Limitless
March 21, 2011
The List of Dumb #73
March 21, 2011

SXSW/American Cinematographer – Detention’s Christopher Probst

Detention was one the surprise hits coming out of SXSW. (Read Renn’s review.) Director Joseph Kahn (Torque) funded the project out of his own pocket and delivered a balls-to-the-wall slasher flick filled that also incorporates aliens, time travel, body horror, body swapping, and copius amounts of gore and slapstick mashed up and pureed to a smooth, teen sex comedy-like consistency.

Going from million-dollar music videos to a low-budget labor of love indie production wasn’t an easy task for Kahn, so it was a good thing he had cinematographer (and frequent collaborator) Christopher Probst on set to help capture the mayhem.

This is your first feature with Joseph Kahn, but you’ve been working together on music videos for years. How did you first meet?

I met Joseph in the early days of the Internet, chatting through the America Online cinematography message board. There were several ASC members on it, and it was Steven Poster, ASC who told me about it. So, there were all these people talking about technique and Joseph was one of the guys asking questions. At the time he was still directing hip hop and country music videos in Houston.

We started talking and when he moved to Los Angeles, we met up. I’d been there a few months already. This was about ’94, before he did Torque. His first project in Los Angeles was a $5,000 hip hop video. At first, Joseph shot all his videos himself, so I started 1st AC-ing for him and was simultaneously shooting second unit on the videos I was firsting. We spent the next several years building upon each video, doing our best to make smaller budgets look larger. When the budgets got high enough, I eventually broke away into full-on second units.

You shot some second unit on Torque, and then what?

I did second unit for Joseph for many years and filled that role almost too well. But shortly after Joseph completed Torque, I was finally given the opportunity to shoot the main unit for him and we haven‘t looked back since. The first project I shot completely for him was the Jamiroquai video, “Feels Just Like it Should.” It was a crazy video and we gave it a kind of retro, screwed-up look. We printed all the film onto low-con [positive film stock] and screwed it up in the telecine to make it look faded. All in all we’ve made over a hundred videos and commercials together, all over the world. Everything we do has a completely different look and Joseph’s always exploring different techniques, in camera or in blocking, staging, and movement.

Then came Detention. What was your reaction when Joseph first approached you the script?

Joseph was in London when it finally occurred to him to make this movie independently. After his experience working with the studios on Torque, he wanted to be able to make this film his own way without a committee of ideas being filtered down from the execs. He decided to finance it almost entirely on his own, and when he called me up with the idea, I was like, “Let’s go for it.” I knew we had the resources and smarts to make it work on our own.

But at that point, we didn’t have a clear-cut idea of how we wanted it to look. We just wanted to make it. The script is haywire, and there were several different ways we could’ve gone. We talked about various looks and which aspect ratio we should use, and then we did a video right before preproduction for the Eminum /ft. Rhianna track “Love the Way You Lie,” where I was mixing color temperatures, shooting handheld, in anamorphic. It had a lot of color in it but it was desaturated, and I had a lot of hot sources in frame creating flares in the image. That video became the starting point for the look of Detention, but we needed to make it more narrative-based and more filmic.

As we started shooting Detention, our ideas became more clear: we stayed with the mixed colors, hot sources, and lens flares, but as Joseph began to design the scenes with this very choreographed camera blocking, that also influenced the final look. More than half the shots cover at least 180-degrees with the camera, and there are a lot of 360-degree shots, so that limited me with where I could put my lights. But because the anamorphic format is wide instead of tall, I was able to put lights way up high or down on the floor. That also became a motif; a natural evolution of the camera style that eventually defined the film’s look.

Joe Kahn financed Detention on a small budget, mostly out of his own pocket, but it’s still got his trademark slick, big-budget look.

It certainly would’ve been better to have more then what we had. Many times we had to rob equipment from other parts of the set, which just cost us more time than having all the gear needed on hand. Additionally, we had an insert unit going at the same time, so that spread us even thinner. The other thing about this movie is that it’s all single camera. Even the action and fight scenes were all done with one camera; it would be on a dolly doing a complexly choreographed move that may or may not eventually get chopped up into multiple shots.

You must’ve been shooting digitally.

We were shooting on Red Ones with the newer Mysterium-X sensors and Hawk anamorphics. For the flashbacks we also used an older set of Kowa anamorphic lenses that gave us much more prominent and nicely-shaped flares.

What was the crew situation like?

The crew was a big worry because when we started the film the town was super swamped with work and everyone we knew was booked solid. Our long schedule and meager pay certainly didn’t help. We were only offering a fraction of what our commercial crew is used to being paid, so I knew I couldn’t expect them to starve for 3 months. I knew I’d have to rotate people in and out, but hopefully the department heads would stick it through. That was true mostly, but besides the department heads, the crew ended up being more like interns. We actually went union in the middle of the shoot, so some of those people who were doing their jobs for the first time were able to get into the union! Great for them, but it certainly was a trial by fire.

Fortunately, I’m a pretty hands-on cinematographer. I have a clear sense of the tools I need and how I want the light, so I can rely on my skill set to come up with a solution that works, regardless of the caliber of crew I’m given For Detention I had to drag them up to the level of what I wanted.

How long did it take to complete principle photography?

We originally scheduled the shoot for around five weeks, and that was ambitious to say the least. We had to shoot much of the film in practical high schools on the weekends, and that meant we were coming back to locations and having to re-rig from scratch each week. That made for additional time and matching issues to contend with, so in the end we wound up shooting for eight weeks.

Was there a specific plan or were you just running and gunning it?

Joseph had a whole book of storyboards that covered the beats but wasn’t necessarily specific to locations so some things obviously changed. As much as the AD tried to plan our schedule, sometimes we didn’t know if a scene would be eight shots or eighty! And as we got into shooting some of the fight sequences, they became much more involved. But Joseph had complete creative control, and no outside influence, so in order to make the movie we wanted to make, we ended up added days to the schedule.

It must’ve been great to have all that freedom, but I’m sure there were still some trade-offs.

It was a blessing and a curse. We were shooting six days a week, doing 18-hour days. It seemed like an endless process that took over our lives. And if you’re going to be killing yourself with work, you don’t want to be wasting your time. But with Joseph at the helm, we knew we were getting something special and unique.

One of the things that helps is Joseph likes to bring an Avid laptop to set. We’ll digitize the feed from the video tap and he’ll start to assemble an edit right there, which allows him to be hyper-specific about his timing and blocking. The downside is that it doesn’t give you a lot of options to change things in the edit later. We literally go from shot A to B to C, all the way down to Z. Each shot leads to the next with little room for overlapping. This is not an easy style to pull off and it takes a director with a clear vision and a strong editing sense. The upside is you end up with a sequence of shots that flow amazingly well together and were extremely tricky to pull off. That brings with it a great sense of satisfaction, even if ultimately the audience isn’t even aware of how difficult it was to get a given shot.

By and large I’m very happy with what we were able to pull off, and Detention certainly doesn’t look like the amount of money we actually had. But good photography comes down to taste level, composition, production design, how you move the camera. Telling a good story doesn’t necessarily have to take a lot of money, it just takes creativity.

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