DP Robbie Ryan’s lustrous, award-winning, B&W cinematography brings emotional honesty to Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon

Dec 30, 2021

Robbie Ryan ISC BSC • C’mon C’mon

By Darek Kuźma

Cinematographer Robbie Ryan ISC BSC found an elegant way to suffuse Mike Mills’ tender B&W drama C’mon C’mon with an elusive visual poetry of everydayness. And his sublime work on the film was rewarded with the prestigious Golden Frog at the 2021 Camerimage Festival of Cinematography.

Jesse is an inquisitive, nine-year-old, LA kid, with a head full of eccentric ideas, whose crazy antics make adults groan with discomfort. Johnny, his estranged uncle, is a radio journalist who agrees to fill-in for his sister whilst she goes saving her troubled ex-husband from himself. Even though Johnny is initially overwhelmed by his nephew’s sturdy yet fragile personality, the two of them learn to get along just fine. But when Jesse’s mother’s moral obligation prolongs indefinitely, Johnny decides to take the boy on a cross-country trip that will help him finish his radio project on what American kids would like their future to look like. And, oh boy, do they form a close bond!

C’mon C’mon is a moving and emotionally-sincere tale of adults and kids learning from one another, without any gratuitous self-importance or autocratic displays of power, told by means of a road movie of sorts. Thus it needed a cinematographer who would render the urban micro-worlds inhabited by Jesse and Johnny as realistically and honestly as possible, but with a dash of a cinematic spectacle.

“I just loved Mike’s attitude towards filming, giving the actors freedom to interpret the feeling of words and scenes,” says Ryan. “The film was scripted, but he wanted us to be intuitive and react to whatever we would find along the way. This was and is far from documentary, but has a documentary aspect to it.”

The production shot entirely on-location in Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans and Detroit, but because of the very nature of making a road movie this way, it was quite a lengthy process.

“We travelled north, south, east, west with a really small crew – most of the time it was no more than 30 people,” Ryan recalls. “We would do the prep in a given city, film for two weeks, and then move to another city to spend three weeks prepping and two weeks shooting, more or less.

“We started mid-September 2019 and finished mid-February 2020, even though it was, like, a seven-week shoot. But because we worked as a sort of unit the whole time, it didn’t feel long. And the people we met in each city were so nice to us, it was always sad to leave.”

Because Mills based the character of Jesse on his own son, and Joaquin Phoenix was keen on lending Johnny at least a bit of Mills’ personality, the key to making C’mon C’mon was to combine intimacy with idiosyncrasy, and simplicity with sincerity. So it was a no-brainer for Ryan that the director insisted on shooting in B&W. 

“B&W was always the way to go”

“It’s the soul of the movie, in-sync with the performances and movies such as Wim Wenders’s Alice In The Cities that Mike really likes. The core of his approach was to get to the essence of the characters, to be nuanced and observant in a way you don’t feel you’re being led down a certain path. Mike is talented in finding the moments that define such character-focussed storytelling, so B&W was always the way to go.”

Such a particular attitude to filming obviously required a very specific toolset to make the whole shoot go as smoothly as possible.

“We always knew we’re going to cover it like a normal film, but also give it a sort of free flow. We tested both film and digital and ended-up with ARRI Alexa Mini, not even the large format, just the little old Mini. Two of them, actually,” reveals Ryan.

“We nearly went down to shooting monochrome on the Alexa XT B+W, but they’re hard to find and expensive. So after extensive tests of how various digital cameras turn colour B&W, we put our trust in Alexa Mini. Coupled with Panavision PVintage Prime lenses, and a Panavision 19-90mm PCZ for some of the more documentary-like stuff, it did the job just right.”

“If there’s any rule I followed, it’s the old, tried and trusted ‘keep it simple’,” says Ryan who nevertheless tried to experiment a little with his tools to give Mills more options.

“There wasn’t any difference in how I approached shooting in a city or in a forest – the idea was to follow the characters in the same language,” Ryan explains. “In the beginning I thought I could shoot footage using a stabilised head on a rig, but that was a disaster and we hired a Steadicam guy. So C’mon C’mon was shot on dollies, Steadicam and sliders, depending on the feel we wanted to get from a scene. Oh, Mike loved the slider and we ended-up doing tons of slider shots. So I became a grip as well as the camera operator. We shot the chapter openings for each city cleanly and simply with the amazing DJI Inspire drone.”

“If there’s any rule I followed, it’s the old, tried and trusted ‘keep it simple’”

Simplicity was also the answer to the many questions concerning lighting in a large number of urban locations.

“I used a lot of LiteMats because they’re quick, handy and perfect for the film’s B&W visual identity. The digital sensor sees a lot of detail, so you don’t need huge amount of light,” explains the cinematographer. “It was more about blacking-out the windows and stuff like that, rather than dragging big lighting units around with us. The grips Jason Juhl Gray and Julien Janigo would quickly black-out a house for a night-time shoot, and changed it the other way for daytime. We still used some pronounced lights, though it wasn’t a big package. Like we had a bit of HMI and obviously a number of strong LED sources, but these were basically additions.”

C’mon C’mon wrapped in February 2020 in the very cold Detroit, just as the world was starting to get worried about a certain vicious pathogen. The meant that Ryan was unable to participate in the DI process, done with colourist Mark Gethin at MPC’s US facility.

“I was definitely sorry I couldn’t accompany Mike and Mark, but the truth is most of the work had been done in-camera – including the LiveGrain, you know, the software to incorporate a grain structure into the digital video to give it a more filmic dimension while you’re filming,” recalls Ryan. 

“Not being able to put the final touch, this would be my only regret. The rest – the prepping, the shooting, the travelling, the cities, the people, the sort of family that we became – was worth every second of it.”

 

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