Los Angeles-based Australian cinematographer Samudranil Chatterjee shoots short film Outdooring for director Maxwell Addae – by Slade Phillips

Camera operator Brian Nguyen, first assistant camera Austin Kite with lead actor Keith Machekanyanga - PHOTO Ino Yang Popper
Camera operator Brian Nguyen, first assistant camera Austin Kite with lead actor Keith Machekanyanga – PHOTO Ino Yang Popper

Writer/director Maxwell Addae, pitched the story for his short film Outdooring to cinematographer Sam Chatterjee in late 2017. “This was our first project together,” says Chatterjee. Both attended the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles, where the cinematographer is now based. “We had chatted a lot about the type of films we like and the type of films Addae wants to make.” Addae has said that for him coming out as gay was a time filled with fear and uncertainty. He wanted to tell a story that could portray those same feelings via a narrative.

The film sees a young Kobby (played by Keith Machekanyanga) arrive at his sister’s baby naming ceremony with a plan to steal money collected from family and friends, in order to run away and keep a personal secret hidden.

During pre-production, Addae had spoken about the idea of the environment engulfing Kobby. “Initially this story was set in a house in a forest with tall trees that towered over our lead and made him feel small,” says Chatterjee. “When the location changed in the script, we tried to retain a similar concept using the width of the frame instead of height, to do something similar. 

Chatterjee also wanted to be able to get as close as possible to Kobby for certain moments and carry a similar feeling. The team behind Outdooring decided on anamorphic lenses. “We went in to The Camera Division and looked at some options for anamorphic lenses,” explains the cinematographer. Both Maxwell and Chatterjee loved the distortion and softness that the Lomo Anamorphic Round Front Lens set provided. “Going with these lenses also meant that we had a set of diopters always nearby.” The crew did tests both for lenses and lighting; they were thankful to have their lead actors present for this as it set their choices in stone.

The team looked a lot at the films of Bradford Young ASC, especially on films such as Pariah (2011), Mother of George (2013) and Selma (2014). The work of cinematographer Ava Berkofsky on the film Free in Deed (2015) and the television series Insecure (2017-2018) were also important to Chatterjee in looking at how to light darker skin tones correctly and with good colour contrast. 

Both of these cinematographers light in a way where it never feels ‘lit’ or sourcey,” says Chatterjee. “I found myself drawn to that a lot for this project as well as lighting skin tones faithfully and with range. I also looked into a lot of still photography work from Raghubir Singh, Alex Webb, Gordon Parks and William Eggleston for colour, shadow work and framing faces.

From the script phase, Chatterjee wanted the look to evolve throughout the story just as the character’s arcs, motives and emotional journey changes. “From a camera movement point of view, we really wanted to give the actors as much room as possible for performance and natural blocking,” he says. They looked at films such as Fishtank (2009, cinematography by Robbie Ryan BSC) Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013, cinematography by Sofian El Fani), Mommy (2014, cinematography by André Turpin) and American Honey (2016, cinematography also by Robbie Ryan BSC) for their camera movement. “We felt that similar style was integral to the performances in this film.

Cinematographer Sam Chatterjee explaining a shot to Steadicam operator Will Lyte - PHOTO Ino Yang Popper
Cinematographer Sam Chatterjee explaining a shot to Steadicam operator Will Lyte – PHOTO Ino Yang Popper

The cinematographer has high praise for his crew in the camera department. “My Gaffer and Key Grip are guys I went to AFI with,” he says. “Both Anton Fresco (Gaffer) and Yoni Shrira (Key Grip) are phenomenal cinematographers themselves and were totally on board to lighting it the way we planned, which was to push the exposure and se reflections.

Chatterjee also worked very closely with the film’s key make-up artist Maggie Murrieta, who was also there for the lighting tests and who he would constantly request on set for adding sheen to help pick up certain angled reflections as such, on the skin tones. “Quite often Murrieta would be part of the light shaping discussions along with Fresco and Shrira and definitely saved us more than once,” he says.

Outdooring was entirely shot on location. “We had a giant hall as well as a carpark that were the biggest challenges to light, especially on a budget,” says Chatterjee. “A big aspect of this film was to make sure Kobby could move around as freely as possible and have the camera follow him through this journey. It really opened us up to natural blocking and performances that I feel we would have been missing had we not utilised as much of the space as possible, especially for the more action driven scenes.

For lighting night scenes Chatterjee and his gaffer would use a phone torch at various angles to see where best they could catch reflections and accordingly move light sources to that angle. “We were mostly exposing 2-2.5 half stops under at almost all times, often adding neutral density in the camera,” he says. “The reflections made it feel like it was lit and helped us embrace the darkness a bit more. 

I adore our final sequence in the film,” says Chatterjee. It was by far the hardest shooting day; at night, filled with action, a tonne of camera movements, a baby, a baby in a car, a giant carpark we had to light, it was summer and the sun set around 8pm, and with a location and permit that only allowed us to film until 1am. 

Brian Nguyen, my operator, would find moments exactly to the taste of the scene and as chaotic as the scene feels in the final edit, it was done very precisely and with an eerie sense of quietness,” Chatterjee explains.

For that night sequence, the crew spent around three hours setting up; lighting the space as the director blocked around four pages of action driven scene, rehearsed with stand-ins, broke for lunch and shot the whole scene in around five hours. “It’s some of the most happiest I’ve ever been shooting something,” he says.

Chatterjee was fairly involved in post-production on Outdooring. “Before filming, and after shooting lighting tests, I sat down with colourist Greg Strait at MTI Film,” he explains. “We looked at the test footage and built our own look-up tables (LUTs). I had sent him over the same sort of lighting and tonal references we had put together so that we were on the same page, and we built a daytime and a nighttime LUT we could use.” 

I felt it was good to have something that would carry over into post and throughout the long days and nights of the edit where often we as cinematographers can find ourselves slowly being shifted out of the look we might have originally been going for.

Outdooring recently received Official Selection at SXSW, and a Staff Pick on Vimeo.

Samudranil Chatterjee studied at Griffith Film School in Brisbane and the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He has received numerous awards for his work.

Slade Phillips is a writer based in Brisbane. 

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