ERIC EDWARDS FINDS THE RIGHT FORMAT FOR THE HOLLARS
Cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards is a veteran of more than fifty narrative projects, including cult favorites like Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, period biopics like Lovelace, as well as high-end comedies like The Change-Up and Knocked Up. Most recently, he turned his eye to The Hollars, a drama directed by John Krasinski, who also acted in the film. The cast also includes Anna Kendrick, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Sharlto Copley.
Edwards had been recommended to Krasinski by Jennifer Aniston, a mutual friend whom Edwards had photographed in The Break-Up. Krasinski had recently acted in Promised Land, a Gus Van Sant film photographed in a very unusual format by Linus Sandgren, ASC, FSF, who used Vantage Film’s Hawk V‑Lite 1.3x anamorphic lenses to squeeze the image and fill the full 4-perf 35 mm negative area. The final aspect ratio was 1.85:1.
When the question of format was raised in Edwards’ initial meeting with Krasinski and his producers, the DP was ready.
“I was really keen on Krasinski’s films,” says Edwards. “I had done three films with the Hawk 1.3x anamorphic lenses, in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and I was in love with the format. We talked about the lighting, which seemed to fit with what I do, which is naturalistic and dramatic without being too contrasty and too ‘horror-show.’ So it was a really nice conversation.”
The only question was the right aspect ratio for a psychological, human drama that takes place in a small town in the Midwestern United States. “I’m used to shooting anamorphic for 2.35, and John was clearly more comfortable with 1.85:1,” says Edwards. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we use the 1.3x Hawk lenses with the 4X3 chip on the ALEXA, which will result in a 1.85 format?’ So that’s what we did, and I think it was a very good choice because I love what those lenses do.”
Like most cinematographers, especially in an era where digital cameras deliver flawless imagery, Edwards is fascinated by lenses and the flavor they can bring to the image.
“The Hawk anamorphics are very specific lenses, and the glass has significant personality, enough for it to be a formalistic choice,” he says. “It’s a subjective choice, and what Hawk anamorphics do, I’ve never seen any other lens set do. It has to do primarily with the distortions that are designed into the lens – very specific, aesthetic artifacts.
“With any lens, you’re dealing with five or six main aspects,” he says. “There’s curvature of field, rectilinearity, barrel distortion, and pin-cushion distortion. You’re dealing with coma, spherical aberration and chromatic aberration. The lens designers at Vantage obviously made their decisions based on allowing certain artifacts and certain aberrations to occur, which give the lenses a particular personality. These lens designers are not simply engineers, using a computer to eliminate flaws. These are actually very artistic considerations, and in the hands of a filmmaker, they are powerful storytelling tools.
“Each focal length has its own subtleties, but they embrace this pattern over the entire set,” he says. “So when you’re focusing close to the subject, sources in the background take on a vertical, oval shape, but as you focus closer they will augment into pear shapes, sort of bent backwards.
“The conventional wisdom might be that you’d want a lens the perfectly reproduces reality,” Edwards says. “But why would that help you when you’re telling a story, and trying to pull the audience into a world? For my money, it’s better to tell a story through a kind of filter.”
The Hollars is the story of a prodigal son who returns home from his life New York City to small town America, where his mother has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Aside from his mother, the son is the only person together enough to cope.
The filmmakers shot in Jackson, Mississippi. Much of the story unfolds in the mother’s hospital room, so Edwards treated it differently for each scene there, depending on the mood and content of the sequence. The production found a hospital where renovations were planned, allowing them to take out a wall.
Edwards also worked extensively in practical house locations in Jackson. A number of traveling shots in vehicles connect these main locales and allow the audience to see the town through the eyes of the son.
“We needed to show the post-war homes with very large trees, and a real feeling of heat,” says Edwards. “There are cicadas and bright, hot sunlight. All of our exteriors were informed with that brightness and warmth.”
Edwards used a waveform monitor and eschewed a histogram. He appreciates the ability to precisely adjust color temperature in the camera. On The Hollars, he worked without a DIT, recording in Pro Res 4444.
“On bigger budget shows, it’s nice to color right then and there, but I would rather just use my instincts about how to expose,” he says. “I know instinctively how to push up and to push down. You really have to make sure you don’t expose too bright or you’re washing it out and missing a lot of what you’re going to end up needing in the post process. And then on the bottom, you have to protect against falling off the earth, because you will get to a point where you have no information, and that’s when you’re in trouble.”
In Mississippi, Krasinski tended toward a static frame, preferring to let things play out within. New York scenes had more camera movement and were cooler and bluer. Often, a second camera was used with a zoom, either an 80-180mm Hawk V‑Lite 1.3x or a 32.5-325mm Angénieux Hawk 1.3x. “I always try to use movement to create narrative,” says Edwards. “But on this project, it was interesting how static the camera needed to be, because it’s about actors and actors’ faces.”
In the tight practical spaces, size was important. “Vantage has made a lens that was very compact in design,” he says. “They’re actually the smallest anamorphics I’ve seen, and they’re very fast – T 2.2.”
Looking back on the shoot, Edwards is pleased with the decision to go with the ARRI ALEXA, the 4X3 chip, and the Hawk V‑Lite 1.3x anamorphic glass.
“Native sensors have gotten so good and clean,” he says. “It’s a machine-made, computer-designed image with perfect corner-to-corner sensitivity. Digital projectors, too, share this clinical perfection. Film always had artifacts, and tactile grain, and particular contrast and color characteristics. The lab and duplication process added more imperfections. We didn’t think about these things until digital came along. I think the struggle for DPs today is to get back from the hyper-reality of clean imagery, back to an artistic format that gives you a patina, and puts a medium between you and the subject. It’s about a cinematographer’s choice of glass.”