(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 015 May/June 2023)
ART FOR ART’S SAKE
By Ron Prince
Described as both beautiful and riveting to behold, director Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up is a wry, slow-burn comedy exploring the excitement, frustration, disappointments and successes of artistic creation, and marks her fifth collaboration with American cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt.
Co-written by Reichardt and Jon Raymond, the subtle drama follows Lizzy, an insular singleton and would-be sculptor, who is getting ready to show her ceramic figurines at a career-changing art exhibition, if only life didn’t keep getting in the way.
Her landlady Jo (Hong Chau) – also a multi-media artist and seemingly Lizzie’s only friend – likes to collect the rent, but is loath to fix the hot water. Lizzy’s divorced father (Judd Hirsch), a retired potter, takes little interest in her work and is more concerned with entertaining freeloading house guests. In her day job, Lizzie works as an administrative assistant at a community arts centre, run by her mother Jean (Maryann Plunkett), who doesn’t take creative pursuits too seriously either. Her reclusive brother Sean (John Magaro) might just be an artistic genius, but has alarming traits, like digging huge holes in his back garden. And, to top it all, Lizzie finds herself nursing a wounded pigeon, which takes up a lot of time and thought-power, when she should be focussing on her artistic endeavours and the fast-approaching exhibition.
Showing Up premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d’Or, and was subsequently released by A24 in 2023. The film received glowing reviews for its charming appreciation of the artistic process, lead performances and Blauvelt’s gentle, observational, naturalistic cinematography.
“I really enjoyed the script, and had some honest laughs when I read it. But, like all of the other films I have worked on with her, it was based around her desire for naturalism and studied observation of character and process,” says Blauvelt, who made his debut feature as a DP on Reichardt’s multi-award-winning Meek’s Cutoff (2010), before becoming the director’s go-to cinematographer on all her subsequent films – Night Moves (2013), Certain Women (2016) and First Cow.
“I was excited about working with Kelly again, especially as we would get to shoot in the summertime in Portland, Oregon, which is very unusual for us. Most of the time we’ve had to suffer working miles from anywhere in the cold, wet and mud, and a fair share of cow shit. I also got to ride a bicycle to work most mornings, and it was very nice to start the day feeling energised.”
“Kelly is a chronicler of the human experience”
Speaking about his relationship with Reichardt, Blauvelt says, “We have become very good friends. We regularly visit art galleries together, and one of those trips was to an exhibition by Michelle Segre, who made Jo’s multi-media art installations for the film. That was when I first learned about Showing Up. We took a 16mm film camera to observe Michelle and her artwork, and to get a feel about how we might approach the movie. We later did the same with ceramic artist Cynthia Lahti, who made Lizzie’s sculptures. Observing art and artists at work, were really the key visual inspirations for us, rather than other references.”
As to Reichardt’s approach to filmmaking and visual style, Blauvelt remarks, “Kelly is a chronicler of the human experience. She makes films about people who are not typically represented on screen – those who are seeking a better life or place in the world. Her films often have inconclusive endings, with the idea of provoking conversation afterwards and allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions.
“Within that, Kelly does not like mainstream filmmaking techniques – such as coverage, jump scares, flashy camera moves, elaborate set builds, visual effects or expository dialogue. Her filmmaking is slow cinema. She likes real locations, locked-off frames or very slow, lingering camera moves on the actors, and minimal dialogue, all with the idea of challenging us to think about what the characters are experiencing.
“As a filmmaker, you find yourself constantly asking what you might falsely impose on the image and that leads to a stripped-down style, free of anything nonsensical or irrational. This steadfast, single-minded sensibility governs all of the technical and creative decisions, which we make together throughout the entire process.”
Principal photography on Showing Up took place at locations around Portland, including the Oregon College Of Art and Design, starting on June 7, 2021 and concluding 24 shooting days later on July 15. “It’s a very vibrant city, alive with art and culture, the kind of the place you can go and be yourself,” Blauvelt remarks.
Blauvelt, a protégé of the late, great Harris Savides ASC, harnessed the expertise and enthusiasm of Michael Koerner, and in-house lens technician Kari Fouts, at Koerner Camera in the city, to work out the camera and lens combination that would deliver Reichardt’s desired result.
“I think about Harris every day, and early-on in my career I learnt from him how you, as the cinematographer, have to honour the script that’s in front you and the individual visual identity the director wants for that production. So, on every film I scrap whatever thing I’ve done before and start over from scratch,” he says.
“I am great friends with Michael Koerner, who let me set-up a small bay at his premises to undertake the testing process. He and his team really cared about what I was doing and got super-involved with suggestions. Taking into consideration all of the ideas and inspiration that Kelly gave me, I tested a variety of cameras, lenses and filters, whilst also focussing on look-development with my DIT Sean Goiller and Adrian Seery, our DI colourist, at Harbor in New York.
“As I tested, I did a series of blind screenings for Kelly, so that she could decide which combination felt right for her movie. Through a gradual process of elimination we found ourselves narrowing it all down to framing in 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio, shooting with ARRI Alexa Mini in open gate mode/3.4K ARRIRAW, with Kowa Cine Prominar Spherical prime lenses and Schneider-Kreuznach Radiant Soft filtration.
“Kelly is a cinephile, and a lot of her favourite films are 4:3. I suggested that we frame in 16:9, and it gave us a wider frame to explore Lizzie’s world and compose with multiple characters. The Kowas are Japanese cinema lenses from the 1960s, that are sharp on the centre, with medium/low contrast, cool colour rendition and a textural quality that helped soften the skin. We used mainly 35mm, 40mm and 50mm lenses to keep the image as close as possible to the human field-of-view. The Radiant Soft filters helped to soften the skin tones a little further, and added a subtle bloom on highlights.”
Blauvelt adds, “Kelly and I discussed things like colour, contrast and saturation a great deal, and working with Sean and Adrian was intrinsic to creating LUTs that gave the image an earthy, pastel colour palette and naturalistic feeling. I’ve shot movies in the past where we did not have the post house signed-on during production, and translating our colour profiles afterwards proved time-consuming, and sometimes problematic.
“Everything about the lighting was about being natural”
“I have to say that Adrian has great taste and appreciated all the nuances of what we were doing, and this early-stage collaboration made for a seamless transition when it came to the final colour-timing sessions. I had the confidence of knowing that when we got to the DI the film was going to look the way it had on-set, and it eventually looked even better because of him.”
Showing Up was predominantly and single-camera shoot, save for a few scenes involving multiple characters, and Blauvelt assembled what he describes as a “solid” local crew, with Philip A. Anderson on A-camera, and Cameron Carey pulling focus. Bruce Lawson worked as key grip. Mike Vukas was in charge of lighting as the gaffer, with his wife Lisa Caryl Vukas working as best boy.
“Everything about the lighting was about being natural, and putting an authentic, realistic human experience on the screen,” Blauvelt remarks. “We used a lot of LEDs – ARRI Sky Panels and Creamsource Vortex’s for our night shoots, or when the daylight was a little overcast. We also hid Astera tubes around the interiors if we needed subtle pools of light, but never for cinematic effect, always for naturalism.”
Looking back on his experience of working on Showing Up, he says, “Working with Kelly was another great experience, although she suffers for her art. She lives and breathes each project, and whilst production is an intense experience for her, we had many laughs along the way. I am proud of this film, and am grateful to have played a part in bringing this touching movie to the screen.”