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Behind the Lens: James Mathers Talks About 'Brake'

COW Library : Cinematography : James Mathers : Behind the Lens: James Mathers Talks About 'Brake'
CreativeCOW presents Behind the Lens: James Mathers Talks About 'Brake' -- Cinematography Feature

James MathersJames Mathers
Digital Cinema Society
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Brake official trailer



Promo poster for Brake
The director, Gabe Torres and I have worked together off and on for 20 years on a variety of projects from episodics, to commercials and music videos.

Having worked together on so many projects, we had developed a shorthand that goes a long way towards making things efficient. He was also better prepared than any other director I've worked with, a trait that came in very handy when shooting Brake.

The project began for me when I met with the producers -- all pretty young guys. This was their first feature and they'd raised some private money to make a very modestly budgeted film. They'd found, and were attracted to the script by Timothy Mannion, and they thought it would be the perfect project to do on a low budget.

Because Brake was all in one location and featured one actor -- Stephen Dorff -- except for the very end, it was do-able on a lower budget. It was all shot in a warehouse in North Hollywood. Stephen Dorff became an Executive Producer and was a participant in the project, which helped keep the budget in check. The script was also something designed to be done quickly.

We shot the movie in sequence, which is unusual. We did it that way because we could! Normally, when you break down a script, you break it down by location in order to conserve resources. But with one actor and one location, we decided we might as well do it in sequence. This helped us get through quicker. We also shot in very long sequences. Sometimes we'd shoot 30-minute takes. You couldn't do that on 35mm, with 11-minute rolls at most.

I shot with RED cameras, which I happen to own. Because I'm founder and president of the Digital Cinema Society, RED hired me when the camera was still top secret to do some testing. So I knew it was coming out and bought one of the first cameras. I've got serial #30, and now there are probably 10,000 cameras out there. I also own a lens that is like a crown jewel. The Angénieux Optimo 17-80mm is wide enough to get very wide shots and long enough to get close-ups. I usually put this on the A camera and don't take it off all day. It's T2.2 so it's very fast. I have a set of Zeiss standard speed Primes that I used on the B camera. And they cut really well together.

It's also important to mention that when this project came up, I'd just gotten the new MX sensor that went up to 800 ASA. I found I could push it even further to 2000 ASA, which is quite low light. Brake really couldn't have been shot this way without that new sensor.


Stephen Dorff in Brake
Stephen Dorff as Jeremy Reins in Gabe Torres' Brake. Also, title image. Photo Credit: Brake, LLC./IFC Films.


Throughout the movie, Mr. Dorff is locked in a box in the trunk of a car with an LED clock, which I decided to use as my Keylight. That helped to overcome the challenge of shooting the box, which had lots of shiny surfaces at irregular angles, creating the potential for innumerable reflections. Constantly shooting two cameras doubled this potential. With the LED clock as my Keylight, as the red digits counted down to the next turning point in the story, those reflections added tension. They became an attribute instead of a problem.

As you might imagine, a digital clock doesn't give off a whole lot of illumination. In addition to the LED clock, I had 1x1 Litepanels moving around outside the trunk, so glancing streaks coming through cracks would suggest movement. I was able to sneak in the occasional LitePad for fill. Rosco LitePads are only about a quarter of an inch thick, so they are easy to hide and they give off a nice sourceless fill. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, such as 12" and 6" squares, various small rectangles and a few circles with different diameters topping out at 12".

Practically all of my lights were LED with the exception of the occasional K5600 HMI Joker when I needed a bit more punch. This allowed me to operate at very low wattages, off house power. I never needed a generator. Since LEDs run cool to the touch, it also helped to keep the inside of the box at as comfortable a level as possible. Given that Mr. Dorff was in that box for the entire shoot, this was the least we could do.

Then there's the scene where the box fills with an explosive liquid, as the kidnapper-terrorists attempt to get him to talk. Of course, any time you work with water, it's a challenge. He was actually locked into the box, filled to the top with water. You have to give him credit for everything he was willing to go through! I had to make sure we didn't drown him or electrocute him. We went entirely with low voltage DC, which is very safe. With a short, AC could kill you. With DC, you probably wouldn't notice it.


Stephen Dorff in Brake
Stephen Dorff was actually locked into the box, filled to the top with water.


The footage was recorded onto RED drives, which worked fine for the sequences without a lot of camera movements. Another new technology we found helpful was SSD media, which allowed me to sometimes shake the camera quite violently without dropping frames. Anytime we knew we would be thrashing around, we went to the SSD media. The very solid three-way locking system of the Anton Bauer Gold Mount also proved necessary to keep the batteries from flying off as the camera was being flung around.

All that shaking was another way the shoot was physically tough on Mr. Dorff. The way we were able to achieve the effect of Agent Raines bouncing around inside the trunk was to actually bounce him around inside the box while the camera was hard-mounted and moving with the vehicle. We simulated the car being driven all over the city when in fact it never left that warehouse in North Hollywood.


James Mathers on the set of Brake
James Mathers on the set of Brake


I do have to give a lot of credit to John Mott, the production designer. He found Vehicle Modification Technician Michael Bowser, who created a simple, elegant solution to modify the car. They made it so that we could pull off every panel in the car, which let me shoot from any side. With the back wheels locked in place, a team of "Trunk Wranglers" (their official credit), leveraged a 12-foot metal post coming out from where the front of the car would have been to slam the actor around inside the box like a pinball in an arcade game. I was able to shoot 360 degrees in any direction, and that kept the movie from becoming too static. Using a Jib arm, I was able to go from eye level to zoom to the top of the box looking down at Mr. Dorff, all in one move. I got another unique angle with pulling off the bottom of the car and shooting looking up from ground level.

We didn't rehearse a lot but went through each piece for up to half an hour at a time, and then we'd shoot each piece three times. That would give us six angles. We'd do a chunk in the morning and then in the afternoon. With only 12 shooting days, we had a lot of pages to go through every day.

James Mathers on the set of Brake
James Mathers
Sound design also played a critical role in telling this story. Academy Award-winning designer Richard Beggs took on this role. Since the character played by Mr. Dorff can't see outside the confines of the car trunk, the footsteps walking around the car, a police siren or the distinctive roar of a Harley Davidson are his only clues as to what is going on around him. Composer Brian Tyler created a stirring soundtrack, and we did a Surround Sound mix at George Lucas' Skywalker Sound.

Sam Restivo worked not only as the Editor but also as the Digital Lab up until the Digital Intermediate, which we did at LaserPacific. Our workflow began with backing up our 4K RED R3D files on the set with the aid of R3D Data Manager. We would hold a RAID-protected copy on set and send another to Sam's edit room via 1 TB shuttle drives. Sam transcoded the R3D files overnight to ProRes 4:2:2 and cut on FCP7. He worked with a very large flat screen monitor, which helped evaluate footage. It's a pet peeve of mine, when working on most indie movies, that we normally never get to see our footage on anything bigger than the small portable field production monitors that can mask subtle focus problems or other issues. In our case, we were looking closely for reflections. The large monitor in the edit suite was very helpful when viewing dailies. With the RED Rocket card, Sam was easily able to keep up and we could see dailies the next morning as necessary.

For the DI, we were blessed to have a terrific colorist Damian McDonnell, who had cut his teeth on Lord of the Rings. I was happy to supervise the DI. We were right on the edge of being too noisy. I felt that I could get away with that, because it was a gritty movie and a certain amount of noise would be acceptable. But you don't want to go too far with it. In the DI, we helped that out and made sure you could see everything you needed to see in this black trunk, except in the building when he's in limbo. Making sure we didn't go over the edge with under-exposing things was the biggest job in the DI.

I'm proud of my work and hope that lots of folks get to see it properly projected on a big screen during its theatrical release starting March 23 in New York and Los Angeles. I'm encouraged by the good review that Rex Reed just gave the film. In what you might call an experimental distribution pattern, it is already available as a VOD download on iTunes, Amazon and the like. Los Angeles area DCS members can see the movie for half price on its opening weekend by downloading a flyer to present at the box office. A Filmmaker Q&A is scheduled for opening night at the Laemmle NoHo 7 in North Hollywood.


Brake flyer
Los Angeles area DCS members can see the movie for half price on its opening weekend by downloading this flyer to present at the box office.


Working with this creative team was a great experience. In fact, the producers of Brake are already putting their next feature together with much of the same team...thankfully including me!



"Brake" by Brian Tyler -- the official video.





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