Modern Love

The genesis of director Nicholas Jasenovec’s Paper Heart (cowritten by the director and star Charlyne Yi) was a prolonged affair, according to director of photography Jay Hunter. "Charlyne and Nick had to go around town explaining the idea to studio people, and I don’t know if anybody ever truly ‘got it’ until they saw footage," says Hunter. "The documentary aspect kind of pushes against the narrative, so it isn’t something you can really sum up easily."

In the film, Yi’s character is dubious about the validity of true love—or at least the stylized Hollywood notion of it—and embarks with a documentary crew across the United States and to Canada and France in search of a truth she can live with. As with many road pictures, it’s the journey undertaken that’s more important than any answer she can derive from the experience.

Charlyne Yi interviews a couple on the subject of love.

"It was a risky experimental narrative," Hunter elaborates, "but unlike a lot of ‘art’ films, it turns out to be accessible and entertaining for the mainstream. Working on something so different—under very trying circumstances—was extremely rewarding and due in large part to the company Nick put together."

The cinematographer had shot a variety of projects in both narrative and documentary veins, making him ideal for this hybrid storytelling. With On the Lot, Rock Star and The Chopping Block under his belt, Hunter had plenty of history shooting run-and-gun, another aspect that would stand him in good stead for Paper Heart.

"Jay and I started planning the look of the film before we even had financing," director Jasenovec explains. "So many of those early decisions were instrumental in what the film became. We really wanted the film to look like a traditional Super 16mm documentary. So Jay developed his own settings for the [Panasonic] VariCam, re-creating that look very well."

Relying on a pair of Panasonic AJ-HDC27H VariCam HD Cinema cameras was an early decision. "We had a very stripped-down crew, and no ADs. I was nervous about going anywhere that media management might be at risk and wanted a tape-based camera, so it quickly came down to the Sony F900 and VariCam. While the Sony is 1080i, I preferred the look of the 720p VariCam—something about native progressive imagery appeals to me, especially when printed onto film. If you take the cameras out of the boxes without changing settings, VariCam has a softer look, a more even falloff on the edges of lines. It tends not to represent that ultra-sharpness I associate with HD video, though I usually turn down the detail settings anyway."

Michael Cera and the ”director” (played by Jake Johnson).

Working with a pair of Los Angeles camera houses, Video Equipment Rental and R Gear, Hunter developed a rather unusual approach for capturing imagery. "VER’s engineering wizard Steve Lucas tested lenses and helped me create a couple looks," says Hunter. "We started by killing the detail circuit completely. We decided to give the image more of a ‘RAW-with-still’ camera look. That meant we lifted the blacks and midtones quite a bit and clamped down on highlights. This washed-out, low-contrast image was the best way to start, knowing we’d evolve a richer image in post from the dense capture."

The concept behind this look was to capture as much image detail as possible, regardless of the lighting conditions, which promised to vary widely. Hunter set zebra bars at 46 instead of the usual 64, and similarly lowered the knee point and slope. "Normally, we have more leeway with respect to over- and underexposure," he says, "but having smoothed out the gamma curves, the exposure had to be treated in a very exacting way. We were trying to extend our latitude so we could capture maximum information in blacks, mids and highlights. We created a curve that gave us a superextended dynamic range. If we overexposed by a half stop, suddenly the whole image would fall apart. We had to expose as if it were reversal stock in order to gain the latitude that you’d see in negative film stock. It meant fighting your instinct when seeing things look so dark in the viewfinder. You know, like, ‘I have to open up the iris a bit.’ But on playback with a large monitor, waveform and vectorscope, the information was all there."