Cinematographer Sandra Valde-Hansen needed to capture scenes in diverse weather and lighting for Director Natalie Morales' film ‘Plan B’. This road movie, now streaming on Hulu, follows a pair of teenaged friends during a day-and-night search for emergency contraception. To support the production design filled with rich night exteriors, Sandra chose ZEISS Supreme Primes to shoot large format at wide apertures on the Sony VENICE camera.
When the pandemic emerged, the production was forced to abandon their plan to photograph the story in snowy weather. "So we embraced the warm tones of autumn instead – golds, ambers and reds," Sandra said. "We discussed wanting to capture the visual intimacy of teen films made in the 1970s, like ‘Battle of the Sexes’, in which Natalie was an actor, and ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’." But they were not going for a retro style.
In fact, they wanted Plan B to have an overall clean and modern look to go with the contemporary story. Sandra, whose own credits include ‘The L Word: Generation Q’, ‘Now Apocalypse’ and ‘White Bird in a Blizzard’, noted that anamorphic lenses might have been a natural choice for an approach from decades ago.
From Anamorphic to Large Format
"But one of the discussions I had with Natalie was based on recent testing with anamorphics for ‘The L Word: Generation Q’. For that show my co-DP Moira Morel and I had tested numerous anamorphic sets. We found that they weren't fast and fell apart when shooting wide open, and concluded that the falloff in sharpness on the sides would not work for the show's aesthetic."
Sandra evaluated her options. "I considered what we wanted from an anamorphic. We wanted intimacy, natural perspective, natural magnification and very shallow depth of field so that this story drew out our characters. We wanted to be able to see the world these girls live in, and to go out into that world, but we also wanted it to be very intimate. Once it was clear that anamorphics would present challenges, I started looking into large format."
She had to pack her film tests into a single weekend, in particular testing the ISO 2500 setting on the Sony Venice plus the T1.5 from the ZEISS Supreme Primes, both of which would produce a shallow depth of field and allow plenty of light into the camera. She was very impressed with the combination. “The lenses were beautiful," she said. "They were very clean. I proposed to Natalie that the pros of anamorphic matched the pros of large format, while the cons of anamorphic were not present in large format. She was all for it."
Autumn in Syracuse leads to early evenings and unreliable weather, issues Sandra encountered during a scene in a playground over the course of two nights. Sandra said, "It was cold, it rained, it snowed -- our time was heavily truncated because of the weather. It was crazy, we had to light quickly -- but the speed of the Supreme Primes helped us overcome some of the issues and keep on schedule."
Equipment choices proved critical. "Ultimately, it is an indie film so we couldn't just hire big lights when we needed them. We had to stay on budget." More important, director Natalie Morales wanted to avoid extensive lighting for night exteriors, preferring deep blacks that other lenses with poor contrast might have compromised. "She was OK with details falling into blackness. We strongly agreed that when it's night, it should be night."
Sandra appreciated the authenticity that the Primes brought to sequences like this one. "The lenses create such a naturalistic look without compromise to sharpness or contrast. This really allowed us to keep that naturalism throughout the film. All together, seeing how beautiful the Sony VENICE image is at ISO 2500, and how clean the Supremes look at T 1.5, I knew I'd made the right decision."
With 'Plan B' successfully concluded, Sandra moved on to the second season of ‘The L Word: Generation Q’, streaming on Showtime, with the same camera/lens combination. "I've been working with the Venice and Supreme Primes for a year and a half now, and I'm really impressed. Using these lenses with beautiful colour rendition, great skin tones, nice fall off, no lens distortion and consistency all the way through, is wonderful." www.zeiss.com