DP Matthew Chavez used Kodak 35mm to evoke a rich and beautiful period look for 'Mr. Malcolm’s List'
England. Early 1800s. Secrets and intrigue abound. The Honorable Mr. Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), well-known for his wealth and fastidiousness, has long been the target of desperate debutantes and their matchmaking mothers. But what is not so well-known is the private list of qualifications he maintains for the perfect, future bride. Can any woman hope to win the heart of such a hard-boiled critic? Julia Thistlewaite (Gemma Chan) can only try her best. And when she begins to succeed, with the help of her friend Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto), Mr. Malcolm is not sure whether he has discovered the perfect woman or the perfect hoax.
Described as “a little bit Jane Austen, a little bit Oscar Wilde,” the Black List script for a special prelude to this story, entitled Mr. Malcolm’s List, was adapted by author Suzanne Allain from her novel of the same name. The 10-minute romantic comedy was directed by the L.A.-based British filmmaker Emma Holly Jones and shot on 35mm film at UK locations by American DP Matthew Chavez. Packaged by Verve, with producers Alison Owen, Des Hamilton and Laura Rister, Mr. Malcolm’s List debuted February 14, 2019 on Refinery29.
“For filmmakers, like me, who grew up in the digital era, shooting on film has become a sort of Holy Grail,” says Chavez, a film graduate from USC and a longtime collaborator with producer and director Emma Holly Jones. “Although I had shot on 16mm before – music videos and personal projects – it’s rare that you get the opportunity to shoot on 35mm. So I was super excited when Emma encouraged me to get involved.”
“Emma knew exactly what she wanted,” he adds. “She is first and foremost a story and character-driven director, but she cares equally about the images looking as beautiful as they can be. She wanted to tell this short story with the same level of quality and appeal as any other long-form period piece. She also wanted to shoot on 35mm and in Anamorphic – the cinematographer’s dream combination.”
Consequently, along with painterly references, such as the portrait and landscape work of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), Chavez considered several 35mm-originated British period movies as inspiration for the look of Mr. Malcolm’s List. Most notably these included: Barry Lyndon (1975, dir. Stanley Kubrick, DP John Alcott BSC), A Room with a View (1985, dir. James Ivory, DP Tony Pierce Roberts BSC), and Pride & Prejudice (2005, dir. Joe Wright, DP Roman Osin BSC).
“Overall, I wanted to shoot Mr. Malcolm’s List with naturalism in my mind, but with a nudge towards beauty lighting,” says Chavez. “Each of our movie references, shot on 35mm, remains iconic – the camera and lighting motivated by something natural, with the result being incredibly rich and beautiful cinematography.”
Mr. Malcolm’s List shot for three days during mid-October 2018 in London. Marble Hill House in Richmond was used for bedroom, stairway and drawing room interiors; with Kenwood House, Hampstead Heath, harnessed for the exteriors, including a London street scene. Richmond Theatre, known for its gilt detailing, plush red fabrics and multi-layered tiered seating, was used as the setting for a dark scene in an opera house.
“I am perhaps best known for having a naturalistic handheld eye,” remarks Chavez. “But we made a conscious decision to go the opposite route for this production. As it was a period piece about the characters and the intriguing dialogue, we went for a considered approach – composed framing done off the dolly, slider or tripod, and no handheld at all. This, plus the locations and the wonderful work achieved by the art and wardrobe teams, helped set the production in its proper time and place.”
Chavez selected ARRICAM LT cameras, fitted with Hawk V-Lite Anamorphic lenses for the production, supplied by Take 2 Films in Acton, London. His crew included 1st AC Phill Hardy, gaffer Anthony Allen and key grip Alfred Wentzel. The DP chose to capture all of the daytime exteriors/interiors on KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207, with VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 used for the opera house sequence. Film processing was handled at Cinelab.
“The 250D is a lovely, rich and vivid film stock, which I knew would give me enough exposure latitude for our complete range of daytime interior and exterior scenes, as well as lovely rendition of skin tones,” he explains. “As we were going for a fairly clean-looking result, and to subdue the grain a little in the darker areas of the image, I decided to overexpose everything shot on the 250D by one stop. This also meant I was able to deliver a nice thick negative with lots of information in the image.”
He adds, “I shot the 500T shot straight up – with no correction or exposure compensation – as we had adequate levels of Tungsten illumination, which resulted in images that had a nice fine grain structure and lovely overall warmth.”
Chavez says he was hugely impressed by the ability of the KODAK VISION3 stocks “to see everything. Their wide exposure latitudes with exceptional highlight control enable working in a variety of different lighting conditions, and the level of image detail was a great surprise. They also made me positively re-assess my approach to lighting.”
As examples, he cites a bedroom scene in which Julia, assisted by her maid, is getting ready for a rendez-vous with Mr. Malcolm and another when Julia is taking late-afternoon tea with a high-society mother and daughter.
“When you shoot a scene digitally that might have a window that is blowing out, you often have a lot of mitigating work to do, in order to raise the ambient and the key lighting, as well as other physical measures to control the light. But with film you do not have to worry about that, even when you are overexposing. You can let it go. Not only will the highlight roll off in a natural way, but the level of detail is really quite awesome.
“For the bedroom scene we were able to light the two actresses from outside with a slightly diffused Fresnel, and the look of the skin tones, the lens flare and highlight details looked breathtakingly beautiful when we saw the dailies.
“Likewise on the drawing room scene. You would never point an undiffused source towards an actress during a digital shoot for fear of the highlight blowing completely. But shooting on film, using uncorrected ARRI T12s to pump in light, the results looked soft, warm and stunningly beautiful – as if she were bathed in real sunlight.”
While Chavez readily admits to being a product of the digital age, he says the experience of shooting on film has opened his mind. “A lot of DPs from my generation grew up in a totally digital world, and film seemed a bit scary, a mystery. But what I have learned is that film is easy. Of course, you have to be on your game with the light meter, and the crew and cast have to be disciplined. But these can really only be good things for the production and the final result. For all of the development, digital has not matched the ability of film to render highlights or skin tones. With these sorts of innate qualities, film protects you and can make things much simpler on set. Rather than having lots of eyes seeing the image on the monitors, with film the best-looking image is through the viewfinder, and there’s a lot of trust in the cinematographer. Shooting on film is a really refreshing way to work, and the results are simply gorgeous.”
Even before its release on Refinery29, Mr. Malcolm’s List proved such a success, that a long-form movie version is reported to be in the works. “I would so love the opportunity to shoot that production,” says Chavez, “and to see where else I can take the look of Kodak’s incredible VISION3 filmstocks.”