“Did I want to shoot comedies?” asks Brandon Trost, director of photography on two of this summer's funniest films, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. “It’s funny — not at all.”
But then came MacGruber, Jorma Taccone's 2010 SNL film.“The director wanted me because I wasn’t a comedy DP,” Trost says. “I’d done action and horror, and they wanted it to feel like an ’80s action movie. And that informed my approach for all of the different comedies I did after.”
Since MacGruber, a box-office slouch but cult favorite, Trost has lensed Adam Sandler’s That’s My Boy (2012), the apocalypse comedy This Is the End (2013), the first Neighbors (2014), the provocative The Interview (2014), indie coming-of-age dramedy Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) and the Christmas disaster movie The Night Before (2015), among many others. Trost has become one of the most sought-after comedy DPs of this decade. You may not see a signature style connecting his films, but if you’re watching a comedy and think “Why does this movie look so much better than it needs to?” you’re probably watching a Trost film.
“When I did The Interview, our whole approach was to look at it like a political thriller,” Trost says. “We were looking at references from Tony Scott and Michael Mann. For This Is the End, we looked at The Thing and Apocalypse Now. Ignore it’s a comedy and shoot it like it’s a different genre, and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
This year will also see the release of James Franco’s The Masterpiece, a meta comedy about the making of The Room, that cult classic and contender for the worst movie ever made. Trost’s visual inspiration for that one? Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Trost’s approach may seem novel and new, but it’s actually a return to form.
In the 1980s, directors like Ivan Reitman set the standard for how cinematic comedies could look with Stripes and Ghostbusters, which had dynamic color palettes and lighting choices that weren't just about blasting actors with lights hot enough to show their faces. To achieve the look, Reitman brought Bill Butler in from Jaws (for Stripes) and, for Ghostbusters, László Kovács, who’d already done Five Easy Pieces and Paper Moon. Sure, the 1970s had seen a few unconventional comedies that found a more artistic vision — like Robert Altman’s MASH and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude — but these weren’t mainstream blockbuster comedies, and prior to this, the photographic style simply kept a comedy sterile and removed from reality. Ghostbusters, with its eerie purple hue and gritty shadows, was something undeniably new. Unfortunately, from the ’90s through the early aughts, a “flattening” cyclone blew through nearly all forms of popular art, and the look of studio comedies got as bright and soft as a Sugar Ray video. Now, it seems there’s a sea change.
“It’s kind of this trend now where people are embracing a stronger look. Keanu [shot by Jas Shelton] had that kind of old-school ’80s and ’90s throwback action movie thing. The Hangover did something special, too,” Trost says.
For every film he shoots, Trost builds his own “rule book” for color palettes, lighting and camera movement. “Our inspiration for Popstar, solely, was just these sort of flashy pop-artist documentaries,” Trost says. “There’s the Justin Bieber one, Believe. There’s a Katy Perry doc that was pretty instrumental. One Direction has another one. We looked at how they made these documentaries.”
Lonely Island's Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a mockumentary about an idiotic recording artist named Conner4Real, played by Andy Samberg. Trost had never even shot a documentary, so he had to simultaneously learn how they're done while also subverting the genre. In the end, Popstar turned out to be a combination of arena concerts with moving lights and cameras shooting from every possible angle, fake behind-the-scenes antics and days’ worth of talking-head interview footage with big-name cameos, including Ringo Starr.
“It was weirdly majestic having a Beatle on set. When he was there, everyone came.” The process was loose, even with Ringo. Trost says, “The Lonely Island guys [Samberg, Taccone and Akiva Schaffer] would say, ‘Imagine you’re talking about Justin Bieber or Kanye West.’ It was easy to get people keyed up to talk about this kind of person, and then they’d roll through all the circumstances of the movie. They’d say, ‘Let’s talk about when he was in The Style Boys’ — he comes from a boy-band group but pulls a Destiny’s Child and ditches them like Beyoncé. Most people could hang, and we got way too much footage. If they were to include everything good we shot, the movie would have been four hours long.”
It took about a year for Popstar to be edited down to a reasonable 86 minutes. Trost says one of the biggest differences in shooting an action movie or drama and a comedy is that a comedy will always have far more footage than the director needs. Actors improv, and directors encourage it; they want the funniest take.
“There’s always a script, and a focused narrative,” Trost says, “but during the scene, they riff jokes. We have to shoot two cameras at least, both cameras looking in the opposite direction, running simultaneously, so that there's a better chance of matching the dialogue when editing takes together. But it’s really hard to light two directions and 360 degrees in a way that’s going to look good. In non-comedy movies, you focus all your lighting on one person, and then you have to turn around and get the same coverage on the person or persons they’re talking to. So doing it all simultaneously is tricky. Sometimes it’s three cameras. And if you’re going to have multiple 40-minute takes, the actors can’t really move too much. But that’s the style these days, and it works for comedy.”
Simply getting the necessary coverage on these scenes is difficult enough, but add to that physical comedy and action sequences, and one page of a script may take days to shoot.
In Neighbors 2, an epic chase scene winds its way through a sea of tailgaters. Trost had to pick up shots on every actor involved in the chase and do it quickly. He’d worked with director Mark Neveldine on action films Crank: High Voltage and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and knew he was a skilled rollerblader, so he invited the filmmaker to work the crowd camera, skating through the chase. Neveldine agreed. So those fluid, thrilling shots of Seth Rogen barreling through the crowd have an unmistakable touch of high-adrenaline Crank on them, as well as Trost’s inspiration material for that scene — Mad Max: Fury Road.
Like the creators of Mad Max, Trost used as many practical effects as possible. At some point, though, it’s cheaper and easier to opt for digital. It used to be that every boom mic dipped into a frame warranted a new take, but now a VFX company will paint them out easily. When it comes to larger visual effects like whole set pieces, however, a cinematographer never really knows how the end result will look. Trost’s accustomed to leaving room in frames for digital artists to do their work, but with midbudget movies, there may be as many as 10 different visual-effects companies working on his footage, and he simply has to hope everything turns out.
The role of VFX in cinematography, of course, is increasingly complicated; many in the industry have called for separate categories in the Academy Awards to represent the differences between the arts of photographing practical and digital effects. Yes, Life of Pi and Gravity are gorgeous — but if we’re going to be honest, they’re also basically half cartoons.
What is consistent across the board for all cinematographers, no matter their use of VFX or color palettes or rollerbladers: They strive for perfection, but light and physics always get in the way.
“None of it actually looks like how I want it to look,” Trost laughs. “It’s always just close to where it is. And in the end — as crazy as it sounds — that’s OK.”