Gaffer Cory Geryak lights HER with L7s

Gaffer Cory Geryak’s work includes blockbuster films like THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, INCEPTION and the upcoming TRANSCENDENCE. He recently switched gears to light more intimate material with director Spike Jonze’s critically acclaimed HER. The production won Best Film by the National Board of Review and garnered a Golden Globe Best Picture nomination. Captured in ARRIRAW on the ALEXA Studio by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (INTERSTELLAR, THE FIGHTER), this was the DP’s first feature shot digitally.

Set in the near future, HER follows a lonely man played by Joaquin Phoenix whose only connection to the world is through his computer operating system. Rather than a slick vision of the future, the filmmakers opted for warmth with a world grounded in present day reality. Geryak employed the ARRI L7 LED fixtures -- Fresnels with tunable color and dimming control, making HER one of the first released feature films to employ the technology. Here in Geryak’s own words, he talks about the experience of creating this special, near-future love story.

HER trailer

For HER, gaffer Cory Geryak utilized the ARRI L7 LED Fresnels to light the romantic drama set in the future. Captured on ALEXA by Hoyte Van Hoytema.

Tell us about HER.

It’s a very performance-driven movie where the main character played by Joaquin Phoenix talks to his operating system and he ends having a relationship with her. Originally we were considering some color scrolling effects during the shots, but we didn’t actually end up doing that. They get into these long sequences of dialogue and we didn’t want to have distractions and color changes going on to draw away from the performance.

He lives in a city apartment and we wanted to use as much existing lighting as possible. We shot in a real apartment and the windows were originally tinted, but they replaced them with clear glass. That way we could get as much exposure through the windows as possible. We often shot wide open on the ALEXA, going back and forth between 800 and 1250 ASA. We tested up to 3200 ASA but it made the background a little too bright and almost unnatural. We played at very low light levels, often shooting at t1.3 or 1.4. Very few foot candles, which was interesting.

We built a lot of practical lighting into the set that we could actually photograph. We made them out of LED light ribbon from Lite Gear. We rigged them and then ended up playing at such low light levels we had to put ND 6 on all of the boxes because they were so bright. We could then dim them in a relatively controlled way. We made all of the boxes out of RGBW so we could play with color quite a bit. The film takes place in a slightly futuristic society and we wanted to play (with) deeper color saturation using the flexibility of an RGB world rather than to have to re-gel things.

When we were in that apartment, Spike requested the smallest crew possible and there was very limited space to stage gear. It ended up being myself, Larry Sushinski, the best boy and Scotty Barnes, our console operator. Michael Kenner keyed the three-man grip crew.

The first time I used them on set we were shooting a day interior in a tiny bathroom. We were looking into a mirror and seeing out the windows, so we had to balance the daylight. We didn’t change the glass in that bathroom so the windows were really green because of the window tint. We had to match the color and then balance it out in camera afterwards. I took two of the L7s and bounced them off the ceiling and dialed the green in on the heads. It was a very low ceiling with sprinkler heads, but the L7s were so cool, the sprinkler heads were not a problem. It was the perfect tool for how we needed to shoot. Otherwise it would have been HMI Jokers with full Plus Green Gel and then we would have had trouble controlling the heat of the HMIs on the sprinkler heads.

It was the perfect tool for how we needed to shoot.

Did you use the L7s on any night exteriors?

We did some night exteriors downtown and we were using a lot of existing fixtures. When we did want to augment something, we would use the L7s so we could match existing streetlights. Sometimes the streetlights were metal halide or different colors; we would be able to dial in the color right there on the L7 rather than changing gels. We were still a very small crew, so any time savings that we could gain, like not having to match or change gels, was a big advantage.

HER was captured on ALEXA. Has your lighting changed at all since working with digital cameras?

Now that cameras are so sensitive, I find I’m taking away light. You have to adjust your eyes to what your camera sees because they see a lot more. Nowadays, you can just start shooting in almost any condition, but I still want to control the image. It’s choices. Digital is still a tool and you have to use it in the right way. Just because there is enough exposure, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is appropriate for the storytelling. You still want the lighting to serve your story and look a certain way. You still need to control the light, you can just do it at a lower level now if you choose to.