The world of High Art is one that director of photography Tami Reiker knows so well that writer-director Lisa Cholodenko and she had to keep pulling back. "We kept each other in check, so we didn't make the film's apartments look too much like our own," Reiker says with a laugh.
The DP started as a still photographer, like the main characters in High Art, which October Films will release this month. The story focuses on Syd (Radha Mitchell), a young woman who works at a prestigious New York photography magazine and lives in a Brooklyn loft. Her upstairs neighbor Lucy (Ally Sheedy) is a celebrated photographer who quit mid-career, and now spends her days partying with a heroin-addicted girlfriend. Syd lures Lucy out of retirement, and the two embark on an ill-fated relationship.
Though the film is artfully composed and draws on the work of still photographers Nan Goldin and Jack Pierson, Reiker's techniques derived from experiments in a less rarefied realm. As an in-demand DP on commercials, she has not only traveled the world, she has discovered many of the tools of her craft. The jib-arm, for example. "I've used the jib-arm on big videos and commercials," she says. "And I really wanted to do a movie with it. It's not like Steadicam, it's not like regular handheld; it's like floating handheld."
In High Art, the jib-arm comes to represent "Lucy's world," Reiker explains. "The scenes where they're passing drugs around the table, it just kind of floats from one person to the next, and the camera moves a little bit slower than the action." Using the jib-arm was also a time saver, a major boon to a $600,000 independent film. "It was so fast, and it made moves I never could have made otherwise--especially since I was operating the whole movie, without a dolly grip and focus grip to coordinate everything. Luckily, I had an amazing assistant, because a lot of the movie was shot either 2 or 2.8. So even when we were on a 35mm lens, there was no depth of field."
The flat look was intentional; Cholodenko and Reiker envisioned a somewhat harsh visual style akin to urban realism, and went to several extremes to achieve it. "We flashed the film with the Arri Varicon," says the DP, "which everybody was doing when we shot last summer. But they would flash and then go through the ENR process to bring back all the blacks rich and dark. We were just flashing." Shooting interiors with Kodak's 5277, the 320ASA Vision stock, gave her the stop she needed. For an even rawer look, the lead actresses went without makeup.
At times, the risky visual techniques on High Art were discontinued because of the extreme results. "We flashed some of the scenes with gel, because you can put any color in the Varicon," Reiker says. "We stopped doing that after a while, even though it was really beautiful, because it was creeping into their skin." But for the most part, everything was very focused during the five-week shoot.
"On commercials there is lots of money," the cinematographer says. "In one day they spend $600,000--not in five weeks! We have every light in every size and every color. On a movie this size, I can really narrow it down to exactly what I need. I can still have my Kino Flos and HMIs, but instead of having 10 on the truck, I only have two."
Kino Flos were used for something else Reiker learned on commercials and music videos--mixing color temperatures. "On a video I did for Maxwell, I mixed daylight and tungsten and cool white," she says. "I did that with Kino Flos on High Art, by mixing different bulbs in the same unit. It was great for the flashing and the 320ASA. It wasn't for correction at all; if anything, it was to do the incorrect thing."
Given her busy, jet-setting schedule, Reiker has certainly been doing something correct. But despite her youthful appearance, she has been working in the business for some time. She attended NYU Film School in the early 1980s, after making the switch from still photography. She then worked as a camera assistant and loader on features, and entered the commercial realm as a first assistant. After a substantial apprenticeship, Reiker became a DP, and went on to shoot spots for Cover Girl, Toyota, Sony, AT&T, Coke, Sega-Obsidian (which earned her a Belding Award), and many others, while compiling music video credits such as Sheryl Crow, Bjork, Tracy Chapman, and Paula Cole. When interviewed, she had just returned from South Africa, where she shot commercials for Country Time Lemonade and Crystal Light, and Mexico, where she was practicing a new skill: underwater photography.
"That's what's so much fun about commercials," she says. "You're in helicopters, you're underwater, you're climbing mountains, and you have this little safety world around you." Not enough to protect her from everything, unfortunately: While shooting a commercial in Cambodia, she came down with malaria. But even that had an upside--it gave her time to prep High Art.
In 1995, Reiker shot her first feature, Maria Maggenti's The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, a remarkably polished 16mm project that cost just $50,000. Girl, a high-school comedy starring Dominique Swain, is upcoming. But she says nothing has been as much fun as shooting High Art. "It was a wild experience. It was almost all women on the crew, and we would just laugh so hard. Commercials that I shoot, it's all men."
And how do they feel about taking orders from a female DP? "I get instant respect. It's like, 'Well, you're in South Africa, there must be a reason they flew you here.'"