While fairly new to shooting narrative cinema, cinematographer Peter Donahue is no stranger to capturing images. He began his obsession with pictures while growing up in Boston, where he existed as a self-proclaimed “still photography buff” from a young age and parlayed the interest into an art school degree in the subject. After graduation, Donahue moved to New York City, were he found work as an assistant to photographers around town. A friend soon got him a job as an electrician on a small film and Donahue found a new love interest: Moving pictures.
“I worked on electric crews and was a gaffer for four to five years before I started shooting music videos and commercials,” remembers Donahue. “I shot a commercial for Errol Morris, when he was preparing to produce Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.. When Errol asked me to shoot his documentary, it was like a dream come true.” The DP then managed a few more documentary credits, including an episode of PBS mainstay “The American Experience” and Morris’ The Fog of War, before segueing into narrative work with 2005’s highly acclaimed Junebug. In these past four years, it’s become clear that Donahue’s lifelong infatuation with taking pictures has translated to fiction.
Bob Fisher (MM): Gigantic is your third independent feature. How did it come about?
Peter Donahue (PD): Gigantic was written and directed by Matt Aselton. I had been shooting commercials with Matt for about five years. He has become a close, personal friend. Gigantic was his first movie.
MM: What is the story about?
PD: Paul Dano plays a salesman in a mattress store who dreams of adopting a baby from China. His life is turned upside down when Happy, played by Zooey Deschanel, falls asleep in a bed at the store. Ed Asner and Jane Alexander play his parents. It was a wonderful experience working with Matt and such talented actors.
MM: Where was the film produced?
PD: It was filmed at practical locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and in Stamford, Connecticut. We found an abandoned warehouse that was the setting for the mattress store. You wouldn’t think of a warehouse as the setting for a mattress store, but it was a big space with perfect texture on the walls and windows in the right places for motivated, practical light that looks and feels natural.
MM: What was the production format?
PD: The producers initially spoke about shooting in digital video or 16mm film format because we had a meager budget. Matt and I convinced them that a widescreen, 35mm format was both the right aesthetic and affordable. We wanted to compose in 2.4:1 aspect ratio for two main reasons: It feels more cinematic and the environments at locations are like characters in the story. We decided on the Super 35 format, mainly using medium-long lenses. In the old days, we would have had to pump up the light in places where we were shooting. With today’s great films, we mainly augmented the practical light to create a sense of time and place and to augment moods.
MM: What cameras, lenses and films were you using?
PD: Our camera gear came from ARRI CSC in New York. We had two ARRICAMs—a Studio and a Lite—Zeiss Ultra Primes and a 12:1 Angenieux zoom lens. We were mainly shooting with [KODAK VISION3 500T] 5219 film.
Matt and I both drew on our documentary experience. I usually pushed the film a stop at night and for interior shots, and only occasionally used artificial light. We covered most scenes with one camera. The main exception was when we filmed Zooey, Paul and the baby. We wanted more coverage because we didn’t know how many good takes we’d get with the baby.
MM: What was your production schedule?
PD: We shot Gigantic in 24 days. Technicolor in New York did the front-end lab work. We did a little fine tuning at Deluxe New York using an EFILM Digital Intermediate workflow. Joe Gawler was the colorist.
MM: Another independent feature that you shot has earned kudos at festivals, and is being scheduled for release. Will you give us a snapshot of $5 a Day?
PD: $5 a Day is a road show comedy with a great cast, including Christopher Walken, Sharon Stone and Alessandro Nivola. Chris plays an older man who is kind of a grifter. He lives in a dingy, low-rent apartment in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Alessandro plays his son. They have been estranged for years but the father tells his son that he is dying and needs to get to New Mexico for a desperate treatment that could save his life. Sharon is the son’s former babysitter whom they meet on the road.
MM: How much time did you have to work on this project?
PD: We had around two-and-a-half weeks of pre-production. We scouted locations with different landscapes and architecture mainly in New Jersey and New Mexico, and a few in Pennsylvania. We shot the film in five weeks. It was mainly interiors with a few exteriors, mostly in the car.
MM: How did you design the visual grammar?
PD: [Director] Nigel Cole and I agreed that we wanted to create a docudrama aesthetic. We shot in Super 16 film format because a little grain looks and feels right for the story. We had to be nimble, move fast and make the most of natural light. We generally used a single camera with the exception of a big dance scene at a corporate party that [the characters] crash.
MM: Cinematographers choose films like artists select paints for their palettes. What was the film palette that you chose?
PD: I used KODAK VISION2 500T 7218 for night and interior scenes, 250D 7205 and 50D 7201 for daylight shots.
MM: Did you do a DI since you shot in Super 16 format?
PD: We didn’t have to do much tweaking of images in DI. Most of it involved what the audience sees outside of car windows as they are driving across country. It was late fall in Atlantic City at the beginning of the movie. We made the colors of trees and other foliage a little more monochromatic. As they drove across the country, we made colors warmer. The warmer look also reinforces that the son and father are growing increasingly friendlier and closer together. We also tweaked some skin tones.
MM: Has your background influenced you as a cinematographer?
PD: I learned about lighting and composition as a still photographer. Documentaries taught me to be unobtrusive and use practical light. When I was a gaffer, I learned to avoid lighting setups that constrict the movements of actors and their ability to see and react to each other. I also learned there is something magical about a film look.