by William Donaruma and John Klein
NightLights is an independent, Chicago-based film production, which depicts the poigniant story of a young woman, Erin Logan (Shawna Waldron), as she strives to care for her twin brother, Jacob (Stephen Louis Grush), who is severely affected by autism. When the possibilities of love and friendship open up in her life, she must deal with how to create a home for herself and her brother at the same time.
Executive producer and director David Midell brought this story to the screen through his company Play On Productions, which dedicates itself to presenting inspiring stories about individuals with special needs and their families. Early on in the process, John Klein, also a Chicago-based cinematographer, was brought on to help create a visual aesthetic in bringing this story to life. “During our initial discussions,” Klein said, “Dave and I, along with production designer Megan McDonough, agreed that the camera should function like an ‘unobtrusive observer,’ with only a few stylized elements. This film lives and thrives because of its characters and performances, and we all wanted to highlight that first and foremost.”
They had to weigh that aesthetic with producers Adam Dick and Keaton Wooden’s requests to capture the best possible image quality for their low budget, and considered a variety of camera options to lens the movie before finally gravitating to the RED MX. “4K resolution was a must for us, and given our locations and lighting limitations, the RED’s latitude in bringing back color information in post-production would be essential,” Klein said. “We loved the look and feel the camera and the Red Pro Primes gave us, and we were eternally grateful for the flexibility it gave us later in color correction.”
To add a little spice, Klein also opted to use his Panasonic AF100 along with a LensBaby Composer to acquire POV shots of Jacob, to reflect how an individual with autism such as Jacob might see light and color in a distinctive way. It also allowed the filmmakers to use the lightweight camera in a variety of positions that were not possible with the RED. A Canon 7D DSLR was also used to capture a few night and sunset exteriors after the production officially wrapped. Despite the color and resolution differences, the mixture of formats proved to be both technically compatible and artistically beneficial for NightLights.
Klein’s longtime friend and collaborator on past productions, William Donaruma, was then brought in as camera operator along with his RED camera package. The opportunity to work together on a long-term project was a blessing. “John and I have a very cooperative relationship when it comes to vision, no matter who is calling the shots. It was such a joy for both of us to be able to concentrate on one job at hand while making the film. We’re used to wearing multiple hats, so this was a very efficient and dynamic way of working for us, which kept the days on track.” With multiple slider and handheld shots, the camera crew of Donaruma, 1st AC Justin Cameron and 2nd AC Mitchell Tyrer were able to set up quickly, have monitors up for preview and rehearse for final adjustments while Klein could concentrate solely on lighting the scene and the actors. “The operator often gets overlooked as a separate position, especially on lower budget productions where the DP will fill that role,” comments Donaruma, “but I believe this way of working really allowed us to move quickly and efficiently to maximize our set ups each day. 1st AD Michael Chandler was pretty happy with our pace.”
Klein agreed, saying, “Beyond the creative freedom afforded me by having a camera operator, I don’t know if I could have physically handled the rig as well as Bill!” With the fully loaded RED MX rig coming in at 38lbs for handheld work, Donaruma was getting a work out. Compounding that was the 100-plus degree days during a freak Chicago heat wave last summer. Production was tasked with making sure everyone was well-hydrated throughout the day. Inside the apartment set, it was determined that the temperature was reaching in excess of 110 degrees at times, because the air conditioning could not run for sound recording. “We would come outside for a breather and it felt really nice in the evenings. Later we realized it was still in the 90’s outside and that was cool to us,” Donaruma recalls. While there always seems to be concern about the RED overheating, the camera crew didn’t have any problems with the gear under those conditions.
The production shot primarily with RED drives, swapping them out at the lunch break for off-loading and switching to CF cards towards the end of the day to speed up the transfer process when everyone wrapped. Editor Kat Thomas would then take one of the two drives and begin transcoding to ProRes LT files for off-line editing and dailies during the production days. “We tried to treat the RED as much like film as possible, making sure we had what we affectionately referred to as a BFN – a big fat negative,” Klein said with a smile. “That extended to a workflow of dailies via a kind of ‘one-light’ processing through Kat’s transcodes. It was immensely helpful to see our work even in an uncorrected format, just to make sure we weren’t missing anything!”
When production wrapped the 17-day shoot and Thomas completed a cut of the film, associate editor Mike Molenda took over for some fine tuning and post-workflow. Some color testing was done with the RED Raw files in Apple Color, but the final color correction was done by colorist Bob Sliga with DaVinci Resolve, and the results were luminous. “Dave wanted the color scheme to reflect the emotions of the characters at any given moment,” Klein reflects, “allowing for more saturation in moments of extreme happiness or more of a skip-bleach, cool look in moments of anger or pain.” In keeping with the visual methodology, this was meant to enhance the performances ever so subtly, rather than trying to over-process for the sake of style.
As of now, the film is currently in the final stages of sound mixing, and the camera crew is eager to see their finished work on the big screen. “I think NightLights has turned out beautifully,” Klein said, “and to be a part of a story that means so much to so many people is an honor.”
William Donaruma has years of production experience having worked for Universal Studios as well as a variety of production companies and major television networks in film and video production. Returning to Notre Dame to teach production courses, he has won the Kaneb Teaching Award and was granted a fellowship at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. www.nd.edu/~wdonarum
John Klein is a freelance director of photography based in Chicago. He has traveled around the world and back for his craft and has shot dozens of projects, ranging from award-winning short and feature films to music videos, web series, and documentaries, but considers NightLights one of his crowning achievements. When not shooting, John also serves as producer of Glass City Films, through which he has overseen as producer and lensed the short films Rendezvous, Hangers, The Sleepover, Under The Table, and Honeybees. He has also produced a trio of feature films in Glass City, Happily After (his directorial debut) and Separation Anxiety, in addition to several music videos and side projects. For more information, check out www.windycitycamera.com and www.glasscityfilms.com.