Whatever your tastes are when it comes to TV or movies, chances are you’ve seen Brad Lipson’s work. With a resume that stretches back more than 30 years, Lipson has worked his way up the industry ladder to become an incredibly versatile cinematographer whose most recent credit is “The Wedding Ringer,” starring Kevin Hart, Josh Gad, and Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting. “The Wedding Ringer” is now playing in theaters, and enjoyed a strong opening weekend.
When Lipson says, “I hope that I don’t have one particular style,” it’s a testament to his belief that a good director of photography should be able to shoot a variety of genres and styles. As a cinematographer, Lipson has been behind the camera for the colorful, bouncy CW comedy/drama “Hart of Dixie,” the critically acclaimed “Wilfred” on FX, and the ambitious ABC drama “The Forgotten,” which starred Christian Slater.
Film Slate Magazine caught up with Lipson, and he was expansive when talking about what spurred him into a career in movies, bouncing between different kinds of projects, and some of the challenges of shooting the large ensemble cast and intricate scenes that came along with working on “The Wedding Ringer.”
Film Slate Magazine: Before becoming a DP on television series and movies, you had worked in the business for a while. Did you always have the intention of manning the camera, or was that something that developed over time as you spent more time on set?
Brad Lipson: My goal from the time I was 18 years old was to become a director of photography. When I inquired with professionals in the business, I was told the hardest part of a cinematographer’s job was the lighting. I made the choice early on to work in the electric department, work my way up to gaffer and then eventually work as a director of photography.
FSM: Did you always want to work in the business in general? What sparked your interest in a career in TV and film production?
BL: In my youth I was into magic–at the age of 13 I was performing professionally. I was always attracted to illusions — whether it was an optical illusion or a manufactured trick or sleight of hand. I bring this up because I think there is a direct correlation between magic and film.
Film is ultimately an optical illusion, tricking our eyes into believing there is motion. I was also taken with movies. I loved how they could take me to far-off places or give me an experience that was formidable. Movies had a huge impact on me. In middle school I started messing around with photography and developing film; this was also magic to me. Spooling up a roll of film I had shot and processing it was thrilling to me.
The chemical reaction was science but the rest seemed like magic. In high school I took a film class taught by a retired documentary filmmaker. We shot 16mm film all the time on a CP16. I was hooked from that point on. I also remember being curious as to how movies were made and how the lighting was accomplished.
FSM: You’ve worked on a variety of projects and genres. When you go from something like ‘Hart of Dixie,’ which is lush and colorful, to a show like ‘Wilfred,’ do you have to change your mindset completely? Or do you just use your training and move between different projects and approach them as another job?
BL: I think it’s a combination of both. Sometimes a crew member will ask what my style is and I hope that I don’t have one particular style. I think each production tells a different story, which deserves to be treated differently. So my mindset would be about directing my attention to what the story is we are trying to tell, and what look will best serve the story. Experience is what allows me to execute the various looks each production brings.
FSM: How did you sign onto ‘Wedding Ringer?’ Did director Jeremy Garelick approach you or your agent or did you send out feelers?
BL: I was introduced to Jeremy through a mutual friend. Jeremy was looking for a director of photography for a TV pilot that was being independently produced, which means there wasn’t much money. When I first sat down with Jeremy, I immediately picked up on his down-to-earth nature, his honesty, his high energy and excitement for filmmaking. I signed on to shoot his pilot and was excited to work with him. I had no idea he was about to shoot a movie with Screen Gems.
A couple weeks after the pilot wrapped, he called and told me he wanted to introduce me to some folks at Screen Gems. Jeremy sent me ‘The Wedding Ringer’ script and when I read it, all I could think of was how incredible it would be to have the opportunity to shoot it. A few days later, I met with Glenn Gainor [an executive producer on the film]. We had a fantastic conversation about: making movies in today’s world; how we could shoot the film in Los Angeles; and how we could keep a smaller footprint with trucks and equipment to give us greater access to locations. We shot the opening scene of the film a few weeks later, which I figured was more or less my audition. Soon after that, Glenn asked me to shoot ‘The Wedding Ringer.’
FSM: What are some of the challenges in shooting comedy, or even different kinds of comedy? ‘Wilfred’ certainly had its own comedic sensibilities, and even how the characters related to each other, as I’m sure this movie does. And then you throw in actors like Kevin Hart and Josh Gad—so how do you shoot what you and the director have in mind but allow the actors the room to breathe in a scene?
BL: ‘The Wedding Ringer,’ being a ‘bromance’ comedy, had a very different set of challenges compared to ‘Wilfred.’ ‘The Wedding Ringer’ was huge in scope: big scenes and locations; an ensemble cast with lots of characters in one scene; a car chase at night; a big football scene to name a few, and then you’ve got Kevin Hart and Josh Gad doing a dance number. There is also a lot of slapstick comedy and big sight gags.
‘Wilfred’ on the other hand, was incredibly contained and about the intimate relationship between Ryan and Wilfred. It was a dark comedy with small sets and few characters. Cinematically, ‘Wilfred’ was largely about keeping the two characters tied together, since they were in essence, one.
Shooting ‘The Wedding Ringer,’ giving it the big look and getting all the comedy and coverage shot on time and on budget was challenging and a hell of a lot of fun. There is a scene where Jimmy (Hart) and Doug (Gad) crash a wedding reception so Doug can get a sense of what he will be experiencing at his own wedding. During this scene, Jimmy gets Doug on the dance floor and they dance to a medley of different genres of music. Jeremy and I decided it would be best to shoot this like a music video and cover it from two sides.
We used a combination of Technocrane, Steadicam and dollies to cover all the action. Rather than be shot-specific, each camera had a particular mission in a free form flow. “A” camera on the crane would get the wider shot and move to compliment the particular dance number, “B” camera would get closer coverage between Kevin and Josh and “C” camera would shoot extreme close-ups of hands, feet and body movements, along with audience reactions as the dance progressed. We also had the challenge of shooting the scene with photo doubles who were dancers, so our shooting choice worked will for the scene. Although the dance numbers were choreographed, our approach gave the actors room to do what they needed to do and have fun. With three cameras rolling, we were able to capture so many great moments. The editor had plenty of great transition shots and cut-aways to make the scene work seamlessly.
Another aspect of shooting ‘The Wedding Ringer’ was giving it the big look and great texture it deserved. From day one, Jeremy wanted me to light the movie so it was colorful, but moody when it could be, and an overall look that wasn’t the usual high-key, comedy-looking film. I stayed away from flat light as much as possible. We also had Chris Cornwell, a fantastic production designer, and an amazing art department that gave us so much to work with. For each location, Jeremy and I would find the widest, best angle to sell the space to give the movie big scope.
FSM: This film has a large ensemble cast. What are some of the challenges, especially in wedding scenes, that a cinematographer runs into?
BL: Blocking out the scenes to cover everyone within the time frame allotted is challenging. We were careful about not shooting in too many different directions. I kept efficient lighting in mind. I didn’t want to get bogged down on the big wedding scenes with too much lighting, so keeping it simple helped. Once we’d get into coverage, I would bring softening agents closer to the actors and only make small adjustments. This also helped Jeremy and the actors keep the energy and momentum going.
FSM: Any final thoughts about ‘The Wedding Ringer?’
BL: Working with Jeremy Garelick and Screen Gems was an amazing experience. Jeremy is all about collaborating and having everyone stay engaged and involved in the filmmaking process. He told me not to ever hesitate pitching him ideas beyond the scope of my job title. If I saw a moment or something I thought would be funny, I’d tell him. It was satisfying to work with such a confident leader who’d not only take the suggestions, but often implement them as well. In addition, Screen Gems was incredibly supportive of our needs. They were all about getting the production value onto the screen. It is refreshing to work with a team who figured out how to get us the tools we asked for, rather than just saying, ‘it’s not in the budget.’
All images courtesy of Screen Gems