I saw a recent tweet from a fellow DP. It went something along the lines of “Filming in NYC. That's a lot of brick”. I understood the frustration. Beyond the miles of concrete and cliched shots, how do you tell a New York story that’s uniquely your own? Without "Men in Black 3" money? You have to think differently.
Why are we discussing NYC?
I am a native New Yorker. I went to New York University for my MFA. I live primarily in New York. The majority of my features were shot in New York. That’s a lot of New York centric. I know first hand what it is like to be released onto the streets with a camera, well meaning PA with bounce card and a director dreaming of "Citizen Kane" or "Remains of the Day."
And I suspect more no-budget projects are shot in NYC, per year, than anywhere else. This article will help you whether you’re shooting a feature film, short, web-series, music video or promo. If you’re shooting a Nike commercial? Call me.
As mentioned in my first post, “5 Things Cinematographers Look for...” I love when my director approaches with a clear idea for their vision. The next step in the creative process is to take that visual idea and mold it, twist it and spin it until it’s the best representation of your (the director's) voice and best aesthetic to support the narrative. For example, say your reference material is “The Devil’s Rejects” (I love love Rob Zombie). You decide to shoot your film in the same hectic, visual style but in black and white.
Once presented with your creative brilliance, the producer will take note of your needs and counter offer. Your genius helicopter shot will be reduced to a 7 foot jib. You’re given the resources to shoot film but you’ll only be able to rent two prime lenses.
Keep breathing! Your film will be great. Do this:
1. Get out of your own head and into a different director’s - Your view of New York and what it has to offer is a perception. It’s not the only reality. During pre-production, watch other low budget films shot in NYC. Definitely watch ones not in your genre. Any resistance you have to watching a film because you dislike the cast, dislike the message, dislike the dance numbers, dislike the violence is stifling your inspiration. I am amazed by how much I learn from films I thought I would dislike.
Off the top of my head, here are some low budget films shot in NYC. I've also included films with a healthier budget yet an innovative shooting style that increased their production value: (in no particular order) Half Nelson, Pi, Little Odessa, Living in Oblivion, She’s Gotta Have It, Tiny Furniture, Laws of Gravity, Just Another Girl on the IRT, Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, Barefoot in the Park, Chop Shop. Naked City, Party Girl, Smithereens, In America, Kids, Fresh, Rope, Pickup on South Street, Shaft, Brother from Another Planet, Desperately Seeking Susan, HBO Subway Stories, Straight Out of Brooklyn, Requiem for a Dream, Day Night Day Night, Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, The Visitor, The Imperialist Are Alive.
2. Declutter your New York experience - This city can be visually overwhelming. I think when filmmakers attempt to capture everything they see, it ends up looking like an “I Love NY” PSA. It’s through the repetition of specific colors, architecture, lights and exclusion of the extraneous that creates a visual style.
My director, Kevin Baggott for “Flora’s Garment Bursting Into Bloom”, was in love with Christmas lights. Not only did the story take place during the holidays but it represented something more to him. The story of a man falling in love with a transgender woman was at times tense and brutal, but the Christmas lights brought some levity. I remember taking walks, throughout Manhattan, in the hunt for streets and shop windows with the most lights strung. We remained focused on holiday lights in non-touristy areas. The lights were also used for various reasons in the interior locations.
You can create a lot of texture in your film by focusing on color (I always think of that red wall in Spike's "Do The Right Thing" ) or costume design (Mobolaji Dawodu, the Costume Designer on "Restless City," blew me away).
Does your film take place in DUMBO? You’ll obviously have shots of the bridge. Find other bridges in NYC to shoot. Use it as a metaphor. Bridges connect people. Bridges are a way out. A way to invade. Yes, I can overthink things but these considerations will strengthen your film.
3. Make Your Restriction The Aesthetic - This is my credo. Low budget means plenty of restrictions and relying on favors from friends and family. If you can only afford two lenses? Shoot the entire project on one lens and use the other for a pivotal scene.
Every DP remembers their first feature. Mine was “The Dregs of Society” by Rich WIlliams. We shot on Super 16mm, in 12 days, with over 20 different locations, in three different boroughs and over 15 actors. We worked 12 hour days (or less) and always broke for a respectable lunch. I credit my director with not only being creative, but being a creative problem solver and having a very efficient 1st AD living in his head.
For my part, I knew our time was limited and found inspiration in Mary Ellen Mark photographs. The photos I gravitated to tended to be wide shots of a person with a lot of personal effects in the frame. I felt I knew that person intimately. For Dregs of Society, most of our coverage was static wide shots. We relied on props and production design to underscore our eccentric characters and their dialogue. When time permitted, we went in for close ups etc and some very fun handheld.
4. Expand on Your Locations - One Twitter account I love to follow is @nyscout. He is a New York based film Location Scout. I was excited to see him featured on CBS Sunday Morning. Even though I am a native NYer, I have not heard of half of the places he mentions. If you are shooting no-budget, your interiors will probably be your own residence or office, or that of a personal friend. However, your exterior shots can be visually dynamic and different from other films. There are a lot of bricks, but also a lot of community gardens, boat houses, cemeteries and music stores.
One of my favorite films is "Medium Cool" by Haskell Wexler. Many scenes were filmed during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. So you understand why I was thrilled to film "A Ticket For Hope" during the 2009 Presidential Inauguration in Washington, DC.
You can also chose a location with a special event and incorporate that into your film for major production value. It doesn't have to be a huge event with tight security. It can be the Mermaid Parade or Ninth Avenue Food Festival.
5. Browse Photo Books - Low budget filmmakers can learn so much from photographers, especially “street photogs”. I highly revere the photographs in "The Americans" by Robert Frank. When I first learned about him in school, the emphasis was that he captured the “true” (whatever that is) essense of America because he was not from here. He observed what we could not. That concept of not being able to see what is in front of you fascinated me. A dear friend and talented photographer, Joanne Dugan, teaches a course at International Center of Photography called “On Seeing What’s Right in Front of You”. She and I often have the discussion on how to film NYC with fresh eyes. I find her approach very liberating.
There are several extraordinary photographers who have focused on New York. A recent find that might be useful is “New York in Color” by Bob Shamis. This is a collection of different photographers. You can start your search here and see who inspires you.
Feel free to mention below any links to films, photographers, tricks and tips etc that have been beneficial to you in filming NYC.
Chat film with me @CybelDP.