The Forest is Red is a feature film about a socially dysfunctional man living in New York City. He wanders the city in a hypnotic daze, hearing voices that sometimes demand his subordination. Surrounded by people, he nevertheless struggles to truly connect. At times, his city is surreal. The story underlines the ideas that we are not alone in our loneliness, and that we each see life from our own unique perspective.
Cinematographer John Schmidt built his plan for the film’s images in part on these ideas. “We wanted to represent the film’s reality from Nathan’s perspective, no matter how far off center it may be,” says Schmidt. “We framed the city very specifically. The cityscapes and wide shots show off just how big the city is, and how small and insignificant it makes you feel.”
The film cuts between sequences where the character is completely alone and others that are filled with nameless, faceless crowds. “Most of the film was designed to cut a certain way, and we justified the specificity of each shot,” he says.
The film was done on a very tight budget, reportedly about $50,000. “The interesting thing that happens when it’s so small is that you can pretty much do whatever you want, within confines,” says Schmidt. “Sometimes it was just our lead, the director, and I, so we were often able to choose locations based on production quality or sun position because we weren’t limited by the logistics or the price of getting gear and crew to them — there were none!”
Schmidt’s camera was a Canon 5D Mark II. He framed for a widescreen 2.35 image, and planned for full desaturation to black and white in post. “The director, David Jakubovic, wanted the city to be colorless to emphasize Nathan’s perspective,” says Schmidt. “Also, we loved the format’s poetic rendition of New York City in old Woody Allen movies.”
Manhattan (1979), photographed in unforgettable black and white by Gordon Willis, ASC, springs to mind. That film was also widescreen, with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio achieved with anamorphic lenses. “Nowadays, black and white is often looked at as being too artsy, but our choices were grounded in the story, so we didn’t care and just went for it,” says Schmidt. “The 5D held up really well on the big screen, and because we planned for black and white, blown out skies seemed less abrasive, and not having the budget for HMIs for daytime interiors was less of a problem.”
The Forest is Red was Schmidt’s first endeavor in black and white, so he researched extensively. “With black and white, you can’t create contrast with color, so I learned a lot about separating solely by luminance,” he says. “I used my spot meter religiously and viewed images on the LCD in color so as to not get lazy. I also tried to keep the stop deeper than I would usually. Grayscale is more apt to turn to mush with out-of-focus backgrounds, and despite my tiny lighting package and the 5D’s large sensor, I kept the f-stop around an 8 for exteriors and pushed for a 4-5.6 inside almost never pushing the ISO higher than 800.”
The Forest is Red earned Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Cinematography Awards at the 2012 Avanca Film Festival in Portugal, and Best Non-European Dramatic Feature at the European Independent Film Festival. Learn more about the film at http://www.theforestisred.com/.