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Sundance 2017 — TIME & DATE & LOCATION — Deidra & Laney Rob A Train
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HOLIDAY VILLAGE CINEMA 1
Sundance 2017 — TIME & DATE & LOCATION — The Little Hours
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Sundance 2017 Q+A — Quyen Tran, Cinematographer for Sundance 2017 Films Deidra and Laney Rob A Train and The Little Hours
David Alexander Willis: “It felt like snow, but it wasn’t cold.” – A quite chilling quote from a project called Voices of 9.11, where you are describing the dust settling as the World Trade Center tragedy was unfolding. Your move to a career as a photographer and ultimately cinematography was inspired by AP image publications of the photos you took during 9/11? Certainly that impact on your life and your career cannot be understated?
Quyen Tran, cinematographer for Sundance 2017 films Deidra and Laney Rob A Train and The Little Hours: My experience on 9/11 is the reason I became a filmmaker. I quit a very cushy corporate job to pursue photography full time–I realized life was too short and I wanted to make an impact somehow, not grind away at numbers all day. Shooting for newspapers started the road to storytelling, which inspired me to try my hand at on set photography. So, when I stepped onto the set of an NYU grad film as a stills photographer the first time, I immediately took to the camera department.
David Alexander Willis: How did you first begin working with Deidra and Laney Rob A Train director Sydney Freeland as well as director and writer Jeff Baena for The Little Hours? Both are playing at Sundance; were these two shoots bookended for you?
Quyen Tran: I didn’t know either director before the interview, but I hit it off with both of them and was lucky enough to be offered two incredible projects back to back. I shot with Jeff in Italy first, went back to Los Angeles for 4 weeks, went to Las Vegas for a doc I’d been shooting for the last year about mentally disabled parents, then went straight to Utah. It was rough, but I’d like to think the hard work paid off!
David Alexander Willis: I can see from your portfolio that you are often working back-to-back, do you have a favored camera system to be able to move so quickly across projects, or do you just prefer to learn them all? What was lighting and lensing on these two productions?
Quyen Tran: I love shooting on the Alexa camera systems for my narrative work, and for my documentary work I love the design of the Amira. Its ENG design fits my body perfectly, so I’m very comfortable going handheld on it. I also own a C500 for documentary work, which has really helped me when I need to stay small and unobtrusive. In this day and age you have to be familiar with multiple formats, but thankfully there are positions like camera assistants and DITs which make us DPs look like we know what we’re talking about! On THE LITTLE HOURS my biggest light was the Arri M40 HMI, and I had two of them, so those keyed all my daylight scenes. At times I needed more light to balance the interior with the exposure outside, as I did not want any windows to blow out, especially for scenes where we would track an actress from inside a dark convent to a sunny exterior. I remember having to place a light inches away from an actor’s face, which is something I had to do given the resources, but thankfully everyone was a team player! I used ultra bounces, light grids, negative fill and unbleached muslin for my exterior work, and at night I used about 25 par cans to light up the forest. We shot on the Cooke S4s with the Hollywood Black Magic Filter. On DEIDRA & LANEY I used the Arri M90 HMI for most of my daytime interiors, but I also had 12Ks for book lights to create larger, softer sources through the windows.
David Alexander Willis: From drama to documentary, over the many worldwide productions that you have put together, your portfolio of films is very well-rounded, but there is definitely a lot of comedy and black comedy. That medium can be so tough to capture successfully, as you need to give performances improvisation and breathing room, while maintaining a sense of story and aestheticism with camera movements. Do you have advice for younger cinematographers in shooting for laughs?
Quyen Tran: I think comedy is very tricky to shoot, because I feel like you have to have a deep understanding of it–it’s all about timing, rhythm, delivery, tempo, so as a DP it’s important to also understand those traits. My husband performed at The Upright Citizens Brigade for years while we were living in NYC, and I myself even took a class there, so I was exposed to lots of comedians. For me, understanding comedy is just understanding character–whether it makes you laugh or cry, it all comes from believable characters experiencing real emotions. I feel the same is true for drama, and the more you live life, the more empathy you gain which leads to more connectivity with different characters, both onscreen and off. So, yeah, go travel, see the world, meet people, and be open to new experiences.
David Alexander Willis: What inspired the following move to film work and narratives from photojournalism? Can you elaborate on what you are looking for when you say in your bio that story always come first?
Quyen Tran: After stepping onto my first set as a stills photographer, I was taken with the camera department. I saw the collaborative process and realized I wanted to be a part of a team. When I’m reading a script, I have to understand the story so that when I’m on set, I know what shots are needed to tell that story in the most compelling way. My favorite part of preproduction is breaking down the script with the director. I like to know why this scene exists in the film? How does it further the narrative? What’s the character’s motivation and story arc? To fully realize a vision I need to understand the script first. My mentor Roger Deakins always asks “What’s the story?” And until you fully grasp the story, I don’t think you can do the movie justice.