Filmmaker Stories

DP Marcell Rév used KODAK 35mm to create a specially manicured look for Christos Nikou's 'Fingernails'

May 04, 2024

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Image courtesy of Apple.

Your cuticles can tell you a lot about your health. However, in director Christos Nikou's romantic sci-fi drama Fingernails, shot with a specially manicured look on Kodak 35mm film by DP Marcell Rév HCA ASC, they offer an altogether different reading.

The film, streaming now on Apple TV+, follows Anna, an unemployed school teacher who starts work as an intern at The Love Institute, where a special test, involving the yanking of a fingernail, will reveal whether the love between two people in a couple is truly real.

Anna initially keeps her new job a secret from her boyfriend Ryan, with whom she has previously passed the test with success. However, as she shadows Amir, a fellow instructor, Anna develops a rapport with him that could be more than just professional, and there's only going to be one way to work out who-loves-who in this love triangle.

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Image courtesy of Apple.

The film stars Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed and Jeremy Allen White. It premiered at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival and was released in limited theaters prior to streaming on Apple TV+. Principal photography on 35mm film commenced at locations around Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario in late October 2022 and wrapped some 30 shooting days later in December.

"Christos and I hit it off together on our very first call," says Rév, who shot his previous features Jupiter's Moon (2017), The Story of My Wife (2021) and Malcolm & Marie (2021) all on 35mm film.

"We both shared the same sensibilities as to how this production should look and the key elements to make it work aesthetically. Science fiction gives you the visual opportunity to do something that's out of the ordinary. But as this was a film with an absurd premise, we didn't want to go with anything unusual and weird. Quite the opposite, we wanted to heighten the strangeness of the story by creating a world where things felt grounded and real.

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BTS photo courtesy of Apple.

"So it was really about reducing and simplifying the style, along the lines of a romantic movie, by using a simple camera package, simple framing and simple lighting. I was glad that the decision to shoot on 35mm film had already been made before I got hired, because when you want to depict the real world then film is the real deal. It's just better."

Rév says he and Nikou considered a range of photographic stills and feature films to help them rule-in and rule-out appropriate looks for the film, adding that, "It would be impossible to make a move like this without considering the sci-fi treatment of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004 dir. Michel Gondry, DP Ellen Kuras ASC), but it would be misleading to think our production bears a distinct visual resemblance to that film."

Keeping the camera package straightforward, DP Rév went with a classical set-up for the film – an ARRICAM LT, shooting 3-perf 35mm film, using compact Zeiss T1.3 Super Speed spherical lenses. While Rév framed in 1.85:1, the film was later reformatted slightly to 2:1. The camera and lens package was supplied by ARRI Rental in Toronto.

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BTS photo courtesy of Apple.

Just as he had with Jupiter's Moon and The Story of My Wife, Rév opted to shoot Fingernails entirely on KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative 5219 35mm film.

He explains, "I wanted to maintain a consistency of grain and texture by just having one filmstock, and I absolutely love the 500T because you can use it for everything – from the brightest sunshine to the darkest scenarios. A lot of the action in Fingernails takes place in low-lit interiors or at night, and I knew the 500T would help with the exposure. I prefer to shoot the 500T uncorrected in daylight situations, without a filter on the lens, and to do the correction later in the DI grade, as it gives the faces and skin tones something special.

"Along with its versatility and image quality, one of the other great things about the 500T is how you can use it with different combinations of under/over exposure in-camera and pull/push processes at the lab to create so many different looks – all from one stock. That's truly amazing.

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Image courtesy of Apple.

"On this production I under-exposed the 500T by half-a-stop on-set, and push-processed at the lab by a stop, to give the image a little more grit and life through an added level of granular texture that is fundamental to the look. Doing this also provided more detail in the dark areas of the image that helped create a softer, more-velvety black with the help of the colorist."

Film processing and scanning was done at FotoKem in Los Angeles. The final grade was done by Tom Poole at Company3.

Rév operated the camera during production, assisted by Barrett Axford a 1st AC.

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BTS photo courtesy of Apple.

"In keeping with the plan for things to be real and grounded, we kept the mise-en-scène simple, often relating a scene in two or three shots, with the camera on the dolly or sticks, performing simple pans between characters," Rév remarks. "We went handheld for some moments when things get emotionally charged, but it was always with a soft and subtle style to subliminally support an expression or some other aspect of the physical performance."

Working with gaffer Scott Phillips and key grip Robert 'RJ' Johnson, Rév kept the lighting naturalistic using Tungstens and HMIs for most set-ups, only resorting to LEDs for some of the tighter shooting situations.

"I love using the full-color spectrum of Tungstens, HMIs and natural sunlight with film, as I find it more truthful and compelling on people's faces. Sometimes I used modern LED technology to get light into places when we couldn't fit in a big Tungsten unit. The lighting style was more about nuances, about depicting the emotion on the faces of Jessie, Riz and Jeremy, the people in our love triangle, and emphasising their performances."

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BTS photo courtesy of Apple.

Rév's biggest challenge on the production? "I think the biggest challenge for me was reducing things, keeping things really simple at all times to maintain the extraordinary premise of the film. Visually, my previous projects have been very expressive, expressionistic, out-there. This one was the opposite. I had to dig deep into tiny details – lighting a close-up to elicit the emotion, subtle framing with the camera, and depicting a scene in a few easy shots. It was a totally different kind of storytelling and I really enjoyed that.

"I didn't enjoy the bitter cold in Toronto. But the amazing warmth and enthusiasm of Christos, my crew and the actors, were a blessing. Although I'm familiar with, and open to, shooting on any formats, it was a great pleasure to shoot Fingernails on film. It has a special magic that is not easily replicated in digital, and gives an aesthetic quality that adds value to the project from the start. It's closer to the reality of what is in front of the camera and, best of all, it is closer to your imagination."