Andrew Rannells, Kerry Washington, Meryl Streep, Jo Ellen Pellman and James Corden in prom (Courtesy Melinda Sue Gordon / Netflix)
Matthew Libatique likes to say that sometimes the lighting has to be the lead guitarist and sometimes the drummer. The Prom is definitely a lead guitarist of sorts.
The Prom is an adaptation of the popular musical and follows four Broadway personalities (Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells) who hope to improve their careers by serving as "celebrity activists" in the service of One Gays in the small town of Indiana are banned from attending the title event with her partner of choice. Now, while the movie is streamed on Netflix, Libatique spoke to the filmmaker about working with spherical lenses, shooting Applebee, and how Excel spreadsheets are his secret weapon for controlling the chaos of a movie set.
Filmmaker: Is The Prom the first project you created directly for streaming?
Libatique: Chi-Raq (for Amazon) was technically the first to be produced by a streaming service, but it was still a theatrical release. Prom was the first time I knew it was going to be pretty much a streaming movie.
Filmmaker: Has that changed anything for you?
Libatique: I'm so new to the streaming platform that it wasn't. I did the same. I was definitely aware of how the workflow could change due to the streaming aspect, but my approach was the same. I always said: "I'm taking photos for the premiere." I shoot for the best scenario. When we started making the film it was pre-pandemic so I thought there was going to be a premiere and that's what I shot for.
Filmmakers: A lot of filmmakers seem to love working for Netflix – directors of a certain stature, certainly – because they are given a degree of freedom and control. However, if you are a cameraman, you have to adhere to certain technical parameters for Netflix or the other streamers.
Libatique: 4K! (laughs) The first person to rave about Netflix was James Ponsoldt. We did a movie together called The Circle and he did some Netflix stuff afterwards, and I remember him saying, “You would just love it. They are so movie friendly. "And I have to say he was right. It was an experience I didn't feel limited to.
Filmmaker: You've made a few films about the classic Alexa and the Mini, but for The Prom you went big with the Alexa Mini LF. Was a large part of it just the LF that met the 4K requirements and the regular Mini that didn't?
Libatique: Yes, absolutely. I love the Arri sensor and what it does right out of the box, and I love the Mini for both its form factor and image. So I was fascinated by the Mini LF. It was satisfying that the 4K mandate and I could still take pictures with the sensor I was used to from the last three or four films I had made earlier. So for me it was a breeze.
Filmmaker: There are some cameramen like Roger Deakins who use the same gear over and over, but they have always been more agnostic. They shot Red and Alexa, Arricam and Panavision, different lenses. Why do you like to switch from show to show?
Libatique: I think I'm a punishment glutton. (laughs) I did my previous four films anamorphically, which I absolutely love, but I hate repeating myself over and over again. I feel like things look the same. I want every movie to feel custom made. So I really wanted to crank it up and make it spherical (on The Prom), mostly because I knew I had a large cast and didn't want to force that shallow focus mood on a movie that often had four people in one take. I wanted to familiarize myself with the spherical lenses and at the same time use the added value of the larger sensor. So I kind of wanted to see if I basically got my cake and can eat it too. I could take the group shots, but I could also take advantage of the shallow focus (of the larger format) when focusing on a single one.
Filmmaker: You used a combination of Leitz Primes and Camtec Falcons for these spherical lenses. How did you commit to it?
Libatique: I first used the Leitz Full Frames in a short film with Olivia Wilde called Wake Up and experimented with them on a Sony Venice. I just loved the fall. I've always loved the soft waste their lenses have when something in the highlights gets into the higher range of grayscale. It has a quality: not too sharp, which I'm trying to avoid, but sharp enough to have clarity and color rendering. So from a technical point of view, I knew I would perform with these lenses. When I got back to the idea that I wanted to shoot spherical and knew this film was going to be dipped in color, I thought these lenses would be perfect for it.
Filmmaker: And the falcons are a series of full-screen stills remodeled in the 1960s that Camtec put together?
Libatique: Yes, they were developed by Camtec with Bradford Young for Solo. Brad then developed the Black Wings with the Tribe7 guys, especially Neil Fanthom. But for the Falcons, they took an old set of Canon glass and started playing with the coatings, creating what they called the Falcons, aptly named because they were made specifically for Solo. I wanted something that covered the LF and immediately gave me a visually different atmosphere from these Broadway characters than the characters from Indiana.
Filmmaker: So you start with the Leitz glass for Broadway and the Falcons for Indiana. How did you mix the two sets when the Broadway characters invaded Indiana?
Libatique: I do this timeline at the beginning of every show where I think about it, "When would I switch tech?" For example, there's a performance by Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) called "It's Not About Me" at a PTA meeting that we used Falcons for. But it was also a moment where we took our Broadway palette into this realistic world while using the Falcons and some Black Wings that I also rented to get as many aberrations as possible. Then, slowly but surely, as we got into the film, I began to incorporate Leitz glass into the performance scenes in Indiana. The idea was to infiltrate this Broadway virus (laughs) into this city in Indiana with the Leitz glass until most of the final performance takes place on that glass.
Filmmaker: How did you deal with the big song and dance numbers? They play in many wider, moving shots where it seems difficult to incorporate multiple cameras at the same time. It's not an action scene where you can sit back with C and D cameras on long lenses and just pick out details.
Libatique: Definitely. We started with an agile master. Once we figured out what the main camera on the steadicam was doing, we included the cantilever arm, a movi on a distant head, or even a second steadicam which was a luxury I had. For every scene, be it narrative or musical, (director / producer) Ryan Murphy knew where he wanted special cuts. He is very editorially versed and knows what he wants. So we would adapt to the Master and know that at certain moments we are tailored to these special recordings. Ryan is a man of brave choices. (laughs) He wanted the camera to move almost all the time.
Filmmaker: I read in an interview that you use an Excel spreadsheet to organize yourself, but I wanted more details on that. What are the headings in this table?
Libatique: The table helps me keep up with the arc of the narrative. I mainly use it to partially deconstruct each scene. For example, scene 31 can have four different parts in which the tone changes or a scene is passed from one actor to another. A case in point is prom, which is a moment when two people finally meet and then move on to the breakup of each and every Broadway character. There are many parts to this scene, so I'll break it down for myself. That's the only way I really know how to do it. I hate chaos and filmmaking is so messy. The more control you can have over what you're looking for, the less chaotic it is.
But the chapter headings, I literally start with the scene number, the description of the scene, then I have a heading that says "Who is the scene?" Then I have columns for camera, lighting, grip, VFX, art department and for each scene I write notes about what I need from each one.
Filmmaker: You had a great quote in another interview about how sometimes light has to be the lead guitarist and sometimes the drummer. In The Prom, you're not only concerned with the subtle shifts in dynamics between the characters just described, but also with very noticeable shifts from reality to the realm of theater, complete with stage-inspired light stimuli.
Libatique: It was fun, but all you have to do is ask yourself, "When is it too much?" Ryan is someone who loves bold decisions, but you know that at some point there is a limiter. It's like, "Okay, go, go, go, go. Whoa. That's too much." (laughs) That was the rhythm of our relationship and it's an interesting way to work.
Filmmaker: I want to ask how did you manage to light certain scenes? Let's start with the party at Sardi's, where Streep and Corden go to partying after the premiere of their Broadway musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. This is a good example of how you've incorporated lighting fixtures into production design.
Libatique: It was a classic collaboration between the art department, production designer, cameraman and lighting department. We had the option to remove parts of the ceiling, but Ryan was dying to see that ceiling so we had to put units in the soffits that could both light up and change color. We live in a time when RGB LEDs offer us so much flexibility. There were things we did in this film that we couldn't have done five or six years ago.
Filmmaker: What units did you use in the ceiling?
Libatique: We used a lot of LiteGear LED tape. The rooms were so thin that we couldn't put asteras in these soffits. One layer of ribbon wasn't enough, so we doubled them up to get enough environmental value for them to jump into the ceiling to capture the scene.
Filmmaker: Is the Eleanor Marquee from this window a substitute for a green screen?
Libatique: No, they rebuilt that sign on stage. So we are examining reality there.
Filmmaker: Was it functional backlighting for the characters near the bar too?
Libatique: I am against backlighting as a general issue. (laughs) When I was in film school (Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro famously said, "The world is backlit," and he's not wrong. But that backlight is not aimed at a person, it is the light from a background, It took me years to understand – I wasn't looking for the light to meet someone, I was looking for the separation that the light created. To answer your question, yes, it hit you There's a shot that hits Meryl and James during the musical performance and you see these guys who basically have no light on them dancing around (the bar area) and the separation comes from the light from that sign. The brightest light of one The shot doesn't always have to be on the actor's face.
Filmmaker: I have to ask about the dinner scene between Streep and Keegan-Michael Key at Applebee, where they do a theatrical fade out that turns the place into a performance space. Is this a build or is it actually an Applebee?
Libatique: No, that was a real Applebee. This also speaks for the current time. We had a camera with the sensitivity of Mini LF and LED technology that allowed us to light up battery-powered lights without having to power them. We could put them in places where they are hidden and have them all dim from 50 percent to zero for that kind of effect.
Filmmaker: What would you like to wrap up: the Monster Truck Rally, Meryl's PTA meeting song, or the Bob Fosse-inspired number?
Libatique: Let's talk about "Zazz", the Fosse number. I would say that's what struggled with the most. At that point I really had to think, "How far do I go here?" It was a construction but I still light a house to be a theater space.
Darren Aronofsky (Libatique's frequent contributor to Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, among others) and I sometimes go to the theater on Broadway just to see the lights. I remember that off-Broadway piece with Scott Glenn. He went out naked and turned on a fluorescent light in a kitchen in the middle of this whole stage and I thought that was so powerful. That was one case where they took a naturalistic lighting concept and put it in a theater room. I had to figure out how to do the opposite – take a theater lighting concept and put it in a realistic space. For me that was probably the most difficult achievement.
We used a combination of things: Arri L10s that gave us the hot headlight that came in through the front window; Color forces and asteras create this kind of marquee effect on the stairs. and SkyPanel S60s in the main windows of the foyer that cause the color changes. Then I got the stupid idea of putting a 20K on a dolly track and moving it back and forth in front of the house because all I needed was a layer of absurdity. (laughs)) This is where the hot highlight comes from – literally a 20 km run on a mini crank where one man makes sure he doesn't fall over, another man on a dimmer and two handles that hold him the entire length and push the house on a piece of track.
Filmmaker: You mentioned a few times what it means to work with Ryan to bring things up to date. In which scene did you go the furthest beyond that line?
Libatique: At the very beginning of the film there was a scene called “Dance with You” where Emma and Alyssa walk through these magenta trees. It was such a big expanse, I had to do it in the old school. I had beebee lights that created this color with gel. If you are using LEDs, you can change the color or desaturate. You can say, "That's too much." When you gel an HMI light the question is, "Well, you get that." This is an example where Ryan said, "I think it's just too much."
Filmmaker: Right. You can't jump on the iPad and call it back 10 percent in a matter of seconds.
Libatique: No, not on the Bebee. There are a limited number of things we could have done other than maybe littering them in the neighborhood windows. (laughs)
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog, Deep Fried Movies.