Cinematographer Ross Richardson And The RED EPIC Add A Touch Of Evil To The New York Times
Since you’re reading this online, you’re probably well aware of the sorry state of print newspapers. Going along with this trend, The New York Times is coming up with creative ways to add eyeballs to its website by offering content you just can’t get from print. Just in time for awards season, The New York Times Magazine recently unveiled an amazing online video gallery of contemporary Hollywood actors recreating their favorite “nefarious icon” for the computer screen. Directed by Alex Prager, and shot by cinematographer Ross Richardson, the gallery, Touch of Evil, showcases buzz performers such as Brad Pitt portraying the title character from Eraserhead, Michael Shannon doing his best Gordon Gekko, Rooney Mara as Alex in A Clockwork Orange, and several others. But keep in mind, these short films are not parodies, but original and fully realized interpretations of the character shot in a lyrical and stylized fashion. For print edition, Touch of Evil was also featured as a photo spread in their December 6th edition. These films really prove how online video has exploded in the past few years with filmmakers finding an exciting new platform to showcase their cinematic experiments.
HDVP spoke with Touch of Evil cinematographer Ross Richardson via Skype on how the project came about, some of the unique cinematography tricks he employed on the project, and working with the RED EPIC camera. A former gaffer, Richardson transitioned to a full time cinematographer in 1999 and has shot over 200 music videos and commercials, as well as three features.
HDVP: Can you tell us how Touch of Evil came about?
ROSS RICHARDSON: The director, Alex Prager, is a friend of mine and we did a short film six months ago for W Magazine. It was kind of strange in the sense that with the celebrity talent, it took about two months to shoot it. We first shot Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life) in New York and then two weeks later, we shot Gary Oldman. We then did three days where we jammed everybody together and then finished with Brad Pitt on November 22, so it was very spread out because of people’s schedules. This is the second year in a row that The New York Times has done this series along with a photo spread, and last year’s edition won an Emmy for web films. They really had high expectations for the films this year.
HDVP: Can you talk a little about some of the shorts? What was the overall concept of the project?
RICHARDSON: Every actor picked a “villain” to play, such as Brad Pitt playing the title character in Eraserhead or Rooney Mara playing the lead in A Clockwork Orange. Others were a little more abstract but we tried to do something unique for each one. For Brad Pitt, we did a 40-foot long dolly move in but I zoomed out as we pushed in, giving it a kind of weird look. It’s pretty subtle and then at the very end of the track, I zoomed back into his face. For Rooney Mara, we photographed the sequence and then reversed it so everything had to be orchestrated in reverse. For the Ryan Gosling one, in which he turns invisible, we did everything in-camera. When he landed at his number two position, we locked the camera off and then he put on a velvet mask and pair of gloves to do the transition to make him invisible. The New York Times had a rule that we couldn’t do anything that couldn’t be accomplished in Final Cut Pro. There was no money for green screens or visual effects so we had to do in camera effects for everything.
HDVP: So what kind of equipment did you use for the shoot?
RICHARDSON: We shot it all on the RED EPIC camera. B2PRO donated a lot of equipment and worked within our budget. They supplied the cameras, lighting and grip and I supplied the lenses and the support for the camera. We had a plethora of lighting instruments depending on what the situation called for. But I mostly used hard light – all tungsten and mostly Fresnel units. Alex likes a classic ‘40s look to her photography. Brent from B2PRO was super supportive and we couldn’t have done it without him.
HDVP: Have you shot a lot of projects with the EPIC?
RICHARDSON: No, this was my first one. I’m a really big fan of the ALEXA. I own both an ALEXA and a RED ONE and I’ve been going back and forth with the EPIC. After shooting this project, I feel it’s definitely a unique tool and we used every aspect of the camera. We shot 300 frames on the one with Adepero Oduye. On the Jessica Chastain short, in order to be able to start on a close-up of her eyeball and pull out as we did, I put the camera on 2K and utilized punching in on the sensor so I could get in tight enough with the lens. It’s a very malleable camera and it has a lot of little tricks that other cameras don’t offer.
HDVP: Can you elaborate more on “punching in” on the sensor?
RICHARDSON: The RED EPIC is a 5K camera and you can put it to various resolutions. What that does is called windowing the sensor. So if you had a rectangle and that’s your 5K image, 2K is taken out of the middle of that. In other words, if 5K is the equivalent of 35mm, 2K might be the equivalent of a 16mm image. So I was trying to figure out with the tools that I had, how can I get in tight enough on Jessica’s eyes since I could only get so tight on my zoom lens. I remembered that trick with the 2K windowing because ultimately these films were only going to the web so I could lose some of the resolution. It’s just one of those things that makes the camera really unique.
HDVP: What has the feedback for Touch of Evil been like?
RICHARDSON: I got inundated with phone calls, email and text messages the day that it launched and I’m still getting emails about it. It was a fun project in the sense that we had a lot of different stories that we were trying to tell and looks we were trying to achieve. It was really like a music video in that there were no rules. We could do whatever we wanted.
A perfect example was the Kirsten Dunst film. That was all shot with a Lensbaby and about two thirds of the way through, there’s a weird out of focus look that are created by using filters I had made. I had people hold in front of the lens to make it go kind of blurry and weird. Just doing something in-camera to give us a unique look. The Jean Dujardin short with the boxing, I shot that with an 11 degree to give it this high-energy frantic feeling. That’s something the ALEXA and EPIC could offer you but other cameras could not.
HDVP: You’ve shot a few projects with DSLRs. With some of the new digital motion picture cameras being released, what is your take on the future for DSLRs in professional filmmaking?
RICHARDSON: It’s a really interesting time for digital cameras and I don’t know where everything’s going to go but to answer your question, I think the 5D Mark II, 7D world is going to be around for another two to three years. I think the market that has bought into it is still the film student slash guy in the Midwest that doesn’t have access to PL mount lenses. I think the DSLR market is going to stick around a little bit longer until something of that price point with better quality comes out.