Creative Analysis: Part 16 - DOP Jody Lee Lipes On I Know This Much Is True

Allowing one actor to play two roles in the same scene has been possible, at some level, at least since 1961’s The Parent Trap, in which one of Hayley Mills’ arms disappears visibly behind a soft-edged split screen. To put it mildly, techniques have improved, but keeping the necessary technology out of the way of a director whose tastes run to very freeform moviemaking is a challenge in itself.

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That was the task facing director of photography Jody Lee Lipes on HBO’s six-part series I Know This Much Is True. The series, based on the novel of the same name by Wally Lamb, features Academy Award nominee Mark Ruffalo in the twin roles of Dominick and Thomas Birdsey, following Dominick’s determination to care for his mentally ill brother.

Lipes’ choice of career began with some bad news for his father. “My dad was a doctor,” Lipes remembers, “and he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when I was two years old. He couldn't do that job any more, but he’d always wanted to be an artist. He’d taken some art classes at Pratt in Brooklyn. He became a painter, and that became his life's work. A lot of my direction came from seeing someone in my house every day wake up, business hours, painting as his job and realising that that was something that was a real possibility. That was a real job.” Lipes attended NYU’s film school and took paid work shooting weddings, that, he says, “allowed me to take my time picking projects that I liked and mainly didn't have to get paid too much for.”

Having developed a career shooting both drama and commercials, Lipes met director Derek Cianfrance on a commercial for Apple in 2018. “We worked really well together,” Lipes says, “and I think in retrospect it was a bit of a test to see how I'd be on a longer form projects.” Lipes began preparation on I Know This Much Is True in the first week of January 2019, with the production to shoot from April to October. The production was complicated by the need for Ruffalo’s appearance to change between the two characters. “Mark did the first few weeks as the young brother, and he took six weeks off and gained 35 pounds, and he came back and we shot the other brother. A lot of the time we were coming back to not only the same scene three or four months later but also the same setup and having to match the lighting exactly – when the sun is in a different position. We had to do a lot of lighting to put us in a situation where we would be able to reproduce what we were doing regardless of the weather.”

Photo credit Atsushi Nishijima, HBO.

Photo credit Atsushi Nishijima, HBO.

Compounding these difficulties was Cianfrance’s reactive, organic style of filmmaking that focuses on allowing the cast the maximum freedom. Inspiration, Lipes remembers, came from films such as Ulu Grosbard’s 1978 production Straight Time, photographed by Owen Roizman. “It was made in the late 1970s. I think, for Derek, reality and putting actors in real situations and capturing what happens in a very natural way is a big emphasis. Letting performance lead the camera and the camera operating and not rehearsing or using marks. The thing about Straight Time is how grabbed it feels. It was inspiring for me.”

With the series set in the 1990s, Lipes describes the photographic style as “period,” and one way of pursuing that style was to shoot film – a very unusual choice for a television series in 2019. The intent was not to aim for the cleanest possible image. “I think often if people shoot film and expose it in a healthy way, and light it in a healthy way, it can wash a lot of the qualities of film away. We shot it on two-perf 35mm. Two-perf is natively close to cinemascope but HBO had a rule that it couldn't be wider than 2:1, so we're also lopping the left and right off. It's more than the negative area of 16mm but a lot less than the area you're used to on 35.”

The production was shot on Arricam LT cameras in both two- and three-perf, with the latter used to provide space and flexibility for visual effects. Lipes “used the three-perf bodies for some of the VFX and twinning, but we framed for a two-perf capture area. Again, for Derek, the whole thing, the whole way of making movies that he creates is about letting actors be free and so yes, the 22.5 minute running time was what he wants. To let a scene or a shot run forever and be able to run without stopping or letting the actors stop to think.” Lipes chose Kodak’s Vision3 500T stock 5219, “because the grain was more apparent and it was faster which was helpful because of the way Derek shoots. The way it handles highlights was something I liked a lot – to really let a window go, for instance, really embracing that when I'm usually trying to control that.”

Pursuant to Cianfrance’s keen desire for flexibility, Lipse shot, he estimates, a third of the production on Cooke S4 lenses, but otherwise used Angénieux Optimo 24-290mm zooms, with Canon K35s reserved for very low light night exteriors. “Derek really likes long lenses,” Lipes confirms, “and he likes being backed up, far away so that you don't interfere with the action. There was a rule that there were no dolly shots in the film. Everything is panning and tilting. Because we don't know where the actors are going to go and what they're going to do, because we're rolling thousand-foot mags on two-perf, almost every time we rolled we would just find a position where you can see the whole room. If they go into the kitchen you can pan over here, if you can see the living room you can go over there. That was as much planning as we did. The operators are not pretending to be grabbing things, or making it documentary style. They really don't know. There's a wildness to it.”

On a production like I Know This Much Is True, the contribution made by visual effects is naturally huge, not only in terms of executing the required shots but also allowing Cianfrance and Lipes the freedom to pursue their creative goals unencumbered. Key to both these things was VFX supervisor Eric Pascarelli, whose history in visual effects includes work in motion control on Independence Day and Starship Troopers, plate photography on Life of Pi, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and VFX supervision on many productions since 2004’s Team America: World Police. Pascarelli himself describes it as a “very textured career. I haven't solidly done the same thing on movie after movie… no-one even knew about my background in motion control when I was hired on the show.”

Pascarelli has, he says, sometimes encountered reticence to even use motion control technology. “Motion control is something that producers like to stay away from because it has a reputation of being expensive, slow, and sucking all the freedom away from a shoot. It's not true, but it's the reputation.” Even so, with the twinning clearly demanding motion control, “by the time I got on this show the show had been outlined and scheduled and the basic production plan had already been made. Motion control was part of the discussion, so I went with it.” The actual process of shooting twinned scenes, though, would raise additional issues.

“You get into what's called versionitis,” Pascarelli continues. “because every time we shot Mark as Dominick, we were also shooting his double, Gabe Fazio, playing the opposite part. We needed the clean pass because Gabe needed to be cleaned out of each shot to do a good composite. Each take was unique, having been hand operated by an operator and hand focused by a focus puller, all motion controlled. So that’s three clean passes. And then there are B-sides, each with its own set of takes for performance, and having to match the three or more selects from the A-side. All of these things start to multiply. And there's still the option that the editors will still like one of the seven other takes!”

The choice of three-perf for VFX work was, Pascarelli recalls, essential. “The two perf had no room on the top and bottom for repositioning or stabilizing, two things we knew we would need to do for the twinning shots with elements shot months apart that needed to line up. And to blow up on this film would be disastrous because we were already so cropped in. With the three-perf the idea was that we'd have room to play, to stabilise without altering any of the grain structure or the dreamy qualities Derek and Jody wanted.” Maintaining those qualities required a joint effort between four visual effects houses across two cities, including Rodeo FX and Folks in Montreal, with Fuse FX and Framestore in New York.

“The twinning is the most visible visual effect, but one of the things I did was dealing with grain on the show.” To this end, Pascarelli recalls, “Fuse and Framestore's comp supervisors got together and created a grain tool that we ensured all the vendors shared so we could eliminate the grain variable from the post process. We ended up with nearly a thousand shots that needed to be regrained. We shot grain on the real filmstock at plus or minus 4 stops – a whole wedge of grain, and we created an HDR grain plate. The grain tool worked within the Nuke compositing software and auto-selected the grain plate depending on the exposure of the image.”

Lipes’ involvement in the VFX process was, in Pascarelli’s experience, as welcome as it is rare. “In a lot of cases I'd see the DP once or twice and send three emails.” In this case, however, both director and DP were keen to be involved. “Derek wanted Jody to be involved. Jody wanted to be involved in it, and he could be because, due to Covid, he wasn’t off doing another movie. I was preserving the look that Jody set for the project. That was 50% of my work – maintaining that look.”

Pascarelli likes, he says, to ensure the audience accepts the effects they’re seeing early on. “I think it's a good idea to spend money on one expensive shot in every scene just to show you're not cheating. I like that in each scene there's at least one full frontal twinning shot.” Making that happen, of course, has a budgetary impact, but Pascarelli is eager to put in a glowing report: “there were no corners cut on this show. We had all the tools we needed, all the time we needed. I was actually surprised. I didn't have much TV experience, but we had the best motion control, the best motion control guys. My accolades go to the producers for letting Derek and Jody and I have what we needed.”

Between the multiple passes needed for visual effects and Cianfrance’s preference for long takes, the production amassed a huge amount of footage, but, Lipes says, “Derek and the editors had an incredible ability to make it calmer in the final edit than it felt while shooting it. More than I've ever seen before. There were four editors on the show who were working throughout from before we started shooting. We shot 1.8 million feet of film and a lot of that was two-perf so I think it ended up being four hundred hours for a six hour show. They had their work cut out for them, but there were a lot of them and Derek has his own machine so there were really five.”

“I think everybody who worked on this loved it,” Lipes concludes, though he accepts the complexities of both Cianfrance’s approach and the visual effects workload. “It was very, very hard work, especially for the focus pullers. A lot of the time we're shooting at 290mm and following people walking erratically. Aurelia Winborn, who was the A-camera AC, pulled focus on Black Swan and many amazing movies, said it was by the far the hardest focus job of her life. I think the result is really incredible. Technically it was very, very challenging but the film is something we're all very proud of.”

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