Super 16mm was always the optimal format for Ping Pong Summer, according to writer/director Michael Tully’s Sundance-premiering feature about a family vacation in the summer of 1985. He and director of photography Wyatt Garfield wanted to make sure they weren’t making fun of the ‘80s, but rather wanted it to feel like an actual movie from their childhoods.
“We were going for a sincere take on the bizarre, indulgent aspects of the 1980s,” says Garfield. “We wanted to embrace the colors of that decade, but we knew that if we shot it digitally all those colors would come through too saturated, and it would quickly become a contemporary, synthetic homage. We relied on film to contain and soften all the saturated colors and keep the palette nostalgic.”
Tully has long been a patron of independent cinema through his festival film review site “Hammer to Nail,” which is how Garfield first heard of him. They met in 2011 when both had low-budget Super 16mm films at Sundance (Septien and The Woods, respectively). Garfield also served as gaffer on the popular indie breakout Beasts of the Southern Wild, and was reunited with many of the same collaborators on Ping Pong Summer, including key grip Tim Curtin and producer Michael Gottwald.
“Both Beasts and Ping Pong Summer had a big family feel,” recalls Garfield, “with everyone living as a group and trapped in the world of the film. I can't imagine a better way to make a movie!
“Tully is a bit older than me, and spent his early teens deeply immersed in ‘80s culture,” adds Garfield. “I was born in 1985, so my memories are more textural – the carpet in our house, my mom's short-lived perm, sandy feet. As a result, my nostalgia for the 1980s didn't fully kick in until the production design started to come together.”
Shooting film was an essential part of keeping the look earnest and authentic for Tully and Garfield. After they shot the "first date" scene, Tully declared their approach “Cinema au Gratin.” “If you love cinema AND melted cheese, you might get what we were going for,” laughs Garfield.
After testing KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 7213, 250D 7207, and 500T 7219 with and without pull processing, they opted for 7213 for exteriors and 7219 for interiors with no processing.
“The 7213 with an 85 filter had a softer, slightly more pastel look than the 7207 in daylight tests, which attracted us,” explains Garfield.
They didn't test any slower stock because they wanted the grain to be visible, and the 7213 provided a good balance where the grain is distinct, but not too active and distracting.
“I love the grain of Super 16mm,” he says. “The format actually has quite a lot of resolution, but it's dithered by the grain in such a way that detail never gets too shrill as it does with digital. Also, I've been experiencing that grain is greatly reduced in digital presentation (by the lower contrast of digital projectors and the compression of web viewing). So if you want the grain to survive, Super 16 is the way to go.”
They shot Ping Pong Summer in September and October of 2012, just before Hurricane Sandy hit the very beaches they were filming, destroying the town pier in Ocean City, Maryland, only 48 hours after their last shot. “Provided the weather holds, those months are the best time to shoot a film that takes place in summer,” the cinematographer notes. “The sun stays lower and as a result a little more golden and almost never gets too high to shoot outdoors.”
Garfield describes Ocean City as one of the strangest places he’s ever worked – completely trapped in the 1970s and 1980s, with some locations requiring little more than the removal of satellite dishes and modern cars to be returned to 1985.
Garfield and his gaffer Garland Gallaspy used a lot of tungsten key side-fill on day interiors to give those spaces a worn-in, familiar atmosphere. Shots often required little lighting contrast to be striking because of the strong color contrast in the wardrobe and production design.
Adds Garfield, “There were a few scenes – like the H2O under-age night club – where I really let Gallaspy go wild with the party gels. I think we were actually using a gel called Summer Blue on daylight Image80s for our base ambience, and then accenting it with splashes of intense pink and yellow on par cans.”
ARRI CSC provided an ARRIFLEX 416 package, which Garfield paired with Zeiss Ultra 16 Primes. “They veil quite a lot, further softening and desaturating the look. The Ultra 16s are great because they perform better than Super Speeds when opened up, but aren't too high in contrast or saturation.”
Ping Pong Summer was processed at FotoKem and finished at Cinelicious with colorist Alex Bickel, using one of his custom LUTs that had “a film-print-like response, but didn't have some of the heavy, twisted characteristics of a true film print LUT,” explains Garfield.
Currently, Garfield is shooting in Morocco and Italy on Kodak 16 mm again. He’s utilizing 7213 and 7219 on a film called Mediterranea, directed by Jonas Carpignano.
Ping Pong Summer has been making the rounds on the festival circuit in addition to a theatrical release in New York.