DP Brett Pawlak on "The Glass Castle"

The cinematographer of "The Glass Castle" discusses shooting the drama with Master Anamorphics.

Aug. 8, 2017

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and shot by cinematographer Brett Pawlak, "The Glass Castle" is based on author Jeannette Walls’s 2005 memoir about her unconventional childhood and dysfunctional parents. Cretton and Pawlak first worked together on "Short Term 12," Cretton’s thesis film, which ended up being Brie Larson’s breakout film and winner of the 2013 SXSW Narrative Competition’s Grand Jury Prize. "The Glass Castle" is their fourth collaboration. “Destin’s an amazing storyteller,” Pawlak says. “He writes everything he directs and is one of those directors who has a specific idea for the movie, but wants me to bring the visual aesthetic.” That’s how they embarked on "Short Term 12" and it’s been the basis of their working relationship since then.


In approaching "The Glass Castle," Cretton and Pawlak had an early conversation about the look. “Our aesthetic has evolved since `Short Termin 12,´” says Pawlak. “His stories tend to be very human and delicate and I don’t want to make visuals that take the viewer out of the movie. I try to light as naturally as I can, which Destin really responds to. He likes to let the actors move in the space and shoot multiple cameras.” Author Walls also gave Cretton and Pawlak some family photos and an older documentary on her unusual parents, Rex and Rosemary, in the early 1990s when they were squatting in New York City. “We pulled from her actual life,” explains Pawlak. “These photos and the film dictated the color and aesthetics in terms of wardrobe and production design.”

Choosing the right lenses for the film was very important to Pawlak, who says they are “really a way to create some character in your visuals.” From the beginning, he felt anamorphic lenses were the right choice for "The Glass Castle." “There’s a tendency to think anamorphics are for big, wide-looking set pieces, and they do enhance those types of movies,” says Pawlak. “But I think anamorphics enhance intimacy just as much. I knew we were going to shoot in small sets as well as the big vistas of New Mexico, so I thought anamorphics were a perfect choice to make the movie look bigger but also keep the intimacy.” Pawlak pitched the idea to Cretton, who immediately embraced it.

Pawlak looked at nearly all the anamorphics available at the camera houses and shot tests with many of them to give Cretton an idea of the look they could get. “We started discussing the option of newer anamorphics,” says Pawlak. “Almost doing the opposite of working with older glass and vignetting, we thought we’d go cleaner and let the production design bring it together. Destin was cautious about not having things distort too much.” Pawlak came across the ARRI/ZEISS Master Anamorphics. “I put them on the camera and right away looked at a 40mm, which is pretty wide, and was astonished to see there was no distortion or bend in any of the lines or horizons,” he says. “Every line was straight, and the bokeh is really nice. It clicked, and I thought, here’s an anamorphic lens that Destin would be comfortable with. It was the perfect lens I was hoping for to subtly tell the story anamorphically.”

After testing, Pawlak was even more certain that the ARRI Master Anamorphics were the right lenses. “I noticed they were sharp and very fast, which was great because we were shooting in low light,” he says. “The Master Anamorphics gave me a great base to start with, and I started exploring different stops and filtration to see all the different looks and how far I could push it, and find the spot on the lens that gave me the look that I could almost dial in. The Master Anamorphics really helped Destin be comfortable with shooting anamorphic.”

Pawlak says he knew before he chose the lenses that he’d shoot with ALEXA. “I prefer it over any other camera system,” he says, noting that the Montreal-based production had two ALEXA XTs from MELS. “I can pick up an ALEXA body, go and shoot with it and know exactly how it will handle things.” In addition to the ALEXA XT, the production also had a Mini, which Pawlak says he “really loved.” “The Mini is very versatile,” he says. “I had a couple of sequences where I’d run around with the camera in the backpack, up stairs and through doorways, and it was really light. It could be whatever I needed.”

The Master Anamorphics really paid off in one scene that takes place in the New Mexican desert where the family is reading by candlelight. “Having those lenses be anamorphic and as fast as they are allowed me to be comfortable with lighting, and pushing it a little bit,” he says. “It was kind of scary to be as wide open as we were, but in those low light situations, the lenses performed so well that it gave me confidence in shooting.”

All photos by Jake Giles Netter.

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