FATMAN: Exterior and Interior Lighting Breakdowns by Cinematographer Johnny Derango

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Johnny Derango is an established, sought-after Director of Photography and a respected film producer with over 20 years in the business. In 2018, he was featured by the industry’s prestigious American Cinematographer Magazine on their coveted annual list of The Top 12 Cinematographers from across the globe to watch for. Johnny has shot for numerous studios and networks including Warner Brothers, Paramount, Lionsgate, Disney, Discovery Channel and MTV as well as global brands Mandarin Oriental Hotels, Firefox, Napster, Nissan, Southwest Airlines and Tyson Foods. 

In addition to his expertise as a cinematographer, Johnny has served as a producer on many of his projects. He held both roles on the HULU series “Everyone is Doing Great,” created by “One Tree Hill” alums James Lafferty and Stephen Colletti where he served as Executive Producer and Director of Photography. 

Most recently Johnny lensed FATMAN (2020) a darkly comedic thriller starring Academy Award Winner Mel Gibson, Walton Goggins and Academy Award Nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste. The film was written and directed by Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms who Johnny has collaborated with numerous times.

Fatman follows Chris Cringle (Mel Gibson), a.k.a. Santa Claus, and Ruth Cringle (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), as he attempts to save his declining business but, ultimately, is forced into a partnership with the United States Military. Making matters worse, after receiving a lump of coal in his stocking, 12-year old Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield) hires a hitman, known as Skinny Man (Walton Goggins), to kill Santa Claus. Cringle is locked into a deadly battle of wits against Skinny Man ’til the very end. ‘Tis the season for the Fatman to get even, in this dark, comedic, action film that keeps on giving.

Today we have the privilege to host one of his most beautiful works: Fatman, with the legendary Mel Gibson! Enjoy the article!

EXTERIOR LIGHTING BREAKDOWN – Fatman Scene 5 – Chris’ Homestead

To the average movie fan, a daylight exterior probably sounds pretty simple.  In actuality though, these scenes can prove to be some of the most challenging to film.  As a DP, there is so much to take into consideration when filming exteriors.  Some of these challenges include the time of day, time of year, weather, how complex the scene is, actor placement/movement, and quality of the natural light amongst others.  

With Fatman, I was faced with shooting in Ottawa, Canada in the dead of winter.  This meant low sun, limited daylight, and extreme weather.  In a situation like this, ample time to prep and good communication with your director(s) is key to survival.

Near the beginning of Fatman, we are introduced to Chris (Mel Gibson) in a scene where he is shooting cans off of a fence. This particular scene takes place during daylight hours and features a completely snow-covered landscape. 

While scouting I learned that the movement of the characters within the scene would be fairly limited.  Chris fires off a few rounds from his pistol, turns to greet his wife, Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and a conversation ensues.  This conversation would take place alongside a lengthy row of chopped wood that plays heavily in the film’s climax.  

Armed with this information, my helios app for sun tracking and an eye for picking out interesting backgrounds, the directors (Ian & Eshom Nelms) and I set out to find the perfect place, on the property, to stage this scene.

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As you can see from the overhead,  we decided to have the woodpile placed on an East/West access which ran largely parallel to the sun.  As someone who had never done a large-scale production in the snow, I learned a few things really quickly.  Controlling contrast is king.  It is so incredibly easy for a shot to become flat and devoid of contrast when you are, more or less, shooting on a giant bounce card (snow).  Often, you can’t light an actor brighter than the snow or your image looks washed out and overexposed.  However, in testing, I realized if you underexposed your talent by a stop, to a stop and a half, compared to the snow/sky, it creates a really pleasing reverse contrast.  In order to facilitate this, we routinely used numerous large black solids.  

For this scene, there were several reasons we chose to line it up as we did:

1. Ian and Eshom (the directors) had communicated to me that they wanted to begin the scene on a vista and slowly reveal Chris. During the scout, I fell in love with a small shack-like structure on the property.  It just so happened that the shack was set amongst one of the vistas and worked perfectly for the pullback reveal of the cans that we were looking for.  If we were to set the cans on the fence with the vista in the background, we would then need to lay the woodpile in an East/West line, parallel to the sun.  Lucky for me, this is exactly what I was looking for for this scene! 

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2. With the woodpile parallel to the path of the sun, our characters would remain beautifully side-lit throughout the entire scene. This was advantageous in that I would be able to very easily rig a 12×20 frame of diffusion (1/2 Soft Frost) from the sunny side of the frame to soften the direct sunlight.  I chose a diffusion that created a pleasing look on the actor’s skin but never felt overly manipulated.  By the same token, I was able to easily add negative fill by using a 12×12 solid opposite the diffusion.  Because the snow often needed to remain undisturbed for later scenes (see the wide shot below), we had to be careful where we walked and where we placed gear. Using a single 20×20 and 12×12 helped us to keep a small footprint.  This was an approach I often took while filming exteriors in the snow.  

I’m a big fan of trying to work with natural daylight. I try whenever I can to make my exteriors a grip show versus an electric show. Sometimes you get in situations where you need huge lights, but I’m always of the philosophy “if I can make the natural daylight work for me, I’ll do that.” And that’s exactly what we did on our exteriors. Once you start adding giant rigs, especially giant overheads, you just start slowing things down.  I never want anybody looking at me going “okay, we’re going to miss our day because of you.” Right?  I feel an obligation and responsibility to myself, the directors, and the producers to come in on time and on budget and still make it look beautiful.

Below I’ve included the storyboards which are drawn for every single scene in the film by Director Eshom Nelms.  They serve as a tight visual roadmap for what we do onset. Below the storyboards, you can see frame grabs from the film showing exactly how I chose to diffuse, negative fill, or shoot naturally.  

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(12×20 1/2 Soft Frost used to take the edge of the direct sunlight)

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INTERIOR LIGHTING BREAKDOWN – Fatman Scene 55 – Factory Floor

In discussing what Santa (Chris’) factory would look like, the Nelms Brothers (Ian & Eshom Nelms) and I kept coming back to photos of factories from the American Industrial revolution. We wanted a real world feel, while still keeping it warm and welcoming. I never wanted it to feel like the elves were unhappy or forced labor.

The base ambience for the factory was set by 7x Kinoflo image 80’s. 30x China hat fixtures were placed for shafts of light in the background as well as hot spots on the equipment, floor and out of focus background highlights. Astera titan tubes were used to create magical effects within the toy manufacturing pods. 

In lighting the talent, Gaffer Mateo Gonzales brought in 2x 5k fresnels. The 5k with the Chimera provided a more direct backlight to the talent while the 5k facing into the ultra bounce provided the talent with a nice soft wrapping sidelight. It was important to me that the light playing on Chris and the characters in his world was always softer and more flattering that then light hitting Skinnyman in his own environment.

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Check also the Official Instagram account of Johnny Derango
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You can find more on the official website of Johnny Derango

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