Cinematographer Toby Oliver ACS (Get Out) films the hilarious new comedy Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar, the story of Barb (Annie Mumolo) and Star (Kristen Wiig), who leave their small town to travel on vacation only to find themselves tangled up in love, adventure and a plot by an evil villain to kill everyone in town.
By Toby Oliver ACS.
Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar came to me through my agent at Intrinsic, Dana Salston. I had expressed to her a desire to expand into genres other than horror and thrillers, and this project came up at Lionsgate. I didn’t know director Josh Greenbaum or the producers at Will Ferrell’s production company, Gary Sanchez Productions, but I went in for a meeting along with a few other cinematographers.
The script, written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, was light and funny, crazy and pretty wacky, which appealed to me after a few years of jump scares and blood and guts in the horror arena. The first meeting was, as it often is these days, over Skype. I also sent through a ‘look book’ with ideas for visuals in the film. It worked and I got the job.
Greenbaum and I discussed many filmic references during pre-production such as Tim Burton’s Big Eyes (2014, cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel AFC ASC) and the aesthetic of Wes Anderson, and found we were usually on the same page creatively during the shoot.
This was my first comedy feature, however I have shot comedy for television in the past such as Australian series Stupid, Stupid Man in 2008. A comedy can have dramatic moments and doesn’t necessarily need to be super high-key or flat bright lighting, but it is quite different to horror lighting to say the least. In a comedy you usually need to see everything, whereas in horror often it’s what you don’t see that is scary and effective. Darkness is a great tool for the cinematographer.
I lit Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar much more high-key and used more saturated colour. It was a stylized look, not ‘in reality’ at all and that definitely speaks to the comedy style of the film and absurd situations in the script. It’s this adventurous and quite pushed stylistic take on the cinematography that I was really excited about with this film.
Greenbaum was always very keen from the beginning to shoot Anamorphic, and I agreed it would be a great choice for the scope of the film and our tropical beach exteriors. We were originally looking at shooting on an ARRI Alexa Mini, and in fact the first round of anamorphic lens tests were done with the Alexa, testing Hawk V-lite vs Cooke Anamorphic lenses.
Part way through pre-production we got a memo from Lionsgate specifying that we needed to capture in native 4K and in fact adhere to the Netflix official technical shooting requirements, including approved camera systems. This ruled out the standard Alexa Mini, and at the time the Mini LF was not available. To achieve native 4K capture in full Anamorphic mode meant we were limited to either the Sony Venice or Red Monstro cameras.
I had successfully used the Monstro previously on Netflix original film The Dirt (2019), but I did want to try out the Venice, and pushed for that. Greenbaum and I liked the slightly less image distortion in the Cooke lenses compared to the Hawks, particularly on the wider focal lengths, but still producing plenty of anamorphic character with the SF ‘Special Flair’ range. I also combined the Cookes with Schneider ‘Radiant Soft’ filters for a flattering diffusion and subtle glow.
Something interesting and technical we discovered was the Sony Venice does not have a very robust power management system, compared to the Alexa for example, and the power drain from multiple accessories in certain configurations can cause fuses to blow and the camera to fail. Careful use of proper power distribution boxes and cages can eliminate the problem so long as the crew are trained to setup and build the camera correctly. Unfortunately, it is not as straightforward as it should be.
Lionsgate were initially very much against us using the Sony Venice as another production also shooting in Mexico around the same time had experienced multiple Venice camera failures due to ongoing power issues. But Joe Lomba from our equipment supplier, Alternative Rentals in Los Angeles, was aware of the potential problems and he made sure our rigs were rock solid and my Mexican assistant cameras were trained and well-versed in avoiding these power issues.
I had great collaboration with the production design team early on. Steve Saklad is a wonderful designer with a boundless supply of energy and enthusiasm for the project. I found him to be a great inspiration and he also really appreciated my ideas, particularly with integrating lighting built into his sets. We worked together very well.
Early on in pre-production he took me on a tour of the art department and we went through all his drawings and a large number of set models. Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar was a big job for the art department. They were usually working through weekends to turn around sets and locations in time for us to shoot. These amazing sets ranged from an underwater submarine-like glass-bottomed boat to tropical themed 5-star hotel rooms and bars, to the colossal underground lair of the evil super-villian. It was most likely the largest set build I have ever shot and lit as a cinematographer, taking up the entire Sound Stage 7 at Studios Churubusco in Mexico City.
We had solid storyboards for many sequences that were developed in Mexico during our pre-production, and I wrote up a shotlist for many of the scenes without boards. Some of the dialog-based scenes in the hotel rooms, for example, were less pre-ordained. Greenbaum and I developed the coverage on the day after blocking with the actors. Of course the dialogue is scripted, but with a comedy of this nature, and especially with Wiig and Mumolo as the writers, there is always space allowed for improvisation. Usually after the scripted takes are completed. Greenbaum or Wiig would suggest ad-lib lines and we would continue to do takes. We would often keep rolling between takes so not to break up the actor’s flow.
Having a decent roll time was critical. With the Venice we had about 40 minutes of X-OCN Raw recording time per 512 GB card, which was good. We also rolled two cameras on every scene, often in a ‘cross-shooting’ arrangement covering both sides of a conversation simultaneously, which of course the actors preferred particularly for improvisation.
Most of the film is shot in Mexico, and the producers’ intention was to use local crew from heads of department down rather than bring people in from the United States, mostly for budget reasons. My initial full camera crew was from Mexico, including two operators, first and second assistants camera, camera utilities and an on-set digital imaging technician (DIT.) I had not shot in Mexico before, so one of my main tasks in pre-production was researching, interviewing and selecting my crew, along with the gaffer and key grip, using advice from the local facilitating production company.
Largely the crew was great, and I ended up making some good friends. But sometimes when you have to work with a completely new crew from the ground up, some of the choices may not work out when you get on set. Unfortunately, I had to let one of the operators go after a week or so of shooting, which is never an easy task. Given the timeframe of the situation, the producers let me choose a replacement operator from anywhere in the world as long as they were not from Los Angeles, which were too expensive.
I suggested my old colleague Scott Dolan, who was able to come over from Australia at incredibly short notice and step into the B-camera operator’s shoes with great skill and a relaxed Aussie demeanour that was welcomed by the Mexican crew alongside him.
We had some issues with the stunt cameras that we used for capturing our heroes riding on a jetski in Cancun. I chose the Blackmagic Pocket 4K to rig onto the jetskis with a two shot of Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig). It’s a great little compact camera but we didn’t spend the necessary time testing and rigging before-hand. On the first day we used it the camera constantly quit recording after 10 seconds. Possibly because of the high heat and humidity in the splash bag. Due to it being rigged on a floating jet ski in bouncy ocean conditions with the crew in separate boats there was no way of knowing if the camera was actually running or checking the footage until much later.
I found that when dealing with extra stunt or point-of-view cameras beyond the main unit cameras the camera crew on this kind of production tend to struggle a little coping with them in addition to their usual duties, especially when were out on the water, which is totally understandable. It seems the best way to ensure that additional cameras – often DSLRs, Blackmagics, GoPros, Phantoms etc. – are tested, working and rigged properly to work in a splash bag is to do the testing yourself and assign the camera to another crew member as their exclusive job on the day.
We did the jetski shot again as a second unit pick-up on the last day in Cancun and with a modified rig and different splash bag the camera had no problems and it worked great. All in all, we probably should have had a dedicated full second unit team for a number of days in Cancun, especially for the on water shooting which always takes much, much longer than anyone wants to admit!
There was about 50/50 percent of location work versus stage sets. We started the shoot with three weeks location work in Cancun, Mexico, standing in for Florida’s ‘Vista Del Mar’. We filmed mostly at the Hyatt Cancun, plus the marina, beaches and an offshore island for a cliff sequence.
We experienced tropical summer conditions, very hot and humid, and the cameras performed very well except for a hotel pool sequence where we were shooting hand-held inside heavy black rubber splash bags for long takes. At least one camera decided to shut down for a while until it cooled off.
After Cancun, we travelled to Mexico City for the four weeks of stage work, plus a couple of practical locations like a furniture store interior. We finished up with a week in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for exteriors and some interiors of Barb and Star’s hometown of ‘Soft Rock, Nebraska’.
Given this was a stylized comedy that should look and feel somewhat larger than life, the lighting was a big part of creating and enhancing that world. While avoiding an overly theatrical feel I didn’t shy away from colour and backlight, and in keeping with the wish for a ‘big movie’ scope there would not have been many scenes, including day exteriors, without a bunch of ‘big guns’ like 18Ks blazing away to provide appropriate fill or backlight or warmth to our cast. Also, with a standard 12-hour shooting day we always seemed to run out of daylight on location and I would often be called upon to extend our shooting time into the early evening by lighting night-for-day, more often than I would like really as it’s usually a compromise in one way or another.
Without a doubt your job is to achieve the director’s vision for the movie using the tools of cinematography at your disposal. At the same time, it is also your job to help and advise the director to best visually express the concerns of the story and themes in the project and apply your own natural aesthetic to those visuals as you see fit, so long as your aesthetic works in sync with the director’s vision. Usually this is the case, it is probably the reason you were hired in the first place.
Sometimes there will be differences of opinion, of course, and these should be ideally discussed beforehand rather than in drawn out arguments on set. None the less, sometimes a bit of creative friction can spark good ideas! Ultimately the final call on a creative decision rests with the director. It’s their movie. If you don’t agree with a director’s decision, and no amount of calm suggestions of alternative ideas will sway them from that path then as the cinematographer you need to find a way to make it work for the film, and ideally for you also.
An early sequence in the film is one of my favourites, it’s where we first meet our villain in her giant underground lair. The scope of Saklad’s huge sci-fi James Bond-esque set was wonderful and the use of strong coloured backlight from 20Ks and 10Ks high in the grid, along with hundreds of LED tubes creating accents through the set, looked great. Saklad also had a series of shallow pools along each side, rimmed with multi-coloured RGB LED ribbon which could be changed to various tints depending on the mood of the scene. I was also able to bounce watery ripple effects from M40s onto the walls and actors. It was a lot of fun to play with and such a shame we were only on that fabulous set for three days!
Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar was originally scheduled to open in theatres in July 2020, but Lionsgate shifted release plans amid the pandemic. Whilst it is disappointing as a cinematographer that the movie will no longer be seen in cinemas on the big screen, it will still ultimately reach a wide audience via PVOD and streaming. Talking about streaming, my next project looks to be a major Netflix original movie shooting in Atlanta in first half of 2021, and an exciting step up for me.