Sundance 2019: Cinematographer Jon Keng

This year’s Zeiss Art Motion Event has attracted some prominent cinematographers to discuss their approach to the craft of shooting on set. Jon Keng joined the conversation to reveal his technique of lensing, “Before You Know It,” which is currently competing in the US Dramatic Competition.

Keng says that the team completed the film’s color correction less than a month ago, while principle photography finished in September. “It’s an independent movie shot in New York on a modest budget,” Keng says. “You need personnel who are driven to finish the project because you never have enough time to get everything that you ideally want.”

With a shoot of only 23 days and a month of pre-pro, it was important for Keng to nail down the look of the film with director Hannah Pearl Utt: “It’s important to analyze the script with the director, go through the thesis of the film, the progression of each character and the major scenes before you focus on the logistics,” Keng says. “I also like to shoot scenes with the camera of choice to analyze the look with the director before moving forward. You always look to find a new visual language on each film that you make.”

Two Alexa Minis were selected for production with Cooke S4’s glass. “I used Zeiss lenses on other projects earlier last year, but I had little time to prepare on this film plus I have a lot of experience with them. I just felt the S4s were perfect.”

Keng then turned his attention to lighting and commented on how the use of LEDs is now very widespread in the film industry. “These days it’s more about controlling subtle, soft lights indoors,” he explains. “Most of the major key lights on actors were LEDs.”

The two camera packages allowed Keng to shoot simultaneously in scenes during production. “I had them side-by-side a lot of the time,” he says. “I liked this because I don’t like it when you need to crop in. So I had one camera closer to the eye line and another slightly wider.”

He also commented on what it was like working with Alec Baldwin and Mandy Patinkin: “You need to give them space to work. You can’t ask them to hit a specific mark and say a line, because…why would they listen? You have to give them the freedom to move around and do their work.”

Keng also rolled during rehearsals, explaining how you never know when the magic will happen on set. “I don’t want to miss that,” he says. “I think it also helps the actor’s mindset knowing they are [always being] covered. I think the minute you call ‘cut,’ the energy built up on set evaporates, so I keep rolling. There are a lot of comedic beats in the storyline, so I also wanted to shoot solid coverage for the edit. You need to find those beats in post and capture the heart of the performances.”