Cinematographer Shawn Hiatt on Shooting a Period Film on a Micro-Budget

Storyteller Profiles
By Sol March in Resources

Can you make a career out of always being in the right place at the right time? It’s an approach that has worked well for cinematographer Shawn Hiatt.

Shawn is the director of photography for Under the Blood-Red Sun, a coming-of-age story set in WWII-era Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Check out the film’s trailer:

Pressure can run high on any set, especially when you’re making a historically-accurate period film on a micro-budget. Nonetheless, whenever I visited the set during production, Shawn was always calm, collected, and treated everyone with respect. This made a real impact in the atmosphere on set, as it put others at ease and kept things moving smoothly.

Shawn Hiatt on the set of Under the Blood-Red Sun Shawn lighting the scene

After principle photography was finished, I sat down with Shawn to talk about keeping a cool head on set, dealing with the constraints of making a period film on a tiny budget, and what it really takes to always be in the right place at the right time.

Know Your Role: What does the Director of Photography Do?

The main thing we’re trying to do is work really closely with the director and the script to convey feelings with the lighting and the camera movement.

Every director is so individual. Some of them are very performance-driven and they’ll just say, “I like this kind of feeling here,” or we’ll just talk very briefly about visuals and then they’ll just leave it to me.

There are other directors who are very visual as well and they’ll have a particular thing they’ll want to try in a certain area, so each one is completely different.

Origin Story: How Did You Get Started?

Interest in being a cinematographer came early. I was always interested in photography, even as a little kid. I was the kid running around with the camera.

When I got into high school, I found myself in some drama classes, and I actually felt more comfortable in the wings doing the set work. I realized that I’m not a great actor, but I really loved being around the telling of stories and the production of drama. Of course, I was the A/V geek in school, setting up the projectors and stuff like that.

I didn’t really know how I would apply that. I didn’t know it was a career until I was looking in a college catalog and I came across the broadcast and communications department.

I thought that would be really interesting. From the very first class I took, I was completely hooked. I was 17 or 18 and I knew that was a really amazing path to take and I always liked making films, so even when I wasn’t in class I was shooting stuff.

Being in the Right Place at the Right time

The mantra that I came up with about halfway through college was that, if being in the business is about being in the right place at the right time, then I’ll be in the right place all the time. When the right time shows up, I’ll be there.

Knowing that, I played the percentages by being in the studio all the time and being the last person to leave the set.

That worked out great. After college I got a job at Pacific Focus (in Honolulu, Hawaii). I was there for 8 years. I took care of every position and I eventually came to be the staff cinematographer. I had the equipment there all the time, so when we weren’t working, I was constantly going through manuals and testing things out and trying things out.

Opportunities would come along slowly. I would always set stuff up and help with the lighting. There’s always going to be a time when someone is sick and they’d say, “Oh my gosh, can you do this?”

So you just jump in, it’s being at the right place at the right time.

There was a suntan lotion commercial that was super low budget– I don’t even know if it had a budget. Everyone wanted to take the weekend off, so they said, “Hey, Hiatt, do you want to shoot this thing?”

That was the first time I got a chance to operator for a director.

It grows from there and you try to do that and do the best you can. It’s really about whether others know you and trust you. Even to this day, I get calls from people I worked with years ago saying, “Hey I’m coming to town. We had a good time last time and you got some good shots.”

So it always builds.

The Immeasurable Value of Internships

Even to this day, I think an internship is pretty amazing.

When I was in the communications department at the University of Hawaii, I found that there was an internship at QDD. This was around 1986 and at the time, they were doing commercials and everything on 35mm film. They were considered the highest-end production company in town.

So I went after it. When I found out about the internship, I had something like 2 hours to get the form signed for registration.

I called up their producer, introduced myself and said I was interested in an internship. He said, “sure, if you’re interested, why don’t you come down sometime.”

I said, “how about in 15 minutes?”

I zip down there and flew in. I tried to be as polite as I could– the producer gave me the tour and I was checking my watch the whole time trying to figure out how I would get this form in on time.

I had the form with me, he signed it, I thanked him, and think I literally ran out of the office. I drove across town and ran all the way up to registration. I turned it in and was the very last person in line for that semester.

An internship puts you outside of your comfort zone. If you pick somewhere that’s really high-end where things are done to a very high caliber, you just can’t put a value on that experience. It’s really a great learning tool.

It’s also nice to see how things are done by different companies, different directors, and different DPs. You can glean knowledge from that experience and use it years later.

Keeping Cool Under Pressure

Shawn setting up camera for the next shot

There are some pretty stressful times on set. There are two types of people that I’ve found in the business:

There’s the type of person that makes a lot of noise and there’s a lot of panic. They yell and scream a lot and they make a lot of noise. They get a lot of attention and people say, “Wow, they must be really good because they’re very difficult, and there’s all this tension on the set.”

The DPs and the directors that I’ve always respected the most were the ones who were very calm. You can get the job done and at the same time still have a bit of levity. It’s stressful, but I’ve always found that on my sets, I would rather have everybody working hard but having a good time doing it.

As far as being calm, inside it’s a constant chess match that you have to play as you’re lighting something or going from scene to scene and shot to shot. Knowing that you have this thing to finish and there’s so much to do, you just have to pick your battles.

I’ve once or twice gotten mad at people, but I’ll try not to do it on the set because I find that’s counterproductive. If I have any issues, I’ll try to get people to the side and we’ll have a little talk and work it out so we can be constructive about it.

When you’re on a set, the last thing that’s constructive is to have a confrontation. As soon as you’re confronting someone about something, their defenses come up and you’re not really going to get what you want. If it’s something that is not working or it’s not quite right for what you want, yelling at someone is not going to get it done.

You have to try to communicate everything ahead of time. Part of being calm and cool on set is having a lot of prep time for scouting locations and thinking about what you’re going to do. The only times I get antsy are when we’re going places that we haven’t scouted before and you don’t have the time to mull it over in your mind.

Staying on Track

Something you have to get used to if you’re just getting into the business is the old saying, “the only constant is change”. It just happens so often.

I’ll usually give the benefit of the doubt to the director because it’s their project and it’s their vision and I want to do whatever I can to help achieve that for them. Sometimes there might be some spark that just hits them, so I try not to question it too much.

Shawn discussing the shot with director Tim Savage

The trick then is to think of the domino effect that something like that will have on the rest of our day and the shooting that we need to do.

If the light is going down or if there’s a certain place that we need to be at a certain time, I’ll just have a quick discussion and say that this change affects all of these things. If this is more important than those things, then yeah, absolutely, let’s go for it.

I won’t try and derail a director from any sudden moves to the right or the left. It’ll usually be something that you see it later and it actually was fantastic, so I just think about the domino effect and how it will affect the rest of what we’re doing.

Usually if there’s a big issue, I’ll let the producer be the bad guy. That’s their job too– to keep things on track. You don’t want to be making too many snap decisions on set when you have a whole crew and actors.

Shooting a Period Film on a Micro Budget

Japanese Internment Camp

A period film like Under the Blood-Red Sun where we’re basically trying to capture December 1941 in Hawaii is tricky for a lot of reasons.

Number one, if there’s not a lot of money, things immediately become more difficult.

Also, just trying to do anything period with locations, cars, and trying to get your hands on the things that were around on Oahu, Hawaii in 1941 is next to impossible.

Soldier at the Door

Almost all of the structures have been bulldozed or there’s a monster building right next to something really tiny that’s left over. There are modern signs everywhere and it’s hard to find period cars that haven’t rusted and fallen apart.

I did some specific research for the project, but I’ve always been really fascinated with the time period. A lot of the research informed the tone for me, getting sense of the world the characters were living in, what lighting sources would be around then, what time of day things happened.

That was really important because there was a scene where the boys basically witness the planes flying over at a certain time. We tried hard to get as many things as close as possible to the actual time of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor Attack

Striking the Right Tone

It’s really just putting yourself in people’s shoes of the time. Getting the tone, getting the feeling, all of that translates from you into the camera, sort of out and back into what comes onto the screen.

For example, we were using zoom lenses because we were in such a hurry, but I tried not to have any live zooms in the shot and I tried not to be too wide angle on people. I tried to be more classical cinema in that it’s not too close or too wide because that’s not the right era. There’s certain focal lengths I used a lot.

Under the Blood-Red Sun was shot with DSLRs

Intentionally, I didn’t want to have any crash zooms or that sort of thing. I tried not to be too “technique-y”. I didn’t want it to be distracting from the actors and from the story being told. We have a lot of movement, there’s a little bit of steadicam stuff in the film, but we worked hard to keep the camerawork from attracting attention to itself.

Shooting Schedule

We had a split up schedule. The first 15 days is where we did the initial photography. Then we came back 2 months later and we did another week. We came back 3 or 4 months after that where we did another day or two. Finally, there were 1 or 2 days where Tim Savage (the director) and I went out and shot plates of Pearl Harbor and other things that we needed to cut away to, such as a flock of flying birds.

It was a challenge. There weren’t a lot of days, and all of the locations had some sort of challenge to them. When you’re trying to tell a story that takes place in 1941, we can only look in a certain direction because if you turn the other way, there’s a bus depot or a skyscraper right there. We were always shooting around something.

Under the Blood-Red Sun crew at work

What we did a lot of times is we’d have extras stand in front of the parking meters. We have to do what we have to do. We had extras whose whole job was to stand in front of parking meters and signs.

On a lot of period films, you can put green screen up in front of the parts that aren’t period and do set extensions to make it look period. However the budget was so tight and what they needed to spend the money on was the digital planes. We couldn’t really afford to do set extensions so we just had to shoot around it.

We had a lot of constraints, but any time you make an indie film, it’s all about how you adapt and how you react and how you deal with all the problems you’re thrown.

Camera Setup

Quite often we had 3 cameras shooting on Under the Blood-Red Sun. I would have somebody on a wide shot getting coverage. I would take a tight shot and focus on a specific actor. On the third camera we’d have a 2-shot or a 3-shot.

3-Camera Setup on Under the Blood-Red Sun

We’ll usually get the wide shot a couple times, then since the action is not necessarily going to change, we repurpose that camera to something closer like an over-the-shoulder shot.

That’s the kind of coverage we would get. Basically in one take you’re getting a master, a tight grouping, and some close-ups, so in a day you can cover a lot of pages of dialog. It’s good when you only have a few days when you are able to have multiple cameras.

Once again it’s a chess match– it’s a tradeoff. You sacrifice some things in order to get the extra coverage. As a DP, the tradeoff is a serious one because every camera can’t be perfect. If you have one camera, you can light perfectly for that angle. As soon as you move it, it’s a compromise, or it’s not quite perfect. If you start trying to adjust one thing, it affects other things.

A lot of times, especially when you have big groups of people and you have to get all of their lines, you have to pick your battles. I have to get all of these pages today. It’s a matter of getting the project done or not. If you can’t make your days, then the producer is out of money, then they’re not going to want to use you. You may be the biggest genius in the world but if you lose everybody money all the time then you’re not going to do many projects.

There’s always going to be little things that I’m going to pick apart. You could spend all day on every single shot and still want to keep working on them. That’s the challenge, to get every frame as much of a masterpiece as you can. Overall, if the audience likes it, if it’s a successful project, then we’ve done our job.

Advice to new directors: Do it and move on

I’ve worked with a couple of young directors that have their film and it’s going to amazing. OK, yeah, it’s a great script. Let’s shoot it, let’s do it.

Basically what I would like to tell new directors is, let’s shoot it, but get it in there, edit it, and just move on. Keep making things. The chances of making the one important film for of all humankind on your first shot– it’s possible– but the chances aren’t too good.

You really learn by doing it, and the more you do it, the better you get at it. Especially storytelling and filmmaking– you just have to make mistakes.

Watch Under the Blood-Red Sun

You can see more of Shawn’s work at his website, Edge City Films. Here’s a sample of some of his other work as a cinematographer:

You should also definitely check out Under the Blood-Red Sun to see what can be done with a passionate and talented cast and crew, despite having a tiny budget.  Under the Blood-Red Sun is now available on digital, DVD, and Blu-ray via the film’s website and Amazon.

Under the Blood-Red Sun