Behind the Lens: The Kings of Summer with Ross Riege
COW Library : Cinematography : Ross Riege : Behind the Lens: The Kings of Summer with Ross Riege
Growing up in Wisconsin, Ross Riege first picked up a camera in middle school when he had a chance to shoot movies instead of write term papers. Although Ross wasn't sure what he wanted to do in the film world, he says the first time he put his hand on a (film) camera at NYU, he knew that was what he was interested in. Riege is inspired by photographers Elliott Erwitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, and cinematographers Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC and Emmanuel Lubezski, ASC, AMC.
I consider myself fortunate to have gone to film school at NYU, although I don't consider film school a necessity to have a career in film. In fact most directors I've worked with come from art school backgrounds. At NYU, everyone around me was striving to be a writer or director, so I had so many opportunities to learn more about shooting. I was in one of the final classes at NYU that got to shoot on ARRI-S [16mm film] cameras and edit our projects on Steenbecks. I can't imagine how different my approach would be today if I hadn't learned to meter without the crutch of an HD monitor, and how much I learned about storytelling by editing on a Steenbeck. Hand-splicing every cut taught me the intense purpose and decisiveness that goes into every edit.
We are in this exciting digital age where there has never been more access to equipment and technology, and there is an immediacy that speeds up the learning process exponentially. But now, more than ever, there is no formula for launching your career. There are tons of little projects happening all over the place that give us opportunities to experiment with all these emerging technologies as well as blend them with old technologies. At the same time, resources tend to be tighter than ever, so it's truly a trial by fire where we all have to learn to be resourceful and adaptive, move fast and meet tight schedules while still achieving our creative goals.
As I've learned, the transition into work that involves more money, more creatives, and more politics, it takes a lot more than just speed, creativity, and resourcefulness; dealing with budgets and human resources in your crew are a whole new level of responsibility.
After film school, I moved to LA and began shooting as much as possible. There is always a ton of hungry, ambitious, and talented directors around, and while there was never much money, we were resourceful and creative. One particularly fulfilling job was a music video I did with Toben Seymour for a band called the WILLOWZ. It was all stop-motion animated light drawings. We shot with a dozen digital SLRs in exposure times varying between 3 and 30 seconds. We barely had any money and the idea was insanely ambitious, but we spent a lot of time in prep and were able to shoot for three days with lots of helping hands. The result was a beautiful video that much exceeded expectations and ended up getting profiled in American Cinematographer.
I've been fortunate that I've worked with a number of directors whose careers have grown substantially through the years. It's great to have a relationship forged in the trenches that yields work with larger budgets and opportunities to continue pushing new boundaries. And while having a long-lasting relationship with a director doesn't mean I'm the right one for every job they do, it certainly pays off to have strong personal relationships with the people you collaborate with on such an intimate level.
Whether you're shooting something for the web or for theaters, the most important thing is that you're making good work regardless of the way it's being distributed. When you are putting all of yourself into your work, it's important to be decisive in the kinds of projects you want to do. In the end I want to overachieve in projects I take on, take risks, try new things, and learn. And that's what is fulfilling.
I have a director friend who constantly reminds me, "DPs have the best jobs in the world!" And I couldn't agree more. My work is constantly changing, and I get opportunities to work with a variety of directors, each with their own unique personalities and aesthetics. In my collaborations I'm always gathering new viewpoints about the craft, and in this way many directors I've worked with I would also consider mentors.
I'm currently shooting a feature documentary in Alaska with director Greg Kohs. I've worked with Greg on a number of projects over the years and we are always looking for the best way to tell the story, the most authentic way to recreate an experience. In the documentary world, things are always changing and you learn not just to react, but to respond. I've also learned a lot about lensing with Greg. When you can't have a world of focal lengths at your fingertips, you learn to trim things down to the bare essential tools, realizing the huge difference a couple of millimeters can make in telling your story visually.
A few years ago I shot a web series called Single Dads with Jordan Vogt-Roberts. There was no time and no money so he emptied out his apartment and I lit the space 360 degrees. We could shoot in any direction at any time and Jordan was able to improvise with his actors and blocking. We did a similar thing in our short, Successful Alcoholics, and again on our feature, The Kings of Summer. I've found that giving Jordan the freedom to work in such an open environment is not only critical in making our days, but has become a crucial in the way he works to improvise and maintain momentum with his actors.
I was a long shot for The Kings of Summer. As in most cases, it's difficult to get an opportunity doing something you've never done before. There was a process in getting my foot in the door and proving I was the right one for the project, and I was fortunate it worked out. The majority of the proof came from Jordan pushing for me. That's a huge risk for a first-time feature director and it meant a lot that he really stood up for me. I think that helped motivate me to bring everything I had to the project and prove they made the right decision.
Before I was even a part of The Kings of Summer, Jordan and I were shooting a TV show for Comedy Central called Mash Up, where we shot with anamorphic lenses on RED Epics but framed 16:9 for TV. In retrospect this became a part of our lens testing for the feature.
Panavision Hollywood's Rik Delisle and Guy McVicker have been my guys for years. They helped us a ton in putting together the right package for The Kings of Summer. We spent months looking at different anamorphics and testing them on ARRI Alexas, RED Epics, and even the Panavision Genesis. Although Alexa is generally my first choice, our budget wouldn't allow us to shoot ARRIRAW. The Epic looked great in our tests and its small body complemented the large lenses we were using, which helped them to be a bit more physically manageable. Our budget was so tight and Jordan and I had many specifically designed shots planned, so Panavision helped us work out a "day play" schedule where we were able to ship in specialty lenses as we needed them in order to keep costs down. There are a number of shots in the movie where we literally shipped in the lens the night before, completed the shot, and packaged it up to be returned the following day. It required a bit more planning and communication than normal as the schedule was constantly changing. But it made a huge difference in enabling us to shoot with the lenses that were best for the movie.
In prep, Jordan and I lived a few doors away from each other and spent most of our time in his apartment living room designing shots and sequences. We spoke a lot about the tendency for indie films to use unmotivated handheld. Often this is essential just to be able to move fast and keep things light. But we wanted The Kings of Summer to feel big and we were committed to designing the camera to move only in ways that enhanced the story. This meant putting in the extra time and effort to plan for specific lens perspectives and Steadicam choreography. Although we didn't have the resources to be picky, we used our time in prep to plan extensively because we knew that when we went into production there would be no time to slow down or hesitate.
I'm a big fan of Terrence Malick's work. His aesthetic in Tree of Life, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and particularly in Days of Heaven, with Nestor Almendros and [additional photographer] Haskell Wexler were big influences on our visual style. It was really humbling when The Hollywood Reporter noted our "tip of the hat" to Malick. I've been flattered to hear comparisons to references like Malick and movies like Stand By Me and The Goonies.
Production on The Kings of Summer was 26 days long, 6-day weeks. On our one day off each week, Jordan, the writer Chris Galletta, and I would head out with the camera and the kids and shoot additional pieces and montage scenes with them. These were things we didn't have time to fit in the normal strip schedule but were still so crucial in the story. It actually served us better to have the freedom and mobility of our tiny crew and a lot of material from these days ended up in the film. The opening shot of the movie was from one of those days; the kids found a big rusty pipe and started banging on it and we set up a shot and Jordan recorded the audio on his iPhone. Not only did the image become an important part of the film but the audio was sampled by our composer, Ryan Miller, and incorporated into some of his original music.
Jordan and I are fortunate in that we speak the same language of spontaneous filmmaking. This was crucial on the film because we depended on capturing a lot of these authentic moments of 'boys being boys' and most of this filming had to take place on our days off. Keeping our crew to just Jordan, Chris, and myself enabled us to move quickly, and be adaptive and spontaneous, and this provided us with some really special moments we couldn't have created on a controlled set with a large crew.
The Kings of Summer.
The clearing in the woods where the house is built looks like it's deep in the woods, but it's actually a couple hundred feet behind a house so we could stage everything there and work out of the house. It was a very production-friendly location although working in the heat of summer in a confined shack was a bit of a challenge. We didn't have the resources to do things like flying big overheads on a crane and it's never simple to control light in daylight exteriors. We were fortunate to be able to schedule around the sun and often shoot in ideal natural light.
For most of the interior work in the movie, including the house in the woods, Ross lit so that they were able to shoot 360 degrees.
For most of the interior work in the movie, including the house in the woods, I lit so we were able to shoot 360 degrees, which enabled Jordan to improv with the actors and maintain momentum. As we'd move the camera to a new setup I'd sneak in a quick lighting tweak here and there. But I never had time for big re-lights; in general, we had to keep things quick and economical. But I was able to bring in HMI Balloons for a few days and some larger heads for night exterior work. Outside of that, we kept things simple and depended on our scheduling to make the most out of the natural light.
I was fortunate to have a great second unit DP in Mike Berlucchi. When we met during our abbreviated prep, he quickly got on board with the tone I was going for. I told him I was jealous he was going to have so many opportunities to explore the wilderness and make beautiful shots - much like the opportunity I had as a second unit DP on Redland years earlier. While we were trudging through our scene work on set, sometimes Mike would be operating a second camera with us; but when we had the opportunity to send him away, he made great images for us and was right in line with our aesthetic.
We were aiming for a look that was natural and cinematic and that, in the woods, contained a fantasy element. Our color work was done in the DI suite at Blacklist in Hollywood. Jordan and I put in a lot of work with our colorist, Narbeh Tatoussian, who we worked with previously on Mash Up. Some of the work you do on a small budget such as ours means some shots don't end up getting the time they deserve on set, and there were a few setups when the light was fading where I had to dig deep in our ISO to get even a fraction of the exposure we needed. We were fortunate to massage some of these images and get what we needed out of them in post. Blacklist was really on board with us and believed in the project, which was a great advantage. We were really happy they gave us the time and the tools to put in the color work that the film deserved.
I'm excited to hear the positive buzz we've been getting and look forward to seeing how it plays in front of more widespread audiences. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to do The Kings of Summer and now it's opening a lot more doors for me - not only in the feature world, but in the commercial world as well. And there will always be smaller web content work as well; no job is too small when I have the chance to be creative and bring a part of myself to the project. I consider myself fortunate to do what I love every day. It's a very rare position to be in and I continue to be as hungry and focused as I was when I first moved to L.A., always looking for the opportunity to make great images and tell a compelling story.
The Kings of Summer was released theatrically on May 31, and will be released to Blu-ray and DVD on September 24, 2013.
The Kings of Summer - Official Trailer [HD]