Antagonist camera talks with DP David Newbert on his latest project, Willy's Wonderland. Newbert discusses lighting and mood, set design, pre-production process, equipment details, valuable tips and more. Watch the trailer here.
So tell me about how you got involved with the project and the director and how you got on board. I met Kevin Lewis through a mutual friend, a cinematographer by the name of Steve Gaynor, at ASC. Kevin was a big fan of the Punisher that Steve shot, the original one, I guess was in the 90s or early 2000s and Kevin was trying to get Steve, since he was such a big punisher, is trying to get Steve on a different project and possibly with Willy’s. Steve was shooting some TV shows that I worked with him in the past. And I've always, you know, been going after the cinematography thing so Steve gave my name as a reference, and me and Kevin hit it off, you know, like old friends and just ran with it. So we had the same vision in mind with it - it was great.
Awesome - and so when you guys were developing that vision it seemed like a pretty clear script from what you were talking about and the connection you had there. So, what were the talks like? And how do you create that with the camera and lenses?
I mean, you read the script, it has just like this ‘I don’t give a shit attitude’ to it, this ‘punk-rock’ attitude to it. This janitor who doesn’t speak at all comes in and wreaks havoc.. We wanted to make it fun to watch and to give it this really raw vibe. This really punk-rock edge. So we [went with the P+S Technik Evolution 2x Anamorphic Lenses and] really went after that Grindhouse look, embracing character, distortion and flares, you know, milk it out a little bit or, you know, make a flair. Just really go nuts with the visuals that added another element to it that made it self-aware.
And in your lighting style, because you come from a lighting background -
That tied into these lenses with the flares -
Yeah, I come from a grip and lighting background. I did that for 14 years, while doing the cinematography you know, going towards it. In the past few years, I've been just doing cinematography. Yeah, you know, the lighting style, sometimes it's better to not light, than to light. You know what I mean? It's not what you light. It's what you don't light. This was a prime example of that - keeping it dark and seedy and murky and just like really, you know, to make Willy's that violent character come out of it. And also budget was a thing - so it was like, you know, the less you can do, the better, you're moving fast and everything like that. So you know we tried to also keep it practical, too. So we were just keeping everything so we could see the sets. You know, treating it as if Willy's wonderland was actually a real place. Lighting had a lot to do, hit a lot of the low budget stuff that, you know, gave it mood and tone.
And you said these were all built sets on a soundstage, right?
Yeah. So, each room was built separately. It was one big warehouse where they built all the sets and some of them were raised. We actually had the one raised. If you watch the movie, he fought Willy's at the end in like, a rain, confetti. Then there was supposed to be a fire alarm that goes off and the sprinklers going on and supposed to fight him in the rain. But that was just not a good thing with the costumes. So we stuck with the confetti. But we built all the sets, you know, some of them were elevated, some weren't, but they were all just built as separate rooms. And, what the lighting would be in each room as much as we imagined. We're really close with Molly Coffee, who's our production designer. And she had a really good sense of what we were doing.
So planning for this movie, yeah, - you got to build the set and had to do a lot of pre-production and that came from your film background and your lighting background, planning a lot of these things ahead of time. So tell me about the mood boards.
Yeah Kevin and I spent like a good two, two months ahead of time, kind of on our own time a little bit just trying to get a concrete vision of how the production will go from a creative standpoint, so, you know, we spent a lot of time - we created a shot list together. A nice fifty three page shot list. Just imagine, you know, imagine just no limitations and just trying to figure out the movie and how it looks, you know, on camera with the shot list. So, we designed this crazy shot list and you know, and we honed it in as budgets started coming in and limitations started happening and figuring out exactly what we could do. So, between the shot list and then we created a mood board with references from what he had in mind, what the producers had in mind and what I had in mind. Just so everybody was on the same page, you know, explain the kind of cameras and the type of look that we're going for.
And it worked out really well. We were able to do a bunch of lens tests thanks to Antagonist - you guys are great. You let me come in here and play around with some cameras and lenses. And luckily, I was able to edit that down to like a two minute piece to get everybody kind of jazzed about the whole look of the P+S Technik Evolution 2x Anamorphic Lenses and it worked out very well.
Yeah. So, you communicate as early and often explaining everything that's on your mind and then that makes it easier in the moment -
Yeah. You know, there's always problems you're trying to figure out problems on a film set. So how do we get from here to there? But this is the way. Or like certain people are here daytime or here at nighttime and we only have these people a few hours. The more problems you can solve before production happens, the better off you're going to be. Because there's no doubt you're going to be running into issues, just having that kind of pre-production time is really - It's really valuable to me to just dive into it.
How many shoot days was it again?
20 shoot days.
20? So you had very little time?
Yeah, yeah. You know, of course Nick's the centerpiece of the whole thing. So we really wanted to like, you know, save all our shots that take time and everything on him. So, you know, all the other elements that we can do a little bit easier with handheld and stuff like that. You know, we just try to designate things to make the most out of our time.
And then what other lenses did you use?
We had P&S Technik [Evolution 2x Anamorphic Lenses] and then we had an old set of vintage Kowa's that we used for B-unit type stuff. And then we had the [Angenieux HR 50-500 T5 Anamorphic Lens] with the anamorphic back element. We had a probe lens we used for the pinball stuff. Then we had an ultra prime 8R that I like to throw on things. It's got great resolution.
It's perfect for the mood of the movie when you're in those intense moments.
Yeah, it was cool! And then we used a Lensbaby - we used like a Lensbaby Composer or something like that for when Nick starts getting beat up at the end.
We had quite a bit of lenses, but it wasn't like a ton of stuff. Mostly just everything was on the P&S Technik's and, you know, we were able to have all that character, but still have it reliably sharp. You know, the vintage Kowa's we had, they were alright, but they weren't very dependable, you know, like all the witness marks were off - you get some weird shit going on or a piece of it would fall off and you can't figure out how to get it back on the mount.
Yeah, you really can't, can't afford that -
Yeah it all takes time. But having the rehoused, you know, modern housing just a reliable lens is great.
Yeah, it helps that efficiency. Sounds like they were the perfect lenses.
Yeah, they were great. They really were, you know, and with Anamorphic the way it is, you know - I think I could shoot a whole movie on one Anamorphic lens. Just give me a 50 and I'll be good! I'll just go nuts - that's fine.
Were you bouncing around between focal lengths a lot?
Yeah, well, instead of using the focal length for the focal length, we used it more for like what each lens character, you know, the characteristics of the lens. So like if we really wanted that bizarre look, like if I was doing a big move, you know, and we wanted the world to bend and stuff, we'd use the 40mm you know? If we wanted a wider, over a conversation piece, a little more normal then we'd use the 50mm. Want a crazy bokeh? Go to go to 100mm. So, instead of using it for just close ups and stuff we based it off a characteristic to use the lenses.
That's amazing. You have just such an understanding of the lenses and all the tools that you just know, like in each moment you use this lens for this effect and here's why.
Yeah, It took a little bit of time to figure it out! But, you know, just the way that Anamorphic is.
The different lenses, I think, it's just what you want out of your shot character-wise is a better choice of picking your focal lengths.
But you're very specific about it. And that's apparent when you watch it that you're in good hands visually.
Thank you, yeah, I was very happy that producers let us go because of course there's that moment like, "Is it too nuts?" Because on a studio - that look would not fly - the distorted sides, things in and out of focus, crazy lens flares - they probably wouldn't be into it.
But it sounds like you and the director knew exactly what this was going to be. And when you communicate that early and often everybody gets on board and then it's like, alright this is the movie that we're making.Then there's no confusion, then you can all just go straight at it and there's no figuring it out later.
Yeah, with all this prep and stuff it is good to just like get everybody on the same page, you know, the same vision. You know, it's like when you think of Nick beating up the ostrich or something we can all picture at the same time before it happened - how it's going to work with the color palettes or the lens choices. Yeah, I was very fortunate. Also, there's a bunch of moments where I was like, "Ah shit, if I show them this, they're not going to be into it. This is too crazy of a reference for this." But no, they loved it. They were like, "Go nuts! Have fun!."
That's so cool.
It was very refreshing, yeah.
So let's discuss obstacles on set and creative decisions that had to be made.
Just having a little bit of time. Time is everything on set, it's the most important part of filmmaking. The more time you have the more you can make things happen. Like I said before, if I was given the choice between the best cameras and lights or, you know, give me an OK camera and like 10 days to shoot it, I'd rather take the more time to do something then have the best equipment. Because it just takes a little bit of time, in my opinion. But, you know, you're always fighting that because there's only a limited amount of time that you have. You can prep as much as you can, just have a good crew that is on the same page, you know, I think once everybody has the same vision, then we can all work like a machine and get it there because everybody's on the same page. Yeah, it's a very important aspect of it.
And then you said you had two camera teams. And then you're grip and electric was how many?
So, we had an A and a B camera. And we also had like a C camera that we would kind of break off, we had like a red with those old Kowa Anamorphics. So we would break those off for inserts and do stuff like that. And then our grip and electric crew - I think it was like a base of 4 and 4. We had exteriors and they were able to bring day players and things like that. Had a great Dolly Grip, Jeremy Wren, he did a great job. Very experienced guy. Yeah, the grip crew was great, Aaron Topes was my Key Grip, and Travis Stewart was my Gaffer and I'll keep on working with them.
So your production designer -
Molly Coffee, yeah me and her didn't talk too much before we went to Atlanta. So, you know, we were hoping that we were both on the same page and we were, we were very much on the same page. She brought some elements that I never even thought of, it was great. She also took a lot of my advice for some of the lighting and stuff, because we really wanted the practical lighting to just go off of that. She's very talented. For the budget that she had, which I know is incredibly stressful to be able to pull that off for what they're giving her, but it worked out really well.
Production design always ends up doing amazing things with the least amount of money.
I know there's an element, like music artists, like their first albums that they recorded in their house, when they didn't have anything is always their best. Or, directors' first movies are amazing when they were struggling to make shit happen. You had to be the most creative, and make it work.
Yeah, it's true. It's very true.
Then once they get all the money and all the stuff, then it's like...
Yeah I think Christopher Nolan had a funny quote when they were asking him what it was like to jump from like $100,000 movie, to $100,000,000 movies. And he was like, "That's actually not the difficult part because everything there just kind of scales up. The difficult part is going from $100 to $100,000 - and how do you figure that out?" And it's just kind of a funny way of thinking about it, where it's like, yes, that's when you have to be most creative and plan as much as you possibly can.
Yeah man, movies are made in pre-production, if you don't take the time - or even just soaking it all in for a long period of time so you just know everything about it. You know all the mechanics and all the scenes and all the nuances. Even you know, if you don't use any of the shot lists or any of the references, at least you soaked yourself into that so much so that just makes it that much easier on the day of the shoot. I couldn't imagine just showing up and just shooting that movie because that just wouldn't happen. Yeah, yeah, it would not be nearly as cool as it is.
And our DIT was great too, you know, me and him, we talked a lot.
Justin Paul Larner is his name, and he's great, he's doing, he did Star Man, he does a bunch of WB stuff and everything, but he kind of reached out to me about doing it because he heard about it in Atlanta. He didn't have much going on. And he brought his whole kit, you know, me and him out to lunch one night or dinner. And we talked about the type of LUTs that I would like to use. Telling him how I want this nitty gritty, grindhouse-type look and we had to design some LUTs that really made it explode so he's a really talented guy and did a good job.
Yeah, the colors definitely pop.
We wanted to make sure that the color palette was all overplayed.
I mean, it's an amusement park. There's always colors and flashing lights.
We got good reviews and variety. All the fanboy stuff they love it - you can't go wrong. Some of the, you know, hoity toity type reviewers like L.A. Times and stuff, you know, of course they've bashed it. But it's a fun movie. But you know, on Rotten Tomatoes it's like 64%, it's still fresh. Oh, that's great. Then the audience is 88% percent. 4.5 out of 5 on Amazon. People are accepting it and they like it. It's like we just want this, like if you're having a party at your house and this movie is playing in the background and everybody's just having a good time. And everybody turns to watch Nicolas Cage beat up some animatronics - that's, that's great! It's a fun group watching experience for sure.
Yeah, I mean, those are the type of movies that when you first start falling in love with movies you watch something like that and you're like, whoa, what is this? You know, this is not like anything that I have normally seen. And then you start getting into that world of Grindhouse type movies and you're like - wow you can really do anything with these movies and-
It's fun, it's fun, you know. I'm glad we kept that in mind, you know, nobody took it too seriously, we never took it too serious, you know? Yeah. So is this just a fun loving movie? Get popcorn stuck in your beard as you're watching it.
Tell me about the color correction process.
It was, it was (laughing) it was terrible just because of the COVID thing and like the remote work flow. Luckily we designed our looks on set, so we had all the LUTs and everything made prior. And I think they also had a pretty big deadline because, like, their VFX took longer than they thought it would. And then when they needed to hand the movie in - the time was incredibly short. So luckily, they were able to plug in our LUTs and then kind of perfect those a little bit, you know, and not go too far off what we intended the image to be, which was great. But I think there was some fine tuning that was kind of missed in there.
But, yes, so they just sent me an approval cut to watch, and then they're like, you have 6 hours to give us notes. So, yeah, I watched and I'm in the middle of like a grocery store when they sent it to me on a Sunday afternoon, you know. Like... all right! So I went home and watched the movie and then I took screen grabs from every scene in the movie and corrected those in Lightroom and some programs that I like to use. I made a grid like, "These are out of camera." "This is what we would like to do."
And they made like these contact sheets of the entire movie, which was painful and I wasn't getting paid for. But I just want to make sure it looked right, you know, and then I sent them in and then I made a huge like letter of verbal notes and then a phone call conversation. And then they were like, "All right, we'll do it!" They went off to go do it. And they did most of my corrections, some of them I think they just passed by them.
It worked out good. I'm glad we stuck with the intended look that we had on set. Because I try to do it that way where it's like we try to create what we're doing in camera as much as we can and then you can go from there later rather than just be like, "Oh, yeah, we'll just fix it in post." which I know some people do. There's so many hands that this thing goes through, you've got to make sure that it's good and I was just like, at one point, wondering if I should just, like, burn the image, you know? I mean, like instead of shooting LOG just like burn the LUT in. Just because it goes through so many hands - your VFX, a bunch of different editors, and you get the editors who put it together and everyone is all over the place. I mean this thing went to Malaysia and England to get work done and then on down to Texas and then in the North. So much shit can get lost in translation - and none of those people are as attached to the project as you are, so you got to make sure the intended look stays true.
So the closer you are in camera, the less imagination the less they have to come up with like - oh, it's very clear what they were doing here, now let me just emphasize that.
Exactly. Exactly. Hopefully you can do it to a point where it eases their work flow. So if you can make their job easier by having them do less work and you get the intended thing that you want, and I guess everybody wins.
Yeah, the perfect creative project!