Magazine article American Cinematographer

Magic and Mystery

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Magic and Mystery

Article excerpt

The lead character in Sleight is a street magician forced to turn down a college scholarship so that he can take care of his sister after their mother dies. Desperate for money, Bo (Jacob Latimore) goes to work for a local drug dealer, a job that serves him well until he falls in love and decides he wants a new life. A series of circumstances and bad decisions lands Bo in serious trouble with his boss - trouble he can only evade by utilizing his singular gifts.

The feature is a combination of thriller, coming-of-age drama, and anthropological study of life in Los Angeles, all of which appealed to direðor of photography Ed Wu. "When I read the script I connected with the unique mix of genres," he says. "It was definitely something I hadn't seen before: an urban coming-of-age story - about a street magician - that becomes a superhero origin story."

Initially, Wu feared he had lost the chance to shoot Sleight when its schedule conflicted with a documentary he was working on in China. When he returned to Los Angeles, however, he learned that he hadn't missed out on his big opportunity after all. "So I went in and interviewed with [director and co-writer] J.D. Dillard and [cowriter and producer] Alex Theurer and we hit it off right away/' the cinematographer recalls.

In addition to a common fascination with magic, Wu and Dillard shared specific ideas about how their film should be visualized. "We talked about how we wanted to use off-framing when Bo is at odds with his situation," Wu explains. "We wanted to short-side the character and play with extensive headroom to give a feeling of uneasiness to some of the frames. We also wanted fluid camera movement with a lot of Steadicam, as well as tableau moments to showcase Los Angeles and Bo's environment."

Dillard adds that he and Wu found additional common ground in their love for British crime dramas like Luther. "There's something about the quality of light in the U.K., as well as the framing," the director offers. "We wanted to utilize that negative space and push characters into the edges of the frame."

Wu and Dillard's ambitions were challenged by a short preproduction in advance of the tight 16-day schedule for principal photography. "When J.D. and I met, we were four weeks out from production," Wu remembers. "We knew we needed to go in with specific shots and a shot list to stay on schedule, so we previsu- alized most of the movie. J.D. and I sat down for three or four days in eight-to-10-hour sessions and cranked out a shot list for most of the movie. Even so, we didn't have time to finish the whole script. One big lesson I learned on the movie - which was my first feature - is that features are a marathon and not a sprint. We had to plan for the early days and figure out the rest as it came. There were nights after a 12-hour day when we'd go to Denny's to finish the shot list for the next week or even the next day."

Dillard emphasizes that such careful planning didn't hinder discovery on set. "Ed and I would always come in with a well-thought-out plan, which made it easy to throw that plan out if we discovered something better," he says.

Wu agrees, noting, "My favorite shot in the movie was actually a spontaneous decision. We had some extra time and knew we wanted to showcase Bo's internal turmoil when he enters a club at the end of the movie. When he walks in, it's the only time we [use] slow motion in the movie, and the light flares the lens at the right time. It was a magical moment I don't think we could have conceived."

Many of Wu and Dillard's discussions during prep revolved around how to shoot magic, which plays an increasingly important role over the course of the story. "We didn't want the magic to feel like we were using editing and movie tricks," Wu says, "so we made the conscious decision to try and shoot oners whenever possible in the magic scenes. At the same time, J.D. and Alex were extremely smart in the writing to keep the tricks simple enough to work within a low budget. …

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