With credits like Requiem for Dream, Pi, The Fountain, and Iron Man, cinematographer Matty Libatique, ASC comes with a major “cool” factor – and that was before his Oscar nomination for Black Swan. Since then he’s added to his eclectic resume the high concept action flick Cowboys & Aliens. His latest, Ruby Sparks, is a romantic fantasy directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the team behind Little Miss Sunshine.
The idea behind Ruby Sparks is that a shy, struggling novelist falls so hard for one of his characters that she comes to life. Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan star, with Elliott Gould, Antonio Banderas and Annette Bening in supporting roles. The budget was reportedly between $6 and 7 million, with roughly 30 days of production, mostly at locations in the Los Angeles area. Almost three weeks of that time was spent at the location portraying the writer’s house, an actual home in the hills of Los Feliz.
Libatique had previously photographed commercials for State Farm and the Nissan Leaf using the ARRI ALEXA, and he felt that the camera’s sensitivity would help with on-set efficiency on Ruby Sparks.
“The schedule meant we had to go at a certain pace,” he says. “I knew we wouldn’t have a lot of time for setups, and because of my previous experience with the ALEXA, I knew how little light I could get away with. I knew that in some cases, I could get an image out of a location by using negative light, versus actually lighting. At the main location, we wanted to incorporate as much natural light as possible for the day interiors. The house had a view of Los Feliz and downtown Los Angeles, and to capture that on film would have been harder.”
The camera was set up to record uncompressed, 12 bit logarithmic ARRIRAW files to Codex ARRIRAW recorders that were mounted directly on the camera. At times, a dual record setup also sent lower resolution images to SXS cards, and these images were used for on-set viewing, quick turnaround dailies or editorial.
“This was Jonathan and Valerie’s first time shooting with a digital format, so I wanted to give them ultimate flexibility in the DI,” says Libatique. “They come from commercials so they are well-versed in post color. I wanted to take everything that the camera had to offer. I learned that by shooting it RAW, I could literally go into the DI and just rewrite the file. If I had shot it at 400 ASA, and I wanted something different out of it, I could just plug in 800 ASA. I like that ability.”
Libatique handheld the camera for virtually the entire shoot. “I would often record the whole shot with the stand-ins first,” he says. “Then I’d run over to the monitor and have it played back, to see what it looked like. Then I’d make some adjustments and do the shot again with the cast.”
Libatique says that his best friend on the job was a Leader waveform monitor, which had a spot function that allowed him to move a cursor around the image to get the IRE value for any point in the frame. “I started using that like a spot meter,” he says. “It didn’t take long to get used to it.”
During prep, the workflow was also tailored to Libatique’s eye through the use of custom-made LUTs provided by EFilm. He shot a series of tests, and asked EFilm to create ten LUTs, each at a different stage of contrast and numbered from one to ten. He says this obviated the need to color correct every shot and scene on the set.
“I’d shoot a shot, and then I’d pick,” he says. “I’d say ‘I like six for that one, and five for that one.’ Eventually, we zeroed in on the look that we liked, and it would always land between five and seven on that scale. For the shoot, I had the LUTs installed into our system, in a box provided by EFilm, so they could be applied to what we were seeing on the set.”
Lens choice was another crucial aspect of the visual design. Libatique had recently shot a commercial digitally using his father’s old Nikon still lenses and liked the result. He looked at older Canon lenses, Kowas and uncoated Zeiss Standards before settling on a rehoused set of Cooke Panchros.
“They have a nice, warm feel that Jon and Val really responded to,” he says. “In so much of what I see in films and on television, the patina is all very sharp. These lenses counteracted that sharpness. They were housed really well by Camtec in North Hollywood, and they’re the best set I’ve ever worked with. We basically shot the film on that set of five lenses.”
Overall, Libatique describes the imagery as naturalistic. “I like to think it’s not a lit film,” he says. “I was going for something a little more found. Even though there was lighting involved, it’s very practically oriented, appropriate, and not too stylized. I’d say the film is not aware of itself. The camera is in just the right place – that’s one of Jon and Val’s strengths. They find emotion in their comedy.”
Libatique is currently scouting in Iceland for his next project, Noah, a feature film retelling of the story of Noah’s ark that is being directed by Darren Aronofsky.