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CAPTURING 1980'S DETROIT

Tat Radcliffe contrasts a bleak Detroit with colour-rich Vegas on White Boy Rick

 



MAKING WHITE BOY RICK



White Boy Rick translates the real-life story of a 14-year-old delinquent who was recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the world of illegal drugs in crack-infested 1980’s Detroit. Variety’s Peter DeBruge described the look created for the film by director Yann Demange and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe as “scuzzy” and “tetanus-infected.” The Wrap’s reviewer, Peter Gilchrist called it “a frequently indelible experience, charged with unique energy and impact.” The impressive cast features Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey and Oscar nominees Piper Laurie, Bruce Dern, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.


Radcliffe and Demange enjoy a longstanding creative association that has produced the U.K. series Top Boy, which earned the DP a BAFTA nomination, as well as Criminal Justice and Dead Set. Their film set in Belfast at the height of The Troubles, titled ’71, took eight British Independent Film Award nominations, including one for cinematography.

For White Boy Rick, the duo found their way to a look during the course of location scouts, where Radcliffe shot stills, manipulated them with an app that mimics vintage camera stocks, and discussed them with the director. But Radcliffe places great importance on saving his options for the moment of photography.


“The stills are really just for texture and flavor, rather than for locking in a particular look,” says Radcliffe. “We tend to leave things to the last possible moment because everything changes. We do storyboard – it’s not a cavalier approach – but on the day of the shoot, all the variables come into focus. You have to think fast. I find that approach very exciting, and over the years Yann and I have developed a working method that is very timely, rather than planning a very specific look beforehand.”

“They were, however, keen to shoot anamorphic, and a visit to Panavision led to a package that included C and E Series lenses, as well as a set of G Series that are less prone to flaring, which Radcliffe points out can be a distraction in the wrong situation. The cameras were ALEXA XTs and Minis, using a LUT created with DI colorist Tom Poole at Company 3. The data-rich ARRIRAW format, secured on Codex Capture Drives, would help the filmmakers maintain their improvisational shooting process in a range of unpredictable practical locations, which included actual crack houses and abandoned buildings.

“Yann and I started to think a while ago that our films didn’t necessarily require an even, consistent way of shooting or lighting,” says Radcliffe. “And I think that’s especially true on this film, with this young white kid in a very African-American environment, these two completely separate worlds. We definitely wanted to show the bleakness of the world that was home – slightly desaturated, colorless.  In a way, that was done more through the production design, where we removed as much color as possible. Then, when we got into Vegas, we really let rip with as much color as possible. We didn’t hold back. We wanted the audience to see these two worlds, and feel the incredibly exciting vibe of light and color, from the perspective of Ricky.”

Cleveland stood in for Detroit for tax reasons but offered an advantage in that unlike Detroit, the Ohio city is still lit with sodium vapor lamps. The cameras were often handheld or on Steadicam, and the focal length was often 40 or 50mm, with the 75mm used frequently on close-ups. The approach to blocking and staging featured many long scenes, and sometimes 360-degree coverage in the dingy locations.



Radcliffe says that DIT Daniel Hernandez was “absolutely vital” on the project. “Working with him was the first time that I really understood how useful and valuable the DIT can be,” he says. “I’m operating, so I don’t usually have time to sit at the monitor and pay close attention to what we’re getting. But all the time, I know that Danny’s got his eyes on it, and he can warn me if things go a little bit awry.”

Hernandez controlled exposure and made adjustments to color and contrast using LiveGrade. Files were downloaded from the Codex Capture Drives to local RAIDs that were then sent to EC3 for dailies, along with stills and CDLs with his adjustments. The dailies colorist was Adrian Delude at EC3.



EVERYTHING IS MORE ROBUST AND RELIABLE. AND BECAUSE WE WERE RECORDING IN ARRIRAW, WE HAD A LOT MORE LATITUDE AND COLOR INFORMATION


“The weather was wintry and cold, so the color adjustments were often to give it a cooler look,” says Hernandez. “Also, there was some variation in the lenses in terms of color and the way they handled flares, so some matching was needed. Sometimes, if the lens was a little too soft, we’d add contrast, or soften them a bit if they were too sharp. We had several lenses designed by Panavision with less coating, which meant they reacted differently to light, especially if there was backlight from a window. I’d talk to Tat if the windows were getting too washed out, and maybe we’d switch over to a more contrasty lens.”

Hernandez has been depending on Codex gear going all the way back to 2008 when he was working on Avatar.

“Back then, we were using Codex drives for playback, because that was the only thing that could handle 3D,” he says. “Ever since then, it’s been a very reliable way to go. You record to the mag, bring it back, and download it – you don’t even have to think about it anymore. Everything is more robust and reliable. And because we were recording in ARRIRAW, we had a lot more latitude and color information, and more flexibility later.”

In the truck, Hernandez had the ability to show his colleagues the actual ARRIRAW image immediately after download – an important advantage when judging nuances in exposure and lighting. “Everything is smaller now, so we could set up in very tiny spaces, and stay close to the set,” he says. “Tat could shoot, and go right into the next room to check the image. With a normal, full-sized DIT cart, in some situations, I would have had to stay outside. Being mobile, with the versatility to adapt quickly, was important in some of the situations we were shooting in.”

The digital intermediate was done over the course of two weeks in New York with Tom Poole.

“It was one of the easiest and most pleasant DITs I’ve ever worked on,” says Radcliffe. “Tom had done a fair amount of work when I arrived, and from there it was just tweaks and nudges. It was just lovely to have that time to finesse little details because basically, the main work had all been done.”

Radcliffe and Hernandez went on to shoot HBO’s Lovecraft Country on the ARRI LF with Panavision lenses. Hernandez is working on the live-action adaptation of Lady and the Tramp, destined for Disney’s streaming service. After appearing at Telluride and Toronto, White Boy Rick hit theaters on September 14.









Cameras: ARRI ALEXA XT, ALEXA Mini
Lenses: Panavision G, C, E Series
DIT: Daniel Hernandez
Post Partners: Company 3




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Images courtesy of their respective owners.