Given the 23-day shooting schedule for first-time feature writer-director Justin Simien’s Dear White People, it makes sense that an overarching visual strategy was economy. "I think part of the reason Justin had such a clear-cut desire for certain compositions, blocking and framing was due to what he knew was going to be an ambitious schedule," says DWP cinematographer Topher Osborn. "It also reflected how adept he was at making sure all the different departments were on the same page. Because he had his vision dialed in so concretely, he was able to let go easily when needed and just let me light a scene, or [the art director] dress a set."
Besides production designer Bruton Jones—who’s known for his work on huge studio features like Armageddon and Underworld—Simien’s crew was largely comprised of new and emerging talent in the below-the-line filmmaking world. The majority of Osborn’s experience comprised of commercials and documentary feature films—two of which premiered at Sundance—but this would be his first narrative feature. And costume designer Toye Adedipe, well known as a celebrity stylist, jumped into this project headfirst, with not much time to prepare. "I didn’t get a lot of time to digest the whole scope of this project," says Adedipe, laughing at his memories of pulling everything and anything from his apartment to put into a bag and bring to set. "So my initial thoughts were, ‘Hold on. This is my first film. Can I actually pull this off?’"
Pull it off he did, along with the others that HDVideoPro got the chance to pick the brains of—costume designer, art director, production designer and cinematographer, in all—to better understand how collaboration of talents can come together to make one of the most unique and innovative film concepts to hit the theaters in quite some time.
HDVP: What type of aesthetic were you going for in Dear White People?
Justin Simien: I wanted to do that sort of weird, black, art house, funky, artful, self-aware thing that Spike Lee and Robert Townsend were doing in the 1980s and early ’90s. There didn’t seem to be a place for it in American cinema anymore, and I knew we wanted to go for this hyper-real, distinct version of the world. This is about the American Black experience, at large, this is satire, and it’s meant to be a microcosm.
HDVP: And how did that inform the cinematography?
Simien: The movie refers to many different cultural aspects. I knew in my head, just as a lover of cinema, this kind of movie warranted very direct cinematic references. For instance, the scene at the box office where the kids are complaining that there aren’t any good Black movies anymore—it’s a cinematic quote from the 1920s with Metropolis by Fritz Lang.