Director of Photography Peter Holland ACS discusses the challenges of shooting crime thriller StartUp, based around illegal funding, a Haitian-gang, and the FBI.
Peter Holland ACS has spent the larger part of 2016 calling Puerto Rico home. His work on Sony Picture Television’s new series StartUp has thrown him into one of the most ambitious shoots he’s ever attempted. For the man who lensed Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden (2012), Complicity (2013) and Drunktown’s Finest (2014), StartUp is the cinematographer’s first step into episodic television drama.
The crime thriller focuses around GenCoin, a digital currency developed by a gang of misfits comprising boutique financier Nick Talman (Adam Brody), IT genius Izzy Morales (Otmara Marrero) and Haitian gangster Ronald Dacey (Edi Gathegi). Backed by dubious money that Nick’s father has entrusted to him, the shady currency becomes the target of FBI agent Phil Rask (Martin Freeman). The series will begin playing on Sony’s online streaming network, Crackle, on 6 September.
“The project came to me through my wonderful agent Dan Burnside at DDA in Los Angeles,” Holland says. “Dan has been very active in getting me meetings on shows and this was the first one that really stood out. The writing just blew me away; I was enthralled from the very beginning.”
Despite being set in Miami, principal photography for StartUp took place in Puerto Rico over a five-and-a-half-month period. Pre-production began in December 2015, continued into January 2016. It was a whirlwind of scouting and production meetings.
“I think we only had three full episodes written when we kicked off principle photography in late January. The show was unusual in that; no pilot had been shot, we were green lit from the start, and we began shooting the pilot/episode #1 all on a normal production schedule.”
This meant Holland had much to prepare for, both professionally as well as mentally and physically. “I decided it was important for me to be very considerate of my health and wellness. I stuck to a rigid diet of fruit, leaf and very few carbs. I always lose some weight when shooting a drama – basically I think I forget to eat – but I think my regimen helped me survive this particular journey.”
To shape the look of the series, Holland worked carefully with primary Director, Writer and show runner Ben Ketai to develop every element of his concept. “During pre-production was almost impossible to get quality time with Ketai during work hours, he was so in demand. He was still writing the scripts and was needed in every department.”
However, Ketai and Holland managed to snatch every opportunity they could to discuss the show’s visual style and aesthetic. They often met early in the morning before production meetings, or late, after everyone had left.
“Ketai had a very strong vision for the show even before I arrived. He wanted City of God (2002) in Miami. During our wonderful sessions together, storyboarding and throwing around ideas and aesthetics, we agreed on a crazily kinetic, entirely hand-held camera choreography style.”
The two put an emphasis on being able to run with the camera, improvising during takes and giving overall liberty to the camera to move as freely in as many directions as possible.
“We were willing to embrace practical lighting as much as possible and not be beholden to ‘pretty lighting’ or ‘accepted’ skin tones. We determined to embrace silhouette and mixed colour temperatures.”
This shooting style created some incredibly challenging scenarios for Holland. “One of hardest shots I’ve ever achieved in my career was in episode one of this show. It’s a five-minute long, daytime interior/exterior, 18mm lens, hand-held, single-shot scene.
It’s a five-minute long, daytime interior/exterior, 18mm lens, hand-held, single-shot scene.
“We started up on a tiny, dark little squat house in the Miami favela of Little Haiti. The scene is the introduction to Ronald our Haitian Gangster, one of our four main protagonists. The camera starts on a close up of Ronald in his bedroom, we then follow and lead him all through his house, as he interacts with his family members. A fellow gang member knocks at the door, we follow Ronald outside in the middle of a blisteringly sunny day, the camera then races round the two gangsters as they stride down the street. We accompany them to an abandoned property, the camera wheels around, over Ronald and his henchman. He then leads the camera into a dark, dungeon-like abandoned building where we finally end the shot over Ronald on an medium close up of a rival gang member chained to a chair having his crown jewels burnt off by a blow torch.”
“We had to light two interiors, one where we move 360 degrees multiple times. We also saw the exteriors of both buildings. We had to hide the lighting out of shot, and place it so we never saw a camera shadow. I had two seven-stop iris pulls and all the other myriad demands that go into creating such a one-shot scene.”
“I can quite honestly say that by take seventeen, I was just about shattered. I can only guess how my operator Jon Michael Mooney or our brilliant focus puller Rafi Rivera felt.”
I can quite honestly say that by take seventeen, I was just about shattered.
“But we pulled it off and I am so proud of that shot. Ketai and I felt it was the only way to introduce Ronald’s character and we would not shoot any ‘safe coverage.’ He stuck to his guns, and the shot is there in the pilot, in all its glorious, one-shot entirety!”
These requirements demanded a camera that could keep up with Holland’s insane shooting style. On top of that, Sony required true 4K for its streaming service. His initial choice, the Panasonic Varicam V35, was ruled out due to lack of availability in Puerto Rico. Alexa followed because of the lack of true 4K, leaving Red and Sony F55, with the latter winning out.
Holland paired the Sony F55 with Zeiss Super Speed MkIII lenses. “I tested myriad lenses. I really wanted to embrace flares and blooming, as well as shooting at a T2-2.5 stop generally. The combination of Sony and Super Speeds was agreed by Ketai and myself to give us the best aesthetic for the show,” he says.
He originally intended to utilise #85 correction filters, which he has used previously on Alexa cameras. “I set the camera to 3200K and let the filter do the adjustment. The result was subtle, but endearing.”
“I then had a barmy notion to test non-correction filters instead. I put in Corals, Sepias, Tobaccos, Antique Suedes and a bunch of others all with interesting results, but nothing really stuck. Just by accident I was shooting some tests on the beach with the camera set at 4200k, and voila! Ketai and I both loved it.”
The typical day on-set proved to be anything but. Holland and his crew often worked on multiple scenes from a huge array of episodes.
The crew also had to contend with the fact that main star Martin Freeman needed to return to the UK for production on Season Four of Sherlock in the middle of shooting. As well as this, a second Director, Luis Prieto, was hired to shoot four episodes. This gave 1st AD Joel Nishime intense scheduling challenges.
“The call sheets were interesting and often a mighty tome,” Holland says. “Usually 8-10 pages a day and with scenes from up to five different episodes listed for the day, and often with the two different directors, leap frogging each other throughout.”
“It would seem the most efficient and in fact the only way to handle the scheduling requirements, but continually swapping between directors was terribly difficult.”
Holland’s crew were not only supportive, but in many instances ingenious. “Most of the crew are local to Puerto Rico, with the exception of J.M Mooney, who’s an exceptionally talented Operator from Los Angeles. They are native Spanish speakers, so when they say bad things about me, I’m blissfully unaware.”
“My Gaffer, Manuel Tyson Cintron, was outstanding too. Because of the block shooting, lack of scripts in pre-production and me being the only DOP on the show, I’d often turn up to shoot a location I’d never even scouted. This man saved my bacon on a more than regular basis and I’m deeply indebted to him.”
Holland recalls how, in one instance, Cintron was able to rig around the fourth storey of a warehouse in Old San Juan to control the amount of sunlight coming through the windows.
“His plan to control the direct sun, moving around the building during the day, to rig two sandwiched layers of triple-stop nets, hung from pulleys, around three sides of the building. They were controlled by ropes and pulleys from the ground.”
“In a moment’s notice, we could have 1.5 or three stops of light cut from any of the glass brick walls. It saved me having to introduce a mega amount of firepower inside to compensate for the direct sun.”
There was no typical day shooting StartUp. Holland needed to hit the ground running every day – plan for the scenes ahead, get the rigging crew started way ahead of the camera unit and most of the time “just about pull it off.”
Fortunately, his Australian training in film making helped prepare him for this visceral style of shooting. “I actually came to Australia from London, UK when I was in my late 20s,” he recalls.
“I intended to backpack my way back to London, starting in Sydney, probably spending a few years doing it. But my plan got scuppered when I fell in with a great bunch of people in Sydney, who were all film makers. I was totally inspired by them and ended up making my own short film on 16mm. It was a steep learning curve. I did everything but act in the film. I cut the film on a borrowed Steenbeck, and eventually it was shown at a few festivals and did rather okay. I realised the cinematography was by far the part I liked the most in the making of this film and decided then, that that was what I was going to pursue.”
Holland went on to graduate with a Masters Degree in Cinematography from the Australian Film, Television Radio School in 2002 and formally began his career as an assistant on The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Babe (1995) and its sequel Babe: Pig in the City (1998), The Matrix trilogy (1999–2003) and Moulin Rouge (2001).
He was the recipient of an ACS Gold Award in 2013 for Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden and a Silver Award that same year for the mini-series Better Man (2013). A leading industry practitioner and expert in digital cinematography, Holland took home the ACS Gold Award for Features-Cinema for his work on the feature Gabriel (2007), one of the decade’s top-grossing Australian films. He also shot The Nothing Men in 2010 on the Red One camera, making him one of the first persons to do so.
StartUp is produced by Critical Content and Hollywood Gang Productions. Tom Forman, Andrew Marcus, Ray Ricord, Gianni Nunnari and Shannon Gaulding all serve as Executive Producers. The series is written by Ben Ketai (Chosen, The Forest) who also serves as Executive Producer and Director. Adam Brody and Anne Clements (Cleaners) serve as Producers.
“Given the major impact and influence that technology has had on society, it’s no wonder it has become its own character on television with various dramas and comedies trying to recreate it, however, there will be a much broader picture of startup culture on our TV screens. One that spreads to various ‘bubbles’ in the universe, and with the Miami ecosystem being primed as the newest tech hub in the US with the highest startup density in the country. We believe that StartUp will be at the very beginning of that conversation.”
We believe that StartUp will be at the very beginning of that conversation.
Holland is now back in Los Angeles with his wife and kids, excitedly awaiting the 6 September premiere of StartUp, along with his fans and supporters back home in Australia.
Meredith Emmanuel is a entertainment industry PR consultant with over thirty years experience in film, television, music and media. Meredith is a valued contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.
Harry Stranger works with cinematographers globally and has written for a number of publications.