Focus On Film

Creating an Edgy, Anti-Comedy Look for Tammy

Susan Sarandon and Melissa McCarthy in a scene from Tammy (Photo by Michael Tackett.)
Russ Alsobrook, ASC. (Photo by Michael Tackett.)
Susan Sarandon and Melissa McCarthy in a scene from Tammy (Photo by Michael Tackett.)

When a sample film clip on screen drew a collective, audible gasp in the screening room, director of photography Russ Alsobrook, ASC knew he would be shooting the comedy Tammy on KODAK Film. The cinematographer and the film’s principals had been at Burbank-based lab/post house FotoKem during preproduction doing digital versus film origination comparisons.

“It’s like we’ve forgotten how great film looks when you see it in comparison,” Alsobrook remarks. “We looked at each other, and it was a done deal. There was no question we were going to shoot fi lm. It has a rich, creamy look to it that you just can’t get any other way.”

Melissa McCarthy plays Tammy, who on one terrible day is fired from her dead-end job, catches her husband with another woman, and embarks on an escape to Niagara Falls with her alcoholic grandmother (played by Susan Sarandon) in tow.  The feature is the directorial debut of actor Ben Falcone, who happens to be married to McCarthy. The couple wrote the script together.

“Ben and Melissa knew what they wanted, and when they got it,” he says. “It was a tight, excellent script, and they were very disciplined in their approach to putting this story on film. I think we finished up a day under schedule and under budget. It was a joy to shoot film again.”

Alsobrook is well versed in the comedy realm, having shot such movies as Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Role Models, as well as the TV series Freaks and Geeks, Grosse Point, Undeclared and currently New Girl. Alsobrook selected KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 and KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213, all processed normally. As per his tendency, he overexposed slightly to yield a thicker negative. The 5219 Film was pushed one stop during a few night situations.

The camera system was comprised of a PANAFLEX MILLENIUM with PRIMO zooms and primes, and no filtration on the lenses, except for the typical color correction filter. “Film has this inherent softness that allows you to go without filtration,” Alsobrook notes. “It’s more subtle that way.” With the two leads being women, Alsobrook used lighting techniques to emphasize their characters. For example, Sarandon was aged through hair and makeup, and Alsobrook also positioned her key light to draw out the aged appearance.

“I always use soft light,” he explains, “And, usually on women, I bring it down to make it flatter and fill the eyes a little more. However, this character was going through some tough times physically and was supposed to have dark circles under her eyes, so I allowed that to exist with the light at a higher angle.”

The lighting of McCarthy followed her character’s emotional arc, starting harshly and progressing to softer light as events are resolved.

“It’s subtle, and people probably aren’t going to notice, but it has an emotional resonance that the audience will feel,” says Alsobrook. “I used a harder light in the beginning, not so much on the face, but in the environment, like a harsh sunlight versus a very soft north light approach.

“We tried to avoid the typical comedy look,” he adds. “In fact, one of the reasons that Ben and Melissa wanted to talk to me was because they loved the movie Superbad, and that was about as anti-comedy looking as you can get. They wanted Tammy to look edgier.

“My style basically was enhanced naturalism. I didn’t want it too bright, fl at and comedic. I wanted it to be real because there are many moments of very deep drama in the movie as well. My philosophy is: We don’t shoot comedies, we just shoot movies that happen to be funny.”

Tammy is very much a location-based road movie. During a month-long prep, Alsobrook, Falcone and McCarthy scouted each location in Wilmington, North Carolina, and worked out their shooting approaches.

“Our brilliant production designer, Jeff Sage, built in certain practical lamps that were appropriate to the location,” says Alsobrook. “I could key off those and add our own lights to complement it. If you can use the lighting that’s there and just enhance it to tell the story simply, but effectively without a lot of tweaking, then you’re ahead of the game. I like to give the director and the actors as much time on set as possible and to make their lives easier by not tying them to very specific marks that are difficult to hit.”

The latitude inherent to KODAK Film came into play when Alsobrook did something out of the ordinary for a few of McCarthy and Sarandon’s driving shots — he took all the light sources off the process trailer and went without any artificial lighting. This was due to a fashion accessory typical of the older generation that Sarandon wore: large, wraparound sunglasses worn over prescription glasses.

“No matter where we put a light or a bounce, it reflected totally in those glasses,” the cinematographer says. “That was one of those challenges where you find a solution in the moment, and it worked. The time of day was just right, and the situation was ideal to do that.”

FotoKem handled dailies that were transferred and made available via streaming the next day on iPads. Dailies colorist Billy Roskilly sent Alsobrook still frames each night to coordinate the looks.

“The image quality was excellent,” he notes. “FotoKem did a fabulous job. When I would watch dailies the next day, I was always amazed at how great everything looked and how much more film could see beyond what even I was seeing with my eye.”

At press time, digital intermediate details had yet to be decided, but Alsobrook said he would be keeping the look “as natural as possible.”

During shooting, however, Alsobrook was not overly concerned with locking in specific looks while on set, as one might do when shooting digitally with access to paintbox tools.

“It was going back to the way we used to do it,” he says. “We forget how the elegant simplicity of film allows you to shoot from the heart. You use your gut, your light meter and your eye instead of being a slave to a monitor. I think that’s very freeing in terms of being able to pursue your artistic goals without the hindrance of a lot of scientific accoutrements.”