A scene from the Dark Desert Highway by Nathan Kincaid.
When director Nathan Kincaid asked cinematographer Michael Street if he would be interested in shooting the film noir period piece, Dark Desert Highway, Street jumped at the opportunity.
“Nathan and I had worked together on a few previous projects, and we had a good working relationship,” says Street. “Dark Desert Highway sealed the bond between us. We both like to put the story first. As the cinematographer, I try to enhance the emotion for each scene, and Nathan was open to suggestions found on set with camera movement.”
Dark Desert Highway takes the audience on a ride with Don Glenn, a not-so-honest salesman and womanizer. After a late night phone call from a seductive female, Don runs to a nearby after-hours speakeasy to meet this mysterious woman. Don soon discovers that he's getting much more than he bargained for, finding himself confused and in trouble on a Dark Desert Highway.
“Our vision was to create a traditional film noir look for this story,” says Street. “The cinematography was designed to give dark tones to the story. We were depicting the underbelly of 1940s San Francisco. Specific colors were used to enhance mood and plot points. The lighting was a combination of hard and soft light. In researching the decade’s characteristic look, we saw that the use of hard lights and shadows was dominate. We tried to stay true to the genre, using hard light as a valuable source. Camera movement was also used as reveals or transitions for characters.”
Kincaid and Street decided early on that film was the right medium for telling Glenn’s story. The director had even considered shooting the entire film on black-and-white stock. “Shooting 35mm was always the direction for us,” says Street. “I had shot some film tests a few months prior using high-speed stocks. The tests were shot in exterior locations to see the films’ range in low-light conditions and to see the color separation in the negative.”
Street says the film test made the choice clear, and they selected KODAK VISION2 Expression 500T Color Negative Film 5229. “Out of all the stocks tested, I felt that the 5229 had the best color separation; you can see that especially where the range is very close together. Another appealing aspect is that this Expression stock is less saturated then Kodak's other 500T film. I kept a 3:1 lighting ratio throughout the film along with the gaffer, Inder Mann, and tried to create the contrast on the negative.”
Street used an ARRIFLEX 535 with a set of Zeiss Super Speed lenses. “You always want your audience to connect with the main characters, so I typically prefer the 85mm or 50mm on close-ups,” says Street. “However for this film we stayed a little wider because of the genre. In 1940’s films, you see a lot of medium shots and wide frames to show what's happening in the frame. The blocking and composition for Dark Desert Highway was designed the same way. We shot most of the film on 18mm, 25mm and 35mm. This helped us frame three-shots and establish the background.”
Dark Desert Highway eventually went through post-production – twice. Originally, a standard-definition transfer was done to achieve the look, color and contrast the filmmakers envisioned. The film was then edited, showcased and well received. After these initial screenings, an HD transfer was completed at FotoKem using the original transfer as a guide. “Nathan took the files back into editing and created a new version which I think grasped the feeling of the script and is closer to Nathan’s vision.”