Director of Photography Bill Holshevnikoff has spent over 30 years lighting for TV network sets around the globe. He is accustomed with using the industry’s newest LED fixtures for studio lighting. Recently, Holshevnikoff put LED technology
to use on a feature film set with ARRI L-Series and LoCasters – all captured on an ALEXA camera.
Based on the book by Charlie Walker, AMERICA IS STILL THE PLACE is the true story of the 1971 oil spill in the San Francisco Bay. Starring Mike Colter (MILLION DOLLAR BABY, MEN IN BLACK 2) and Dylan Baker (SELMA, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 3), the film follows the struggles of a young trucker and his efforts to save a small beach town from the devastating environmental disaster. Prejudice, oil company politics, drugs and money all play into this 1970s period film.
Due to busy travel and production schedules, writer/director Pat Gilles and Holshevnikoff had very little prep time and a challenging budget for the 23-day shoot. "I love a good, true story, ” says Holshevnikoff. “I grew up near San Francisco and was a teenager when this oil spill happened, so I remember the news images of the oil-soaked birds and the hippies on the beach trying to help. This event actually started the environmental movement, so beyond the anti-oil company element, I felt it was an important story to help bring to the screen."
With an aggressive schedule of all-practical interiors and exterior beach locations, the filmmakers elected to move quickly by using simple shot compositions and efficient lighting setups. “The key for me in getting through coverage on time each day is to light for your close-ups. Whenever possible, I am setting my lights for the master scene with my close-ups in mind. This way, once I do break in for coverage of medium shots and close-ups, I have very little to adjust in my lighting. We can work through the entire scene without having to rework the lighting,” explains the DP.
Both ARRI L-Series and LoCasters allow tunability for color and brightness. "I really like what LED lighting has to offer for filmmakers and I love the flexibility and speed of LED - complete control of color temperature with built in dimming…And no correction gels!"
Holshevnikoff explains further, "Working with LED lighting on this film allowed me to worry less about power consumption and also work more quickly and accurately with the lighting on location. I've had a long relationship with ARRI lighting, Kino Flo and Chimera, so for the most part, I went with the gear that I was most comfortable with. I think it's important to know what your equipment is capable of - especially when you're on a tight schedule. Overtime was not an option on this film and I didn't need any unexpected surprises with the lighting equipment.”
Holshevnikoff's 30+ year career crosses over from commercial work to studio lighting and documentary, but this was his first feature film. "I've been asked before, and I've shot plenty of shorts over the years, but for personal reasons I could never commit to the longer schedules of a feature film. It was fun for me to finally jump into a feature length project and get into the workflow of multiple, six-day weeks."
"Beyond the tight schedule", Holshevnikoff explained, "one of my primary concerns was getting a good look on my main actor, Mike Colter. Mike actually has fairly dark skin, so my plan was to slightly over-light him by using large, diffused sources around him, and then crunch it all back down in the grading. I wanted him to really pop in the images. Our director, Pat, wanted to stay away from an overly dramatic look for the film, so I really wanted to focus the visual attention on Mike through lighting and yet stay true to the 70's look for his scenes."
The film's exterior scenes were shot on the coastline of Northern California during January, which meant that any weather condition could be expected on any day - from cold rain and wind to sunny skies. Holshevnikoff recalls, "We were very lucky for most of the shoot days on the beach. It was warm and sunny many of the days, which is very rare for this coastline in January. It was almost too beautiful for the storyline!"
Bleached muslins and shiny boards were used as the primary lighting on the exterior beach days, as the production operated without generators. "I love the challenges and opportunities that come when working with natural light," explained the DP. "There's a certain beauty to existing light on locations, and I think it’s our job as cinematographers to take what’s best with the light and make it work for the scene."
He notes that all productions have their parameters and restrictions. "In this instance, I had to balance shooting speed with some artistic decisions. In some more difficult scenes, I opted to go with a deeper stop than I really wanted, just to be sure we didn't miss on focus. My two ACs were amazing, but I knew that it was more important at times to be sure we nailed a complex scene in a take or two than to chase a certain look with minimal depth-of-field."
Shooting on the ALEXA on two zooms for the majority of the film, Holshevnikoff opted to use the Rec 709 LUT for his monitor setups and dailies. "Due to the lack of time for any testing with the actors, it took a day or so for me to really dial in my exposures with my meter after seeing some dailies, but I'm pleased with the look we obtained throughout the film. The ALEXA is an amazing camera. Combining this camera with LED lighting made this a really fun project for me to work on."