It’s All Happening: Autumn Durald Arkapaw

Above, Autumn Durald Arkapaw sets a shot while photographing the indie feature The Sun is Also A Star in New York City.

Teen Spirit unit photography by Parisa Taghizadeh; photos and frame grabs courtesy of LD Entertainment and Bleecker Street. The Sun Is Also a Star unit photography by Atsushi Nishijima; photos and frame grabs courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It’s a good year to be cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw, who’s had three features opening in quick succession: Untogether rolled out in February, followed by Teen Spirit in April, and The Sun Is Also a Star in May. 

But in the decade since the California native graduated with her Masters from AFI, there have been many good years. Like 2009, when Macho, a mumblecore film she shot while still in school, won Best Micro-Budget Feature at the Raindance Film Festival and was picked up by IFC. Or 2010, when she shot 2nd unit on a black-and-white 35mm Levi’s campaign with Harris Savides, ASC and Melodie McDaniel. Or 2013, a breakthrough year thanks to Palo Alto, directed by Gia Coppola and based on James Franco’s novel. Or subsequent years full of eye-catching commercials and music videos, like Arcade Fire’s “Porno,” directed by Kahlil Joseph, for which she used Arri’s Alexa XT B+W camera in infrared mode during carnival in Haiti. 

Her experience shooting music videos for Janelle Monáe, Solange Knowles, London Grammar and others put Durald Arkapaw in a good place to shoot Teen Spirit, a Cinderella story with music at its core. Helmed by actor and first-time feature director Max Minghella, the movie follows Violet (Elle Fanning), a shy teen on the Isle of Wight with a passion for singing. When auditions for the television competition Teen Spirit come to town, she enters, then finds an unlikely mentor at the local dive bar, Vlad (Zlatko Buric). Incorporating the language of music videos, the 33-day shoot had Fanning performing tunes by Robyn, Annie Lennox, Sigrid, Orbital and more.

The Sun Is Also a Star is based on the young-adult best-seller by Nicola Yoon. Directed by Ry Russo-Young, it recounts the one-day love story between Jamaica-born Natasha (Yara Shahidi) and Korean-American Daniel (Charles Melton), who meet by chance on the streets of New York. Daniel tells Natasha he can convince her to fall in love with him within 24 hours. As he sets about his task, the two debate fate vs. coincidence, poetry vs. science, all while the clock is ticking toward the imminent deportation of Natasha and her family.

AC recently connected with Durald Arkapaw to dig into her work on both features.

Violet (Elle Fanning) pursues her passion for singing in the feature Teen Spirit.

American Cinematographer: How did your participation in Teen Spirit come about?

Autumn Durald Arkapaw: Max Minghella was a big fan of Palo Alto. He had a few projects he was interested in making, and his producer reached out to my agents. We hit it off and ended up making a music video together. 

Max and [La La Land producer] Fred Berger had been working on Teen Spirit for a long time. When it got greenlit to be shot in London, they suggested hiring a local DP, but Max fought for me. We’d been friends for three years by then and had talked about this film a lot. It’s a brave film to approach on an indie budget — a character-driven drama, but then it amps up at times and sucks you into a pop spectacle.

There’s a variety of looks, from pastoral shots on Violet’s farm to highly produced music numbers. What were your visual touchstones?

Lost in Translation, Flashdance, Sucker Punch. But the reference he loved, which I always teased him about, was the Katy Perry documentary Part of Me. It’s a voyeuristic documentary, where they follow Katy around on tour — not that Max wanted it to look exactly like that, but there were some really lovely frames in there, and I knew the tone was important to him. 

The lighting setup for Teen Spirit’s finale incorporated a large array of PAR cans above the stage.
The lighting for Violet’s musical performances gets increasingly slick as her star continues to rise.

Early on in Teen Spirit, Vlad, a former opera singer gone to seed, hears Violet sing at a dive bar. You’ve said that was one of your favorite scenes to light. Why? 

It’s where he first sees her beauty and relates to her. Emotionally, that’s always touched me. She’s this lonely girl and there’s this lonely man, and they have a connection through her singing on this little stage. 

When I first saw that location, I really liked it. It’s dingy and had a lot of character already built in. You could imagine the people who hung out there. I felt we did it justice in the way it was lit. I tend to like naturalistic stuff that’s stylized. That space has a natural feeling, but it ups the ante with sodium vapor streaming in through the windows. Then there’s a little toplight onstage, rigged above her, and a heart-shaped light behind her on the wall. We shot that day-for-night, so it was all tented-out. I like to keep everything outside, which gives actors room to work and makes the set feel like a real space.

Durald Arkapaw and director Max Minghella check their frame.

On both films, you coupled Arri’s Alexa Mini with Panavision’s C Series anamorphic primes and 11:1 48-550mm [T4.5] anamorphic zoom. You tend to gravitate toward Panavision lenses in general. Why?

I first developed a relationship with Panavision in film school, and Palo Alto was shot with Panavision lenses, so the love started early on. In the case of Teen Spirit, it was a no-brainer. With The Sun Is Also a Star, the director actually had in her look-book that she wanted to shoot vintage Panavision anamorphic, so I suggested the C Series. I like a milkier, dreamier, low-con look. They’re beautiful when shot wide open; I love them for complexions and beauty close-ups.

Tell us about Violet’s audition, where she sings ‘Dancing on My Own.’ The half-moon lights in the stage curtain have a lovely effect when the focus falls off. 

That was just an LED Star Drop Curtain that production designer Kave Quinn suggested. We didn’t want a standard red curtain — too theatrical. You want some texture back there, but not too pronounced. She should feel like she’s swimming in a deep black sea, but you want some depth in the falloff behind her.

It’s lit with a moonlighty, kind of industrial light. It’s not supposed to look so beautiful yet, nor as warm and inviting as the bar scene where she’s in her own element. Her first audition is on a bigger stage in front of these very important people, so keeping them in darkness was a choice we talked about. That location had red curtains on the reverse shot of the judges. I embraced that and put some side edge-light through the door. I tend to like moodier lighting, and that was the space to do it.

That audition effectively becomes a three-minute music video, with a montage of Violet in various settings. Was that shot-listed, or did Max find that in the editing room? He’s said that editing is his favorite part of the process.

Yes, it is. He edited the music video we’d done previously. That’s what’s great about him: He knows exactly what he wants. But he’s very open to collaboration and any ideas you might have. As for those montages, he definitely had all those beats in mind; the home life and horse were all shot-listed. 

As Violet moves up to the semifinals, then finals, the lighting gets increasingly slick. Tell us about those musical numbers.

Because we had so many acts in the semifinals, it was more about simple lines and graphics, and then changing the color for each person. The lighting for Violet is a soft frontlight, hard sidelight, and the backlight is from the LED screen, which is a simple design we came up with. That was a very stylized choice, keeping her in darkness and using a strobe once the song amps up. For the finals’ ‘Good Time’ performance, where all the acts are on stage together, our screens get much bigger, and most of our coverage was from a Technocrane. We shot it as a oner, where you flow from character to character. 

Where was that finale shot?

ExCel London, where they put on big concerts. It was one of our most expensive locations, but we found a lot of sets within that building. It was Max’s favorite location. The production value we got was a big asset.

You designed unique lighting for each of the finalists. 

That was our biggest technical setup. We were basically shooting mini-concerts for each of these five acts, so [each would] have its own vibe, lighting and graphics, which my friend Geoff Oki designed for us. For Violet’s number, ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe,’ I pulled references from a Kanye West concert in Glastonbury, England, that I really loved. I started with that as a base design; we had about 260 PAR cans on a rig above her while we did this low-angle wide Steadicam shot on stage.  We used an events company in London called SXS to install our LED screens and lighting. We had two days to rig all the lighting at ExCel. After they put in the rig, gaffer Jonny Franklin and I spent about five hours — after we wrapped our shoot day — designing the lighting cues to match the music. On the day of, we made changes live.

Beyond PAR cans, what units were used? 

Lots of various Chauvet moving-head units, Showtec Sunstrips, and some Molefays. The LED panels were [made by] Esdlumen, all driven by 4K image-processing and playback. Then, for our stage-performer key light, we had a 12-by-12 soft push on the ground — six Arri S60 SkyPanels.

We didn’t want it to look like your typical American Idol show. I’ve read some reviews that said, ‘We can’t see their faces all the time!’ For me, ‘real’ doesn’t feel overly lit, bright and ugly. We had no intention of lighting this exactly how people are used to seeing American Idol or the British equivalent. It should have a style and character that feels like it comes from the music-video world that you see her in prior to the finale. That was a bold choice.

Where did you color-grade?

Literally the day after I wrapped The Sun Is Also a Star, I flew to London to color-correct Teen Spirit at The Post Republic with colorist Lee Clappison. Max appreciates seeing close to the final look on set — as do I — so I do a lot of grading with my DIT on set. [Ed. Note: For Teen Spirit, Durald Arkapaw worked with DIT Jacob Robinson, and for The Sun Is Also a Star, she worked with Bjorn Jackson.] The LUT for Teen Spirit was one I’d used on prior films; I’d built it with my colorist at FotoKem, Al Arnold. So we were already looking at an image we were somewhat happy with. 

The crew captures a Steadicam shot between actors Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton (portraying Natasha and Daniel) on location in New York for the feature The Sun Is Also a Star.

In The Sun Is Also a Star, Natasha says about New York, ‘I love this city.’ One of your tasks was to make us love it, too. When you were in school, you wrote about Woody Allen and Gordon Willis, ASC. Was Manhattan on your mind during production? 

Yes, 110 percent. Manhattan was my biggest reference. I love New York and have fallen in love there as a young person, so it was touching to tell this one-day love story. Plus, I was interested in the diversity aspect of it, and immigration is very on-topic now. 

Aside from one stage day for pickups, The Sun Is Also a Star was entirely shot on practical locations around New York City.
Aside from one stage day for pickups, The Sun Is Also a Star was entirely shot on practical locations around New York City.

Was the whole movie shot on practical locations? 

Yes, we just did one stage day for pickups. Initially, they were trying to shoot in Toronto for budgetary reasons, but Ry fought for New York. The locations were in her treatment, and cheating it would have been cheating the story. She wanted to make this [young-adult] film different than ones we’d seen before that didn’t feel like real indies — they were brighter and too precious in their execution. Our intention was to make it more real, textured and deep. That’s what attracted me to the project the most.

I adored our production designer, Wynn Thomas, a legend who’s done a lot of New York movies. Not many people get to shoot in Grand Central or the American Museum of Natural History.

I was astonished at some of the permits you got. You had aerials directly above LaGuardia Airport and quite close to the Statue of Liberty’s face.

Exactly. You have certain pilots who are ‘ballers,’ who push the limit. Gotham Film Worksdid our aerials and came back with some amazing stuff. I can’t [imagine] this film without those aerials. 

The story takes place over 24 hours. That must have been a scheduling jigsaw on this 27-day shoot. 

That’s the difficult aspect of shooting a film like this, a summer film in NYC that needs to feel like one consistent day, when you don’t know when it’s going to rain. It was a challenge — especially for the AD, Murphy Occhino, who always had to protect us with cover-set days. But we got pretty lucky considering our challenges.

How did you capture the magic-hour scene, where the leads have a romantic moment on the Roosevelt Island Tramway? 

We timed that out for the sunset, making sure the day was going to be clear. It was important that you see that sunset in the background, and feel the day emotionally end. So that was floating around on the schedule. It was shot in one day — everyone in the tram, including me, handheld in the corner. That is one of my favorite scenes.

The scene ends with a fireball-sun setting in perfect alignment between the skyscrapers. 

It’s called ‘Manhattanhenge.’ [Ed. Note: Coined by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the term describes the sunrises and sunsets that align along Manhattan’s east-west streets twice a year.] It was something Ry always wanted to capture. I shot it in prep, but it got cloudy right before the sun was supposed to drop between the buildings, so that day was a bust. But we had another opportunity after we wrapped one day during principal photography. The B camera went out and shot it, and that’s what you see in the film. 

Natasha and Daniel sit in Caffe Reggio.
Alongside Durald Arkapaw, director Ry Russo-Young studies Shahidi’s close-up.

Give us an overview of your lighting package for the movie.

All day exteriors were shaped using a lot of negative fill to create contrast. We lit all of our interiors; the only things that weren’t ‘my’ lighting were architectural practicals in our bigger locations. The hair-care store already had a lot of fluorescents, so we just changed out tubes to match temperature, then flagged or turned off the ones we didn’t want. 

We had a lot of 18K HMIs on condors for bringing ‘sun’ into various spaces, like Natasha’s parents’ apartment, Daniel’s family home, and the bookstore. I prefer to keep everything off the floor on set, so we brought in big sun streaks, then balanced exposure inside with [LiteGear] LED LiteMats rigged on the ceiling.

The final bookstore scene — Rizzoli on Union Square — was a big rig for us. We rigged three 15-foot LED ladder lights 8 feet above the actor, diffused with Light Grid and skirted in the middle section of the store for Natasha’s long walk-up to Daniel. We also used one 4-by-4 and two 8-by-8 blanket lights diffused with Full Grid at the end of the store where they meet. I had a lot of fun lighting that space with gaffer Ken Shibata and key grip Greg Cahill. I heard they may shoot an alternate ending, but I hope this one stays. It’s a beautiful scene. 

In Grand Central, sunlight strikes the floor around Natasha when Daniel first spots her. How did you accomplish that?

That was a big deal for us, and I pushed to light that scene with bigger units so you could feel the sun. In Grand Central, there are so many restrictions for filming. We had to buy out the mezzanine restaurant so I could put my lights there — I didn’t want to light from the main floor, because we wanted to shoot a big wide. I lit the wide with two xenons and a mirror. There’s one Technocrane shot where the camera goes from Daniel in a wide, swings around, goes to Natasha, and zooms in on her face. When we got closer for the cutaway close-up, we had a 4-by-4 bounce for fill and a diffusion frame for the key light.

It was amazing to go in there and figure that out. In old black-and-white reference photos from the 1920s, you have all the haze because people were allowed to smoke, and there was no construction surrounding Grand Central back then, so the sun could actually stream in through those windows. I did a lot of light studies there, and nowadays the sun doesn’t come directly in the windows anymore. There’s a streak of light that comes in on one end, but it’s very low-exposure — it’s actually bounced light off of a skyscraper — and isn’t enough to feel like the sun on camera. So I was adamant about lighting that space. The movie is called The Sun Is Also a Star!

Say a word about the grade.

I work with Tom Poole in New York [on commercials], and this was supposed to be our first feature, but the color kept pushing, so he wasn’t available by the time they did post. He suggested Drew Geary, who also works at Company 3 in New York, and he was fantastic. We used a LUT that Tom made for my camera test — not based on a specific stock, but with a filmic curve and Tom’s own magic potion. I wanted a denser, softer black, so he gave me five LUTs during my camera tests to look at. 

How was it working with Ry Russo-Young?

Ry works hard, is very organized and knows what she wants. I like to work fast, so we made a good team and were able to accomplish a lot on that film.

What’s next? 

I’m in prep with Spike Jonze on this Beastie Boys Story live show that’s based off of their recent memoir. That shoots in Philly and New York, then I jump straight onto Gia Coppola’s next film, Mainstream, which stars Andrew Garfield. 

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