Deep Fried Interview: Short Term 12 cinematographer Brett Pawlak
The title of director Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 refers to a temporary care facility for adolescents with nowhere else to go. For those kids – and for the staff, barely more than kids themselves – Short Term 12 is at various times a solace and a prison. A respite from an outside world that has abused them and an excuse to delay re-engaging with reality. A place of isolation and a fishbowl of perpetual observation.
The task of visually expressing those dichotomies – all while staying within the parameters of Cretton’s non-intrusive, naturalistic aesthetic – fell on cinematographer Brett Pawlak, who talked with Deep Fried Movies about the challenges of making one of our favorite films of the year.
What was your relationship with movies like growing up and how did you first get into the business?
I became interested in making films when I was a kid. A good friend of mine in middle school was making movies on the weekends and I was one of the kids who acted in them. It was a blast! My friend was getting sick of doing everything himself, so we all started taking on roles. I for some reason started to gravitate toward the camera. I started to go to Home Depot and get a bunch of different wattage light bulbs and clip-on work lights. I tried my best to make our movies look as real as possible. Obviously they didn’t, and I didn’t understand why. I soon took it upon myself to figure out how to make our movies look like a Hollywood film.
But earlier than that, I remember going to see Honey, I Shrunk the Kids at my local theatre. That movie planted the seed. I realized that obviously the movie was NOT real, but I was very aware that someone made that world come to life and it looked like so much fun to be a part of. I thought if someone was making a living (by creating) that world, I had to find out how.
I eventually went to the Los Angeles Film School and concentrated in cinematography. I graduated with a handful of short films and a decent reel that younger students noticed and eventually I came back a few times to shoot thesis’s for graduating students and built onto my reel.
Short Term 12 began life as a Sundance award-winning short film back in 2009, which you also shot for director Destin Cretton. How does the look of the feature compare to the original short?
(The original short) was made with little to no money and the aesthetic was built around a natural approach with no lighting – just using available light. (Destin and I) then shot a feature called I Am Not a Hipster, which was very much the same thing. Very little budget, very small crew and working as much as possible with little to no movie lights. So we have developed a style that is very organic and is not about calling too much attention to itself.
Short Term the feature was an exercise in refraining from deviating from that style – to be able to maintain the production value of a feature film while staying true to the short film’s original look. I really enjoy working in themes throughout the films I shoot. The biggest theme for me was the idea that the facility or home was not a depressing, dirty place. This was these kids’ homes, as it’s as much of a home for Grace (Larson) and Mason (Gallagher Jr.) as well. It should feel warm and inviting because that’s what Grace and her co-workers project onto this place. The world outside sometimes is shown a bit darker and grittier. It’s the REAL world, and uncomfortable for Grace specifically. But again, as much as this place sometimes feels like home, the characters are constantly reminded that this is temporary and this is a facility. Some of the times we used door frames within our compositions to suggest this and remind the viewers that these kids are in fact restricted within these walls. The use of color shifts a few times motivate that same feeling.
Short Term 12 feels spontaneous with so many images seemingly found in the moment, yet Cretton is a meticulous storyboarder. How do you create that sense of naturalism while still being so thoroughly prepared?
Destin is very much an actors’ director. He is very skilled and talented in telling the story with a camera, but when he is on-set, and we are shooting, all his attention is on the actors and performances. Destin and I get together before the shoot with a still camera and walk through all the scenes at the locations and we talk out and storyboard the whole film.
The whole movie is planned out ahead of time so that Destin feels free to not think about coverage and concentrate on the performances. We have worked this way on everything we have done together and it allows us to take the time to discuss all the possibilities of covering a scene without the pressure of time and money on the day. And doing it in the actual locations gives us the opportunity to explore the themes we are trying to convey. Especially a film like Short Term which takes place a majority of the time in the facility. Scenes could have easily felt repetitive and boring but we focused on making each scene different or the same, depending on what we were trying to convey.
You shot Short Term 12 on the RED Epic, but you used an Arri Alexa on your latest film Hellion, which just played Sundance. Why was the Epic the right tool for Short Term 12?
A majority of the projects I have shot have been RED. The choice is not aesthetic, purely economical. When you are shooting a project that is low budget, you need to take advantage of everything you can. RED up to this point has had the most advantages for me. The ability to shoot at high resolution, with the ability to over-crank, maintain resolution and rent most packages cheaper than the Alexa has made all the difference.
I shot Short Term in 5k for a 2k finish, which seems like overkill. But in my experience that extra resolution gives you a safety net for even films like Short Term. That added space gives you room in post for reframes, stabilization, punch-in’s, etc. On a tight schedule you are shooting at a breakneck speed and every once in a while you don’t have time to get two sizes of a close-up. Or on that amazing take you (catch) the boom mic or framed in a leg of a stand. That resolution allows you to have room to play later, when you don’t have the time on set.
Hellion was a unique scenario in which I had to replace the (cinematographer) who (Hellion director Kat Candler) was originally working with due to an unforeseen travel issue. The Alexa was already on the table and I had shot a commercial on it and liked it. The last thing I wanted to do was change things around on her and production, so I stuck with the package of the previous DP since Kat was going that direction already. It was a great package and gave me a look that I don’t think I would have gotten if I had stuck to the RED. It was fun to go outside my box, especially on a film like Hellion. I walked away from it with a new outlook on camera choices.
What was your lens kit like?
Lenses on Short Term again came out of economics. We shot on Zeiss CP2’s. I have a lot of experience with the Zeiss compact primes on DSLR shoots and really loved them. I had shot a short film prior to Short Term and used the CP2’s when I learned that they are just re-housed compact primes – same glass. I tested them out on the short and really thought they preformed well, at half the cost of (Zeiss) Ultra Primes or (Cooke) S4’s.
Granted, I am a very big fan of using old lenses, especially on high resolution sensors like the RED at 5K. I usually use Zeiss Super Speeds, Zeiss Standard Speeds or (Cooke) Panchros, but I really wanted to contrast the natural, sometimes dirty lighting of Short Term with nice, clean glass. The CP2’s are sharp, in a very soft, forgiving way. When you keep them wide open and shallow they are very unique and I loved it for the film.
Going back to the feeling of authenticity and realism in Short Term 12, what do you do as a cinematographer to help foster an environment conducive to helping create those types of performances especially with young actors?
Again, I know when Destin gets onto set, he is all about the performances. And with this film, I knew we wanted to be free and have the ability to shoot multiple angles very quickly, mostly shooting with two cameras, but also to allow the actors to do what they do and not have to deal with stands, lights and flags on set. I chose to light everything from outside as much as I could, and give the set to the actors.
Though we do venture outside the Short Term 12 facility, much of the action takes place there. What can you tell me about that location?
The short term facility we shot at was not active when we shot there, although it was very recently. We turned that place into our own little studio. We could do what we wanted to with the complex, within the restrictions of the owners. But for the most part we did what we wanted. With that said, and given that it is exactly the type of place we were depicting, we didn’t have to change or do much to it.
One concern early on was changing the wall colors and painting them. We were concerned the walls were all too close to skin tones, and that everything would be a bit too monochromatic in that sense. But at the end of the day, looking at it I really enjoy that quality. It’s such a specific palette. I think it adds to the idea of the underlying theme that this place is a facility and mundane in those ways. We did break up the walls a bit with a big mural that the art department painted as well as posters and signs to liven things up.
Pawsat takes Deep Fried Movies through some of Short 12 Terms most arresting images.
A shallow depth-of-field close-up of actor Keith Stanfield, who plays one of Short Term 12’s about-to-be released inhabitants.
This is a great example of what I really loved about the (Zeiss) CP2’s on Short Term. I tend to shoot most lenses wide open. I like to keep the focus very shallow. It’s something I’ve always tended to do for as long as I’ve shot projects.
This is one of the more formally composed images in the film.
The shot of Grace (Larson) and Jayden (Dever) in the cool-down room is a call back to the short film, where the same scene happens between two characters. The contrast of that room to the rest of the facility is a specific choice. Destin and I like to throw in some negative space at the top of compositions sometimes. I think it adds something. It says something, but there is no specific point we are making. It’s almost a chance for the audience to come up with their own interpretation.
There is a theme within the film about being in a fish tank, underwater, etc. Grace talks about a dream she had about being underwater. Jayden (tells) a story (about an) octopus, and Marcus (the character played by Stanfield) has a pet fish. The blue in the cool down room is a representation of this theme, being in a fish tank.
An example of Short Term 12’s use of door frames to create a sense of the viewer being privileged to intimate moments. The character of Jayden (left) has just told Grace (right) a story about a lonely octopus searching for a friend that serves as a metaphor for Jayden’s issues at home.
The shot of Jayden and Grace huddled on the ground after the octopus story is probably my favorite frame in the film. It pretty much sums up the movie for me. It conveys everything I was trying to accomplish visually throughout the film. At that moment, they are literally on the same level. There is a warm, soft glow in the room, representing the idea of the place feeling more inviting than a dark, brooding facility. But we are also framing them in between the door frame, suggesting the opposite of the warm, soft lighting. Reminding the audience, in the same moment, that this IS still in fact a facility, and these characters feel the system always in the back of their minds.
Did you use any lighting units here?
The shot of Grace (Larson) out back sitting on the floor was one of those great moments when, while storyboarding, you (discover) a moment in a certain place and you make a note to shoot the shot at a specific time (of day). Most often on indie films with tight schedules, those plans fall (through) because you’re at the mercy of time. But this was an example of a plan coming together.
There is no artificial lighting added to this scene. No bounces, etc. Just the camera, natural light and Brie.
Grace (Larson) and Mason (Gallagher Jr.) argue in a hospital parking lot.
Outside (of my work on) Short Term, I am a big fan of mixing color temps when I can to create contrast. I tried to keep the lighting in Short Term more consistent than usual, but there are scenes I tried to deviate from that. To me it was a chance to create depth and contrast. The contrast was motivated by the scene which Brie and Jon were playing.
Grace and Jayden coast on the former’s bike.
Grace riding her bike through the neighborhood at night was one of the more simple shots we did, but seems to be one of the most iconic for people.
We literally crammed ourselves in the back of Destin’s truck and shot handheld out the back of it. We scoured the neighborhood to find the street with the most street lamps and as much natural light as possible. As we drove and tracked her, we also had a 2-foot, 4-bank Kino in the bed as well with a sodium vapor gel that just helped fill in her eyes as well as bridge the gap between practical street lamps.
We also had a car sometimes drive behind and another pass by us to help create depth as well as hopefully let the brake lights and headlamps create a little color contrast.