Amanda, a twelve-year-old swimming athlete, only finds comfort under the water. Lacking her parents’ attention; swimming is the only thing she has. When the star of her swimming team becomes an opponent, in life and in the pool, a subtle power struggle begins.
In 2015, director Emiliano Cunha and producer Davi de Oliveira Pinheiro received a small grant for their short film Under Clear and Innocent Waters (2016). Pinheiro and cinematographer Edu Rabin have worked together in the past, so presented Rabin to Cunha. “The short went very well. I got my first cinematographer award for it,” says Rabin. “We found similarities in our way to visually think the narrative.” Two years later Pinheiro invited Rabin again to shoot Lane 4.
“I use to say that I felt like a movie star when I first read the script. There were so many beautiful images and so many possibilities that I thought that he had written the script for me, a wonderful present for my debut in feature films. Now, remembering the feeling of reading it for the first time, it’s interesting to realize that many of the potent images that we’ve created were already there.”
In Porto Alegre, a small yet beautiful city in southern Brazil, the crew found themselves with limited camera options and the production couldn’t afford to bring all the equipment from São Paulo. Rabin knew in town there were only a set of Zeiss High Speed lenses, a set of Cooke S4 lenses, an Angenieux Optimo 24-290, one ARRI Alexa Mini and two Red cameras. “Although my intent was to give a sharper look to the image, with doubts in my heart I asked for the Cooke lenses,” says the cinematographer.
“A month before shooting, the head of our camera rental, Beto Picasso from Filmes do Bem, asked if I wanted to try the Zeiss Master Primes. I thought it was a joke. I said: ‘I don’t know how, but you’ve read my mind’”. For the camera, Rabin’s first choice was the Mini. Its combination of lightness and great imagery, besides being the perfect equipment for the underwater sequences, provided a fast pace between shots.
After their first reading, Rabin immediately began talking with production designers Valéria Verba and Sheila Marafon about colour and how it would show on water. “We discussed how the first sequence was in sense a synthesis of the whole picture,” explains Rabin. The pair came up with the color red for Amanda’s swimsuit and how it would represent coming of age for the character. Rabin then asked production to schedule tests in a swimming pool; “Get me any camera with interchangeable lens and underwater housing you can could find.” Rabin got a Canon 7D with a plastic zoom lens and with some pieces of fabric he shot the tests. “The results were great and showed us that with a better camera we could get where we wanted to. I think our creative process happened as a team, listening and respecting each other’s points of view.”
Apart from the data manager Pedro Gossler, the rest of Rabin’s camera crew was new to him. Four months prior to pre-production, executive producer Pedro Guindani presented the cinematographer with the first assistant camera he was to work with for the film, Flávio Chacal Geromel.
“Any cinematographer would get furious,” he says, “but since Gossler and I were good friends I decided to play along.” It turned out Rabin was very pleased with Gossler’s choice. “Chacal is not just a wonderful focus puller, he is an amazing fellow. He brought along Lucas Kato ‘Piu’, his trusted second assistant camera, a very good technician. For video assistant we got Caio Rodrigues, a fast learner.”
As Rabin likes to operate the camera himself, he was concerned the crew wouldn’t run as smoothly as he needed it to. “Everything went amazingly well and sometimes even relaxed,” he says. “For underwater sequences, we had on our side Roberto Faissal, an experienced camera operator and a pioneer in his field here in Brazil.”
Ninety-nine percent of Lane 4 was shot on location. Generally speaking, Rabin tried to study how natural light behaves in every location and then modulate it or enhance it. On very few occasions, he creates something entirely from his own imagination. “Our main location, the training swimming pool, was built in the 1970’s following a modernist architectural style called Brutalism with simple and block-like form, huge in size and with windows covering 360° degrees of the building,” says Rabin. “My main goal was to maintain the overall look being subject to an internal meets external situation, where I had a constant overall light and bright backgrounds. We were, literally, inside an aquarium.”
The production didn’t have the budget to put cranes with large light sources outside, so Rabin studied how the sun lit his backgrounds and used it to his favor. “Most of the time, I put the Arrimax 18k and a Cine Gear 12K on tripods through double or triple layers of diffusion to give me a better key and negative fill light on the other side to enhance the contrast,” he explains.
The only scenes filmed on a sound stage were two night sequences inside a bus. In one of them, director Emiliano Cunha wanted a dolly shot that would start in the first row of seats and slowly pushing backward, finding Amanda refusing a kiss from her friend. Rabin created what he called a ‘mood of false expectancy’, leaving everything in a gloomy blue light and having just the car’s lights passing through the windows.
Underwater photography became a huge consideration in Rabin’s work on Lane 4. The cinematographer divided the underwater sequences into three ‘types’. First, the competition or training scenes which he calls the ‘Olympic sequences’. “Our main reference was how swimming competition had been depicted on television,” says Rabin. “We discussed a lot about how to block those scenes in order to get the right feeling.” Rabin opted for dolly tracks alongside the pool, getting as close as he could to the water. Shooting one swimmer at a time allowed editor Vicente Moreno great freedom to work.
The second type was of Amanda holding her breath, alone at the bottom of the pool. These were designed to reflect the character’s solitude; an inner struggle represented by the struggle to breath. “The camera floats with her very close or very far,” says Rabin. “In one of the shots, we could even see a vein popping on her face. On another we put the camera high up on a crane and framed her as a small body in a vast environment.”
The script itself suggested how to shoot the third type of underwater sequence. “From the beginning I imagined it with a very dark background, lit from the top and with very little or no fill at all,” says Rabin. For the film’s very first shot, Cunha asked for a travelling camera but Rabin knew it could not be operated from underwater. Key grip, Leandro Rosa, designed a dolly made with aluminum tubes to be operated from outside the pool, using ropes. “We had a six-meter long track, two thirds of a full-size swimming pool covered with black cloth, an ARRI M40 for the top light and a 50x50cm LED fixture beneath the water for fill.” All the underwater shots were filmed at 36fps, a frame rate Rabin felt to be more natural for the medium.
When grading the film, Rabin had his work cut out for him. “As I mentioned earlier, it all started with the ‘right’ red,” he says. “Red for blood, doubts and early sexual interest. But also a blood-red that wasn’t realistic; belonging to the horror film aesthetic that contaminates the whole picture.” The story is set in the Brazilian summer, so our senior colorist Daniel Dode worked with Rabin on skin tones to accentuate the actors tanned skin. “We also worked hard to find the right tone for the water. I wanted it to look clear without the excess of blue that usually comes with it.”
One scene sees Amanda watching a movie at the cinema. The sequence on the cinema screen starts with a woman killing someone with a piece of glass, and blood spilling all over her. A horror film inside Lane 4. The camera starts traveling outside the unnamed film on the screen and continues, in the same movement and pace, in Lane 4. “Dode and his team did an amazing job, working the composition between the two shots beautifully, reproducing the screen’s flicker and setting the mood the sequence needed,” says Rabin.
“Working with Emiliano Cunha is a real pleasure, because we share the taste for strong imagery, rather than rational explanation, so I feel very comfortable to be instinctive and spontaneous,” explains Rabin. “Each project and each director has its own singularity and I don’t think I have a more broad vision outside those limits. I like to feel that the director, production designer, producer and me are part of the same experience, same vision. For me it is the bond that creates all the rest. Because when defences are low you’re allowed to make mistakes, to say anything that comes to your mind, to walk on the edge. Then, when you’re on set lighting or framing it’s not just you out there, the whole crew is with you. Everybody is everywhere.”
From every film Rabin tries to learn from things he feels he didn’t do well, or achieve what he imagined. However Rabin believes that everything is part of the process of making a movie or growing up as an artist. “If you start to think backwards,” he finishes by saying, “you may build a barrier for your instincts.”
Edu Rabin is a Brazilian cinematographer.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.