Audrey, a New York City comedian who can make a joke of any situation, faces a staggering challenge in the beautiful mountains of Oregon. Can this city woman overcome her fears and rise?
You Go Girl cinematographer Tyler Maddox shares with Script what personally drew him to the material, his collaborative partnership with director Shariffa Ali, and how they implemented specific lighting and colors to create mood and tone for character development. Plus, he shares practical advice for those planning on shooting outdoors.
What initially drew you the You Go Girl! script?
Before I even read the script, I knew that I wanted to work with the director and producer duo of Shariffa Ali and Adrian Alea again. When they sent me the script, I immediately fell in love with it. The script had that elements in it that I’m passionate about.
First, my favorite scripts find characters in places they seemingly don’t belong in. A bursting of the bubble of everything they know to be normal in the world. The proverbial fish out of water. We all stand to learn and grow by seeing this new world through the eyes of a character experiencing it for the first time.
Secondly, the script is centered around a character both physically and metaphorically climbing a mountain. Mountain climbing and the outdoors have always been near and dear to me and it’s what I spend my free time doing - so this was a perfect blend of my passions. We also shot this in the Siskiyou mountains of my hometown in Southern Oregon, which has been my backyard playground my entire life. The mountains have been such a huge part of my life and this script inspires people to get out on them, no matter what their race, ethnicity, or experience level.
Thirdly, I loved the format of the writing. Two stories told in parallel that seem totally juxtaposed, but then perfectly blend together in the end in eloquence, with real depth. The kind of depth that makes you want to be a better person, to get out of your comfort zone, and to make sure to call your Mom every now and then just to tell her you love her.
What was the collaboration process like with director Shariffa Ali?
Just like our script’s two stories, Shariffa and I come from worlds apart. We could not be more different in so many ways, yet we instantly bonded on our first film. I now refer to her as my “twin sister”- a joke we’ve created because we couldn’t look any different from each other. She’s the kind of person that as soon you meet her, you realize there’s something different about her, she has a depth to her that is rare to find. A true soul that sets the stage for what it’s like to collaborate with her. It’s a true joy. She’s such a delightful human and has a brilliant mind. I’ve always found that I enjoy working with directors who aren’t shooters themselves.
Shariffa comes from a wealth of theatre experience, but is newer to the film world. In my opinion, that allows for the best type of Director-DP relationship. It sets me free to really worry about camera angles, coverage, composition and lighting, and frees her up to think through story, delivery, and performance. Together, we can be more powerful than the sum of our parts.
Going from a city comedy club to the top of a mountain – the tone certainly changes in terms of color and ambiance. What was that creative process like for you in differentiating those two locations centered around the lead character?
The contrast of these two locations is one of my favorite things about the film. Shariffa and I knew that the scenes needed to feel totally different; they needed to be two separate worlds. Shariffa lives in New York, and I live in the mountains of Oregon, so we both knew the intricacies of our respectful worlds. Shariffa dialed in the look of the comedy club and then we discussed lighting and color and shared some reference images. We were really drawn to using two contrasting colors in the comedy club; red for the front stage that showed her confidence, and a teal/cyan color for the back stage that shows her vulnerability. Outside of that we both knew that the outdoor scenes had to have a different feel than the night club scene. Thankfully those worlds are naturally very far apart so it wasn’t difficult to achieve. The nightclub we chose to make dark and filled with haze and saturated colors, which juxtaposed well with the natural environment in the mountains.
Speaking of scaling mountains – the need to be lean and nimble with your camera crew and gear, how did you land on the camera and lenses for this film?
Lean and mean is right. For all the scenes in the snow, we had to snowshoe all of our gear and crew into the mountains for those shots which was no easy feat. We pulled cargo sleds behind us that were filled with all the camera, lighting, and grip we needed to shoot. We chose to shoot on my personal Canon C500ii for several reasons. I needed a camera that could be stripped down to be small when we had to hike it into the snow. This was also a low budget project that was light on crew, so we needed ease of use with things like built in ND’s and dedicated buttons while still providing a robust raw codec with a 6k capture for a 4k delivery. The C500ii really checked all the boxes for us, and it’s been what I’m shooting the majority of my projects on, so I know it really well. For lenses, I’ve been using the Canon Sumire’s a lot this year. Together with the C500ii, they provide an absolutely beautiful image with flawless and attractive skin tones.
The framing and color palette is very poignant and specific – when it came to post-production and the color correction process, how much of that was prepared ahead of time or were you and Shariffa “painting” along the way in the edit bay with the editor and colorist?
I really like to get everything as close as possible in camera and not rely on pushing things too far in the grade. We utilized RGB lights and colors in our art direction to really get what we needed on set. The grading and color process was more a matter of perfecting and sweetening the image than doing any heavy lifting. It was actually one of the smoothest processes of the film. Our colorist Marika Litz absolutely nailed the color in one to two passes.
Taking a step back, tell us about your filmmaking journey. What inspired you in wanting to become a cinematographer?
I was initially inspired by the lifestyle. I didn’t want to work a 9-5 and I wanted to be passionate about what I did. I also wanted to do something that would take me to amazing places and keep me in the outdoors. I’ve also always been drawn to the problem solving side of creating images. There are so many elements that have to come together to make a beautiful image that tells a story. I find that process extremely rewarding and fulfilling.
What kind of stories are you drawn to as a cinematographer?
In some ways, I’m not as connected to the story as much as I am the images that need to be created to tell the story. As a DP, often times you are hired to tell someone else’s story, one that you might not be passionate about, but if you are passionate about creating images, then you can be passionate about any story.
Still, when your passions outside of making images collide with a story that you are truly inspired by, that’s when the magic happens. For me, I’m extremely connected to the outdoors, adventure, rural places, and healthy lifestyles. I’m inspired by stories that make you want to be a better human being. I also love the clashing of cultures and social bubbles. When people realize the world is bigger and more diverse than what they have known, I think that’s why I connected with this script so quickly, as it has all the elements that I like.
Any advice for first time writer-director’s working with a cinematographer on a short film where a majority of the filming takes place outdoors?
On the collaboration side, communication is key. You need to make sure you’re both on the same page about everything. In my opinion, visual communication in the form of references are a must. You can talk and think you are on the same page about a look, but you don’t know for sure unless you're looking at samples. Verbal communication isn’t enough.
Time of day is everything when shooting outside. You have to know what the light is going to do and when. Everything gets scheduled around nature. New directors and clients sometimes think that a big expensive camera will make everything look awesome, but it doesn’t. It’s knowing when and where to shoot. Having a sun path app on your phone is a must for scouting and planning out the day.
Outside of the image, there are a lot of other environmental things to factor in to battle the elements. You need to be personally prepared for sun, wind, rain, along with cold and hot conditions. You need to know how to layer to stay functional in any environment. My favorite saying is, “Luck follows the prepared.” It’s so true. In the outdoors you have to be prepared, and if you are, you’ll make your day. If the talent or director or someone gets cold and needs to go warm up, then things can get delayed and you may miss the perfect light or not get the shot at all. However, if everyone is prepared and has what they need, the day can run smoothly. In my 20 plus years of shooting, the number one environmental thing I’ve seen that causes issues is people getting cold. I’ve shot for hours outside down to -27°F in the Arctic winter and was able to keep going because I had the right gear. There’s a saying in the outdoors, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.”
On another film, we shot for several days in 5°F degree weather, and I had a PA boil water and pour it into plastic water bottles and hand it out to the crew. The warm bottle in your jacket pocket would keep your body and your hands warm for over an hour. It really saved the shoot. Long underwear and insulated pants are also must on a cold day. We always think to layer up our upper bodies with a warm jacket, but often neglect our legs.
When shooting outside, it’s not a controlled environment, so you have to remain flexible. You have to think on your feet, plan for the best and always have a plan B. Bringing a few tools to help you extend the day’s light can also be key. On both films I’ve shot with Shariffa, we’ve had to use lights at the end of the day to help fake some late light after the sun went down and we weren’t done shooting. Even in You Go Girl, a full color RGB 1x1 light saved the last shot of the film when we lost the purple alpine light that was illuminating our talent. We quickly fired it up, dialed in the color to match the purple light that we lost and had an extra 10 minutes to shoot one of the most powerful moments in the story. Again, luck follows the prepared.