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Super 16 Grit Seizes Look of Hostage Drama

  • March 18, 2015

When Rodney Taylor read the script for Supremacy, he saw a story that could benefit from Super 16 origination and a gritty, handheld aesthetic. The cinematographer mentioned Black Swan, The Hurt Locker and a couple of other recent Super 16 films in his first meeting with Deon Taylor, the basketball player-turned-director. He immediately liked the idea, even though the film had been budgeted for digital video.

Supremacy is the hard-hitting story of a white supremacist, recently paroled, who takes an African-American family hostage. The filmmakers found some Gordon Parks documentary photographs that had an edgy, dimly lit mood with an ominous hint of violence, and used them as a starting point for developing a look for the film.

“I wanted the house to be really warm and inviting, to go against the horrible things that happen, and to show that this is a real home,” the cinematographer relates. “At the same time, Deon and I both wanted very natural skin tones. So in general I kept the light on the actors a bit more blue, and neutralized that in post.”

The result was a warm, tungsten-lit environment and natural skin tones. For the villain, and in some prison scenes, Taylor occasionally added a bit of green to make the image feel slightly dirtier.

For nighttime interiors, he used a mix of KINO FLOs, tungsten sources and China balls. For day interiors, Taylor wanted the HMI light to feel invasive through the windows, and he relied on film’s graceful overexposure attributes in those situations.

“One thing I love about film is the way that you can overexpose and take it right to the brink of washing out – it can look really great there sometimes, if you’re trying to make a statement,” says Taylor. “After everything that happened in the house at night, I wanted the feel of the light coming in the next morning. I wanted the audience to almost squint during those first few shots.”

Two cameras – ARRI 416s with older prime ZEISS Super Speed lenses – were used in most scenes inside the house. Taylor says that the smaller cameras cost much less than a high-end digital package and allowed for flexibility and efficiency. Paul Sanchez usually operated the second camera. The film stocks were KODAK VISION3 50D Color Negative Film 7203, KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 7207, and KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 7219.

The house interiors were inside an actual house location, but new walls were built inside the rooms to render smaller spaces and a claustrophobic feeling. That also meant the filmmakers could easily avoid night shoots.

“It was really important to stay really mobile with the cameras,” Taylor explains. “I wanted the freedom to put the camera up and go without having cables running all over the house. We transmitted the video signal wirelessly for Deon to look at, but there were no cables anywhere in the house. I personally think I can shoot faster on film because I can just pick up the camera and roll.”

At times, Taylor used zoom lenses for sunlit day exteriors, especially with action. “Outside, I usually shot at a (T)2.8,” he says. “I wanted to keep that shallow depth of field. I also wanted some of the sun flares, and the zooms helped us stay flexible in terms of composition.”

Taylor chose emulsions to match in terms of grain, factoring in the 2.35 extraction from the negative.

“We had plenty of light and the 50 daylight was beautiful,” he notes. “During testing, I found that higher-speed stocks rendered too much grain in the blue layer to match the interiors. With the 50D, the grain in the blue skies matches the grain from the 500-speed stock interiors. Also, the night interiors are very dark. There’s always a beautiful patina of grain that is just right. Outside, the 50D has just the same amount of grain in the sky. So it balances perfectly.”

In the digital intermediate, in addition to timing out the added blue, the filmmakers found an interesting treatment for some flashback scenes.

“I was going for a vintage, old Polaroid look,” says Taylor. “We added what almost looks like a purple grad filter at the top of the frame, and you can see it on foreheads and skin tones. It’s the idea that sometimes old Polaroids have interesting imperfections.”

Both director and cinematographer are pleased with the way the film turned out.

“I love the grittiness and the claustrophobia, and I really attribute that to the Super 16,” adds Taylor. “There are tools to add grain these days, but even as sophisticated as digital post has become, I feel like doing it on the original negative is so powerful and results in such a different feeling. I think that organic feel you get from the grain in the negative is something we haven’t really replicated yet. I just love the craft and artistry of exposing the film.”