A brave-hearted girl and her charming best friend make a bewitching pair as they embark on a musical mission to take down an oppressive school system. Here, we learn how the stunning visuals of Melanie Martinez’ epic K-12 were expertly crafted by Australian cinematographer Josh Mckie.
By Josh Mckie.
K-12 (spoken as ‘K through 12’, referring to the US school system spanning grades 1 through 12) was an ambitious and multi-faceted project: part musical, part narrative fantasy film and part music video collection; it’s most simply described as the feature length visual accompaniment to Melanie Martinez’s second album also titled K-12. As well as starring and performing in no less than thirteen musical pieces in the film, Martinez also wrote and co-directed the film alongside the wonderful Alissa Torvinen.
I came onto K-12 on the back of a longstanding collaboration that existed between Martinez and myself, having shot ten or so music videos with her for her first album Crybaby, this large-scale project had long been discussed in the background. Melanie has such a unique and talented creative mind and the world she had built out previously was already so rich, we felt we’d established a strong visual aesthetic in those videos and it was a real point of excitement to be able to bring that to a new and bigger world for the feature length K-12 film.
Part of this expansion was moving the production to Budapest, Hungary, in order to utilise authentic locations more than we had in the past; the film is set in a sleep-away boarding school, a magical palace in pastel Rococo style. The move was crucial in the end and afforded us the opportunity to open up the world of our characters and the scope of our creativity, all whilst upping the scale of production.
We were lucky to have a solid six-week pre-production for the project; most of which was eaten up scouting and tech recce-ing. Incredible locations were on offer to us across all of Hungary and in Budapest, including some ten beautiful ornate Rococo-style buildings that would play for the school the story is set in; the crown jewel being the incredible Esterházy palace in Fertőd – the ‘Hungarian Versailles’.
Not only was there a lot to pre-production, but almost every location was a historical or heritage building that came with a set of strict guidelines for us to follow as a crew. Everything from lamp placement to camera rig restrictions to taking light meter readings to ensure our lighting wouldn’t fade the ageing wall paint. All of this put more pressure on us to be prepared early with lighting plans and tailored approaches that adhered to each location’s challenges.
We had to squeeze all of these locations into our 31-day shooting schedule, we also had to find time for a week of complex visual effects and set build work to shoot at Origo Studios in Budapest as well as complicated stunt driving scenes involving a custom pink school bus and several days of wire work with characters. Needless to say, this film was very, very ambitious in terms of what we were trying to pull off on the timeline.
I did spend some of our pre-production time testing cameras with the support of Sparks in Budapest who were immensely helpful throughout production. Originally, I had pushed for shooting on film with a mix of both 35mm and 16mm. Ultimately that didn’t feel like the right logistical approach as travelling all over Hungary to shoot the project would have meant carting the film around and delayed rushes every day so we moved away from film, despite everyone loving it aesthetically. The ARRI Alexa LF was fairly new then and an appealing option but at the time, in our region, the lens options available just weren’t what I was looking for.
In the end I opted for a combination I know and love; Alexa SXT and Panavision Primo primes with occasional B-camera work on an Alexa Mini, with the classic 17.5-75mm Primo Zoom. Additionally there is one small title sequence and flashback scene that we shot with Panavision G-Series anamorphic lenses. We shot the production RAW Open Gate, 1.55 for everything other than some high-speed work, which gave added flexibility for post-production, re-framing and visual effects.
I generally shot the Primos at a 2.8 – 4 stop throughout production and was happy to embrace the extra depth of field I would get at that stop on S35 versus the equivalent on Full Frame. I didn’t want to lose any of the beautiful background detail in our locations. I also tested filtration combinations and ended up shooting almost the entire film using various strengths of Black Glimmer Glass and LowCon stacked together, most commonly a half-strength for both.
I was lucky enough to be surrounded by an immensely talented crew from top to bottom. Production designer Fernanda Guerrero continually amazed me with her detailed and rich sets, notable on a film where everything was custom designed to meet a specific colour palette and tone. Much of the ‘look’ came from Guerrero’s beautifully crafted designs and I owe a lot of what we achieved in camera to her.
My first assistant camera József Takács brought a wealth of experience and knowledge to the project. Not only is Takács a brilliant technician, he is a wonderful creative collaborator. I’ll never forget Takács arriving on set one day with a custom set of holographic filters that had been part of the personal filter collection of the late Vilmos Zsigmond HSC ASC, which we used in conjunction with multiple stacked split diopters for a point-of-view hallucination scene with the filters giving a wonderful rainbow effect that I had never seen before.
From a lighting perspective we faced a lot of logistical challenges throughout production. We were shooting through the beginning of winter in Hungary which meant very short daylight hours. The look we were trying to achieve depended on big, soft, sun drenched windows throughout the story’s school which meant creating a consistent artificial daylight at all of our locations, in order to make our days. Very little of the film was shot using natural daylight.
Given the vast number of locations my gaffer, Balázs Vákár, and his crew worked tirelessly planning different ingenious ways of rigging out larger HMI window units which for us would normally consist of a series of ARRI M90s or 18ks, direct through diffusion on windows or bounced off Ultrabounce and then broken with diffusion once more, depending on location.
This would be our base layer each day and from there we augmented interior setups often leaning on an Octodome and Joker HMI setup and various LED sources. We would come in most mornings and have our window lighting roughed in and pre-rigged and from there would tweak it and block, then pepper in our interior units to suit.
Perhaps our biggest lighting setup was a large-scale night exterior at one of our main locations, the Esterházy Palace, which played for the exterior facade of the school. In the final scene of the film the school is lifted high into the air in a giant bubble as a school full of freed students run out across the school grounds into a maze of hedges.
Shot over two and a half nights this was definitely one of the more challenging setups I’ve faced in my career. Lighting the interior of the school was a series of tungsten units, primarily 5ks dimmed low to add warmth. As our main exterior sources we created a 20×20 softbox which housed ten Skypanel S60s, all dialled to 9,000k or 10,000k for a cool top lit moonlight in the foreground, this sat high above set on a construction crane. We then had a second crane planted as far away as we could on the grounds, a hundred meters or so, fitted out with an array of 2xM40s, 2xM90s and an 18k, which our gaffer named our poor-man’s SoftSun.
The lamps were arranged with the 18k in the centre, flanked by the M90s and the M40s so that we could control the spread and feather of the array. This provided a larger area wash of moonlight to the grounds. At times when the scene moved closer to the array we would pan off to use just the edge of the source or cover it in a drape of Full Gridcloth to reduce its harshness. We also added a half Colour Temperature Blue (CTB) to the entire rig to closer match it with our Skypanel softbox.
At one point we even panned it all the way off and just used the returning bounce off the grid cloth. All of this as the camera was jumping between different configurations in sub-zero degree weather, including a 60ft Galaxy crane, Steadicam and dolly and jib, made for an exceptionally challenging few nights.
In terms of camera movement my key grip Tibor Gazdig and I favoured a Grip Factory Munich multi-jib and two-axis Mini Scorpio Head mounted on a JL Fischer Model 10 Dolly for much of the production. I love the precision of operating with wheels and we had a lot of large open interiors that could accommodate the jib. Working this way allowed me to quickly and effortlessly place camera and add subtle movement to shots without having to lay track all of the time. We would often glide the jib over classroom desks or other obstacles. I love the weightless feeling that movement gave us. We supplemented this with Steadicam and traditional Dolly movement where needed, using Steadicam in particular to cover more of the free flowing dance sequences.
One of my favourite camera rigs we designed helped us cover the opening seven minutes of the film, where a bus full of students travel to school for the first time. We had two days to shoot out the scene, which included the bus interiors, drone exteriors and a sequence in which the bus crashes into a lake and sinks. Tasked with having to grab so much interior coverage on a cramped moving bus, we needed to create a camera rig that would be quick and easy to move, and that I could operate remotely in order to change frame as the bus drove.
We used the Mini Scorpio Head underslung on a slider attached to a speed rail dolly system that we fitted to the ceiling of the bus interior. Between takes we could shift the head and slider up and down the centre aisle of the bus to wherever we needed it, secure and then slide left or right on the slider if I needed to get closer to a character seated either side of the aisle. From there I could operate remotely from the front of the bus as we drove, without this novel setup we would never have been able to cover the whole scene in such a short window of time. After our first successful day shooting the scene I fondly remember Gazdig smiling to me and saying “This is Balkan Hollywood!”
The stunt bus crash sequence we shot with a Mini Cooper pursuit car and fitted with a Flight Head Mini 3. We shot the underwater portion on blue screen later in our schedule.
Post-production, including all of the beautifully finished visual effects work, was performed by Frame 48, a Los Angeles based post-production partner. They were so supportive and helpful throughout production, always offering creative solutions to push the film forward. Bryan Smaller with Company 3 coloured the film and took great care to smooth our soft pastel palette together into a cohesive whole.
Looking back, I loved the experience of shooting K-12. It pushed me in many ways but was a joy creating so many different and vibrant looks. Shooting abroad is always an enriching and unique life experience that we as filmmakers are privileged to access; everyone in Hungary was so warm and open to us.
Personally, I learn so much from immersive working in a different country and culture, and the entire crew on this project was so willing and generous. A big thank you to everyone who was part of the production, including my partner who came along for the ride with our then three-month-old son and supported me through everything. I’m so proud of the work we all put into this film and everything we managed to achieve.
Josh Mckie is an Australian cinematographer based in New York.