Bringing a neo-noir look to indie feature Birdland5 minutes
Birdland, directed and co-written by Peter Lynch, is a Canadian feature that has some of the most striking images you’ll see in an indie film this year. It tells the story of an ex-cop, Sheila Hood, who hides surveillance cameras in her home to spy on her husband’s affairs – essentially becoming a voyeur of her own life. The film was shot by cinematographer Adam Swica, CSC (The Art of the Steal, The Firm) with a single VariCam 35 camera.
Swica studied painting and drawing at the Ontario College of Art and then moved towards experimental film towards the end of his studies. His first move into the film industry was in the lighting department where he worked his way up to being a gaffer. After eight years working as a gaffer, he transitioned to DP, shooting several indie films.
Swica met director Lynch through art circles and began to work together on art performance films before collaborating on Birdland. For Swica, the biggest challenge was Birdland’s small budget. “Most of the film was set in urban locations at night and we didn't have the capability to light everything,” reveals Swica. “The choice of the camera came from a discussion with Sim ’s John DeBoer, who told me they had this new camera that shoots 5,000 ISO. Sim was very gracious to give us the camera package for free, which was a great gift to us.”
Swica took the VariCam 35 out by Toronto’s dockyards and throughout the city to test it in natural and low light environments. He then took the footage to The Rolling Picture Company in Toronto where they looked at the footage. “It looked spectacular,” says Swica. “Everybody was just shocked on what we were capturing. At that point, the VariCam also slashed our lighting package.”
Creating A “Neo Noir” Style
Swica shot Birdland in 2K ProRes (23.98fps) because the production couldn’t afford the added workflow costs of 4K capture. “I'm actually happy with the decision,” says Swica. “Resolution is important for different reasons but I have no real problem with the lower resolution, and I know 2K can up res to 4K really well.” He captured in V-Log and monitored in Rec.709 on set. Swica shot the film with Zeiss Super Speed primes, which he uses for all his projects because they’re fast with low contrast.
Director Lynch described the look of Birdland as “neo-noir” but according to Swica, the overall look came from music videos, which Swica used to shoot 30 years ago. There was no high-key lighting or heavy blacks but more of a clean mannered look throughout the movie. “There's a sequence that you can see in the movie that's a bondage sequence where the character ties herself up on a rig,” explains Swica. “That was inspired from a J. Lo video, which probably had a half a million-dollar budget. We covered the scene in a different way, but used the same colors.”
Since the lighting budget was already slashed, Swica knew he would have to rely on the VariCam 35’s native 5,000 ISO, which he used for interior or exterior night sequences. “I would say 90% of the film was lit with five [Rosco] 1x1 LED pads and a couple of small Tungsten lights,” explains Swica. “A lot of times, we had our lighting department simply hold the lamps so if somebody was walking, we were walking with them with the lamps on battery power. We didn’t have a fixture that was larger than a 2K, and that 2K was used maybe once.
“I’d rather have a fatter stop at night,” continues Swica, on shooting at native 5,000 ISO. “The fact that I could be shooting at night between a T-3.2 and 5.6, depending on the location, and still see everything was amazing. I've done a lot of lighting where you have a big lamp and then you have to create an entire environment because you have to touch everything from that point. Shooting at 5,000 ISO is almost the inverse of that. It looks like a real street that's happening all the way down the street. There are street lights so you have to bow down to what's happening naturally.”
Swica also mixed natural lighting and different color temperatures into his visuals. Driving shots at night were lit entirely with ambient street lamps streaming through windows. “It has a spectacular reality to them because nothing ever repeats and colors constantly change,” says Swica. “There's one section where we travel under a bridge at night that's lit brightly with mercury vapor lamps. We were going from warm sodium vapor lights to this greenish mercury vapor color and then back again.”
For a dinner party scene, the location was set in a condo on the 14th floor overlooking the city. Instead of lighting the interior, Swica let the ambient light coming from outside the windows light the scene. “It was a little weird for the actors because they thought they were shooting in the dark,” explains Swica. We constantly had to show them what we were seeing after takes.”
A "Film-like" Digital Workflow
Because they could not afford a D.I.T., the production created a workflow that was more like a film shoot. Because they were shooting in Toronto, they would shoot the first half of the day, and then send the P2 cards to The Rolling Picture Company, who would turn them around for dailies. “I’ve done more films than electronic work and because of the nature of a negative, which is low contrast, I still shoot digital that way and build the contrast in post,” says Swica. “It’s one of the reasons I don’t really create my own LUTs. I just use standard Rec.709 and then build my lighting from there. Although it has that 'neo-noir' look, I didn't want it to look bombastic. It's a slow-moving story and very mannered.”
At The Rolling Picture Company, Swica worked with colorist Drake Conrad, whom he had collaborated with on several films. Both Swica and Conrad were really surprised at how the native 5,000 ISO performed. According to Swica, Conrad was expecting there was going to be a lot of cleanup, but they didn't need to. “Because this was set in an urban environment, most of the light is motivated. It was more about fine tuning skin tones. We didn’t do a lot of power windows, which I usually have to do.
“As much as he is a tech geek, Drake has a spectacular sensibility when it comes to grading,” continues Swica. “Also, when your eight pictures down the road, Drake already gets it and gets what I need. Birdland was an easy grade and it was a short two weeks.”