A wholly original exploration of fitting in and finding confidence in oneself, The Fits marks the first narrative feature credit for both director Anna Rose Holmer and cinematographer Paul Yee. The story follows 11-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower), who spends her afternoons in the boxing gym at a community center in Cincinnati, Ohio, training alongside her older brother, Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor). She becomes drawn to the center’s dance team, but soon after she joins, the other dancers begin suffering from “fits” — inexplicable, seizure-like episodes.
Yee climbed the ranks of the electrical department before turning his full attention to working as a director of photography. A native of Massachusetts, he met Holmer while they were both attending New York University. The cinematographer had just returned to his home in Brooklyn after being in Park City — where The Fits played in the Next section of this year’s Sundance Film Festival — when he spoke with AC about the film.
American Cinematographer: How did Anna first present this story to you?
Paul Yee: At the very beginning, Anna presented a mood board with images of dance, boxing, fitness and youth. It was a striking collection of rigid, fit and sometimes grotesque bodies surrounded by bright gold and blue, and soft purple and yellow tones. These colors became the palette for our movie. The Fits was created on a hyper-accelerated time line. The first draft of the script was completed about five months before we started shooting, so preproduction had actually already started before then. The script grew over that period of time, but Anna knew that the heart of the story would be about a girl trying to fit into a group while also maintaining her individuality. It’s also unique in that it’s a coming-of-age story that’s not about sex or sexuality — there aren’t many movies about young women that aren’t about obtaining the affection of a young man.
In addition to the mood board, were there other references that you and Anna looked at for inspiration?
Yee: We watched some psychological-horror movies because we wanted to build a visceral tension around the fits. We wanted to deny the [audience] of a clear and objective view of what was happening, and instead allow fear to manifest in Toni’s reactions. Anna also has a lot of experience with dance movies, so she was constantly thinking about the relationship between the camera and the performer, and what angle was the strongest to perform to, especially while the camera is moving. Some of the longer shots we blocked out certainly felt like complex choreography.
The film includes some really long takes.
Yee: There’s a two-minute dialogue scene where Toni is mopping the floor in a wide shot and Beezy [Alexis Neblett] is just asking her questions. Committing to doing that scene in a single wide [shot] allowed them to forget about marks and liberated them to physically improvise. I love the way that Beezy skips and dances around in that shot; it’s exactly how a 10-year-old would move around. With only 20 days for principal photography, several scenes became single shots out of necessity — we literally didn’t have time to do coverage. Each night when we looked at the schedule, Anna and I would often decide that a single-take Steadicam shot would be the most efficient way to cover a scene; we just had to be vigilant that our camera movements were deliberate and choreographed. We leaned heavily on Steadicam operator Devon Catucci and first AC Jason Chau; they were aces at nailing complicated takes under high pressure with limited rehearsal.
Did you also have a dolly?
Yee: We had a Fisher 11. I think there are narrative implications when deciding between Steadicam and dolly for a moving shot. Steadicam feels more reactive, while the dolly is more assured. I wanted our dolly moves to have a feeling of inevitability to them: The camera moves along a predetermined path, and we were forcing the actors to move within the restraints of the frame as opposed to adjusting the speed of the dolly to their performance. It’s a very subtle difference that I think affects the tone of the movie; it adds a sort of omnipotence to the camera’s perspective.
Was it the idea of isolating Toni that led to the decision to shoot in widescreen [2.39:1]?
Yee: Shooting with a wide aspect ratio allowed us to have scenes play out behind Toni in the [out-of-focus] background — we were constantly bringing Toni closer to the lens so that the background would go soft. The intention was to use that negative space to add to her uncertainty, confusion and frustration. In the few instances that we feature Toni in a very wide shot, she’s often dwarfed by the space around her — a reminder that she is actually quite a diminutive person despite her strength and gravitas.
Were you taking advantage of practical fixtures that were already in the community center?
Yee: Oh, yeah. The boxing gym and the locker room were naturally lit by fluorescent banks with GE 5,000K tubes, which had a small green spike on the color spectrum. Ideally we would have replaced all of those bulbs with our own Kino Flo tubes, but that was outside of the budget, so we just color-balanced our camera to account for the green spike. When we did bring in our own Kino Flo units, we [fitted] them with the same color-temperature tubes from a hardware store. We exercised a great deal of control over the practical fixtures, though. There were sheets of Full Grid Cloth hanging 2 or 3 feet off of the tubes, which made the quality of light much more flattering, and then duvetyne teasers all over the place to control the spill. And [we had] large negative fills knocking down the bounce that came off of the white brick walls.
How did you approach the dance space?
Yee: That space was a challenge because of its sheer size; it’s basically a large gym/theater. If it was sunny out, the high westward-facing windows would let in a nice, diffuse, broad light until about 3 p.m., after which there’d be strong, piercing sunlight streaming through. Knowing this, we shot all of our scenes that were heavy on coverage earlier in the day and saved our afternoons for scenes with at most one or two shots. And we mostly just used a large book light for fill — an [Arri] M18 off of a Clay-coat [Ultrabounce] and through a bleached muslin. For a small-budget movie, being able to shoot 90 percent of your locations in or around one building — not having to move a ton of equipment every day — is so advantageous. It enabled us to really settle into the space, understand how the light comes in at all times of day, and make some simple production design changes that greatly affected the overall look. For instance, there is a gray hallway that features prominently in the movie, and the production designer, Charlotte Royer, painted racing stripes — which were basically the palette for the movie — that added a striking visual quality and created these parallel converging lines that look like they’re closing in on Toni whenever she moves through that hall.
There’s a sequence in which Toni and Beezy go into the center after hours. How did you create the lights-off, nighttime look?
Yee: I wanted to make it feel like light pollution from the city was seeping into the building, so we had various color-temperature sources spilling in from the windows and other rooms — warm sodium-vapor tones, green and orange traffic signals, and red emergency lights. We also gave the girls an iPhone flashlight, which flared out the lens and also served as a point of reference for brightness. When a space is supposed to feel dark, it helps to have something that’s very bright so that the eye doesn’t acclimate to the underexposure. That sequence ends in a laundry room, which we actually shot during the day. We tented the window that’s in the frame, and then placed a couple 15-watt, colored, single-bulb Fireflies that looked like distant streetlights to break up the darkness and create depth. To light the interior, gaffer Hal Carlton-Ford and key grip Thomas Vincent just dropped our sodium-vapor frame — Lee Yellow and Quarter Straw — in front of an offscreen window. It was just indirect daylight coming through this sodium-vapor cocktail, but it had the same long and harsh quality of a streetlamp. I was really proud of the fact that we essentially did a day-for-night interior using natural light. I love how that scene looks.
What camera did you shoot with?
Yee: We shot with an Arri Amira [rented from Adorama Rental Co. in New York]. It was important for us to shoot on a camera with high-latitude — because we were going to be facing so many uncontrollable natural-light situations — and accurate color rendition — because we’d be photographing dark skin tones. I also wanted a package that could be managed by a small camera department: three people, including me. And storage was a deciding factor. We shot 2K ProRes 4:4:4:4 to SxS cards, which meant we could avoid a raw workflow without sacrificing too much in the color grade.
What lenses did you pair with the Amira?
Yee: We had a vintage set of uncoated Cooke S2 Panchros. They produce beautiful, soft flares, and a unique and imprecise bokeh. They add a lot of character to the image. We also had a Canon 30-105mm [T2.8] compact zoom on hand for a couple shots. It’s optically very different from the Cooke primes that we had; it’s much cleaner and flatter. In post we ended up doing a good bit of work to the footage in order to match those shots, mostly by darkening and softening the corners. I regret that we weren’t able to find a zoom that matched closer, but ultimately a larger vintage zoom would have required us to get a larger fluid head and support system, which we didn’t have the money or the time for.
How did you determine how to cover the scenes in which the girls experience their fits?
Yee: Each girl has a fit unique to herself, and we decided to take a similar approach to how they were photographed. There’s a lot of anticipation that builds up to the first fit, which we decided to capture with a specific series of dollies and zooms. Once the camera starts moving in that scene, it’s always dollying, zooming, or doing both simultaneously. The space is constantly shifting around Toni, so it’s hectic but also highly controlled. The single of Toni is a dolly out, zoom in, so the world is around her is literally shifting; it’s a trite technique, but I think we used it effectively. The second fit is on the Steadicam, so it’s more chaotic and much more surprising. And then with each subsequent fit, the camera reacts less and less, reinforcing its perspective in the movie.
You did the final grade at Technicolor–Postworks New York?
Yee: Yeah, we had five days for the final grade, which we did with Sam Daley, who is a brilliant colorist. He was using [Blackmagic Design’s] DaVinci Resolve Studio version 12 Beta, and it was done at 2K. We were able to create a visual disparity between the two worlds that Toni occupies: the boxing gym, which is overwhelmingly blue and cool, with pops of red; and the dance world, which has warm yellow tones with pinks and purples and subtle pops of primary blue.
The results are beautiful, and the performances from all of the young actors are remarkable.
Yee: Thank you. Anna’s always been really good at finding beauty in places that most people don’t notice. I’ve been fortunate to help her out on her documentaries and music videos, and I’ve always admired her ability to conjure these natural, beautiful moments out of people, and capture them for the screen.