in the garage and listened to him die over the next two days. My brother and I both thought, how could someone do that? How could a seemingly normal person do something so horrific and inhumane? Was there something different about her, or could anyone snap if put in the right circumstances? That was the germ of Midnighters.

DP Alexander Alexandrov and director Julius Ramsay on the set of Midnighters

Alston got to work on a screenplay while I began researching visuals. I went through the canon of thrillers that I’d loved as a teenager. One film kept jumping out at me: Danny Boyle’s 1994 thriller, Shallow Grave. I loved everything about that film, from the rock ‘n’ roll pace to the cinematography to Ewan McGregor’s breakout performance in his first starring role in a film. I wanted to recreate the same magic that had inspired me to pursue a career in film in the first place. But I also wanted it to be something new and fresh: something entirely our own.

The most important thing a director does is set the tone of a film. As my brother wrote, three words kept flashing through my head: gothic fairy tale. A heightened sense of reality. While the actors’ performances would stay grounded and authentic, the visuals and feel of the film should stay slightly out of time and place. This juxtaposition would allow me to create a world that had a distinct tone and serve as a larger-than-life backdrop for the drama of our story to unfold. The tone would come across in color, composition, music, everything.

By chance, I met an incredible director of photography named Alexander Alexandrov. Alex has a fantastic eye, and his work displayed an amazing talent for the use of color and light, as well as a naturalistic approach to cinematography that conveyed that otherworldly tone I was looking for. As we spoke more about the project and my vision for the film, we quickly agreed that there was no other way to shoot Midnighters than on anamorphic widescreen. Although the story would take place in a small number of locations, we wanted it to have an epic scope. Nothing depicts that better than a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Films like Lawrence of Arabia and The Deer Hunter depicted the landscapes of the Middle East and Vietnam respectively in glorious CinemaScope; I wanted to do the same thing inside a dilapidated house in rural Rhode Island.

Alex Essoe as Lindsey in Midnighters

We decided to shoot on the Alexa—it has an unrivaled ability to see into darkness, which was important for the low-light situations we’d be filming. The next big question was what kind of lenses to use? In this age of ultra high definition, cameras depict reality in such sharp, crisp detail it’s often unnerving. We needed lenses that would work against this depiction. We needed lenses that would smooth down the rough edges of reality and ease us into the world of color and light that we were creating. What we really needed was a throwback to the old Panavision lenses of the ’70s, when the Technicolor world was bathed in rich hues of gold and blackness etched on 35mm film—and Alex had just the lenses to get us there.

If I was trapped on a desert island with a camera and had to make a film to get home, and I could only bring along one lens to use, it would without a doubt be the 55mm Hawk Anamorphic Vintage ’74 lens. Made by Vantage Film, the Vintage ’74 series is an offshoot of Hawk V-Lite Anamorphic series, but with an interesting twist. The ’74 recreates the look of the old Panavision lenses from the 1970s, through the use of coatings on the glass and other proprietary techniques. Essentially, the lenses emulate the imperfections that exist in old glass: light anomalies, warping, vignetting and the like. But the genius of these lenses is that they’re crafted with modern mechanics, using the most advanced techniques in existence—and that means sharper focus and more light through the glass. You get all the advantages of the gorgeous lenses from the ’70s with none of their drawbacks: weight, slow speeds and soft focus. Additionally, the lenses produce a lower contrast image with creamy skintones and a slightly tweaked color palette, further giving an image a unique, organic look that ameliorates digital harshness so prevalent today. These lenses are both rare and expensive; there are only 20 sets in existence, and they’re used by such luminaries as Steven Spielberg. Clearly, it wasn’t going to be easy to get my hands on a set.

I tried the obvious channels first, going through camera houses and a TV show that had used them before. Everyone said the same thing: “Even if you find a set to rent, you won’t be able to afford it.” Not taking no for an answer, I stayed up into the wee hours of the night and called the manufacturer in Berlin. I eventually spoke with a friendly executive for the company who agreed to take a look at my materials for Midnighters. I’d created a look book for the film which showed the specific types of imagery I wanted to capture. (This is an invaluable exercise for anyone gearing up to direct a film.)

Ward Horton as Smith in Midnighters

I waited with eager anticipation for a few days, and finally heard back from the executive. He said they would agree to rent me the lenses for a fraction of their market rate. I was in stunned disbelief. He said that the company liked to support independent filmmakers and, given that my shoot would occur during their rental off season, they’d love to support my project. The company wound up loaning us a 28mm, 35mm, 55mm and 80mm lenses. This range of focal lengths was more than adequate to cover us in any situation, but above all, the images they created were beautiful. Reality went into the camera and out came haunting, poetic, gorgeous footage.

Obviously, lenses alone don’t create beautiful imagery, and I would be remiss if I didn’t thank, in addition to our incredible DP Alex, our gaffer Nghia Khuu and our key grip Brandon Meadows. Also, I have never seen a focus puller as dead-on as our first assistant camera Jeanna Kim. And our second assistant camera Eric Waldron never missed a beat.

Only a talented team working together can capture a beautiful film, and we did it. But the unsung heroes of Midnighters were the four Hawk Anamorphic Vintage ’74 lenses that were there through every frame of the film. Every joy and every heartbreak went through those beautiful pieces of glass, designed to take us back to a bygone era where there was no digital and film was king. Digital may be here to stay, but if you want to take a Technicolor trip back in time when you shoot your next feature, give Vantage Films in Germany a call. You may have to stay up all night to talk to Berlin, but you’ll get your gothic fairy tale. I guarantee it. MM

Midnighters world-premieres at LA Film Festival on June 19, 2017, at 9.35pm at Arclight Culver City. Tickets and more information here. Watch the trailer below.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

[i]
[i]