VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207/7207

Creating the Gritty Look of Low Down

Elle Fanning in Low Down. (Credit Low Down Production.)
Christopher Blauvelt on set of Low Down. (Credit: Hopper Stone.)

Christopher Blauvelt is a third-generation filmmaker who still treasures his grandfather’s Graflex 4x5 still camera. His grandfather was a grip, his grandmother worked in the costume department, and his father, uncle and brother are all in the camera department. His father gave him a POLAROID camera when he was 4 years old, and he’s been shooting ever since.

In addition to his family connections, Blauvelt worked as an assistant under the tutelage of the late Harris Savides, ASC. “Harris opened up new worlds for me,” Blauvelt recalls. “He challenged everything about the way things were done. He shared his knowledge for the most obscure and amazing movies.”

After working with Savides on films directed by Gus Van Sant, Noah Baumbach and David Fincher, Blauvelt made the leap to director of photography around 2009. He shot Meek’s Cutoff for indie darling Kelly Reichardt, and since then his credits include Nobody Walks for director Ry-Russo Young, The Bling Ring for Sofia Coppola, Max Rose for Daniel Noah, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby for Ned Benson, and Night Moves, also with Reichardt.

Like Meek’s Cutoff, Nobody Walks and others, Blauvelt’s most recent effort, Low Down, was shot on film. The movie is the true story of Joe Albany, a brilliant jazz pianist who battled heroin addiction. The story is told from the perspective of his young daughter, Amy Jo, who later wrote the memoir “Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales From Childhood,” upon which the film is based. John Hawkes plays Albany, and Elle Fanning plays Amy Jo.

Low Down’s director, Jeff Preiss, is also a cinematographer best known for Let’s Get Lost, an iconic Super 16 documentary directed by fashion photographer and filmmaker Bruce Weber that portrays another jazz tragedy, that of trumpeter Chet Baker. That film was nominated for an OSCAR® in the documentary feature category in 1989.

“From my earliest conversations with Jeff, Low Down wanted to have the most authentic look for the time possible,” says Blauvelt. “I was blown away by Let’s Get Lost — by the film and its gritty aesthetic. So right off the bat, we were talking about using film to enhance the texture and give the images a quality that would have the heart of the period.”

Blauvelt opted to work with Super 16 anamorphic, a format that squeezes a widescreen image onto the 15:9 Super 16 frame. The format is made possible by the acuity of modern film stocks and 1.3x anamorphic lenses — Blauvelt used Vantage Film’s Hawk V Lite 1.3x glass. By comparison, standard 35mm anamorphic requires lenses with a 2x squeeze.

“We chose Super 16mm anamorphic because of its beautiful curvature and focus fall-off,” says Blauvelt. “We wanted the camera to be close to Amy Jo, to create an intimacy with her and the things she’s going through. So the attributes of anamorphic helped to intensify the focus on our girl, and let the world around her become a tragic but beautiful surrounding.”

The production found a condemned building in the MacArthur Park neighborhood of Los Angeles and made it their own. The majority of the story unfolds in Amy Jo’s apartment, and the rest was filmed in and around Hollywood, where she actually lived. The shoot lasted 24 days.

Locations were pre-lit with an eye toward keeping equipment to a minimum, and creating a set where the filmmakers could shoot in any direction. “The goal was to make it feel as real-life as possible,” says Blauvelt. “Our strategy was to shoot everything handheld to embrace the imperfections and to capture off-the-cuff moments. The camera movement needed to have grace and energy, without becoming a distraction. The lighting approach was always to stay true to the environment and to augment the existing source, whether it was a window or a practical lamp on set, always making an effort to ensure the lighting was motivated by reality.”

The film stocks played a role in this strategy as well. Day interiors and exteriors were shot on KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 7207, and night interiors and exteriors were shot on KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 7219. The camera was an ARRI 416.

“These are very flexible stocks with a considerable amount of latitude,” says Blauvelt. “It was good to know that we could lay the exposures in the toe of the film and come out with beautiful grain and preserve subtle detail in the shadows. And of course, the curve that film will give you in extreme highlights is unsurpassed by any media to date.”

The film was processed at FotoKem in Burbank, and Cinelicious in Los Angeles did the film scans and dailies. “Our dailies timer, Tyler Fagerstrom, did an amazing job at giving us incredible looks which were a huge help to our peace of mind during the shoot,” says Blauvelt.

The final DI was done at Technicolor New York with colorist Tim Stipan. “I can’t tell you how much I learn every time I go through this process,” says Blauvelt. “We had a lot of fun working on the images, enhancing every aspect of color, contrast and grain, and ultimately walking away with the final look.”

Blauvelt credits his collaborators, crew and cast with making the shoot a great experience. “I feel lucky and honored to make films with people I love and admire,” he says. “I’m grateful to everyone who helped make it something I’m very proud of. Getting to know Amy Jo Albany — she’s an incredible person — made us all want to do her story justice, to say the very least.”

Looking back on the experience, and on the decision to shoot film, Blauvelt says, “I personally don’t often agree with the things that are popular at a given moment. I find art to be less about the mainstream and more about things that make you think.”

Blauvelt earned best cinematography honor for Low Down in the US Dramatic category at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.