Generally speaking, I like to employ a hefty amount of handheld camera work. My background is in documentaries, and I love the freedom handheld offers to the operator, as well as the feeling it brings to the screen. Because of this, I tend to lean toward very natural or very motivated lighting, the kind of lighting that feels like it isn’t even there. However, on Dear White People, we went in a whole different direction. The very stylized images we were referencing really informed the lighting style. It felt like we could let go of natural motivations, at times. It seemed like compositions not only allowed it, but also demanded it. This was something my longtime gaffer, Corrin Hodgson, had to keep reminding ourselves—it was against our norm, but it was a lot of fun to take things in this direction.
Bruton Jones: My and Justin’s main focus was to strengthen the narrative by juxtaposing the rigidity of an academic setting within the framework of the camera lens. I wanted to reinforce the collective consciousness in today’s society by using a visual narrative via the institutionalization of stereotypes and racism. We showcased this narrative by what’s most prominent in today’s society: social media.
HDVP: How did art direction complement those goals?
Cheri Anderson [Art Director]: It was important to be able to show disparities between the various groups on campus. Expressing the hierarchy there, even amongst the school administration, was important to supporting the message of the movie.
Justin’s sense of style is unique, and I appreciate how thoughtfully he considered art direction. He wanted a look that was balanced and symmetrical for certain scenes. This is very different than my personal aesthetic, which was a good exercise for me in leaving my asymmetrical-loving side at home. He knew what he wanted and was able to give us great reference materials to follow, which allowed the set decorator Melissa Pritchett and I to review and make proposals for set dressing.