When you speak with Rob Givens, it’s immediately clear that you're talking with someone who understands and admires every intricacy of filmmaking. He’s a technically proficient man, but one who also understands the virtues of adhering to the context of the story at hand. If you ask him about the specs on his latest work, he can give you every piece of information you might desire, down to seemingly innocuous information about the history and future plans for a particular piece of gear.
That integration of tech with story is precisely what makes the simplistic beauty of a film like #TheHero so effective. With Givens’s exceptional grasp of camera equipment, it’s easy to assume that he’d build an elaborate setup, stacking as many attachments as he can squeeze onto his camera. In reality, Givens's experience makes him far more sophisticated than the average gearhead. In the case of The Hero, Givens’ selections for what to shoot with came down to the script.
The Hero is the story of Lee Hayden, portrayed by Sam Elliott — in what is assured to be one of the best acting performances of the year — as a former western movie star who must come to terms with his past and mortality. It’s a quiet, meditative character study, and bringing the narrative to the big screen required a very specific eye to tell. Givens says:
“I really enjoy the translation of acting as a cinematographer. Turning the script into the visuals. I love being that translator with the director to help them navigate the technical challenges and come up with the best solutions. When I read the script for 'The Hero,' it said to me that we’re going to try to flex a little cinematic muscle here and explore some things that are purely visual within the script.”
Finding The Right Equipment To Tell The Story
On this film, it was abundantly clear that the newest, fanciest gear wasn’t the right choice. Context is always key, so in conjunction with director Brett Haley, Givens utilized Occam’s razor to maximize both quality and efficiency when selecting his camera on a tight budget.
“We wanted to be less objective with the way we shot this movie, and we landed on deciding ‘Let’s be a fly on the wall. Let’s be over the shoulder with him. Let’s follow Lee through this rough patch in his life with the camera as much as we can.’”
With his lifelong affinity for the Alexa and the ARRI brand, Givens quickly knew where to turn. He picked up the ARRI Amira, knowing that “being subjective and intimate was the ultimate goal,” and that the Amira would be the best opportunity to make that work functionally.
With the Amira, Givens had a camera that would allow him to create that intimate feeling that makes Elliott’s leading performance so compelling.
“I could rely on the sensor being nearly identical to the Alexa, but the form factor and the ergonomics of that body are so perfectly designed for handheld that it just balanced wonderfully on the shoulder and worked out great. When you’re moving at the speed of an indie film like this, the ability to adjust neutral densities on the body and in-camera filtration was hugely valuable just to keep the camera rolling and not having to stop and swing filters and interrupt the flow of the set.”
The handheld camera hovers around Elliott’s face, finding the raw emotion in his reactions. As the sound of waves lapping the beach echoes in the background, the image of Lee contemplating life is perfectly captured by the slight swaying of a camera that remains synced with Lee’s emotional state. The handheld work of the Amira captures an imperfect moment that a distant and more technical camera wouldn’t. Givens always has the camera in the right spot, and by acting as his own camera operator his more personal connection to the work feels ever-present as well.
“There’s a real intimacy as a DP to putting the camera on your own shoulder and stepping into the scene with the actors. That was something I really enjoyed on this film because it was such a small crew. It felt like the right way to go.”
With just a mere 18 days to film The Hero, eking out every possible opportunity to shoot was paramount to making the best version of the movie. Givens's choice to work handheld on the Amira kept him constantly close and engaged with the shoot, allowing director Brett Haley to maximize productivity.
Givens Has An Equal In Director Brett Haley
Givens’s relationship with Haley was among other key aspects that make the film work as well as it does. Givens fell in love with photography as a middle schooler, later finding a home behind the camera while making videos with his friends. But it was at the North Carolina School of the Arts where Givens and Haley met, forming an unbreakable bond that has made them into one of the most exciting up-and-coming filmmaking teams right now.
Givens speaks quite fondly of Haley as he talks about their relationship.
“At this point, it’s just become a very intuitive shorthand between he and I when we’re working. We’re very meticulous in our prep, but once we’re on the set, our conversations are short and sweet because we’re very much on the same page about what we’re trying to do.”
Givens is always happy that when the two work together, they make such intimate films.
"Brett and I work in a very nice way because I always work as the camera operator as well as the cinematographer on his movies. I enjoy going off and doing the shot, then coming back and discussing it with him. That way, he and I each get to have some of our own headspace while everything is happening. We’ve developed a nice pace with that, but if I had camera operators I’d be looking over his shoulder the whole time, and he’d tell me to bugger off over to another monitor.”
Throughout the film, Givens brings a highly emotional resonance to his lensing, putting us directly into the mindset of Lee Hayden, allowing us to really dive into Elliott’s performance. The one set of scenes that plays out in a unique fashion was also the portion of the film that Givens was most excited to work on: the dream sequences.
When Haley first sent Givens the script, he was thrilled to no end about the opportunity to shoot the magnificent dreams that Lee concocts for himself. As Lee works through his thoughts about the life he has lived, he begins to imagine himself in an alternate world where he’s managed to carry the mantle of being an A-list western star throughout his life. And as Givens so simply put it, “who’s not excited to shoot Sam Elliott in a western role?”
Creating a differentiation between the waking reality life and the surreal western dream was an integral part of Givens’s job on The Hero. He describes the differences between working on the two portions of the film fondly.
“With the handheld work, we liked having the more heavily weighted frames. We wanted there to be more negative space to put you into the mind frame of Lee; to understand his unbalanced life. Then in the dream, which is a nostalgic recollection of his legacy and his career, the goal was finding symmetry and boldly classic frames. The western scenes were a nice departure and a good way to break up the narrative.”
While there were some brief considerations of doing the dream sequences on film, it quickly became apparent that their small indie film didn’t have the budgetary space for that. Luckily, Givens’s nuanced understanding of camera gear provided a perfect alternative avenue for capturing the majesty of westerns of old. He explains:
“What we chose to do was work with lenses of that era. Anamorphic. And all of the camera movement in the dream sequences was on a dolly or sticks, just to give it a little more of a classic feel.”
That western dream is nothing short of cinematic beauty, highlighted by Givens’s personal favorite scene in the film: a sequence where Lee enters his trailer. Givens describes that scene as being “so very difficult because of the 103-degree heat, and the cramped setting, but especially after having done the rest of the film handheld, it was a challenge to suddenly jump back on a dolly or a slider and jam sticks into this tiny trailer. That scene was a difficult one for me, but a very rewarding scene visually, especially given these beautiful flares that the lenses created.”
Though Givens would have loved to shoot the western scenes on film, he has still long been a proponent of shooting digitally. Having grown up in an era of the rising digital format, he’s become far more comfortable working digitally. Film certainly isn’t dead in his opinion, but now, especially on small-budget indie films, “it’s so much more about finding character in the filtration and the glass in front of the sensor,” which is why he’s so excited to see what companies like Panavision are doing by rehousing and reworking old sets of lenses.
“Film has such an analogue character to it, with a certain lifelike quality to the film itself, and I think we’ve lost a little bit of that with the digital sensor. We can still catch that analogue feeling with these older lenses though because they have this beautiful imperfection. Those lenses have these patinas and these aged coatings that really can’t be recreated, and they can yield these wonderful surprises when they flare, or in the way that they handle highlights and milk out. You get these really nice aberrations that lend a certain sort of cinematic imperfection, which is something that I try to go for in all of my work. Nowadays it can all be perfect. We’ve all seen the perfect looking image on the crispest monitors with the most crisp lenses on a digital sensor, but it’s just too much. It’s nice to leave a little bit of mystery to the image.”
That’s really what The Hero is about: finding the beauty in our imperfections. It’s a stellar film with great performance all around, but Givens’s camerawork is what truly ties everything together. His understanding of the gear, his intelligence in approaching each individual shot, and his relationship with not only the camera but the people working around him, are what make The Hero a film that is so frequently gorgeous and eerily manageable at the same time.
The Hero is out today in select theaters across the country, and Givens’s work can next be seen in the upcoming film Smartass, as well as a soon-to-be-released music video for the song “Holding On” by The War on Drugs.
What was the last film you saw to boast seriously impressive cinematography?