Cinematographer Toby Oliver on shooting ‘Get Out’

Horror film ‘Get Out’ has been the critical and commercial smash of the year so far, earning over $200 million USD off a production budget just shy of $5 million. Harry Windsor speaks to the film’s Aussie cinematographer, Toby Oliver (‘Beneath Hill 60’), about shooting the film with director Jordan Peele.

Get Out is yet another hit from production company Blumhouse, which specializes in lower-budget genre fare like Joel Edgerton’s debut feature The Gift. Their model seems very smart.

We could take a leaf out of their book [in Australia]. They take risks with new directors, or directors who haven’t done much, but as a rule they keep the budgets low. $5 million is the ceiling. In America that’s important because they’re all union films, and the union has tiers of budget levels. The first tier goes up to about five million, and if your budget’s above that you have to pay everyone more money, because there are fixed rates. So that’s an important consideration for Blumhouse.

How did you connect with them?

I’d done Wolf Creek 2 with Greg McLean here in Australia, and then I moved to the US. I’ve got two kids, teenagers now, so it was a big call and there was risk involved, but I was lucky. Soon after I got there, within two or three months, Greg rang up and said, I’m doing a Blumhouse movie – are you interested? I did a good job on The Darkness – Greg was happy and they were happy – and then they asked me to do some reshoots, which Blumhouse almost always do. They’ll change the ending or fix something that’s not quite right.

How did you connect with Jordan Peele on Get Out?

Because I’d done work for Blumhouse over the previous 18 months or so, they put me forward to meet Jordan. They sent me the script first, and I thought it was amazing. It’s not that different from the movie you see on the screen; ending’s a bit different, but essentially that was it. The first thing was a phone conversation, and we were on the same page in terms of [giving it] a naturalistic look, especially in the first part of the movie, rather than it looking really obviously like a horror movie.

Was he quite prescriptive in terms of cameras and lenses?

None of that, because he’s a first-time director – of anything. He’d done a lot of TV with Key and Peele, but he didn’t direct any of them. And he’d done a movie called Keanu which he wrote and acted in but didn’t direct. But he was well and truly ready to take it on, and he just wanted to be really prepared. He had gaps in knowledge, but that’s where I step in and help him.

What did you shoot on?

We shot on ALEXA cameras. Blumhouse shoot most of their movies on ALEXA. That’s a workflow that their post-end is really happy with, so we stuck with that. We had two cameras, A and B. And they were ALEXA minis, about half the weight [of standard ALEXAs]. I love working with those; in fact they’re my go-to cameras now.

Because they’re easier for handheld?

Partly. They can swap between handheld and Steadicam and studio mode without having to change the camera much, because it’s quite light. You don’t have to strip it all down to go on a Steadicam, you can pretty much plonk it on. It’s quicker, and speed is really important. We shot Get Out in 23 days, which is fast. It’s very similar to an Aussie schedule, and maybe that’s why I’ve done relatively well with Blumhouse is because they make movies in a similar way. One thing that was a bit different with the gear is that we just had Zoom lenses, no Primes, because Jordan’s didn’t have that experience with lenses, so he wanted something straightforward that would be easy to change focal lengths and shot sizes. So we just went with Zooms and it worked well actually.

Where did you shoot?

Alabama. Which for me as the director of photography was tricky, because there’s not much crew support down there. We got two camera assistants from Alabama, but grips, gaffers, a lot of those people had to come from Louisiana, and they weren’t people I knew. So you interview people and hope that you’ve chosen good people, but you don’t know because you’ve never worked with them before. It’s always a little bit of a risk.

Betty Gabriel.

Have you noticed a difference between on-set protocols in the States versus Australia? 

The grips in America have a lot more responsibility for lighting. Your key grip is someone who helps you create the look of the lighting just as much as the gaffer does, because they’re responsible for everything that you don’t plug in: so sails, reflectors, gels. But they’re also responsible for cranes and dollies and stuff like that, as they are in Australia. Because the movie business is quite heavily unionised in the US, you have to follow all those rules. You have to have certain people in your crew and they have to be paid a certain amount. I find generally that for a given budget, the crew seems to be bigger in America. They may not be getting paid as much on these smaller films, but there are more of them. Another difference is that as a DP I’m not actually supposed to operate the camera myself, and that was frustrating at first. For the first few years I was fighting that and I was still operating. I would have what’s called a shadow operator, who is someone that you hire so you’re fulfilling the union obligations. I operated on Get Out, but since then I’ve done Insidious: Chapter 4 and another Blumhouse movie, Half to Death, [and] I had two good operators and sat back at the monitor with the director. That’s actually got a lot of virtue in it, especially when you’re shooting multiple cameras. You can watch what’s happening with both cameras and you can communicate with the director about both shots.

I wanted to ask about a couple of scenes. One in particular where Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, is hypnotised, and sinks into ‘the sunken place’. How did you execute that?

Jordan had spoken about the fact that he wanted the sense of him floating in a black void with the screen above him. I had the idea of doing the dry-for-wet thing, which is when they simulate underwater scenes on a dry stage. They shoot it in slow-motion and have air rippling people’s clothes, so you have a sense they’re underwater. They also use a lot of smoke. We didn’t use the smoke part of it, but we shot him with different frame rates, up to 200 frames a second, [and] we had fans blowing him all the time. He had those loose clothes which were flapping around, and he was lit with a direct key light that was supposed to be coming from that screen above him. We did it on a stage that we’d blacked out but we moved the camera around him on a dolly to get that sense of him falling rather than have him on a really complicated rig and have him move around.

Maybe the most memorable scene is when the maid cracks up.

It was an incredible performance from Betty Gabriel, the actress. Originally when we did the rehearsal, she did all her lines at the doorway, and I suggested to Jordan: what about if she walks slowly towards him and we’ll track back with her and let her get closer and closer to the camera, and then when we’re looking at him we’ll push in on him. That’s the way we ended up doing it, and she got really close to the camera, more than we had prepared [for]. I had a great focus puller, Brian Udoff, and he was able to keep it in focus and hold her performance. He was probably at his minimum distance on the lens. And she’s performing that intense scene with tears and the whole gamut of emotions, and the camera’s probably eight inches away from her face. I don’t know how they do it.

Did you do reshoots on this?

Both the opening scene and the final scene were reshot. We shot the opening in the rain and it was a bit more complicated, so when it came time to reshoot Jordan decided to tell the same story in that opening but really simplify it. Do it as a one-shot, a Steadicam shot, and simplify the action. Use it as an atmosphere-building moment. That was his second time shooting the scene, and there’s a lot of value in that. A lot of people have said they love that opening scene, and, you know, it went through a couple of incarnations to get there.

I know he’s said that an alternate ending will be on the DVD.

The ending as it is now, there’s a rescue. In the original script something else happened to our lead. Originally Jordan wanted something that was a bit more perhaps socially truthful to what would really happen. We shot that, and then the reshoot happened and the end was rearranged. The reshoot was really important for this movie; had there been no money for it, it would be a very different movie, and maybe not as successful. I doubt it would have been.

Has Get Out changed your career?

Yes, but still in America you’re known for what you last did. Since Get Out was released I’ve had offers on other horrors, which I passed on. I’ve had a few ins on some big things, and come very close. The good thing about Get Out is it’s been so successful that the little afterglow will hopefully last quite a while. It’s very helpful for me being a new guy in LA – it’s now a real calling card which I didn’t have before, and, you know, you need all the help you can get.

This article originally appeared in IF #177 June-July. 

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *