Elliot Davis
DP Elliot Davis with director Catherine Hardwicke on the set
of Thirteen.

Look up Elliot Davis’ name and
extensive credits on the Internet Movie Database and you might
be tempted to call
him a cinematographer. But that’s only because there’s no category
for “artist.” As he’ll be the first to tell you, he makes his living
as an "artist who expresses himself through cinematography." Then
again, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet–particularly
those Web-empowered "critics" who have criticized Davis’
latest effort, Thirteen, for its use of handheld camera
and in-your-face close-ups.

The film tells the story of a teenager who will stop at nothing
to be accepted by the most popular girl in school–and Davis’ camera
documents the downward emotional spiral. Here, Davis discusses
the common vocabulary he shared with Thirteen‘s director
Catherine Hardwick, how passion is a cinematographer’s greatest
asset and why Steven Soderbergh’s career is like a weight loss
product disclaimer.

Jennifer Wood (MM): So how did you get involved with Thirteen?

Elliot Davis (ED): I got involved in
the film through Michael London, a producer whom I had worked
with. He brought the film
to me because he knew I liked socially-conscious movies. He called
me and said "I have a project here that you might be interested
in–but it’s low-budget." So I said ‘Okay, send it over.’
And he sent the project over and I read it and I liked it!

Then I met Catherine and we kind of hit
it off. We were both trained as architects–she was an architect,
I was trained as an architect–so we immediately had a common visual
vocabulary and I think that kind of got us going.

MM: What were the things that struck you about the script
visually as you were reading it? In this case and in the case
of scripts in general, what sort of cues do you take from the
screenplay in how you will visually present the story?

ED: The thing about me is that I am
a firm believer that a lot of times it’s hard to get rid of your
first thought. So I
try to stay totally open when I’m reading a movie script. I try
not to visualize anything if I can help it; I just try to feel
the script because I find that when you find a vision, it’s very
hard to let go of it. And a lot of times your initial vision is
really not right for the film, so you’re screwed! [laughing]  I
try to take my cue from my own feelings and from what the director
is feeling.

MM: What were the main issues you wanted to address
with the cinematography in

ED: Having an architecture background,
I’m a big believer in ‘form follows function.’ And when Catherine
and I were talking
about the film she showed me the images that she had collected,
which were really about texture; the film is about texture and
the kind of feeling texture evoked. It wasn’t so much about visual
image, it was about what you want the person to feel when they
watch the film. So then all the cinematography became about how
to evoke these feelings.

When I saw these images that she had collected,
a lot of them were color xeroxed, a lot of them were Photoshopped,
but they’d
all been altered and were what I’d call "hyper-real." They
were saturated and desaturated and then colorized and they all
had a very distinct look which gave you this feeling, and that’s
what I tried to build in.

MM: Considering Catherine’s background as a production
designer, were the conversations you had with her about the cinematography
different than the conversations you’d typically have with a

ED: Well they were in the sense that we had a common vocabulary
through architecture. Most directors that you work with are not
very visually acute, to tell the truth, because that’s not their
strong point–that’s not their training. Most directors come to
directing through writing or through getting attached through some
sort of deal. So it’s very rare that a director comes to cinema
through the artform itself, and Catherine does. So the discussions
we had were very ‘evolutionary’–like when one person would say
one thing, the other person would up it and then the other would
up that. So it was kind of like this diagonal ladder going up.

For instance, when we talked about color or saturation, she and
I both knew what we were talking about. Normally when you talk
to a director about things like that they give you this look like

MM: Or you’re referencing other films.

ED:  Exactly. Or you’re referencing
certain kinds of artists or paintings or buildings, in our case.
So the background was already
there for referencing, and we whipped through that really quickly
and got to the present. We got through all the references and we
both understood what those references were and then we came to
a reality. Which was good because prep was only four weeks long!

MM: Obviously one of the key choices you guys made was
to shoot on Super 16. Was the entire film shot on Super 16?

ED: Yes, the entire film was shot on Super 16. In the beginning,
we toyed with other mediums–high definition, digital video, 35–and
they were all limiting for various reasons. The main reason digital
video, including high definition, was eliminated was because Catherine
really wanted the texture of film. She didn’t want the digital
texture. And then, also in digital, you’re throwing away resolution;
35mm film has 3,500 lines of resolution and high definition only
has 1080, so already you’re throwing away two-thirds of your resolution.

So we opted for Super 16 because we kept film and we stayed lightweight–she
wanted the camera to be unobtrusive and mobile.

MM: When had you last shot on Super 16?

ED: I shot Super 16 on [Spike Lee’s] Get on the Bus.
So it was a very easy film form, and then we went to a digital
intermediate. We had all the information that film had and then
we were able to manipulate it digitally.

MM: A lot of low-budget, indie moviemakers really think
that DV is the only option. What considerations do you think
people should think about when they’re weighing their options
between shooting something digitally, or leaning toward a smaller
gauge film format?

ED: First of all what you have to think about is whether
your film is performance-based or action-based. Do you need to
keep the camera running a long time? And, again, what kind of person
are you–are you a visual person or a literary person? If you’re
a visual person, there are going to be certain demands you’re going
to make on the product you want based on how you see the world. And
you have to know how you see the world.
Catherine sees the
world very organically versus digitally. Although we all work with
computers, we use them as tools. When it comes to the actual product
that we want to make feelings with… if you look at all the great
art forms of the world, they’re all analog: paintings and drawings…
New forms are being invented in digital, which will invoke their
own feelings. But the great feelings that we’re used to getting
are all from an analog world–even in music.

MM: The look of the film is representative of the main
character’s state of mind: her out-of-control character is seen
through a handheld camera. What were some of the intentional
choices you made in shooting the film? What were the feelings
you wanted to evoke, and how did you go about achieving that?

ED: The look of the film is really interesting to me in
terms of camerawork and things like that because when I go onto
IMDB (Interned Movie Database) there are a lot of unsophisticated
people who criticize the film. And one thing they always hone in
on is the shaky camerawork, but these people are obviously not
into the ‘form follows function’ theory, because if they were it
wouldn’t even bother them.

MM: Or they’re not following the story.

ED: Or they’re not following the story because that form
of the camera comes directly out of the emotional state of the
character. And I don’t know if this film could have been shot any
other way. It could have, but it wouldn’t have been nearly
as powerful.

MM: What it really does is put the audience into the
role of ‘observer,’ where you really feel as if you’re in the
room with these characters.

ED: Really, I feel that way, too. This film to me is very
Eisensteinian in the sense that when two pieces of the film are
put together, you get a third reaction from the audience. And part
of getting that reaction is the way the camera treats the subject
matter. The camera is like a pitbull; it never lets go of the subject.
When the subject tries to get away, the camera follows them and
comes right back and even goes in there face like ‘Oh no, you can’t
do that–don’t ever try that again.’

Part of it is the zoom. The history of the zoom lens, for instance,
back in the television of the ’60s and some films of the ’70s,
it was just a very perfunctory tool. But in this film–it’s something
I kind of got into with Out of Sight that I shot with Steven
Soderbergh and with Get on the Bus with Spike Lee–I realized
that the zoom is an emotional tool in itself. Going from 25mm to
75mm–that travel represents power; it’s potential energy unleashed.
If there’s an emotional statement to be made, the camera is a participant
in that and it helps release that power. It’s sort of like the
long take theory that the Europeans use so well, where the take
can keep running because you don’t need to cut for a close-up.
So instead of making the cut editorially, you’re letting the camera
make it emotionally, in more of the Dogme sense. Even though this
is not a Dogme film, it’s Dogme shooting. The camera is feeling
what’s happening and then really capturing that. It’s really all
about capturing emotion, and a zoom is just another way to do that.