Matthew Toffolo's Summary

Interview with Cinematographer Adam Stone (Midnight Special, Take Shelter)

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In his brief career, Adam Stone  has already established himself as one of the top DPs in the industry today. It was an honor to sit down with him to talk about his craft and the exciting films he has coming out in 2016. This weekend his film “Midnight Special” is being released to rave reviews.


Matthew Toffolo: You have worked with director Jeff Nichols on many films. Where did you first meet? Why does your working relationship work so well? 

Adam Stone: Jeff and I worked on a total of 5 films (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special, and Loving). We met in film school at the UNC School of the Arts in the late nineties. I shot 2nd unit for a few of David Green’s early films (George Washington and All The Real Girls) and I guess Jeff liked what he saw. He asked me to come out to Arkansas to shoot Shotgun Stories in the summer of 2005. The project had absolutely no money but we convinced a core group of friends and family to crew-up and Joe Dunton Camera essentially gave us a Moviecam and some anamorphic lenses for free. We were fortunate to have talented people that believed in us. Without them the film would have never seen the light of day.

PHOTO: Cinematography for the film “Midnight Special”

While working on Shotgun Stories, Jeff and I found we had quite a bit in common. Aesthetically we liked to shoot in the South against a backdrop of kudzu, rusted out cars and interesting characters. We also shared a love of widescreen cinema with simple, yet stately, camera work. We combined those ingredients into a form of southern cinema people seem to enjoy. We have definitely come along way since the days of Shotgun Stories. It has been a great evolution with a true friend and mentor.

MT: “Midnight Special” is set to hit the theatres this week. What can we expect to see?

AS: Midnight Special is a unique movie that’s kind of hard to categorize. It’s a genre bending mash-up of a road movie and sci-fi flick that pays homage to Perfect World, Starman, and Close Encounters. The movie starts without much explanation or backstory, all we know a man is on the run with his son. As the movie progresses we learn the boy has special powers and is dying. His father must keep him alive while the government and a religious sect are in pursuit. Despite all of the characters, themes, VFX events, and unanswered plot points the film is very simple. At the core, it’s a story about a father’s love for his son and how he will do anything to save his boy.

MT: Another film with Jeff, “Loving”, is also set to hit theaters in 2016. It’s set in the 1950s. When DPing period pieces, what type of research do you do? Was there another film(s) that was the inspiration to the cinematic design of the film?

AS: To be honest, Loving is the first period piece I’ve had the pleasure to shoot. Jeff’s script was based on a true story about a Supreme Court case so there was plenty of material to unearth. One of the greatest treasure troves was the work of Grey Villet. He was a super talented photographer that documented the story of Richard and Mildred Loving for Time Magazine in 1965. The pictures he took influenced the script, production design, costumes, and the cinematography.

I really fell in love with the objectiveness of Villet’s work. He always employed a wide lens so he really had to campout and wait for candid shots. Jeff and I adopted this technique and let a number of scenes play out in wide observational shots. We also recreated several of Villet’s photos in the movie. It was really cool to see his black and white work come to life in vibrant moving color. To be honest, Jeff and I had to get acclimated to dailies since we had been referencing Villet’s work for so long.

PHOTO: On set for the upcoming film “Loving”:

MT: Do you have a favorite experience in your work as a Director of Photography? What film are you most proud of?

AS: Most of the projects I shoot, whether features or commercials, don’t ‘really’ contribute to the greater good of society.  They might be artful or compelling but they do not teach or enlighten. That’s why I’m proud to have worked on Loving.  Loving sheds light on an important part of history while telling a meaningful story.

I’m also proud how Loving looks. The camerawork is very simple and the lighting is very organic. My main goal was to let the cinematography be an afterthought.  I wanted the audience to pay full attention to the story, characters, and locations – not the camera.

MT: You have Dp’d a few documentary films. What is the general difference between the working on a documentary in comparison to regular narrative film?

AS: I have always had a deep fascination and love of documentary films. The cinematography of Ron Fricke and the still photography of Dan Eldon compelled me to get behind a camera in film school. At that point in life, I wanted nothing more than to travel the world and shoot amazing people and locations at golden hour (to be honest I still have that desire and wanderlust).

Production-wise documentary work and features are not too different. Both utilize similar equipment, call sheets, tons of planning, long hours, and figuring out a creative way to shoot the story. The biggest difference between the two is the time it takes to complete a documentary. Many docs enlist several shooters because of the length and sporadic nature of the schedule.

MT: What type of film would you love to work on that you haven’t worked on yet?

AS: That’s a great question. I’d love to work on a film where the camera is constantly on the move and has the ability to effortlessly traverse every spatial plane. That approach totally goes against how I usually shoot a film where the camera is moored, grounded, and is always someone’s point of view. Seldom do I move a camera for the sake of moving a camera – I guess that’s why I have a fascination with moving it.

I believe my lust for camera movement is directly attributable to the amount of the Red Bull Channel I consume. I really love to veg-out and watch how they fly the camera. Fortunately, I might shoot a film this summer that begs for some fun full-throttle camera movement and I’d love to incorporate more techno crane and steadicam into the equation.

MT: What does a DP look for in a director?

AS: Before I take on a project I have to be intrigued by the script and most importantly believe in the director. The director is the captain of the ship and must have a clear vision and game plan to lead the film from its inception to the very end. Besides being a strong leader the director should be compassionate, open-minded, and have a sense of humor. If all these qualities align, I’m more than enthusiastic about taking on the project and working with the director.

MT: Do you have a Director of Photography mentor?

AS: I had a dear friend that was my cinematography teacher and mentor in film school. His name was Robert Collins and he really taught me to be a compassionate filmmaker. One of the biggest lessons I learned from him was to surround myself with good people on set. He always said the friends you make in film are more important than anything you shoot. I totally agree with his sage advice. Unfortunately, Robert passed away several years ago and he is deeply missed.

MT: What do you look for when hiring your main team? Gaffer. Key Grip. Camera Operator. Etc…

AS: I’ve been very fortunate in my career to work over and over with same core group of individuals.  The crew I work with are my best friends and co-creators. On occasion, when I hire a new member he/she must share the same attributes as the rest of the crew. He/she should be kind, artistic, hard working, honest, and most importantly soulful. It can also be noted, I rather hire someone that is green and enthusiastic over someone more experienced and jaded.

PHOTO: Adam and the camera department from the film “Midnight Special”

MT: Where do you see the future of camera/lighting technology in film?

AS: Though I’m a proponent of celluloid I love where digital filmmaking is headed. Digital filmmaking has come a long way over the past decade. Camera sensors have gotten better and the lenses look more filmmatic and less clinical. I really admire films such as Revenant that use digital cinema in a smart way. Lubezki made a beautiful movie harnessing the best attributes of digital. He used great equipment (Alexa 65 and Panavision Master Primes), shot in amazing light that accentuates a digital sensor, and flew lightweight digital cameras. That coupled with jaw dropping landscapes, a simple story, and seamless VFX work made for a movie that really resonated with me. I truly love when movies use technology to advance a story instead of letting technology overtake the story.

Lighting has also come a long way in the past 10 years. LED, plasma lights, and iPad enabled dimmer boards have evolved and become onset staples. The ability to control all of the lights on set, whether on a stage or location, from a tablet is amazing. With just a few finger swipes you can audition lights (even dim and recalibrate the color temperature). This is a great timesaver when lighting a big exterior night scene.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most times in your life?

AS: I really don’t watch the films I shoot once they are released – since I see them so many times in post. I guess the two films I’ve seen the most is Some Like It Hot and Baraka. I have a weird ‘thing’ for old screwball comedies and I have always been obsessed with Baraka. I guess if I was stuck on a deserted island those would be my go to films.

PHOTO: Adam Stone at work: 

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Fesival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

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