Deep Fried Interview: All Cheerleaders Die cinematographer Greg Ephraim
Photo credit for all behind the scenes pics featured below: Vanessa Menendez.
Colorful, light and fun aren’t the first adjectives that spring to mind when thinking of director Lucky McKee, who made his reputation with psychologically dark, female-centric genre offerings such as May and The Woman. But they’re fitting descriptors for McKee’s latest All Cheerleaders Die, a genre and tone-hopping horror comedy about a squad of undead cheerleaders co-directed by McKee’s old college pal Chris Sivertson.
“One thing Lucky described to me when we were preparing the film was the color palette,” said All Cheerleaders Die cinematographer Greg Ephraim. “He said, ‘I’ve done all these dark, moody movies. I want to do something fun and poppy and colorful. I don’t want to be the kid with the 12-crayon box in school. I want to be the kid with the 64-crayon box.’ For me, that describes the cinematography of this movie.”
The Plot: A clique of cheerleaders whose school spirit is snuffed out by a car accident rise from the dead (with the help of some Craft-esque witchery and a few magic stones) to seek revenge on the misogynistic football players responsible for their demise.
(Above) Ephraim (standing center frame) cradling the Alexa with an assist from an EasyRig.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
I grew up south of Chicago. I guess I was more of a moviegoer than moviemaker as a kid. I went to movie theaters a lot. I was a real big dork. I saw Jurassic Park 19 times in the theater. On any class projects (for school) I would use any excuse I could to make a video instead of writing a paper.
I was raised in a giant family full of engineers so I was always raised to be an engineer. I went to my first two years of college at University of Iowa to become an engineer and decided it definitely was not for me. So I moved to California, went to film school and tried to figure out what I wanted to do in the film industry from there. I just fell in love with cinematography and went gung-ho at it.
Do you recall the specific moment of that epiphany?
I had kind of a wake-up call when I was in Iowa and I was miserable (in engineering classes) and I went to see Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. As I walked out of that movie I said to myself, “I’m not going to do (engineering) anymore. I’m going to be a filmmaker.” I was never really into science fiction, but I was blown away by being totally immersed in that (movie’s) world. I thought it was magical and I thought, “I want to do this.”
Who was the first Director of Photography whose work you were consciously aware of?
Probably the first one that stuck was Conrad Hall. Up until late high school I didn’t really care about who made movies. (laughs) It was all about the entertainment factor. As a kid, all you care about is what is on the screen. Conrad Hall is probably the first person who stuck out to me where I said, “Who shot this? I need to know.”
What were some factors behind your choice of camera on All Cheerleaders Die?
We were choosing between a couple different cameras on this and we ended up going with the (Arri) Alexa. It was a two-camera shoot and budget was an issue, but we were able to score an amazing deal. Luckily we shot it in December, which is typically a slow time of the year so I think the rental houses were a little bit more flexible. The choice was between the Sony F65, the Epic and the Alexa. We tested all three. I really enjoyed the F65, but for our budget we couldn’t afford the data that would come along with that and I just prefer the Alexa image overall. The F65 was very close, but you can’t go wrong with the good old Alexa.
How would you describe the aesthetic of the film?
We threw everything but the kitchen sink at it. It’s very unpredictable. Lucky and Chris are very big (Brian) De Palma fans so a lot of our discussions kept going back to De Palma references. It’s funny, because everything (our movie) is being compared to – (movies like) Heathers and Mean Girls – those were never brought up in preproduction. (Lucky and Chris) liked a lot of my music video style, so it was pretty much “Make this look as beautiful as you can. Make this look like a music video.” So we mixed that look with the mood and feeling of other references.
Also, we wanted the camera to feel like it was always two steps behind all the action. We wanted to feel that these high school girls were so frenetic with their energy that we couldn’t quite keep up and that we were always reacting in “surprise” to their actions and movement.
Lucky and Chris have talked a lot in interviews about making the film as a way to return to the enthusiasm that initially drew them to filmmaking. Did their enthusiasm translate to the rest of the crew?
I had a blast shooting with both of them. I was a little hesitant coming in knowing it was going to be two directors because you hear horror stories about projects with two directors, but their synergy was great and you could tell that they were having fun and I think that really translates to the film. It was great on set, too. It was a long, grueling shoot, but when you have your (directors) smiling and giggling and you see them coming up with little ideas that excited them so much, it’s hard not to get excited too.
You shot a few scenes on the Universal backlot, which is not an experience a lot of lower-budget films are able to enjoy.
We ended up shooting some of our pick-up scenes there. I think we had four pick-up days and we shot two on the Universal lot. It was fun. Something different. The rest of the shoot was on location, so it was nice to be in a very controlled environment and make it our own little world.
What can you tell me about the film’s cemetery location?
It’s a cemetery in Altadena, California where they have a movie grave that’s dug up and people do a lot of shooting there. We had miserable weather conditions (when we shot there). For the whole shoot, it was pretty much rain and cold. We were constantly waiting for the rain. (At the cemetery) we were all just sitting under a tent waiting for the rain to pass and then once it passed, we’d go sprinting out there and shoot and everyone performed on all cylinders and we just nailed it. (For the film’s final shot) the sun was actually coming up so we only had one take because we had a big make-up prosthetic. If we had missed the take there was no way we would’ve been able to get the shot because there was no way we could reset everything before the sun was up. So that was pretty much the most clutch shot of the movie. It felt like a victory that we got it off.
Greg walks us through a few shots from All Cheerleaders Die.
THE SHOT: Tracy (played by Brooke Butler) emerges from a van after devouring a fellow student as a snack in this low-angle push-in, shot slightly overcranked.
A lot of the exteriors we shot either early morning or near dusk to get that angle of the sun because we didn’t have a lot of gear to control the light. At the high school we were filming two units and at some points we were flying by the seats of our pants. We had a really busy schedule and this was around the end of the shoot so if we saw anything that was optimal and ready to shoot we would go for it. This was a moment where the van was set, the talent was ready, the camera was ready and it just looked great. So we decided to run out and grab this shot.
THE SHOT: The jock villains chase our cheerleader heroines.
We shot this on a Steadicam from the back of a pick-up truck. It was shot with just headlights and the only other unit we had was, I believe, a 575-watt HMI in the truck bed just to try to get any illumination we could on the trees passing by. Thankfully we had the Alexa to be able to pick all of this up because we didn’t really have any other options to light it. (The visible beams of light are created by) the dust being kicked up from the truck by our stunt driver, who was just tearing through the streets. There’s got to be behind the scenes (footage) somewhere of my Steadicam operator (shooting) this scene. I’ve never seen him in such Steadicam heaven. He was going nuts.
THE SHOT: An image from the pre-credit sequence, footage ostensibly shot by the character of Maddy (Caitlin Stasey).
We used a Sony EX-3 for this. We didn’t want to try to dumb-down Alexa footage. We wanted to go with what a high schooler who was really into filmmaking would theoretically use, though the EX-3 would probably be a little bit out of their budget. It’s hard as a DP to shoot with something like that and (intentionally) make it not look good. In our minds we had to think like a high schooler fiddling around with the camera. The highlights are blown? Well, this is somebody in high school filming this, so that’s how it would look. I guess it’s acting on our part. We had to become the character. That’s the only acting I’ll ever do in my entire life. (laughs)
THE SHOT: A medium close-up of Hanna (Amanda Grace Cooper) during a high school field party, tinted a foreboding green.
We were down in this little valley surrounded by cliffs. Just logistically getting all our gear down there took a little bit of creativity. The tricky part with this scene was that there were so many characters and with our tight schedule we had to try to get as close to 360-degree access for the camera as possible. We pretty much lit this entire party area scene in a way that we could just shoot and shoot. We had a top light HMI balloon hung up over on a jib over the main area, which we had to sneak in because (the area) was surrounded by trees. We really relied on that to illuminate the scene and then we could look anywhere we needed at any time.
(Below) Ephraim’s HMI balloon lighting set-up, which allowed him to shoot 360 degrees during the woodland party scene.
THE SHOT: A floating magical stone casts a green glow onto the face of the character of Tracy. (Each character was given a uniquely colored stone.)
We did as much (of the glowing stone light) as we could practically. Anytime we had any of our stone gags, we had those little LitePanel mini bricks attached to Gobo arms with our preset gels for each character’s stone and our effects guy told us where the stones were going to be and the gaffer would just dim up and down and waive the light in that general area at least to get a base illumination. Then they added a little more light in post, which really helped, but it was good to have that reference.
THE SHOT: The morning of our heroines’ rebirth, the girls strut through the school hall in slow motion.
I’ve always wanted to do the typical slow-motion entrance, with the guy in the background doing the double take. So bucket list, mark it down. We put HMIs at each end to rake down the hallways to give some depth and for our backlight. I’m a big fan of strong backlights. Then we placed KinoFlos and LEDs throughout the hallway. There were nooks behind pillars and we’d hide them in there.
THE SHOT: The film’s chief antagonist (played by Tom Williamson) bathed in a hot top light.
A big reference that we had was the work of Robert Richardson so we wanted to throw one hot table shot in there. We wanted this to be a dark, moody early morning scene with the only light source being the table light.
On a shot like this, how did you gauge your exposure to make sure you had all the information you needed in both the shadows and the highlights?
I mainly use my light meter just to get my contrast ratios and then I’ll tweak using the monitor if needed. On a show like this, after 15 days or so your eye kind of gets trained to where you can almost tell (the proper f-stop) by eye. I like to guesstimate and see how close I am by eye and then pull out the meter. Kind of like the ACs guessing (distances). It’s a machismo thing. (laughs)