Landing The Land; DoP Steve Holleran on lighting for action with his independent feature film debut

For Fading into the Blue, a film exploring the issues local fishermen face as they fight to survive against corporate encroachment and the resulting lack of environmental sustainability, lifelong outdoorsman Steven Holleran spent an entire year of his life in the South Pacific documenting the situation. Indicative of his no-holds-barred approach to projects, Holleran began a career in nature photography and documentary work after falling in love with the example of pioneer adventurists like Ernest Shackleton, Galen Rowell and Ansel Adams. Their unwavering certainty in capturing the decisive moment, sometimes spending weeks in the field just to get a single photograph, affected him deeply as a teenager and budding image professional.

“I did do a lot of documentary work in my twenties, environmental work and action sports, all around the world,” he replies when asked what it was about his early work that translated to his first feature length, The Land, which was picked up for distribution by IFC Films after showing this year at Sundance. At a modest indie budget, the plan for the production was to work frequently in uncontrolled environments, especially while shooting inner-city exteriors in the city of Cleveland where the movie is set. The lessons Holleran learned by working so often in the field proved handy as a few of the unique challenges that the team faced on The Land included lightning strikes and a gun shooting on set.

Regardless, The Land stayed on task and principle photography was completed in only twenty days. Since, the film has snowballed into an epic release, including a massive soundtrack with contemporary hip-hop heavyweights like Kanye West, Pusha T, Jeremih, Nosaj Thing and Nas, who also served as executive producer on the film and the music. Nas does a ballad for the score, This Bitter Land, with chanteuse Erykah Badu, who gives a brazen performance in the film as a streetwise prostitute. There are also guest appearances from The Wire’s Michael K. Williams and rapper Machine Gun Kelly… not too bad for a small feature without much of a budget.

As a close friend and co-conspirator of director Steven Caples, Jr. since their days at USC together, Holleran saw the project mature from its very beginning. “I think the movie was a real experiment in trying to pull off a really big script with a lot of production value on a really short timeline without a lot of money,” he says. “We put our hearts and souls into trying to get the right gear to shoot it in a way that would tell a story the way Steven imagined it. I hope we pulled it off.”

“Sitting at a tiny table, and in order to light the scene we hung a small, skirted pancake Chimera from the ceiling.”

To save on costs during prep, Holleran stayed with Caple, Jr. in his family’s guest room while they did three weeks of location scouting across Cleveland, Caple Jr.’s hometown. Targeting everything from nice areas to inner-city, the shoot had thirty-five locations in under three weeks, so every day required multiple location moves. Holleran wisely split his forces; one team for location and one that would set up for the oncoming sequence.

“Steven and I really like to work in a way that is unrestricted for the actors,” he continues, “which I love for a performance, but it’s also a big challenge when you’re in tiny spaces to light in a way that looks good.” With such a limited timeframe, Holleran found himself employing fast-setup lights. He was especially fond of Chimera’s smaller pancakes. “I’d squeeze them into corners and float them over tables; it’s just so soft,” he says happily. “You’ll see that in some of the interior night work. We shot in a lot of tight spaces throughout the shoot and Chimeras came in handy helping us to hide lights out of frame. One in particular was a small apartment interior at the West 25th projects. We had a night scene between Cisco and Evelyn, two of the main characters, sitting at a tiny table, and in order to light the scene we hung a small, skirted pancake Chimera from the ceiling.”

Relying principally on several versatile lighting products to stay mobile during exteriors, Holleran used overhead mains and small LEDs to light the boys in the foreground for exterior shots and action sequences. “We had stunts and skating jumps and gun shots and car chases,” he says excitedly, “which was a lot for a million-dollar budget, so we had to be pretty meticulous in how we preplanned it and how we wanted to shoot it. I knew that on a lot of the nighttime exteriors, I either would not be able to put up any lights at all, or I’d be able to put up one big light on a condor in the background as a backlight and maybe a couple practicals or one or two overheads.

For a modern look, the production chose fast ARRI Master Anamorphic Primes rather than older but less expensive models to avoid the characteristic flaring often seen in classic anamorphic films. “It was also a practical choice,” he explains, “because I knew that in situations where I couldn’t light in layers and I couldn’t tweak all the practical lights in the background that the anamorphic would do something really nice with those highlights.” Shooting at apertures of T1.9 and T2.0 on the Master Primes also helped him keep stay light on his toes as well as with his lighting kits. The lenses were fast enough that they were able to use a lot of bounce and fill with LED panels, light mats and other small portable solutions like Dedolights for foreground subjects while running with the natural ambient background lighting of the area.

“We wanted that gritty, rustbelt quality,” Holleran explains, “and to have this grungy, industrial quality that a lot of the lighting in the area has; oranges and yellows and greens that are all faded out and dirty. We would just run as fast as we could to shoot some of the scenes and, as we’re setting up a new shot, we’d be transferring the condor around the back to light from another direction. It was a real game of choreography.” He also had to tighten coverage on shots to avoid crew in the background and to maintain continuity, an added difficulty when moving so quickly and while shooting action sports, to boot.

“We knew this going into it,” he laughs, “so we decided to go for almost a roving-camera feeling to a lot of these scenes. Instead of doing your traditional master, close-ups and inserts, we would transition shots into other sequential shots, and see how far into the scene we could flow without an evident cut. In some cases the entire scene is one shot… There were a lot of skate shots that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. With the amount of money and time I had, it just wasn’t possible. Sometimes I’d have an hour and a half to shoot an entire skate sequence. Anyone who skates knows you need days to get all the right shot and for the skaters to land all their tricks.”

Incredibly, Holleran, a lifelong skateboarder, tailed the actors on his own board during many of these scenes with a thirty pound RED Dragon and Freefly M?VI setup. (The primary camera for interiors and non-stunt work was the ARRI Alexa XT, but the size of the RED Dragon was the best option for stabilization shots.) They also flew both systems on a Steadicam and built a custom 360-degree rig.

The 360 rig allowed them to do advanced camera tricks and slow motion work. Holleran is really enthusiastic about a “really sweet” top handle that allowed him to handhold with his right hand while holding his left forward to get low or to panning shots. “I could do rolls and half rolls with the camera in my hand, while shooting in slow motion” he says, “all the shots would have this floating, ethereal quality, you wouldn’t feel any of the jitters of my movements or the skateboards’ movements,” he says. “I grew up skateboarding, so I had a real innate understanding of the feel of freedom that skating gives you. It’s all about the sense of freedom.”