Short film Wannabe premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival to huge buzz, dubbed “a coming-of-age story that will make you swoon” by Indiewire. A recipient of the Digital Bolex Grant for Women Cinematographers, the film was directed by Matthew Manson and shot by Catherine Goldschmidt.
In the 1990s, America seemed to going through an economic boom, with some speculating that the party would never end. While some of America enjoyed the frills and joys of a seemingly ceaseless internet bubble, other parts of America still struggled with racial and fiscal troubles.In a deeply personal and sincere story from writer and director New York native Matthew Manson, the new short “Wannabe” takes place during New York’s tumultuous Crown Heights Riots in the 1990s, exploring the overwhelming racial and political issues that pervaded the contemporary social climate, which sadly continues to this day. But barriers are broken down when Daniel, an anxious Jewish boy, begins to develop a youthful crush on his Caribbean classmate, Emefa. As tensions continue to rise in the neighborhood, Daniel must overcome his neurotic tendencies and impress not only Emefa, but also her skeptical Jamaican family.
We spoke with director Matt and Catherine just before the premiere about their cinematography influences, and use of the Bolex on set.
DB: What visual style were you looking to create with Wannabe?
MM: When you’re making a period piece, you really have two visual options – you try to replicate how that time actually looked, or you try to go for how people remember it looked, which is inherently more broad, even cartoonish. We opted to go the more authentic route. To me, nothing evokes 90s New York more than that grainy, filmic Super 16 look, which is why we went Digital Bolex. I also wanted a hand held fly-on-the-wall documentary style, which allowed us to find moments the kids created naturally, rather than us dictating what those moments were – especially in the improv sequences we have in the film. Lastly, we sprinkled some highly stylized beats here and there – some wide-angle canted shots reminiscent of early Spike Lee, and some hyper stylized fantasy sequences, like something out of 8 1/2 or Annie Hall. Those are fun, and speak to particular anxieties characters are experiencing in the moment.
CG: Matt was always super clear on his vision for the film, as far as look and tone. Because he’s been developing the feature version for awhile now, I think he pretty much had it in his head well before I was brought on. The main thing I think I contributed here was just focussing the approach. The feature is a broader story obviously, with darker, more dramatic and adult storylines intersecting the kids’ coming of age- the latter story being what the short focusses on. Stylistically, we were toeing the line between the bigger, more comedy-driven scenes (ie: the “snaps” battle that the kids play in the playground to open the film) versus the quieter moments of reflection and longing these kids go through (ie: the ending scenes in the mirror). I feel that the film appropriately sits between these two bookends visually: bold colors and dynamic frames lead to a more stripped-down stillness by the film’s end, as the kids learn to accept who they are versus who they “wannabe.”
DB: What lenses did you choose to work with, and how did that effect the look of the film?
CG: We shot with the Canon 10.6-180mm S16mm PL zoom, which was our work-horse for the film. Matt was very specific about wanting to shoot primarily with a zoom lens, not just because we actively zoomed for certain shots, but also because practically speaking he wanted to be able to change up the focal length and go again right away without waiting for a lens change. Sometimes, I think we even changed focal lengths mid-take. Working with kids, the vibe was: let’s keep the momentum going and try to get all the pieces we need in the can as quickly as possible, before the energy dies and the kids have to be in school. The Canon S16mm zooms are really incredible because they’re relatively fast, they’re light and their range is huge compared to 35mm equivalent lens options. I knew for a mostly daytime, exterior and handheld film it would be a perfect tool. In addition to our trusty Canon, we had a set of Optika-Elite Superspeed Primes donated to us by D16 as part of the Grant. These were useful when we shot our nighttime scenes, and when we ran two cameras.
DB: Who are your cinematography influences?
MM: I went to NYU film school with the dream of becoming a cinematographer, until I realized how incredibly hard it is. Sven Nykvist is the first DP whose work really astonished me. The stark simplicity of his visuals are poetic, and they speak volumes about his characters without needing any real visual fireworks. Of course, Gordon Willis – you can freeze any frame in a film like Manhattan and be both blown away by the visuals and know exactly where the characters are in the moment. As for someone younger, Tim Orr is a genius. His work with David Gordon Green is deceptively lyrical for comedy. Also, how he shot Peter Sollett’s Raising Victor Vargas is a masterclass. I feel like I’m watching a documentary, and it was a huge influence on Wannabe.
CG: In life, I have so many! A bunch of women out there kicking ass are big heroes for me at the moment: Reed Morano, Natasha Braier, Ula Pontikos to name just a few. But for this film specifically, everything Matt said. Plus, we definitely also looked at the collaboration between Spike Lee and Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson on Do the Right Thing.
DB: What films or images influenced the look of Wannabe?
CG: Apart from the films mentioned before, Matt showed me a lot of photographs that were taken during the Crown Heights riot of 1991, which we make some reference to in the short, but plays a larger role in the feature. Those photographs have a distinct color palette, density and grain structure that we really tried to mimic in the film to give it the right period feel.
MM: Yeah, as Catherine said, since this was based on such a visually rich time and place, I tried to pull as much as I could from art, newspapers, TV, and film of the time. I actually created a 15 page reference lookbook for Catherine when we started working together. Also, my middle school yearbook contained a wealth of embarrassing inspiration.
DB: What is your favorite cinematography trick or pro-tip that you used during this production?
CG: There’s a fantasy sequence in the film which we knew we wanted to have a different look. We were operating on a limited budget (both time and money), so we had to get creative! Matt had mentioned this idea of “sparks flying” for the fantasy kiss, and so we had the art department procure some sparklers. It was an experiment on the day with where they were held in frame that would give the right effect. By shooting through the sparklers on longer lenses, we were able to create an out-of-focus, glowy and sparkly in-camera effect, that I think communicates nicely the nervous excitement Danny feels with his first kiss, as well as frames the action in this other-worldly dream space.
MM: Yeah, I really have to give Catherine credit there. I explained what I wanted and she figured out a way to create it practically. I think it came out better than if we had hired a fancy VFX person.
DB: How did you hear about the Digital Bolex Grant?
CG: I was forwarded your announcement email about the grant by a director friend as far back as March 2014. I was always keeping it in the back of my mind as something I’d like to take advantage of for the right project. Once Matt and I started talking about what the film should look like and we shared a love of S16mm, I immediately thought of shooting it on your camera.
DB: How did receiving the grant help the production?
CG: Well, we didn’t have to pay for a camera, because it was free! But apart from that, I find that the choice of camera always dictates certain things about both how a film will ultimately look, and also how a set will run. I think if we hadn’t received the grant, we were already going down the D16 path anyway for a few reasons (including budget, look, and shooting approach), but getting the grant made the choice a no-brainer for us.
MM: We were able to dedicate resources elsewhere, which is super valuable on an indie. The biggest thing I can thing of is that we had a second camera on the last day. I think we had four company moves that day—which is mad—and your help allowed us to get everything in the can. Thank you!
DB: Was this your and your crew members’ first time using the Digital Bolex?
CG: Yes. I would love to give a special shout-out here to 1st AC Melanie Adams, who joined me on this adventure into the unknown and helped me test and troubleshoot the camera in prep as well as on-set. Tim and Elle from D16 were very responsive and helpful in guiding us through our first-timer issues, and my whole camera team really stepped up to the challenge of working with this new tool.
DB: Did you feel the Digital Bolex was able to execute the look you were trying to create?
CG: Ultimately, absolutely! I think on-set I will caution both DPs and Directors that the workflow is not your typical digital experience. In other words, I find shooting digitally has made people believe that what they are seeing on set is what the final resulting image will look like. The monitor has become everyone’s crutch: DPs will light to it (using waveforms and false color, of course), and directors trust it. The D16 on-set workflow makes you go back to how we used to use monitors: as a framing reference only. I had to trust my meter, the camera’s dynamic range specs, and the over-under exposure guide in-camera, and Matt had to trust me! Happily, we had our DIT Daye Rogers on-set with us, making LUTed dailies so we could see what we were getting right away, and this was a real confidence booster for everyone- including me!
MM: Yeah, I hadn’t even heard of DB when Catherine first mentioned it to me, so I went out and did some research, watched some camera tests – and wow, did it have the look we were going for. It’s not your average crazy crisp digital image that I’m kind of sick of seeing, to be honest.
DB: What was your favorite thing about using the camera?
CG: Honestly, my favorite thing was sitting in the color correction suite at Light Iron when the stress of the shoot was over, and getting to see where we could push the image with our colorist Nick. The look we were going for all along (namely: bold and filmic colors, strong contrast, softer/grainier image) and the natural curve, color rendition and character of the D16 sensor were a really good match. There wasn’t a huge difference look-wise between our original camera dailies and the final film, but we were able to stretch some ideas we had further.
DB: Many directors and DPs have mentioned that the camera, due to its size and physical look, makes child and first-time actors comfortable. Did you find this to be the case?
CG: Well, Elle and I spoke about this ahead of time, but I think ultimately I built up the camera so much that in the end, it just looked like any other digital cinema camera. There was a brief moment where I considered using C-mount lenses, and if we could have accessorized the camera accordingly, this might have been more the case. In any event, I don’t think Chaize or David or any of our other fantastic cast members were freaked out- they were consummate professionals!
MM: Catherine definitely rigged it up, but I would imagine that in it’s “naked” state, it would be a tremendous help, especially with first-time and child actors. Sometimes you can sense that an actor is aware of the camera when you’re directing – it’s this massive piece of machinery inches away from your face – and the DB is pretty small and almost looks like a toy, in the best possible way, so it’s not intimidating. Thanks for your commitment to recreating a look and feel that so many of us grew up with — and miss.
DB: Where can we see Wannabe next?
MM: We’re waiting to hear back from a few festivals! Hoping that you’ll be seeing the feature soon 😉