him. is a narrative (/experimental?) piece written and directed by Lilly Adams. Affected by this Arcade Fire piano track from the Her score, Lilly wrote the piece to the track. It revolves (literally, more on that in a sec) around 3 relationships, progressing not chronologically, but by the emotions dictated by the music. Basically, when she asked me if I’d be director of photography for the project it was an easy yes.
The first thing Lilly told me about the piece was that she wanted it to open with a continuous revolving take, circling behind each pairing at a candlelit date setting. Every time the camera went behind “her,” it’d be a different “him” waiting on the other side—all without an obvious cut. Over a span of 2 weeks in October 2019, we went from making conceptual drawings on notebook paper to building test rigs in the PSU film studio, all in an effort to figure this one shot out.
The studio has dolly track, but none capable of making a circle as tight as we needed. So we went with this push cart, with wheels that simultaneously turn in the front and the back. The reason you’re looking at a stack of apple boxes with yardsticks gaff taped on top, and not a tripod sitting on the cart, is our initial intentions to do a push in from the side before beginning the rotation.
This involved: rolling the camera down a long table on a pico dolly (on yardstick track itself), onto the apple box stack (measured to be the exact same height for a smooth transfer), pushing the cart to start rotation, and having extra hands carry the side table behind the camera as it rotated, so when the shot swung around to the opposite side of the center table, it looked as if nothing was ever there where the long table originally was. We executed all of this the day we shot—and then ended up cutting the push in for time. Good story, though.
My plan was to mask the edge of “her” as the camera came out from behind her, allowing me to lay in the next take (with the next “him”) in underneath. Each take would end with her leaving the frame at a moment I called out (a benefit of a completely audio-free production), and each following take would begin without her, until I called her in. Editing aside (read below), that would be the whole trick:
This would only work, however, if the camera passed behind her in the same exact place, at the same exact speed, every time. Hence the circular tape track you see in the picture above—but what about the speed?
I wrapped a string around this tire to figure out the length, divided it evenly, and marked each increment with tape. I also put way too much effort into building that cardboard cube, to give a definitive line to watch each mark pass by. Then—here’s the fun part—I opened Logic on my Mac and blasted a metronome at a specific bpm. As long as each tick on the tire passed the line with each beat from the metronome, we’d know that the speed was consistent.
Despite efforts like these tape marks to preserve everything as it were during our test builds, over time the cart became less and less reliable. The first few sessions, I could push the cart around the table 100 times and it would never falter from the circular tape track we laid down. Closer to the day of the shoot, however, it took increasingly varied paths each time around, to the point where the tape track was basically irrelevant.
Lilly wanted each transition between Hims to hit at specific moments in the song—but they weren’t all an even length apart. Had the cart been able to stick to the track like it originally could, I would’ve used the exact number of those tire ticks per 1 revolution (a constant) to do some BPM math, and create a specialized metronome track for each of the 3 takes. The metronome would speed up or slow down slightly over time (always staying constant during the beats I knew we’d be going behind her head, and therefore matching to other takes), so each take would ultimately take exactly as much time as Lilly wanted.
I crawled under the cart and tightened anything I could find to twist—I just could not for the life of me stop it from getting less and less precise as it circled that table. Fortunately, for the sake of the shot, Carson Spence (who came in clutch during the production in a million other ways) was able to push the cart while steering it to stay on the tape track. I had him make sure to eye the tire in relation to the metronome while we went behind her head each time, but otherwise all the other considerations with the beats and revolution lengths were thrown out the window since he was eyeballing the steering. This meant sacrificing specific timings on the takes, which led to the aforementioned push in being cut for time, to keep the rest of the piece in sync with the song.
Anyway—that’s how the whole operation worked. I rode on the stool of the cart, watching the live feed on an Ikan monitor as I pulled focus. Here’s some footage of what this all looked (and sounded) like:
While editing the shot I found that the slight differences in camera location caused by the cart issues, while not drastic enough to ruin the effect, did cause corresponding lens flares to appear/disappear at inconsistent times. The vague background details from the studio also didn’t line up, so the majority of the 10 hours I spent in After Effects on this shot were actually on masking/transitioning everything going on around her/him:
So that was way more than I thought I’d write about that shot. Are you still reading? Nice! Here’s the blow-by-blow on the rest of the shoot:
We started shooting on a Friday evening at Lilly’s apartment. First up was the bed stuff, which Lilly had conceived as being done splitscreen. I rigged the camera on a 90º plate to a slider, which we tried to support with a tripod on either side of the bed. The bed was too wide, so here’s Carson using duct tape and yardsticks from my car (soon to be cut up for pico dolly track in the studio) to save the day:
I shot each side of the spliscreen centered in frame, to give leeway in editing—we’d just slide it over as we rotated through actors and costumes for MaryKate (Cadden, who I’ll stop referring to as “her” now).
Next we went outside to shoot the nighttime “honeymoon phase” footage with Hims 2 and 3. Since the original plan to shoot these on a Bolex fell through, I leaned heavily into jerky motion and quick/short zooms to evoke the same filmstrip feel.
Out in the parking lot, we shot the breakup scene with Him 1. I had some fun here:
From there, we hopped locations to absolute legend Bryan Stanley’s parents’ house, for the Him 3 breakup. This is when Nic Rubolino arrived, and started going crazy with the lighting:
At 1am, we wrapped for the night…and then Lilly, Nic, and I went over to the studio to set up the rotation shot. Nic hung the lights from the ceiling while we set the tables and cart up; every now and then he’d have one of us sit in to see where he was at:
I left past 5am. I slept for a max of 90 minutes on my couch. I woke up, and got to Webster’s by 8. Scheduling a coffee shop scene for that exact moment was probably the best thing that happened to this production:
From there, we hit the studio and finally filmed the rotation shot, as explained above. The park scenes with Him 1 rounded out that Saturday, and the final splitscreen sequence was shot the next day, then reshot a few weeks later. Lilly and Carson handled the initial edit; besides the rotation shot After Effects work, I cut the splitscreen sequences together.
It’s at this point I’ll mention that this was my first gig as director of photography on a major production. Whatever I thought I was getting into—what transpired was so much more fun, fruitful, and fulfilling than I think any of us could’ve imagined. I applied things from classes and my work for Blue Lion Multimedia to the him. shoot; I’ve been applying things from the him. shoot to other work since. Overall, the piece is one that I’m incredibly proud of, and thankful for the chance to have worked on.
We’re getting most of the gang back together next semester to tackle one of my own projects, and I’ll be documenting the whole process along the way on this blog. So like, if you’re somehow still reading this at this point, check that out too as it happens!
Shot on a Canon C100 Mk2.
As always, good work!