“I’m a Mitzvah” DP Sing Howe Yam Lenses a New Take on Death

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Some people travel light, and others lug piles of heavy suitcases to the airport. In the short film I’m a Mitzvah, available to watch on Vimeo, we see a more unconventional baggage item: a dead body. Directed by Ben Berman and lens’d by Sing Howe Yam, this dark comedy offers a sincere, unflinching look at the grieving process.

Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation, House of Lies) stars as David, a young man coping with his own feelings of loss and loneliness after one of his close friends passes away. Stranded in the dusty depths of rural Mexico, David finds himself fighting language barriers and delayed flights as he undertakes the task of escorting his friend’s body back to the United States. We’re kept in the dark about the details of his friend’s death, but, to us, it feels better not knowing the cause. It allows us to focus on the minutia of David’s emotions as we share the experience with him.

I’m a Mitzvah is a beautifully shot, introspective gem of a short film, and was an official selection at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Cinematographer Sing Howe Yam took the time to talk with us about working on the project.

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David and a morgue employee (Erick Chavarria) share a quiet moment

How did you first get involved with I’m a Mitzvah?
My good pals, directors Josh Forbes and Hank Friedmann, recommended me over to director Ben Berman. We met and talked about the script, and we definitely had the same taste in mind for his film.

What was your reaction when you read the script?
It took me on a ride of emotions.  It starts out very dramatic and dark. Then there are these moments when David [Ben Schwartz] sits down to go through his deceased friend’s belongings. At one point, he tries on his glasses and has the realization that he is really gone. Then in contrast, he finds a camera and comes across a photo of him pointing at a dude’s penis. Ridiculous, yes, but everyone has that friend.

For those who haven’t seen it yet, what kind of narrative did you and the director look to tell?
The aim was to tell a story of how far we will go for our friends. In I’m a Mitzvah, Schwartz’s character is a fish out of water with a big commitment to fulfill in an unfamiliar country. It’s funny because we lens’d the project as if it were a buddy comedy. We always shot them together as if his friend was still alive.

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David waits patiently for his flight home

How did you decide on the color palette for the film?
We shot everything in and around Los Angeles. Obviously our goal was to sell the locations as if we were in rural Mexico. We used a lot of sandy tones with pops of primary colors. The production design team [Katie Byron, Rachael Ferrara] was fantastic, and did great things with the hotel room and airport sets. Also, the casting of our extras [by director Ben Berman]was spot on.

Did you look to any visual references before shooting?
A big influence was the Coen brothers’ films – they’re masters of dark comedy. We referred to No Country for Old Men, though I didn’t go with as much contrast because our story and characters aren’t as dark. Also the film Beginners, shot by Kasper Tuxen, was a reference for our day interior setups.

We ended up shooting everything on the Arri Alexa with Cooke S4 Primes and Canon Cinema zooms. The Camera House provided the support.

What types of lighting did you use to show the emotions David is experiencing?
Budget is something we always deal with, but it makes you more creative. It makes you figure out what works best for each scene based on your resources.

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David sorts through his deceased friend’s belongings

There were several times when we isolated Schwartz with our lighting choices. For instance, when he’s going through his friend’s belongings, we mimicked a frontal window light. We used an Arri M40, diffused through an 8’ x 8’ frame of soft frost. We shaped the light downward to put all of our attention on him, and it looks like the light from a chapel window. It’s his moment to reflect and be alone with the situation.

We also used lighting to isolate him during the hotel room scene. He’s in the room with his friend’s coffin placed on the bed beside him. One of the goals was to sell it as a Mexican hotel room – not the best amenities, kind of dark and dingy, but still has some festive flare. The majority of that scene was lit practically.

I worked with our production designers to help incorporate practical lamps in places that kept the floor open for shooting. This scene was also shot day-for-night due to scheduling, so we had to tent out all the windows. We took Arri 2K Plus fixtures and pushed them through the windows. My gaffer, Greg LeFevre, used a cocktail of different gels on the units, and production design put lace curtains over the windows. This created a look of underexposed “moonlight”, breaking up the walls with shadows. This was probably my favorite scene to shoot. It’s a really funny montage.

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One guy, one laptop, and a dead body

What drove the decision to choose between dolly or handheld movements?
The majority of the film was shot on dolly or static frames. We wanted the audience to see the world around David, to show him as a fish out of water. So with that, when we would dolly it was more of a subtle movement. We went handheld for a party scene, and Ben Berman and I talked about how he wanted us to immerse the camera and show David become part of this town for a night.

What went into shooting the impromptu party sequences?
Actually this scene was an interesting one because of budget. From a lighting standpoint, it was probably the most challenging scene. It was a large space to cover at night, and we didn’t have a huge lighting package. I worked with Byron and Ferrara to drape Christmas lights in the middle of the dance floor, which helped provide ambiance.

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David parties it up with the locals

This kind of lighting allowed us to move freely with the camera while shooting the action. We had lots of people in this sequence and we went handheld and off the cuff. We needed the flexibility. We also lit pockets of the background to keep it from just falling to black all around. We placed PAR cans in different spots around the dance floor and popped light into them. We also used a 2K JEM Ball rigged off the building to help provide more ambient light.

The party scene transitions into a nighttime beach scene. How did you balance the shadows for that location?
I’m not gonna lie, Berman kind of freaked me out when we talked about this scene and when we eventually did the tech scout with our crew. My first question was, “Do we have any source of light other than the moon? Like fire or a beach shack?” The answer was no, and Berman also wanted to see some distance on the beach when we shot the over-the-shoulders. This was completely understandable, because why shoot on a beach at night if you aren’t going to see any of it? This meant that I had to light at a greater distance. We rigged a 24-light Maxi Brute (Dino) up on an 80’ articulating condor. This was set up about 300 yards from the action to give the appearance of moonlight.

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An unexpected conversation on the beach

Did you work with a DIT on set?
No, we shot pretty much in Log C and viewed Rec 709. I would watch the Log C and have long discussions with Berman about the look we wanted in the DI. A lot of it came about through production design and lighting. Our colorist, Nathan Pena, was great at putting the finishing touches to the film.

In which foreign country would you most like to be stranded? Coffin optional.
Probably Thailand or somewhere in Russia.

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David’s friend, rest in peace

What is it about short films that you enjoy the most?
Narrative filmmaking is the best. It’s the beautiful combination of every aspect of storytelling.

If you had the opportunity to choose any director to work with, who would it be?
Spike Jonze or Quentin Tarantino.

What films/people inspired you to become a DP?
The two films that made me want to become a filmmaker were The Godfather and Cool Hand Luke. I remember in high school I was taking a film studies elective, and our teacher, Mr. Nipe, showed us Cool Hand.The way Conrad Hall photographed it was beautiful – the iconic reflection in the sunglasses.

If you could shadow any DP for a week, past or present, who would it be?
Emmanual Lubezki or Hoyte van Hoytema.

What are you currently working on?
I just shot a music video for the artist Iggy Azalea.

You can find more about the project and its filmmakers by visiting facebook.com/imamitzvah. Enjoy the film below.

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