Deep Fried Interview: The Sacrament cinematographer Eric Robbins
Ti West’s new thriller The Sacrament is presented to the audience as the edited footage of fictitious Vice Media correspondents detailing their harrowing encounter with a South American cult leader. That conceit posed unique challenges for cinematographer Eric Robbins, from choosing the right camera to creating DIY lighting fixtures to making Georgia double for a lush tropical respite.
Robbins talked to Deep Fried Movies about those challenges, reuniting with film school cohort West and his quest to buy every skinny fluorescent tube in a 45-mile radius of Savannah. The Sacrament is now out on all home media platforms.
The Plot: A pair of Vice Media correspondents (You’re Next co-stars A.J. Bowen and Joe Swanberg) follow their friend to South America to film his reunion with his troubled sister (Upstream Color’s Amy Seimetz), who now resides at an isolated communal utopia lorded over by a charismatic figure known simply as “Father.”
You met Ti West when you were both students at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Tell me about your first feature together, the 2005 killer bat flick The Roost.
We made that right out of school. Our last year (at School of Visual Arts), Ti had been working with (New York-based indie horror institution) Larry Fessenden and Larry was like, ‘Hey man, when you get out of school, I’ll help you make a movie.’ So (with Fessenden as executive producer) we went and made that movie with a bunch of our friends. We made a lot of mistakes, but we made something that was interesting. It was very punk rock. You’re also talking about an era where there were no DSLR’s. It was hard to make things and it was expensive. No one made any money. We all did it for free. We just hung out for three weeks and made a movie.
Technically, you picked quite a difficult first film – shot entirely at night on 16mm with visual effects.
We had a flashlight, some Kino Flos, a few small Tungsten heads and that was it. I also built some lights out of practicals. I’m always kind of into that. I think I had a Nine Light at one point, which was kind of worthless, but we definitely lit a field up with it – or over-lit a field up, let me put it that way (laugh). We didn’t have very much. We shot it all on one film stock and pushed it (in the photochemical processing). The whole movie was shot with one lens – one super speed prime lens – and all on an Aaton A-Minima except for one shot. We had one shot where we were rigging a stunt and I needed a second camera and I asked somebody to bring in their (Arri) SR3 high-speed.
What was it like to collaborate with Ti again a decade after your last feature together?
Ti’s brilliant. He knows exactly what he wants. The guy’s a genius – I’ll straight up say it. He’s one of the smartest directors I’ve ever worked with. What more can you ask for from a director than somebody who knows what he wants and is a sweetheart of a guy. It’s a dream. Everyone should work like that. Crews would be much happier.
Above: Photographs by Alex Webb (left) and Susan Meiselas (right) that served as inspiration for Robbins on The Sacrament.
Outside of the Vice travelogues that The Sacrament is patterned after, what were some of your visual references for the film?
I get a lot of my influence from paintings and fine art photography. That’s very often the jumping off point for me. I really looked at a lot of mixed color temperature work. That’s what Ti and I were hunting for. In the 1970s there were just a lot of weird color lights so I really gravitated toward a couple different photographers’ work. Alex Webb – he’s a fine art documentary photographer and he shoots a lot in third world and second world countries and I gravitated to the color temperatures in his work and the way he captured mixed color. Another photographer, Susan Meiselas, did this book in Nicaragua and there’s a couple frames in that which really resonated with me. The Vice travel guides were also really interesting. They’re very raw so I watched all of them before we made the movie. We didn’t work directly in their style, but (The Sacrament’s actors) were playing Vice characters so we needed to have a feel of how they handle things.
The Sacrament is presented to the audience as footage captured by the on-screen characters. What rules did you set for yourself to create that illusion?
Having worked on documentaries, the idea is that you kind of just roll. Unless you’re doing a doc that’s super designed with talking heads and vignettes or recreations, you just roll the camera, especially when you’re with a cantankerous personality and you just don’t know what you’re going to get out of them. We never really ever covered a scene traditionally. We always covered scenes in one-take fashions, which is the way I like shooting narrative movies as well. It’s not like television – over, over, two-shot, wide, singles. We’re moving the camera through space just like a video journalist would. So our rules were we used two zoom lenses, we were all handheld and the camera just had to bounce around and get all the information in one take and make it seem seamless.
Did the verisimilitude of the camerawork extend to the lighting as well?
Well, the movie is lit. We lit a lot with custom-made practical lights. I wanted to use metallic halides, HPS (High Pressure Sodium) bulbs and sodium vapors, lights with all these various color temperatures. We bought the biggest sizes we could possibly get and then custom-built ballasts and housings for all these lights so when we were working we could shoot into them. That was all for the night work. We didn’t really use (traditional) film lights at night. For the daytime, it was 18Ks and 6Ks coming through the cabin windows so it looked like natural ambient light. I hope the movie doesn’t feel lit. That was my goal.
Savannah, Georgia stands in for South America in The Sacrament. Outside of Georgia’s tax incentives, what else drew you to that location?
Well, it’s coastal. Savannah’s a semi-tropical environment and the movie takes place hypothetically in South America so we needed to find something that had the flora and the fauna and the atmosphere to be believable in a story like this. Savannah has an interesting weather pattern like any coastal area. In the summer it gets wet and you can get a day where you have a tropical thunderstorm, then it’s sunny, then it’s overcast. There’s no consistency. So for a month (before production) I was taking notes and taking pictures to see how the weather shifted and I’m like, “There’s no pattern.” Then we hit this weird window of a few weeks where the sun was coming down in the atmosphere and getting lower and we got almost this fall-ish quality of light but (the temperature) was still warm enough where all the leaves were (still green). It just stayed consistent for the three-plus weeks we shot and as soon as we wrapped it turned into winter for down there. We got extremely lucky.
Talk about your choice of the Canon C300.
Ti is a filmmaker who shoots on film and I’ll just straight say it – film is the best. But we knew we weren’t going to shoot film (on The Sacrament) because film didn’t make sense for something that’s supposed to be being shot by video journalists. You don’t want anything that’s overly clean and polished. The biggest rules for the camera were we needed something that was small enough to get in and out of our spaces. So it couldn’t be an Alexa. By the time you put a zoom lens on an Alexa, wireless video, wireless focus, you’ve got a pretty big camera. You can’t run around in a forest that is dense and still be standing up with a camera that big. The second one was it needed to feel verite, so that kind of ruled out the Red platform for us. Red cameras are great for some things, but they’re not great for others and the things it isn’t great for are the things we were doing. Canon is very underrated. Them and Arri have really figured out a formula in their sensors to get skin to look really good. I was shooting a lot of people and (the C300) handled mixed light really well. We didn’t get those weird magenta shifts.
Everyone talks about resolution in today’s age as the important thing, but latitude and bit depth are the biggest contributing factors I think to an image. So I thought, ‘Wow, we’re going to shoot a movie for the big screen with an 8-bit camera?’ That was pretty jarring. I brought an awesome DIT on board (Ben Cain) who I’ve known for years and we basically engineered the hell out of that camera. We were 100 percent wireless – wireless video, we put the iris control on our end, and we sat back with a Tangent Element board in a tent and pulled iris and made sure that everything was captured at its best possible point. We were able to get that camera in a really healthy place. Had the C500 been out it would’ve been an even better choice – 12 bit capture at 2K would’ve been a real nice thing to have for this movie – but it wasn’t around yet.
There are quite a few scenes in The Sacrament in which Joe Swanberg’s character puts down the camera and then steps in front of the lens for a scene. Did he actually do his own operating for those shots?
Joe Swanberg – there’s a guy who has made a lot of his own movies and can operate a camera brilliantly. That guy is a cinematographer encyclopedia. He’s a great American filmmaker and he knows a lot about cinema. He operated at times, yeah, and he nailed it. And we would send notes to him like he was a camera operator. So very often when you see things like that, it’s all Joe’s work.
Like many of Ti West’s films, The Sacrament features a tonal turning point. That moment arrives when the Vice film crew conducts a night interview with the cult-leader called Father in a pavilion crowded with his followers. How did you approach that scene in terms of lighting?
We knew we would see in the ceilings so we had these lights that were half film light/half practical that my gaffer and (the art department) built. We used short Par Cans (for the overhead lights) and inside the Par Cans were dichroic par bulbs, which are the old school par bulbs dipped in blue gel and coated. These are pre-HMI era (units). That means the temperature is in the 5000-range or high-4000 Kelvin range. We got unused ones, because the gel coated onto the par bulbs generally melts off after a window of time. We then built these custom bottoms for them where I used Cyan 30 colored gel and a little bit of green, I can’t remember what my flavor was, but I want to say quarter green. And we pushed those dichroic bulbs through that and it gave us that blue-green color.
And then over father I hung two 3200 degree Kinos, The lights in the deep background are all T8 fluorescents, those thin fluorescents which they don’t make anymore. Now it’s all T12’s. So we were like, “How do we find all these crazy colored T8’s?” That was a project. It took me like a week in Savannah. I’d drive out to these places and just buy them out. I literally bought every T8 I could find in a 45-minute circle around Savannah at industrial lighting shops and just stockpiled the stuff.