Shooting The Kitchen: Keeping one location visually interesting

In early 2011, my longtime friend and collaborator, director Ishai Setton, told me about a (very) low-budget feature he was trying to get off the ground called The Kitchen. I had shot his first two features, The Big Bad Swim, and 3 Days of Normal, and while those were also low-budget films, we shot them in a miniaturized version of the way a typical movie is shot—with many locations, a real crew, SAG actors, and on the best shooting format available that we could afford (Super16 for The Big Bad Swim, and Red 4k for 3 Days of Normal).

According to Ishai, The Kitchen would be a different animal altogether. It was a passion project that he wanted to do regardless of whether or not we could raise any money to shoot it. The script, by Jim Beggarly, seemed to lend itself well to no-budget style filmmaking. It was all set in one room—the titular kitchen—during a party, with an ensemble cast in their twenties and thirties that could be comprised of the many actor friends we knew in LA. We would shoot it in Ishai’s own house, with only available light and practicals, little to no crew, and entirely handheld with my Canon 7D DSLR.

I was apprehensive, but also excited about the many challenges of shooting this type of film—not the least of which was how to make a movie that all takes place in one room visually interesting. Here are some of the tools, tricks, and techniques we used to try to accomplish that goal.

Camera Choice

On our previous collaborations, Ishai and I had gravitated towards an ambitious cinematic style, which we both enjoyed, but this would be a fun opportunity to take the opposite approach. I had bought the 7D with just this sort of project in mind—a no-budget project with friends that might have previously been shot on DV, and would benefit greatly from the DSLR’s more filmic look and shallow depth of field.

However, I was also well aware of the DSLR’s limitations. You can’t pull focus on the lenses made for the camera. There’s also no way to record professional-quality audio on the camera. There are no built-in tools to help you judge focus or exposure, unlike on professional video or digital cinema cameras. The aliasing and moire problems you can get with very detailed shots can make certain angles unusable. There is a distinct lack of detail in skin tones. The highly compressed recording leaves very little room to manipulate the image in color correction. You are limited to recording clips no longer than 12 minutes when shooting HD. And perhaps the biggest problem of all for a “professional” shoot is: the camera constantly overheats, requiring you to stop production to let it cool down, or carry a back-up camera body (or several) to switch to when this inevitably occurs.

I had seen some high-profile indie features that had been shot on the 7D at theaters and film festivals, and while they were often well-shot, the camera’s technical shortcomings were immediately apparent and exaggerated by the big screen. While I was convinced that the 7D was not the right camera for a theatrically released film, it still seemed like a logical choice for the tiny, homemade The Kitchen.

We began making pre-production plans, but soon things started growing. Name actors wanted to do the film.  We realized we would need some crew and that Ishai’s kitchen was too small. We started scouting locations. And as the film grew bigger, my hesitation to shoot on the 7D grew as well.

The camera’s shortcomings are inconveniences that on a “no-budget” shoot can be worked around, but in my opinion, they are also all deal-breakers when it comes to using it on a professional set like the one The Kitchen seemed to be turning into.  I explained all of these issues to Ishai and our producer, Emily Ting, and they both agreed that the 7D did not seem like the right camera for our project after all.

(Director Ishai Setton works with actors Laura Prepon and Brian Greenberg)

Luckily, Sony had just come out with a brand new “prosumer” level camera called the FS100. It had the same shallow depth of field as a DSLR, but with all the features you would expect from a professional video camera. It had the same Super35 sensor as Sony’s popular F3 digital cinema camera, but with a list price of under $5000, it competes with a DSLR in price—especially once you factor in all the extra accessories and backup camera body you need to make a DSLR a viable shooting option. It was almost as small as a DSLR and just as light, which was important for us since we would be confined to one room and were planning to shoot almost entirely hand-held. It had remarkable low-light performance. And unlike the Canon 7D, the FS100 had a very short flange focal depth, which meant that, with the use of various adapters, you could use almost any lens ever made that would cover the Super35 frame.

We decided to shoot the film on the FS100. We borrowed a 17-50mm T2.9 Red Pro Zoom lens from a friend of mine, which we used about 95 percent of the time. Because the lens was adapted by Red for cinema, rather than still use, it had reasonably usable focus marks and held focus throughout the zoom range.  We also used an 85mm F2 manual focus still lens.

Because we had a very short, 15-day shooting schedule, a lot of dialog and often many characters to cover in each scene—and because we were in the very unusual situation of shooting the entire film in script order—being able to move quickly was a top priority. Shooting mostly hand-held and with a zoom lens helped allow us to do that.

(Using a light, hand-held camera helped to move around the tight location quickly and easily)

Location

On low-budget films, you rarely shoot on a stage. Practical locations can usually be found for much cheaper, and if you find the right ones, they can require very little work in order to make them look good. However, The Kitchen was a low-budget film that seemed to be a good fit for a stage. There would be only one room to build, and we would be able to build it in a way that gave us the camera angles we wanted, whereas we might not find a real location that worked the same way. Most of the film takes place at night, but for logistical reasons, we had to shoot it all during the day. This would not matter on a soundstage, but could be a problem at a real location. On a stage we would be able to spend a day or two pre-lighting, and then be lit for the entire shoot. This was much less likely to be possible at a real location.

Nevertheless, shooting on a stage proved to be too expensive, so we started looking at practical kitchen locations. Ishai, Emily, Valerie, and I all had our own criteria we were judging possible kitchens by, but in the back of all of our minds was the same question: Can this one room be visually interesting for an entire 90-minute movie?

The movie is called The Kitchen, obviously, and a key part of the pitch is that it takes place entirely in a kitchen. To Ishai and me, that meant that every shot had to involve the kitchen. The camera could be in the kitchen, looking out, or it could be outside of the kitchen, looking into it, but to show any perspective that was not of or from the kitchen would be cheating.

One of the things that we liked about the kitchen we ended up using was that it was really two rooms that could both still be accurately called “the kitchen.” There was the kitchen itself, and there was an eat-in area. The two were separated by one of the kitchen’s counters, but both could easily be seen from the other. This layout allowed us much more opportunity to vary the shots we used than a kitchen that was actually one single room would have. We could stage some scenes in one part of the kitchen and some in the other. We could stage some scenes so that the characters started in the eat-in area, then walked into the kitchen proper, or vice versa. We could shoot action in the eat-in area from the kitchen area, and action in the kitchen area from the eat-in area. Each area was painted a different color, and had its own design elements, so each felt like a very different space. But for the purposes of the story, both could count as being part of the kitchen. Ishai did think calling both rooms “the kitchen” was a bit of a cheat, but in the end it helped us enormously in creating a visually varied look, and was one of the main reasons we ended up choosing the kitchen that we did.

(The location that was chosen had two rooms that could together be called “the kitchen”)

Lighting Strategy

Due to the short shooting schedule, large ensemble cast, and frenetic pace of The Kitchen, Ishai wanted as much flexibility as possible in terms of where we put the camera. We came up with ways to light the kitchen 360 degrees so we could change camera angles and the way we would cover a scene at a moment’s notice. The actors had a lot of flexibility to move around the room however it felt natural to them, and we could just alter the way we planned to shoot the scene based on that blocking, rather than keeping the blocking the way we imagined it to suit the lighting and camera angles.

When we first realized that we weren’t going to be able to shoot on a soundstage, we started scouting practical locations, and finding one with a high ceiling was one of my highest priorities. I figured if the ceiling was high enough, we could build our own grid to hang lights from with wall spreaders, and accomplish the same pre-lighting technique we would have used on a stage in a lower-budget way. We looked at a lot of kitchens, but in the end, we only found one that was big enough, looked appropriate for the story, had a layout we liked, and that Ishai, Emily, production designer Valerie Green, and I all felt could work. And it had a low ceiling.

We had to throw all our dreams of pre-lighting the set for the entire film out the window. But it was still important to us to be able to look in any direction at any time. In the end, we came up with some compromises that still allowed us to do that. The film starts during late afternoon, and because we were shooting in script order, that meant the first few days of the shoot would be a daytime lighting setup. We lit these daytime scenes with typical movie lights, HMIs, from outside the windows. Inside, we had a couple of Kino Flos on stands that could be quickly repositioned as needed for fill light. Because our key light was coming from outside, and our fill could be moved around quickly and easily, this setup gave us a lot of flexibility.

About 80 percent of the film takes place at night. As the sun goes down in the story, the party and the action start to pick up, so it was the nighttime scenes that were most important to us in terms of being able to shoot 360 degrees. Because of the low ceiling in the location, I knew we wouldn’t be able to do this by using traditional movie lights.

Valerie, the production designer, made sure there were lots of practical lights throughout the kitchen, and my electric crew wired all of them with dimmers. The problem with relying solely on practicals, though, is that if they are bright enough to light the scene, they are usually too bright to look good themselves in the frame. They tend to be large, distracting, blown out hotspots. If you dim them down to the point that they look okay in the frame, they are no longer bright enough to light the scene sufficiently.

The solution to our problem of how to light the kitchen 360 degrees turned out to be Christmas lights. Valerie remembered from The Big Bad Swim, our previous film together, that I love Christmas lights. They seemed like appropriate decorations for a party thrown by twenty and thirty-somethings, so she suggested hanging some in the kitchen. The nice thing about Christmas lights is that, even though the bulbs themselves may be blown out, they are so small that they don’t create large, distracting hotspots like lampshades do—just small points of lights that actually look really nice in the frame. And of course they look even nicer when they are out of focus.

 

(The FS100 was capable of capturing good-looking images with very little light)

Valerie’s suggestion gave me the idea to light the nighttime scenes entirely with Christmas lights, and the other practical lamps throughout the kitchen. The practical lamps and hanging fixtures were dimmed down until they looked good on camera, and then supplemented in every direction by white Christmas lights that ran along the ceiling all the way around the room for ambient light. This allowed us to shoot in any direction. I also had my crew build several additional units out of Christmas lights that we could use to add some direction to the light. The main one we used was a 2’ x 3’ sheet of plywood that we stapled hundreds of Christmas lights onto. We attached a baby pin to the back so we could put it on a C-stand and put a dimmer on it. We also built several smaller, 1’ x 1’ units that could be tucked out of the way into corners and tight spaces.

(The 2×3 Christmas light rig being adjusted)

All of the nighttime scenes in the film were lit this way. The actors would block the scene, we would decide which angles to shoot based on the blocking, and be ready to shoot almost immediately. We would move our 2′ x 3′ Christmas light rig somewhere it would be out of the way of the action, dim it up or down as needed, and we would be ready to go. Thanks to the low-light sensitivity of the FS100, the practicals and Christmas lights provided enough illumination to shoot.

(The Kitchen actress Laura Prepon in front of, and lit by, Christmas lights)

Once we were ready to move from the daytime scenes to the nighttime scenes, we took a day off from shooting and the grips blacked out the entire house with large solids and rolls of Visqueen. The front porch and back patio were tented out so that characters could appear outside in those areas, and it would look believably like nighttime, even though we shot the film entirely during the day.

Shot Selection

On our previous films, Ishai and I meticulously shot listed every scene, and then pretty much stuck to that itinerary. For both practical and aesthetic reasons, this time we wanted to come up with our shots and coverage on the fly. Once the party got underway, Ishai wanted to keep the camera moving to reflect the energy of what was going on in the film. That’s one of the reasons we decided to shoot it mostly handheld. That, combined with our zoom lens and our 360 degree lighting, gave us the flexibility to change shots and angles freely.

Nevertheless, I’ve always believed in doing as much pre-production work as possible. Even if you’re going to change things, having a plan allows you to make smarter decisions about how to do that on the day. With that in mind, Ishai, assistant director Jonathan Betzler, and I sat down over the course of several weeks and painstakingly shot listed every scene. We would make an educated guess as to where in the kitchen the scene would work best and where the actors would be, and then draw a complicated overhead diagram of all the characters’ positions and camera angles.

When it came time to shoot each scene, however, we would watch a blocking rehearsal, and nine times out of 10 we would throw our plan out the window. The best way to cover a scene always became much more obvious after actually seeing it.

(An overhead diagram illustrating a plan for shooting a scene, which was disregarded after seeing a blocking rehearsal)

We did always keep in mind various ways to keep the shots different and interesting. We would shoot over, under, or through various objects or people scattered around the kitchen. We would use slow, subtle zooms for key poignant moments throughout the film. We shot through windows and from other rooms into the kitchen. We had extras placed in other rooms that could be seen from the kitchen, so it always looked like there was a real party going on in the rest of the house, even though we never focused on any action that didn’t involve the kitchen.

(Director of Photography Josh Silfen scopes out a shot through a window)

In the end, does it all work? Does the film manage to stay visually interesting, despite taking place in one room? You’ll have to watch it and tell me. Fortunately, you’ll have a chance to do that. The Kitchen opens March 14th in select theaters, followed by nationwide digital/DVD/VOD release on April 9th.

The Kitchen Trailer:

1 Comment

  1. Frederick Louis Richardson

    April 3, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    A handsome trailer…but the genesis of the film reads like a no-budget production that found itself a budget. I’m left wondering what that original concept might have been–fully produced in the original kitchen with the 7D DSLR. No doubt it would’ve been some other movie; I’m intrigued enough to wish it could have been the one that got made. Necessity always forces invention and thereby innovation.

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