Fishtail camera set up by Joe Anderson
On an expansive rural ranch, director Andrew Renzi stood before the majestic Montana landscape to capture a serene study of the cycle of life for the documentary Fishtail. Rancher Tylee Abbott runs a full head of cattle here. Abbott is also a Western American art dealer. It's in his blood — he is kin to painter William Tylee Ranney, whose brush strokes immortalized old trappers, wide prairies and landscapes.
“I have a lot of love and appreciation for that way of life,” says Renzi, who in his youth worked on Abbott's ranch during summers. “Tylee and I came together with this idea of doing a contemporary re-appropriation of traditional Western American art into the film medium. I wanted to make a documentary that was observational and sort of ethereal through exploring subject matter, like the birthing of cows, to give us a sense of life cycle rather than have it be strictly procedural about what people do on a ranch. It is something we hope that people can soak in and surrender to its pace.”
Renzi's goal from the beginning was to shoot on Super 16mm film. The choice also helped bridge the art and moving image worlds. “I prefer Super 16,” he says. “It has an incredible grainy texture and quality to it, along with a very dusty Western feel. It couldn’t have been a better choice.”
“When working with film grain,” says Renzi's longtime cinematographer Joe Anderson, “you’re creating brush strokes like a painter would.”
The budget of the film was so low that Renzi was afraid shooting on film would be out of the question. However, Kodak provided great support to make it happen.
Renzi, Anderson, and a small crew consisting of 1st AC Sam Ellison, location sound recordist Andrew Skean, producer Brett Potter, and associate producer Cody Abbott headed west with a finite amount of film in hand. “We mapped it out as if it were a narrative film and knew how much stock we had to achieve the goal,” Renzi explains.
Referencing the features There Will Be Blood and Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson selected KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 7213 and opted to shoot without an 85 filter. “It's been a little bit of a trend,” Anderson notes. “You’re not introducing any color filtration, and you’re working at the base level of the film itself in terms of color and contrast. When color correcting, it feels like you have more options because you haven’t filtered out any wavelength.”
Anderson underexposed the 7213 Film by two-thirds of a stop while maintaining a T2.8 to T2.8/4 split. “With underexposing, I could work in the toe of the curve a little more, which made the grain a bit more apparent and the color a little stronger,” he reveals.
Armed with a camera package from Arri CSC consisting of an ARRI 416, COOKE S4 Mini prime lenses, and an ANGENIEUX OPTIMO 12:1 24-290mm, Anderson and Renzi drew on painterly, Western-style compositions. “Our approach was to design the shot ahead of time in scouting and compose our image,” Anderson says. “Then from there, we adapted to what our characters were doing.”
Adds Renzi, “We went around with the ranchers for several days prior to shooting to see what their activities were, then developed our shot list based on that. The one wildcard was capturing a live birth on camera. We posted up on a bale of hay for five hours trying not to run too much film. We had this moment where we ran out of film right when the calf came out, so there is a burn mark in the movie that we kept in there so that there is no jump cut or appearance that we contrived the moment. It worked out perfectly.”
Anderson notes that the birthing scene is a good example of the long lens work employed in the film, staying a good distance away because of the uncertainty of animal behavior.
The film in general was all practical and available light. Anderson did opt for some KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 7219 for night shots. “Shooting 7219 gave us the ability to work just with the cowboys’ own flood lamps and get an exposure,” he says.
A landscape shot of the cattle being driven out to pasture stood out most for Anderson. The shot had Abbott cresting a hill on horseback with a large herd of cattle before him, snowcapped mountains in the background, and trees at the base of the hill in the foreground. “That was the signature shot of the movie that had this amazing color palette,” he says. “We wanted color to be a very strong element. In addition to NDs, I had a Polarizer with us at all times so I could pull the blue out of that Montana sky.”
Colorist Jaime Obradovich graded the movie at Company 3 in New York and a DCP master was created. “We used a Kodak print stock look-up table that limits the color to a film color space,” Anderson reports. “We wanted an authentic-looking movie. Shooting on film certainly helped us make images that were really rich and had depth, and we didn’t have to use a lot of digital post manipulation to make them.”
Featuring a lyrical voiceover by Harry Dean Stanton reciting cowboy poetry and writings, Fishtail premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.