JAMES WHITAKER LIGHTS THE WAY TO THE STARS
MAKING TROOP ZERO
Troop Zero is a 2019 American comedy-drama film, directed by Bert & Bertie, from a screenplay written by the academy award winning Beasts of the Southern Wild co-writer Lucy Alibar, and inspired by Alibar's 2010 play Christmas and Jubilee Behold the Meteor Shower. The film delivers on some great performances by an incredible cast led by Viola Davis, Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, Mike Epps, Charlie Shotwell, and featuring Mckenna Grace, who plays a nerdy young girl who talks to the stars at night in an effort to communicate with her deceased mother. Her mother nurtured the young girl into believing that meteors and shooting stars were messages from the heavens above. NASA comes along and announces the Golden Record program, where they will record the voices of people all around the world, to playback in space on the soon to be launched Voyager probe. The winner of a local talent show will have their voices recorded. This is the girls one real chance to make sure her voice is heard and that she can really communicate with her Mom in space. She must infiltrate the high-and-mighty Birdie Scout youth group in order to enter the talent show and get the chance to win and to have her voice heard throughout the stars. The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival back in February of 2019 and was released this past January by Amazon Studios and is streaming on Prime Video.
Forced to stay at home and not able to work during the recent production shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, CODEX was able to catch up with James Whitaker, ASC, who was the cinematographer on Troop Zero. Troop Zero is a small budget feature that was captured over 28 days, across multiple locations that went off in almost every direction outside of New Orleans, in settings made to look and feel like the sweltering summer experience common in rural Georgia during the mid-seventies.
Troop Zero was also the first feature length production by the award-winning directing team Bert & Bertie (The Taxidermist, Worm, Phobias). Based on his impressive IMDb listing of cinematography credits on feature length projects (The Cooler, Captain America: Civil War, Thank you for Smoking, and Patriot), Whitaker was chosen to light and capture the story. Knowing they had limited budget and time, Whitaker meticulously scouted out the locations ahead of time, blocking scenes and planning the lens choices to best address the style and action the directors wanted to convey during the shoot. Working closely with a camera team consisting of veterans, 1st AC, Bryan DeLorenzo and key grip, Charles Lenz and gaffer, Allen Parks, they were able to light the way and set the mood for the production.
“Using a Look Up Table (LUT) that had been gifted to me by Sean Coleman at CO3 as a starting point, I worked closely with the digital imaging technician (DIT), Adrian Jebef to shape this into our show LUT. Adrian then applied the LUT across a 24” calibrated monitor and then routed this signal to the Director’s monitors, including to the video-village and the video assist. The signal was sent to the entire set so that the established look was presented to everyone from the HMU to Costume and Wardrobe, to make sure there were no questions on what the picture would look like. With limited time and multiple locations, Adrian would adjust the looks from scene to scene with CDL’s or Printer Light adjustments, and these looks were given to the dailies colorist Alex Garcia, from Light Iron, working near-set on location. Alex would balance these looks across the multiple cameras and keep things consistent. These looks were then delivered to editorial and posted to PIX for review.”
Per Whitaker, “It was great working with Bert & Bertie on this production. Bert could be directing the talent while Bertie would be able to discuss the camera moves with me for the next set-up. Then the next day they would switch roles and it would be a seamless transition.” “The Bert’s were really into the idea of formal framing, but they also wanted to mix it up. We looked at a bunch of different films as references and didn’t really find what we liked, so we created a visual language of our own. I used the Vantage MiniHawk lenses. They have an anamorphic look and come with all the good things I wanted; they are fast, and they are light. They actually have two apertures that allow you to have anamorphic-like distortion in the bokeh but they are actually spherical lenses. This allowed me to use a short focal length lens for a wide shot and have the actors run into close up. The close focus is basically the front element of the lens which is amazing.”
There’s a particularly great food fight scene, between the members of the titular Troop Zero and the rival group of Birdie Scouts, where the use of slow motion perfectly captures how a group of precocious misfits would envision the experience. It’s like an epic battle in the World War of Girl Scouts, with flour raining down around everyone, as someone runs by wielding a soaked eggbeater, spraying everyone in-range with rapid fire batter bullets, while another scout takes a bowl of rainbow sprinkles to the face. The slow-motion intensity was captured at high frame rate with the ARRI ALEXA SXT camera system using the CODEX SXR capture media. Using a combination of dolly and hand-held shots that move the viewer through the action, the motion feels smooth and the images are in focus throughout.
“When I first sat down with the Bert’s and Corrine at Light Iron to grade Troop Zero, we had so much range in the image. This is why ARRI cameras are my first choice. You have this large 3.4K filmic image in RAW that we could push wherever we wanted. We started warming it up, making it less saturated and windowing various parts of the skies and faces. After a bit of this we sat back and said this doesn’t feel like it is servicing the story we wanted to tell. Sometimes you need to simply go back to basics.” “We started from the beginning using the same LUT that we had on set, and then Corinne did a basic Printer Light grade to start and it looked pretty much like what we had viewed on the monitors during the shoot. We skewed a bit from the original CDL values, but the overall feel of the look was very close in the end.”
“Working with a CODEX Raw Workflow is an easy sell for me. The earlier concerns from a Producer about the cost of the capture drives, and the time it takes a DIT to back up the data have seemingly gone away. CODEX is just so fast and robust that I never get a pushback in shooting RAW on a production. The last two TV shows I shot, Season 2 of Patriot and Perpetual Grace, LTD. were both captured on CODEX in ARRIRAW. I just bought an ARRI ALEXA MINI LF with the new Compact Drives and I am looking forward to using this when we get back to work.”
Director(s): Bert & Bertie
DP: James Whitaker, ASC
DIT: Adrian Jebef
Camera Rental: Keslow Camera
Cranes/dolly supplied by: Chapman Leonard Studios
Digital Intermediate: Light Iron Digital
Camera: ARRI ALEXA SXT
Lenses: Vantage MiniHawk
Resolution: 3424 x 2202
Distributor: Amazon Studios and Prime Video (theatrical and streaming)
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