Eric Lin is an award-winning DP known for his work on a string of independent drama films including The Song of Sway Lake, My Blind Brother, Equity and I Smile Back. Here Eric talks Mandy News through shooting his latest film Hearts Beat Loud starring Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) and Kiersey Clemons (Dope, Bad Neighbours 2) and shares details of how he became a cinematographer.
Eric, tell us a little bit about how you got involved in camera and cinematography?
I’m a New York-based cinematographer. I was always involved in visual arts, since I was a kid – I was trained as an oil painter and, when I was really small, I used to draw comics with my brother. We were always visually driven.
In high school, I started doing photography and fell in love with it. When I first started learning photography, we had a great teacher – we rolled our own film, developed our own film, printed our own photos in the dark room, and I just fell in love with that process.
When it came time to go to college, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I used to be very good at math and sciences, and thought I was going to take that route. But throughout high school and college, I was always making films with my friends.
It was at college that I started taking film criticism classes – I went to the University of California, Berkeley, and they didn’t really have film production classes, but they had film theory. We watched and thought a lot about experimental film, documentary film, narrative films and just the mechanics of filmmaking in terms of what it’s doing culturally and socially.
I became really entranced with the possibilities of what filmmaking could be and really wanted to get more involved with it.
I met a few documentary filmmakers in the Bay area and was able to get on sets and do some basic editing and camera stuff. I knew I wanted to go into film at that point and applied to NYU.
From there, I studied cinematography and have been involved in filmmaking since.
One thing that seems to reoccur with people’s journeys into film is that their want to get into it leads them to all different departments – you have editing credits and writing credits and directing credits. Is that something that you had to do to get into the cinematography area?
Yeah, it was interesting – when I was in my last year at Berkeley, I met this documentary filmmaker called Ruby Yang, who was also an editor and rented her Avid for a short film I was doing for school. She ended up taking me on as assistant editor and I learned Avid through her – I didn’t take a class or anything.
Once I went to grad school, I knew I wanted to be involved in production. What I loved about NYU’s programme, for people who are interested, was that it was a three-year programme, but the first two years, no matter what your interests were, you always take the same core classes. Everybody had to make films, even if they were going to be an editor, or a writer, producer or director. You have to learn every single aspect of it – sound design, sound recording, editing, cinematography, acting (which was the worst four hours, each week, of my life).
What I loved about that is that you learn the totality of the filmmaking process. No matter what department you end up in, you have to know what every department does – which I think is a great way to learn filmmaking.
Then, in the third year, you choose your elective and really decide your emphasis – whether you’re a cinematographer, director, writer or producer.
The editing, I think, helped me immensely to become a cinematographer because I thought about sequences; narratives; how shots would edit together; how sequences would be pieced together.
More importantly, being in New York after I finished at NYU, meant I was able to edit commercials while I was trying to get shooting jobs. I got to the point where I could make a lot of money editing commercials but knew I only wanted to shoot and be in the field. So, editing would be the way I made my money and I would take low-paying shooting jobs until that started to take off.
It helped me creatively, thinking about narrative and how to put sequences together but also, on a practical level, I was able to survive, doing some kind of filmmaking, while I was trying to get my shooting career off the ground.
I also came into the career at a weird transition – my year at NYU was the first year that they decided to use Final Cut; it was like Final Cut 1.5. Our very first semester, we were still editing on Moviolas and shooting on film. We shot a documentary on 16mm and were editing on film, reel to reel, on Moviolas. They were saying “we don’t know about Final Cut; we don’t know if this is the way to go. It’s the new thing but we don’t know how the timecode will work”.
We were kind of the guinea pigs. Within the three years I was there, on the last day they were basically stacking Moviolas on the curb trying to give them away – Final Cut had taken over.
Also, at the time I was shooting, RED was coming out – the first big, digital cinema camera that was really propagating. I shot a film called The Exploding Girl in 2009 and we were maybe like the eighth film in New York to use the RED – it was very early days. The indie filmmakers were really figuring out how to use RED on set; how to make it work, the data and everything, on a small production.
So, my post background really helped in that sense, because I was already engaging with all that digital technology, and cinematography itself was moving toward post-focus – especially with the RED camera, because it’s so reliant on post-production.
I felt like I came about at a time where the camera technology was going through this explosion, so it was interesting to be involved at that time. I felt like having that post background was something that really helped me.
So, I suppose you were part of a relatively small group of people who existed during that transitional period where you worked with both film and digital filmmaking?
Yeah, I shot a short on 35mm a couple years ago and it was tough to find a team that still knew the film workflow – it’s a knowledge base that’s disappearing, sadly.
Hopefully, more people will start to shoot on film – they’ve just opened a new lab in New York, so hopefully it won’t totally go away.
How did you get involved in the Hearts Beat Loud project?
I got the script through my agent and read it, and immediately the characters leapt off the page. Brett and Marc, the writers – Brett also directed - did such a great job crafting the characters. Also, it took place in a neighbourhood near where I live in Brooklyn, which I used to go to a lot, so everything about it felt very alive to me – I could really see the film just reading it on the page.
I don’t think I even finished the script before I emailed my agent and said “yeah, I want to meet Brett. I want to talk to him about all of this.”
I was immediately taken with the script and, when I met with Brett, we really hit it off. I felt like we had the same ideas; really similar ideas in terms of aesthetic and how to approach the story. We jumped right into pre-production a few weeks later.
After that initial meeting, how long did you get for pre-production and how long did you get on the production itself?
We had about four weeks of pre-production and then about the same in terms of production – so, eight weeks total from start to finish.
We had about 19 days principal photography and then two days of B-roll. So, like 20 and a half days.
On this script, there were around five performances. So, on the script it would say “they play this song” but that’s four minutes of screen time that we have to shoot.
So, just in terms of production, we had to carve out, within the schedule, the time to treat the music performances right. For us, every musical performance had a very narrative beat – there were things people were experiencing and going through and trying to express within the song itself, and we wanted to treat it right.
We wanted to make sure that each performance didn’t come across like a music video. It wasn’t general coverage and it wasn’t just to get musical beats; it was very narratively driven and we tried to pay attention to where each character was at that point of the story, during each performance, and where they were going during each performance.
How do you go about shooting a live performance like that – what kind of challenges did you have?
Live music recording’s pretty complicated – I know the sound department had lots of challenges.
We really wanted to capture the live performance – in the final film, the majority of the sound is from the actual live performance and not a pre-recorded song. They wanted to make a real effort to capture the way a voice cracks or the hit on a guitar string, which makes it feel so real and apparent.
For example, the scene where Nick Offerman is singing to Kiersey Clemons in the store, it’s an acoustic song, and he actually breaks in the song because of emotion; he stopped and had to take a moment before he continued the song. You’d never get that if it was a pre-recorded track that you just laid in on post – you wouldn’t get that emotion that he had on the set. After one take, I turned around and my gaffer was crying – it was something that you could feel so much on set. To lose that and just flop on a song in post is something that would make you lose the emotional content that we really wanted to capture, and which I think we did capture.
And it was a big challenge for the actors too. Because we were doing live recording, we had to really think about how we shot the sequences. We couldn’t do more than one song a night because of the actors’ voices; we couldn’t do too many takes. We had to really take into account their voices and ability to perform and energy.
So, one strategy was using multiple cameras. Most of the show was single camera but we used two-cameras when they were doing their musical performances in the store. Because of the schedule, we had about five days in the store and had to spread it out. We tried to shoot one song a night, but sometimes we didn’t even do that because of how complex it was. We had to spread out these four performances over five days and make sure that, within the schedule, if we had to capture more than one part of the song or parts of two songs, they weren’t back to back – we had to give the actors a break somehow.
In terms of narrative approach, the first song they sing in the store is really about them performing for the first time – and the energy and vulnerability about it. So, a lot of the coverage is them interacting with each other, while they’re performing for other people. We have a few reaction shots, but primarily it’s about Kiersey and Nick, and them trying this for the first time.
A lot of our coverage was dictated by that – they were facing each other a lot and how they blocked it; trying to keep people over their shoulders and tight lenses on each other.
Then, the second song, Kiersey is really singing towards Sasha’s character – and it’s all locked off and all on dolly, whereas the previous one was all handheld. This was a very slow dolly pushing on Kiersey and her eyeline to Sasha. That plays for the majority of the song – it’s just them two, because she wrote the song for Sasha, and then Sasha’s reaction when she realizes what the song’s about.
These are basic narrative beats, but we had to find them when talking about the script and had to make sure that our coverage of the song really reflected that. We didn’t just want general music video coverage or just stuff for pacing; we knew that people were at certain places within the story and wanted to make sure that came across in the capturing of the performances.
You mentioned that for some of the song scenes you used multiple cameras - can you tell us a little bit about the technical side of it, like what cameras and lenses you were using?
We shot on Alexa Minis – and the reason for that is primarily that we knew we would be in small spaces and have a fair amount of handheld. So, the form factor and modularity made sense to us – and I love the image quality of the Alexa and so almost everything I shoot is on Alexa if I can get it.
Then we shot with these KOWA Spherical Cine Prominar lenses – they’re these old Japanese vintage lenses. We tested a lot of old lenses; and the reason we chose vintage lenses was because we loved the fall off and the softness of the contrast. Within the story, Nick Offerman’s character, Frank, owns a vinyl record store – it’s part of his dream that he wants to perform music, but instead he ends up selling it. In a way, his store reflected that past nostalgia and I wanted the film to feel like that too. I thought vintage lenses were an easy way to get to that aesthetic; where we could feel more analogue and bring some of that analogue feeling into the digital capture.
We tested a number of lenses at TCS – the camera house nearby, in New York, where we got our stuff. They have a huge library of vintage lenses. These stood out not just because of the fall off and softness of focus, but also they had these very orange, circular flares, which the other lenses did not. When these flares came in, it just made the image totally different. A lot of the other lenses, because of the coding, had these cyan, purple flares. But these lenses had these distinct circular orange flares. We knew we wanted to save that and use that somehow. Once we saw the flare, we thought “wow, this is something very special”.
We only used it on the very last song – that’s the only time we introduced flares in the store. When it hits the lenses, it does something that’s really interesting and helps that performance. So, it took a lot of testing to find those lenses, but I am really glad that we were able to.
We trying to capture and convey emotions – everything we’re doing is trying to bring that to the fore.
What is it you’re working on now and what do you have planned for the rest of the year?
I just finished a film earlier this year, and I’ve been doing mostly commercial work and there are a couple of films that are pulling together in the Fall.
So, I’ve been working on these commercial projects and hoping some of these bigger films happen but no narrative films immediately happening right now.
What advice do you have for aspiring cinematographers out there?
Technique and technology is easy to learn.
What’s difficult is really finding your voice, artistically. However you have to go about it – whether you do it in film, photography, painting, or looking at other places for inspiration – it’s really about how you develop and craft that voice in terms of how you light and how you move the camera.
In the early stages, it’s about seeing what you like and trying to figure out how people achieve it. But the more you’re able to work, I think it’s really important to continue to mind that and to really find out what your visual inspiration is and to bring that to all of your projects.
When you shoot a lot, it’s very easy to rely on a generic approach in terms of visual language. I’m always drawing upon past references. When I studied film theory, we watched a lot of experimental film, so I’m always interested in non-narrative approaches to delivering scenes and story, and trying to find new ways to do things.
I think, the most important thing you can do as an artist is to try to find your voice.
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