Advice on reviving an older aesthetic? (Fat City) (6 replies and 4 comments)
Hello - long-time listener, first time caller.
This past year, I watched Fat City (Conrad Hall, 1972), and I was smitten. I adored every little piece of that film, and I watched it more times than I'd care to admit.
I've been sitting on a project for quite some time, and I was wondering: how would one go about making images like that, with modern means of production (read: shoestring)?
I was hoping to learn how to recreate those images, so I could iterate on them for this project, channel their feel an all that; I figure at best I could hope to be half-a-thief.
I'd add about half dozen reference images if I could, but this one will have to do. If you got this far, thank you for reading, and my deepest thanks for providing such an incredible resource/community; this is the purest thing on the internet.
(If anyone wants this info for the question, I'm currently working with a Blackmagic pocket 6k + the fastest old glass I can rent)
'Fat City' is one of my all time favorite films and some of the best work of Conrad Hall. I first saw the film on a rainy winter's afternoon in Torquay with hardly another person in the audience. Those that were there were only keeping out of the weather. Many years passed before I was lucky enough to meet Conrad in LA and to spend time with him just talking about film. He once told me that using the wrong stock led to some of the exteriors being so bright and overexposed, which was something I never really believed. The film was quite low budget and Conrad shot the film in a more documentary manner than much of his other work. His lighting is very simple and incredibly bold for a Hollywood film in1972. Compared with most, it still is.
I too adore Fat City. Its John Huston at his very best and most human. The fluidity of Connie Halls camera could not have been a better match, especially in the scenes in the ring. For me, and I am sure I am not alone here, that the film era that began with say, Saturday Night Sunday Morning and which led to Fat City -- and the big epic versions of this same fluid style
like Apocalypse Now were so visceral even tactile. It is as if the camera is the characters dance partner. While steadi-cams are certainly a cool tech feat, work like that in Fat City is distinctly different to me. The camera feels something.
Mr. Deakins, you took that same aesthetic in to 1917 which I saw at an industry screening yesterday, which I thought was incredibly beautiful. Th camera did not stand in my way, I was allowed to experience the narrative in my own way -- I loved it. I hope you are proud of it. The prep on that film must have been incredible intense! I kept thinking last night, they couldn't have done a feature in on take and then did it over and over again...could they??
I come from a doc. background as a director and so take to what you did organically, but when films went from takes which allowed a narrative moment to unfold to I guess what you can call hyper-editing where a film needed 30 shots to convey a scene, (Bonnie and Clyde editing from start to finish)I have slowly recoiled. Sergei Eisenstein should roll over in his grave:)
Considering the only Kodak 35mm color negative stock at the time was 5254, it's hard to believe that the wrong stock was used, there weren't any alternatives. The first iteration of 5247 came out soon after that movie, but it was the same speed as 5254. Maybe he meant the wrong filter, but the truth is that Hall had been deliberately experimenting with heavy overexposure (and then printing down) for day exteriors ever since "Hell in the Pacific" (1968).
Whenever I get into a discussion about recreating the look of past movies, I really have to get the director to nail down specifically what they are responding to, because we might not be seeing the same things. "Fat City" has a number of elements contributing to its look, both technical, aesthetic, and due to its subject matter and the time period it was shot in. You could technically simulate the grain, contrast, and sharpness but if the subject is obviously modern, you may not feel like it looks like "Fat City", it's hard to know. Some people are responding to period elements like the Cool White fluorescent lights, or the cars, or the clothing, it's hard to know. In the frame you posted, there is obviously a low-con filter causing the Cool White fluorescents to glow in the background but the foreground is lit with tungsten, which you see in a lot of 70's "gritty" movies, that color mix. A lot of streetlamps back then were that cyan mercury vapor type too. Certainly the naturalism is a strong visual element, the feeling of capturing the reality of that city and the people.
To be honest, I actually took “Fat City” to have a certain anachronism to it, at least so far as where I grew up. My project definitely would have a similar feel in terms of what I think is a timeless look in the production design/wardrobe.
I think for me it’s just the atmosphere of those frames, they really have a texture all their own.
Good call on the low-con, whether it was a filter, or a quality of the 5254 (or its processing), I’m sure a low con on a modern digital camera would go quite a ways towards getting that visual texture.
It’s sort of ironic, the little analysis on “Fat City” almost always refers to its lighting/cinematography as “realistic”, but the mixture of tungsten and Mercury fluorescents seems like key ingredients on getting something easily described as “real”, but, to my eye, has a fantastic extra layer of visual jazz, a way of expressing something that feels more real than real. The scene of Stacy drunk in the bar near the end of the picture is a stunning frame-a-painting.
So maybe, low-con + mixing eclectic lighting sources + haze might be a place to start. I’ll have to fuss with exposure/CC/the muddy world of synthetic grain as well.
Yes, Connie only had the one film stock for 'Fat City' so his story never did make sense. He was like that, though, quite dismissive of his own risk taking. Besides, for 'Tell Them Willie Boy is Here' Connie overexposed something more than 2 stops and pulled the negative in development a stop. He would have been printing at around a 40 light but that never bothered him. His timer once told me his lights could be anything between an 18 and 60.
He was supposedly ill when they shot the raft work for 'Hell in the Pacific'. He said his gaffer shot that. Maybe, but I suspect he was very particular about what was done, whether he was on set or not. And then there was the 'happy accident' on 'In Cold Blood'. Was it really the chance direction of a worklight that inspired him to make the teardrop shot of Blake in his cell? I sincerely doubt that.
Diving into the available information, and maybe I’m extrapolating, but Mr. Hall seemed the type to not overindulge in his own process, if he never thought too highly of a clever way a shot was made; if it was right for the shot, it was right for the shot. It makes finding clean information a little difficult (and after all, I’m trying to dig up the alchemy behind a low budget picture from ‘72), but I really respect that mindset. Seems to be the hallmark of someone very humble, personally and artistically. On the whole of his career, his frames always felt honest to me.
Granted, I could be reading too much into things.
On a personal note, it must’ve been something to sit down with the man himself.
Yes, he was not indulgent. Definitely a high point in my life to spend time with him.
You should check out "Day of the Locust (1975)" as another example of Conrad Hall's extraordinary eye. In fact, the film would make an excellent double-bill with "Barton Fink" as both present a dark vision of Hollywood and apocalyptic ending. "Day of the Locust" is recommended for those who thought "Barton Fink" just wasn't weird enough.
Greta Gerwig mentioned Fat City on more than one occasion as inspiring the look of Lady Bird(along with other influences).