The Perfect Guy Needs the Perfect Lenses
Cinematography – Lenses
Seeking the perfect lens and camera combination for The Perfect Guy required testing and judgement.
After a painful breakup, successful lobbyist Leah Vaughn jumps into a passionate relationship with a charming stranger. When her ex-boyfriend resurfaces in her life she has to figure out who she should trust and who she should fear. Which, if either, is the perfect guy for her?
By Tom Inglesby
The Perfect Guy is a film by director David M. Rosenthal and, like most feature films, there was almost as much drama behind the camera as in front of it. Director of photography Peter Simonite, gives more details, “The film is a thriller, much like Fatal Attraction. The story revolves around Leah Vaughn, played by Sanaa Lathan, who just broke up with her boyfriend, Morris Chestnut’s character, and she finds this guy, Michael Ealy, who just seems too good to be true. It turns out, he is. He’s got kind of a dark side, and he won’t let go when she tries to break it off. He starts to stalk her, and she has to take things into her own hands. It’s a suspenseful thriller with a nice, dark, mysterious undertone.”“Dark, mysterious undertone” has a film noir feeling to it and Simonite wanted to play up that element. “When I met David Rosenthal, the director, he made it clear to me that he wanted to have a unique look for the film that was darker. He likes the cinematic look of anamorphic. We decided to use Sony F65 cameras because they have a really big canvas for cinema. They have an 8K sensor and they see well in low light. They provide a really rich palette for the movie. There’s also a mechanical shutter in the camera, so you can have a really filmic, creamy look.”
Cameras need the right lenses to get the right feeling on the film. Simonite recalls, “We looked at a lot of different anamorphic glass, and we settled on the Hawk Vintage ’74 lenses, mainly because of the unique character it had when paired with the F65. It looked great on Sanaa’s skin, and all of our actors looked really beautiful in it. It gave a rich background for the city lights; the distortions of anamorphic look great on a background of a nighttime L.A. noir thriller.”
Experience plays a role in every DP’s choice of camera and lenses. But there is usually more. “We did a lot of testing,” admits Simonite. “Before we chose those lenses, we tested almost every anamorphic lens available at Keslow Camera in Culver City. They were helpful in getting this set up for us. We tested them during the day, during the night, and under several different lighting conditions that would match the way we envisioned doing the film.”
Tests cover a lot of options but the biggest test is with the actual actors. “Once we had chosen the lenses, we were pretty sure that we needed to see them with Sanaa,” says Simonite. So we did a test at Sony where we brought in our cast. It was a combination of makeup, hair, and wardrobe, but it was also a way for us to see how everyone looks with this lens combination, to make sure that we’re really committed to the style. And everyone loved it. David really felt that it gave a unique look that he hadn’t seen before for his film, so away we went.”
Besides the look, were there any technical advantages to this combination? Simonite believes there were. “One of the technical advantages was that the F65 made it possible for us to shoot anamorphic at night, and balance to the available light in some of our scenarios. A neat thing about the F65 is that it’s a really fast camera. Modern digital cameras have such extreme low light sensitivity that it makes working with anamorphic a lot easier. You can shoot with a little more stock to help the assistants, and to really see into the night a little better. That was one of the big technical advantages.”
Working with anamorphic is more challenging for the assistants and for the crew, because it requires more lighting and more care with focus. Simonite relied on his crew and they didn’t let him down. Neither did the lenses. “We had a full set of the Hawk Vintage ’74 Prime lenses and two Hawk zooms that are also anamorphic, a 70-180mm and a 35-80mm. Those were terrific.”
|Tensions are played up as confrontation among the male characters and stalking scenes.|
Hawk Vintage ’74 lenses come in different single focal lengths, from 28 to 140mm. A 28mm anamorphic is not something you normally would use in a film like The Perfect Guy. “That’s an interesting point,” Simonite acknowledges. “I had some advice from another cameraman who I really admire, Alwin Küchler. We started talking about his work on a movie called Sunrise, and he was suggesting that I consider spherical lenses for very wide shots, in the 28mm range, or for very long shots. His point was that, when you get that wide on an anamorphic, the distortion becomes pretty distracting. So, we did use a few spherical lenses here and there for very wide shots. Inside of Sanaa’s house, I think I put an 18mm or maybe even a 16mm on, instead of using a 28. I just felt that it worked better and you don’t really notice the depth of field characteristics of the anamorphic that much when you go that wide. It just made the image a little bit more flat, a little more square. So, for a handful of shots where we needed to go wider, we would put a spherical lens.”
The Sony F65 was Simonite’s camera of choice for some of the same reasons he chose his lenses. “It produces incredible images, and especially with a mechanical shutter, it just looks really exquisite,” he recalls. “But it’s not the smallest camera available, so there were times when we used the F55, which is smaller and more compact, and fits into tight spaces. We used F55 for some hood mounts on cars and we also used the F55 for Steadicam. Our Steadicam operator, B. J. McDonnell, did use the F65 on Steadicam, just because he can manage it. It was kind of a crazy thing to see the F65 with the Hawk 35 anamorphic, which was our basic wide lens; together those two are pretty huge.”
Several other cameras were used for special situations. According to Simonite, “We did a sequence in Griffith Park, a chase sequence, and we had to crash a car. We were looking for a solution for action cameras that we could keep our anamorphic look going with, but something smaller that we could use for mounts or for crashing a car. Glenn Gainor, who is our executive producer, is a very tech savvy guy. He managed to get us some early Sony A7S cameras. We tested those out and found that they were extremely light sensitive and that we could work with those with deeper stops at night for lock-off cameras and for action cameras. I think one of those shots did make it into the trailer, too.”
Simonite continues, “We had two cameras full-time, an A and a B. We had B. J. McDonnell doing Steadicam and A camera, and Brown Cooper was our B camera operator. I think we had 10 cameras for our three or four stunt days, and we brought in additional crews for that. We had an extra crew that came in on a weekend to help us with some plates that we did. We had some driving sequences, and we did rear projection for the driving sequences. We had to go out and shoot plates with a gyrostabilized four-camera rig, where we would drive around Hollywood at night and shoot all of our backgrounds.”
Simonite has worked in documentaries and some of that experience came in handy on The Perfect Guy. “A documentary background is helpful in staging scenes to available light, and working with the ambient light to produce nice images. But this was a lot different because I had an incredible crew to support me. Sometimes with a documentary shoot, you’re left to your own devices. But I had Jim Plannette, who was my gaffer, a veteran of the film industry for more than 50 years. He’s incredible—his first film to gaff was Young Frankenstein. He’s done everything from E.T. to Oceans 11, 12, 13, you name it. This guy is an incredible artist, and he and my key grip, Manny Duran, have worked together on a number of movies, and are the best. To work with them, and to have their support, it’s a lot different than working on a documentary; they bring a lot to the table artistically and they really help you solve problems in a hurry.”
The Perfect Guy was released on September 11, 2015 and when Simonite attended the premier, he was surprised. “When I watched the film, because the way it was cut, there were several scenes that weren’t used or were used differently, and I thought it was just terrific, because it really added to the suspense to the point where I was kept off guard throughout the film.” When the DP is surprised with the end results that says a lot.