Cinematographer Lyle Vincent and director Ana Lily Amirpour employ the relentless sunlight of blistering desert locales for the barbarous dystopian love story The Bad Batch.
By Matt Mulcahey • Unit photography by Darren Michaels, SMPSP and Merrick Morton, SMPSP, courtesy of Neon and Annapurna Pictures. Additional photos courtesy of Lyle Vincent.
The Bad Batch, which reunites A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night director Ana Lily Amirpour and cinematographer Lyle Vincent, begins in the simmering Texas heat of a barren desert wasteland. A number is tattooed on the neck of a young woman named Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), who is then taken by uniformed men to the wrong side of a towering chain-link fence that separates society’s miscreants, the titular Bad Batch, from the rest of the populace.
By the time Arlen utters the film’s first significant dialogue nearly 20 minutes in, she’s had an arm and leg amputated and eaten by a tribe of airplane-graveyard-dwelling cannibals, and found refuge in the walled-off confines of the town of Comfort. The “love” portion of what has been dubbed a “postapocalyptic cannibal love story” begins when Arlen crosses paths with a muscled human-eater played by Jason Momoa, who’s known simply as Miami Man — a moniker that’s tattooed across the character’s chest.
To create the world of The Bad Batch, which is distributed by Neon — and inspired by everything from El Topo and Sergio Leone Westerns to Repo Man and Gummo — production traveled to the harsh environs of the Lucerne Valley in the southern Mojave desert, the Salton Sea, and a string of nearby towns with names like Bombay Beach and Slab City. To avoid the unbearable summer heat, The Bad Batch scheduled its six weeks of principal photography in the spring. “There’s no way you could shoot there in the summer,” says Vincent. “That whole area of the Salton Sea is below sea level and it’s just an absolutely brutal environment. Even most of the people who live there leave during the summer.”
Escaping the heat didn’t mean escaping the wrath of the desert, however. Wind, sand and rattlesnakes still had to be reckoned with. “Every day ended with a 30-minute clean and de-sand of the gear,” says A-camera operator Scott Dropkin. “It was kind of a ritual. I remember when the first sandstorm hit on our way to lunch and you couldn’t see past a few feet. When we finally made it to lunch, catering had all the food outside. I’m still picking out sand grains from my mouth after eating the Caesar salad. Lunch was served inside after that day.”
The harsh desert conditions also knocked one of the production’s Arri Alexa XTs out of commission, though Vincent considered himself lucky it was the only casualty. “I think if it was any other camera than the Alexa, we would have gone through many more,” he says. After using the Alexa Studio on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Vincent opted for the XT on The Bad Batch, and he also switched from Girl’s ProRes to ArriRaw 2.8K in 4:3 full-sensor mode, recording to XR Capture Drives.
A set of C Series Panavision anamorphics, in their original housings, served as the production’s main lenses. They were supplemented by Panavision’s D Series 40mm, and quite notably by the company’s Macro Auto Panatar 55mm — aka the MAP55.
At the start of production, the MAP55 was supposed to be a specialty lens pulled out occasionally for close-focus situations. Yet the more Amirpour and Vincent used the lens, the more they were beguiled by its singular eccentricities. And by the time the movie wrapped, the MAP55 was in play for everything from actor close-ups to extreme wide shots, and had earned the nickname “The Bad Batch Lens.”
“That lens became this iconic aesthetic stamp for the film,” Amirpour says. “It has this distortion that sweeps over the image and gives it a weirdness, and I love the potential weirdness you can get from each lens. I’m always looking for when [that aesthetic] fits the style of the story I’m telling, and The Bad Batch is definitely a weird little story.”
Vincent adds, “The MAP55 is slightly softer and more rounded on the edges, and it has more of a dreamy, impressionistic look. That became a go-to for faces. Then we used the D Series 40mm for a lot of our super-wide shots because it is a bit more contrasty and sharper.”
According to Panavision Hollywood’s manager of technical marketing and optics, Guy McVicker — who along with the company’s Mike Carter helped Vincent put together The Bad Batch’s lens package — the D Series is the result of a project to make the C Series lenses faster. The labor involved in converting to the D Series proved so extensive, however, that only a limited number of 40mm and 50mm lenses were produced.
Though Vincent and Amirpour had previously tested the above lens package during prep for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, they retested them for The Bad Batch specifically to see how they would perform in the Salton Sea’s unique landscape. “The way that Lily likes to test is to grab a camera, grab some lenses, and go out to the actual places we are going to shoot,” Vincent notes. “We don’t just shoot test charts in a checkout bay.” The cinematographer adds that “the C Series’ lower contrast proved invaluable in the harsh desert light by slightly raising and milking out the blacks.”
Vincent also used this test footage to create the 3D LUTs he employed for on-set monitoring. He started with a Fujifilm Eterna Vivid 160T 8543 film-emulation LUT from FilmConvert and tweaked it to create three separate looks — one each for day, night and day-for-night. “We tested quite a few LUTs in preproduction that emulated different film stocks, and both Lily and I liked how this Fuji LUT rendered skin tones, how the colors popped, and how it handled the blues and the warms of the desert,” says Vincent.
On set, Vincent wanted the LUT added directly out of camera, which 1st AC Kevin Akers and digital-imaging technician Zack Charney Cohen made possible with a Fujifilm IS-Mini LUT box attached directly to the camera with a custom-made power cable.
During production, Charney Cohen set up his rig in the back of a trailer and decked it out with curtains to provide an appropriately dark workspace. As footage came in, Charney Cohen would make slight adjustments to Vincent’s LUT and then bake this grade into transcodes for editorial and web dailies. A set of ProRes dailies was also placed on an iPad for Amirpour and Vincent to review each night. “The 3D LUTs would get me 85 percent of the way there — and then I would correct, sweeten, and really add a polish that is rarely achieved on set in other workflows,” says Charney Cohen, who colored in Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve. “Given my grading theater in the camera truck, I was able to do more complex grading: vignettes, ISO changes, keys and even tracked windows.”
The final grade was completed at Runway Post with colorist Zach Medow — who had also performed the grade for Girl — on Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve with original ArriRaw files in P3 color space for a 2K DCP finish. “On-set LUT and dailies were used as starting-point reference for the DI,” Vincent notes.
After working in black-and-white on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Vincent and Amirpour were both anxious to play with color, and they got their chance during The Bad Batch’s night exteriors. “I wanted us to paint with colors during those night locations,” says Amirpour. “I have different look books and audio-visual references depending on which collaborator or department head I’m working with. [For night exteriors] there’s this photographer, Troy Paiva, who’s been shooting with colored lights in abandoned locations since the 1990s. His books were a great tool that Lyle, [gaffer] Michael Roy and I looked at a lot during prep.”
To differentiate the disparate worlds of the cannibal tribe and the more civilized community of Comfort, Vincent developed distinct color palettes for each. “The cannibals were very primal. For them, we used saturated reds and oranges, with oil-drum fires everywhere,” explains Vincent. “Then for Comfort, we used more of a neon wash of blues and greens.”
Comfort’s colors come alive during a rave-like celebration where the town’s leader — a cultish figure known as The Dream (Keanu Reeves) — addresses the revelers while perched atop a giant boombox. The bus-sized prop, which arrived premade and maintains mobility via its own four wheels, is a piece called “The Rockbox” by Los Angeles artist Derek Wunder, which some moviegoers may recognize from its appearances at Nevada’s annual Burning Man gathering. To key Reeves, 8' Kino Flo 3,200K tubes were hidden on the boombox’s top deck and angled as up-lights. For the masses below, an Arri M40 gelled with Lee 354 Special Steel Blue served as an edge light. When coverage moved into tighter shots, a Digital Sputnik rig augmented the M40. The now-popular Digital Sputnik brand was relatively unknown when The Bad Batch was shot in early 2015, and the units ended up on the film almost by pure chance, according to Roy. “I was on the Cinelease prep floor with my best boy, Harold Lacuesta, and we found an open Pelican case with a unique three-headed LED system inside,” recalls Roy. “The individual heads were tethered to a shared power supply and it used a proprietary iPad application that required close-range wireless connectivity. Lyle was smitten and we left the shop floor with the only kit in inventory. Ultimately, it proved to be a versatile tool that worked beautifully for the rave scenes.”
Located within Comfort is The Dream’s compound, an oasis from the harsh desert sun where Reeves’ character lives surrounded by his harem of expectant mothers. In a world where water is at a premium, Reeves’ cool, blue-tinted palace includes an indoor swimming-pool room — the setting for a scene in which Arlen discusses joining The Dream’s household.
The pool room’s lighting design was inspired largely by an initial scouting photo of the location, in which two rectangles of light struck the pool through a skylight. The scene was ultimately shot at night, so the effect was re-created with eight daylight-balanced K 5600 Joker-Bug 800 units with Bug-a-Beam adapters, allowing the lamps to fit into ETC Source Four ellipsoidal units. Key grip Eddie Apodaca then used frames of silver Mylar to create the additional effect of light bouncing off the rippling water. A 24" China ball draped with bleached muslin was used to key Arlen and The Dream.
For the movie’s many daytime exteriors, key light was typically the relentless sunlight. “Lily said from the beginning that the world of The Bad Batch is extreme, raw and harsh,” says Vincent. “I think we captured that. For daylight exteriors, sometimes we would have a little bounce or some negative fill to give a little contrast, but a lot of times we just went with it and let it be what it was.”
That less-is-more approach extended to the production’s use of visual effects. While digital set extensions — such as the wall of cargo containers that fortifies Comfort — were ably performed by visual-effects house Engine Room, Amirpour pushed to achieve as much as possible in-camera. Arlen’s amputated limbs, for example, were accomplished through a mix of visual effects and old-school trickery. Waterhouse spent much of her time portraying Arlen with one arm tied behind her back and a prosthetic residual limb in its place. For a scene in which Waterhouse lies on the dusty desert floor, a hole was dug in the ground for the actress to place her real leg in, while a prosthetic appliance — made by Los Angeles-based Alterian Studios— was seen on camera. “There’s a lot of CGI used to clean up and enhance the limb removal — and we had amazing digital artists to make that happen — but I wanted there to be a prosthetic on my actress in every shot,” Amirpour says. “When something is entirely CG it looks different and synthetic. So if there’s a way to do it in-camera, with a magic trick or sleight of hand, with an angle to shoot or an illusion to sell, then that’s my preferred method.”
Sleight of hand is also how Amirpour achieved a shot in which the camera tracks with a Momoa-hurled butcher knife, as it hurtles end-over-end toward a desert nomad who has attempted to trade a can of gas for Arlen. “That butcher-knife shot is such a classic trick,” the director says. “You put the knife on a simple crank and then one guy runs alongside and spins [the crank] manually while the camera op runs toward the subject. It’s a gag used in all the old kung fu movies. In those old movies they would frame out the crank, so you just see part of the knife spinning in and out of the shot. But I shot the entire knife and had the crank removed in post. So it’s taking an analog trick and using CGI to make it even more slick.”
While the butcher-knife scene was storyboarded in advance, The Bad Batch’s final shot was an example of embracing on-set discovery. The sunset setup found Dropkin trekking backward with his Steadicam in low mode with a Kenyon KS-8 Gyro stabilizer attached to counteract the wind.
“The shot started as a close-up and then I walked backwards for as long as I could,” Dropkin recalls. “I just kept going and going. Various crewmembers were grabbing equipment and moving it as I went backwards, so the camera wouldn’t see it. Finally, I was just completely exhausted and I let the camera tilt into the sky, and Lily loved it!”
|Cameras||Arri Alexa XT|
|Lenses||Panavision C Series|
|Macro Auto Panatar|