DP Julia Swain Unravels the World of Shudder’s LUCKY
PH: Can you talk about how you got started in production?
Julia Swain: I’ve always wanted to make films and I’m fortunate to say that every job I’ve had has been tied to film in some way, from my first job being at a movie theater as a teenager. The only production job available in my hometown where you could actually shoot was in local news. I remember I applied when I was still too young to legally work there so I had to wait until I was old enough to actually get the job. Shortly after, I started university, studying production and then moved to LA where I studied cinematography specifically. I was working and studying at the same time. Film school gave me the opportunity to focus on narrative work and upon graduating I dived into features, commercials and music videos. I’ve always wanted to be on set from the very beginning.
PH: How did you become involved with LUCKY?
Julia Swain: Natasha and I had worked together before so it was through her that I knew about the project and eventually got to meet the writer/star Brea along with the producers. I brought visual references to the table after reading and loving the script. It was a story I knew I could get very invested in and do something interesting visually with. I was thrilled to team up with Natasha and the team on something so profound — something that didn’t fit into a box genre-wise.
PH: How did you work with the director to visualize the look of the film?
Julia Swain: We both had films we shared a love for going into LUCKY but we never set out trying to mimic something we’d seen before or reference things along the way. Initial decks had included films like Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE in terms of color and contrast, Ari Aster’s HEREDITARY for moonlight but we focused on the script before us and our interpretation, the tone, the subtext, the locations, etc. We dove into the script and dissected every scene, planning a visual progression of the film from beginning to end. Both Natasha and I do things with intention so we made guidelines for the photography and defined why they made sense for specific moments. We did one test that involved makeup, lighting and lenses where we tried out a few things. Once deciding on what we wanted for our anamorphic lenses and shooting a few tests of blood and color in camera, our incredible colorist Alastor Arnold made my favorite LUT of all time for the film. We ended up creating a few different versions of it to use at different points in the story and if you look closely you’ll notice attributes of film stock in the images. These weren’t in the LUT but we had plans from the beginning to have them added in the DI. Color and texture evolve throughout. Some photographic elements that change are more subtle than others, but all in service of enveloping the audience in the look and feel.
We had a short shooting schedule so we had to be specific while still leaving room for both of us, along with the cast, to feel things on the day and reimagine moments. I would pitch Natasha new ideas on the day when inspiration came from watching blocking in the space and she would do the same. Because we both knew the film we were making, we could improvise together really well — either from feeling something in the moment or having to pivot something unexpected — without hurting our schedule. We elevated each other and also trusted each other.
PH: Any challenges filming LUCKY? How did you tackle them?
Julia Swain: I think overall the main challenges were all the night scenes and the larger pieces like the garage scene in the third act. I had limited resources and a small crew but they brought ideas to the table and moved quickly. I knew the best way to prepare for the unexpected was to have talented heads of my departments. I hired collaborators I’d worked with who I knew would come to set excited about the work and who have always gone above and beyond. It was just a matter of communication — making sure my team knew what we were trying to accomplish, what scene and space we were shooting next, what our references were, etc. For the night exteriors and interiors, my key grip Brendan Riel created a rig that armed a large white bounce board off the roof that we could shoot lights up into, creating a big soft spread of ambient light. Not only did this arm extend far off the roof but he could swing it around the entire house so we could create the same effect on the opposite side. That was genius and not only did it create the quality of light we wanted but it ultimately saved time.
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