Sidewalk Traffic, The Little Film with a Big Heart

Sidewalk Traffic centers around Declan Martin, a struggling filmmaker coming to terms with becoming a stay-at-home dad. Played by the gifted actor Johnny Hopkins, we see his day to day battle with the forces out of his control that intend to squash his dreams of becoming a director, all the while faced with responsibilities at home that he does not want to shirk.

Loosely based on the experiences of director Anthony Fisher, Sidewalk Traffic is at its heart a story about family, love and the American dream. Set in New York City, one cannot deny the juxtaposition - what once was the symbol of pursuit of dreams now serves as the backdrop to this poignant story.

As a cinematographer, I could not have asked for a better project with which to be involved. Under the open-minded guidance of Anthony, coupled with the guiding hand and logistical prowess of producer Robyn K Bennett, it was smooth sailing from the onset. We very quickly developed a language, leading to an incredibly smooth shot-listing process and the setting of visual rules, and rolled right into production with a plan that allowed both efficiency and inspiration.

One of the facets of cinematography that I think about most is the idea of perspective. Although we have a job of lighting and photographing performances and spaces, we have a responsibility to not just document, but to guide the audience where it is necessary. In our conversations about perspective, we wanted to feel like we were in the head of Declan. His character is constantly being rejected, and we wanted to make the world feel distant and disconnected. We wanted to feel like we were there with him along for the ride.

To achieve this very cerebral and personal feeling, I set out looking for the widest lenses possible. To me, perspective is overwhelmingly a lens choice - short focal lengths used for closeups distort the foreground, and make the background feel like it is a million miles away. The choices were narrowed down to Zeiss Ultra Primes and Cooke S4s, both of which have a comprehensive selection of wide lenses. I initially leaned towards the Zeiss lenses, because of the cooler color palette we were aiming for, and because there are a few more at the wider end: the 8R and 12mm, to name a couple. Unfortunately, we would need different matteboxes to employ the wider Zeisses, as they have much larger fronts than the longer lenses. This would have a butterfly effect on both our schedule and budget, so I elected to go with the Cooke S4s, choosing a 4-lens set composed of a 14mm, 18mm, 25mm and 32mm provided by Mike Nichols at Abel Cine. 

An interesting tidbit on depth of field and focal lengths - there seems to be a common misconception that wider lenses inherently have a deeper depth of field, and longer lenses are shallower. This makes sense until you consider that wide lenses are more often used for wide shots, where everything is in focus, and long lenses are often used for closeups, where the subject is the only thing in focus. When you match the field of view, the depth of field is equal (assuming all other factors, such as sensor size and T-stop) are equal. With this in mind, I often placed my camera mere inches from an actors face, and with a 14mm lens, you can see the world around them, but they are in a closeup shot.

I had the pleasure and privilege of working with a wonderful crew as well. Production Designer Muhammed Dagman, Costume Designer Saffuyah Fattin and Makeup Artist Guillherme Junquiera were excellent collaborators. From the start, we had an idea of a color palette emphasizing greens and purples, so Muhammed would put green and purple sheets on the bed, and Saffiyah would dress Dalia, Declan’s loving wife (played brilliantly by Erin Darke) in purple dresses and green shirts. Guilly and I would take a moment during downtime to test what certain lipsticks would look like on camera. Small examples of a greater effort, but the attention to detail is what made this movie what it is.

In addition, my long-time 2nd Assistant Camera, Jeff Clanet, stepped into the role of 1st AC for the first time on a feature. Anyone who has ever worked with me can say that I don’t like the use of marks and measuring for focus - I tolerate it. There is a beauty in shots that are technical and executed perfectly, but to me there is a greater beauty in the organic nature of feeling the actors perform and using the space to the betterment of the film. Since Sidewalk Traffic was entirely shot handheld, and with actors given rough notes for blocking, it was to both my surprise and delight when Jeff would nail focus on take after take, whether crammed in narrow hallways or running down a sidewalk. This film was so much about reacting to what the characters did that marks were not only impossible, but would ultimately become a burden. Jeff took this in stride and since has gone on to be 1st AC on a great deal of projects.

Coming from a DIT background, one of the most important aspects of capturing the image is not only to get optimal exposure for post, but also to create a look on set that will be carried through the edit and color grade. It’s extremely important for me that the director sees at all times as close to the final look possible that I intend for the piece. Having the luxury of a DIT on set that can grade in real-time and distribute close to final images to the monitors and dailies is incredible, but on indie films I have turned towards the use of in-camera LUTs to emulate what is, in essence, a modern-day film stock. We shot on the RED Epic, and I was able to go out and shoot a few test shots with one of our crew members in direct sun, overcast sky and nighttime scenarios. I pulled the footage into RedCine-X and built a basic look that boosted the greens in the midtones and purples in the shadows, along with a slight increase in overall contrast. Combined with the production and costume design, and serendipitous location choices, our imagery on set was met with pleased reactions, leading to renewed energy and inspiration for the following days.

I was not able to do a proper DI test prior to the film, but having shot on Epic so many times before, I’ve learned that a small amount of underexposure, along with taking extra care to protect highlights in certain situations, leads to wonderfully dense images that are full of life. My base exposure hovered around ½ to 1 stop under, which in my opinion, brings skintones to life and creates deep, rich blacks. As long as you’re not pushing the image, it takes on a filmic quality, and although digital has yet to rival film, it is becoming quite close.

We lit with a very small G&E package, which consisted of a Spider-light, a softbox in which sit 6 100 watt Edison soft-frost bulbs, an Arri 150 watt Fresnel, and a small complement of solids and diffusion. The entirety of our daylight scenes were shot with available light, slightly modified, and our night scenes consisted of the Spider, Pepper and a couple of 150 watt bare bulbs. The only scene with additional lighting was our nighttime exterior, where Declan shares a moment with his neighbor, in which we used a 1k Open Face to mimic a street lamp. With no gels to work with, the sodium-vapor look was achieved in post.

For the final grade, we worked with Colorist Andrew Francis with Sixteen19. We were incredibly lucky to grade on their Davinci Resolve system in front of a 60’ screen at Steiner Studios. I owe the final look of this film to Andrew and the wonderful folks at Sixteen19, who made the experience smooth and pleasant. Andrew took my ideas and turned them into a film that exceeded my expectations. Andrew comes from a telecine background, but quickly adopted RGB offset corrections for feature film to maintain a more filmic approach.. Due to deadlines, our DI took place in 4 days, a rapid pace for a feature film, and it turned out looking stunning. He also happens to be a kind and inspiring person and I, and with this film, were lucky to have his contribution.

Indie film is alive and well, and this is a project that proves it. I am incredibly grateful to everyone that participated and contributed in making this the little movie that could.

Sidewalk Traffic premieres at 9pm, Wednesday, June 18, 2014 at Sunshine Cinema, 143 E Houston St, New York, NY, 10002. For more info and tickets, please visit the following link:

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