Cinematography – Denny Wong: SHORT TIMER
When you put your mind to something and go all in, it’s amazing what you can achieve in a short amount of time.
By Ron Bronski
Born in the San Francisco Bay area, Denny Wong is a director who works in a viscerally expressive vein of realism. A theme he explored, both in his film Stay Awhile and during the making of it, was achieving a lot in a short time. Stay Awhile is a short film about a man and a woman who, having only met recently, decide to take a chance and spend 31 days together. They consciously choose to enjoy and connect with each other as best they can despite the temporary nature of the arrangement. As Wong puts it, “it’s a short film about the things you can do in a short amount of time.”
While there were a variety of reasons Wong wanted to make the film, the biggest one was because he thinks that letting go of things is hard. “I think we as a culture tend to gravitate toward an all or nothing attitude. It’s our very possessive nature that makes us want something 100 percent or not have it at all. To me, this short feels like a relevant example of an alternative to this for people to both identify and strive for.”
A short shoot demands efficiency
Shot in just seven days, to maximize his workflow and create efficiencies, Wong and DP Ryan Hendrickson chose to shoot with the Blackmagic Cinema Camera MFT and used DaVinci Resolve for transcoding and grading the footage. “We ran a pretty light setup, using a lightly rigged Blackmagic Cinema Camera, which allowed us to be nimble and quick,” explains Wong. “The Blackmagic camera also was chosen because of the image quality, particularly its dynamic range and the way it works with color.”
The light rig, or often just a cage, occasionally was hooked up to a V-mount battery, but more often than not, Hendrickson shot with just the Blackmagic and a SmallHD AC7 monitor on a tripod.
“We’d hook the battery up in between takes and setup to keep things light. There were a couple of shots where we used the Cinema Camera on a Glidecam 4000 Pro as well,” says Wong. “As far as lenses go, we generally hopped between a Nikon 24mm f2.8 and a Rokinon 24mm f1.5, with a Nikon 50mm f1.4 and a Nikon 180mm f2.8 for a few select shots, all on a Metabones Nikon to MFT Speedbooster adapter. We were big fans of the Cinema Camera with a polarizer over the lens. There’s something about the way the polarizer shifts the color just slightly and softens the image that plays very nicely with the way the camera handles highlights.”
Natural lighting needs dynamic range
“Given our streamlined workflow, we planned to use natural and practical light as much as possible, and we knew that the lighting conditions would often be pushing the limits on both ends. This made the camera’s dynamic range a huge asset,” Wong notes. “The white roll off on the camera has always been very pleasant to my eye. As far as we’re concerned, the Blackmagic is the ultimate in image quality in its price range.”
Shot in 2.5K RAW, a composed, naturalistic look was settled on early in the process in an effort to emphasize the travel journal aesthetic of the narrative experience. “The camera’s white roll off and the way the colors mimic reality are better than some of the other options available and made getting the staid but natural feeling that much easier,” acknowledges Wong.
“We shot a large portion of the short in an apartment with relatively large windows covered by venetian blinds. The camera’s dynamic range and the way it handled highlights were vital in allowing us to really use those blinds to control the light coming in from outside,” he adds.
Flexibility and speed for a free flowing shoot
The choice to use natural light was one of the biggest challenges facing Wong and Hendrickson on the shoot, and it forced them to adapt to the environment. “The Blackmagic was an excellent tool for us to use in this fluid, reactive environment that we created on set. We had more than 15 locations and 80 scenes to shoot in just seven days, so this freedom was vital to the quality of the product,” Wong notes.
He continues: “The fact that the Cinema Camera is closer in size to a DSLR, while providing images on the level of cameras several times its cost, really gave us the flexibility and speed that was vital to the free-flowing nature of the shoot. We were able to move very freely with the camera without much rigging and get images that would have been impossible with other, similarly sized cameras.”
He recalls one situation, “We got a really great backlit shot in a car driving to the desert. That shot also is a great technical example of how the Cinema Camera’s image quality was huge for us, as it’s a shot that benefits massively from the white roll off and highlight management of the camera. With a larger camera, that shot is not exactly impossible, but certainly would require a much more intricate setup and involve more cost. The Cinema Camera’s smaller size allowed us to hop in handheld, frame up, and shoot it in the cramped car cabin with very little hassle while still maintaining an incredible image quality.”
With Stay Awhile, Wong brings the viewer an arresting world that blends reality and sublime imagery together. Through a visual exploration of the often trivial occurrences of average situations, his work challenges viewers to look into their personal routines and to interrogate why they do what they do. The film embodies the thematically oriented and audience engaging core of his work. Wong is currently in the process of expanding Stay Awhile into a feature-length film.