SXSW Short Film Sisters Shoots and Finishes with Blackmagic Design

Blackmagic Design announced today that the short film “Sisters,” which had its premiere at this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival, was shot on the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K in Blackmagic RAW, and graded in DaVinci Resolve Studio.

Written and directed by Jessica Brunetto, “Sisters” focuses on two estranged siblings who are forced to confront each other as their comatose mother nears death. Andy (Mary Holland), a self centered failing actress, returns to her childhood home to find Emily (Sarah Burns), her older sister whose life is on hold while she cares for their dying mother. Tensions mount as they argue over whether or not to sell their mother’s house, but when the two devise a game to divide up the belongings, hidden secrets come to light resulting in a well intentioned but ill fated resolution.

Conceiving of a short film set primarily in a single, small house presented challenges to Brunetto and cinematographer Wesley Cardino from the start, but their early choice to shoot with the compact Pocket Cinema Camera 4K proved to be the right solution. “Planning for a two camera shoot started with discussing space limitations,” said Brunetto. “Wes and I had to figure out which scenes and setups we could run with both cameras. I wanted to roll two cameras as much as possible for both time and to keep the energy alive on set. It was also extremely important to me to cross shoot Sarah Burns (Emily) and Mary Holland (Andy) in scenes where I wanted them emotionally to play off each other, as well as allow them to try some improv.”

“Filming with Blackmagic cameras reminds me of the expression tiny, but mighty,” continued Brunetto. “It blows my mind we were able to use 35mm Zeiss Prime lenses on such small inexpensive camera bodies and produce such a high quality image. And, as a director I loved how fast we could move between setups, which I feel is incredibly important to capture the best performances.”

Cardino had only limited experience with Blackmagic Design cameras prior to the “Sisters” shoot. He had used the original Pocket Cinema Camera as a crash camera on an early film but was excited to hear about the Pocket Cinema Camera 4K and its capabilities. “We had some preliminary discussions about cameras and Jessica brought to my attention that Blackmagic had released an updated version of the Pocket Cinema Camera. I was immediately curious! We knew there would be a lot of handheld in tight quarters for the film, and that played a role in our decision. We realized we could be fluid and move quickly with the Pocket 4K without sacrificing quality.”

With limited experience on the camera, Cardino had to hit the ground running. “I originally didn’t know what to expect but I was pleasantly surprised by all aspects of the camera. I was able to do some testing which helped me get my head around the dynamic range of the camera, which is always important so I know where to set my exposure and how much I need to protect my highlights. Once I started working on set the experience with the Pocket 4K was great. It has good latitude, so I was never in a situation where I was worried about not being able to bring a little detail back to the highlights in post. It helped me to work more intuitively and focus on capturing the story instead of getting distracted by technical considerations. I was really impressed with the quality of the image as well as the ease of use. I operated A camera as well and there was a fair bit of handheld so of course the light weight made it much easier on the shoulder and back.”

With confidence in the image quality, both Cardino and Brunetto could focus on performance. “Honestly, the overall shoot was so much fun, largely owing to the flexibility of the camera,” said Brunetto. “Comedy is all about pacing and tone, and it’s hard to achieve that perfect balance if you have to constantly stop to reset a camera or adjust lighting. The Pocket 4K allowed us to shoot fast and loose without having to interrupt the flow of each scene. The compact size of the camera, even with add ons like monitors and follow focus, allowed us to get two camera setups in tight spaces that might not have been possible with other 4K cameras.”

“There’s a really fun montage sequence in the middle of the film where the two sisters are drinking wine and putting stickers all over their mother’s house to stake a claim on those possessions. At one point, they’re raiding a closet and putting on these ridiculous old dresses and dancing around in them. A lot of what they were doing was just unscripted improv silliness and, as with most scenes, I wanted to use two cameras so we could simultaneously get a wide shot and a tighter shot and not miss any gems. The layout of the room was such that there were basically two closets facing each other, so we staged the actors in front of the one closet and placed (or maybe squeezed) the two cameras on tripods, along with our DP and camera operator, in the second closet. It was a pretty tight fit, but we were able to make it work, and the footage was hilarious.”

Former college classmate Luke Cahill colored “Sisters” in DaVinci Resolve Studio, establishing the look with Brunetto and Cardino early in the process. “Wes Cardino and I had spent a lot of time discussing how we wanted the primary colors in the film to really pop on screen,” said Brunetto, “while simultaneously having the rest of the image have a very natural vibe. This was something we conveyed to Luke, and very early on from his first pass I was really blown away. With the Blackmagic camera I wasn’t totally sure what to expect in terms of dynamic range, contrast, and grain, but the image was beautiful from the start.” Brunetto also insisted that attention was paid to skin tones. “Another extremely important detail to me as a director was making sure the actresses’ skin looked flattering even with the stylized look we were going for. Luke did an incredible job making both Sarah Burns and Mary Holland look amazing on screen while also executing the overall visual aesthetic we wanted to achieve.”

“I have been working with Resolve for over a decade,” said Cahill, “and I am impressed with the toolset that can tackle any color grading challenge and help support any creative vision. Typically, I do my grade in the first few nodes utilizing the lift, gamma, gain tools. On ‘Sisters’, specifically, the Hue vs Hue curve was helpful in keeping the wardrobe consistent throughout the film.”

“Jess had a very specific vision for the look of the film,” added Cahill. “We gave the image a slight roll off in the shadows to achieve a more filmic emulation and desaturated the pallet excluding the primary blue and red in the wardrobe of the main characters.” Working with Blackmagic RAW provided ample data for Cahill in post. “Blackmagic RAW is great to work with because you know that you are getting the cleanest image possible, as a starting point. The Pocket 4K had the range which allowed us to preserve all of the detail in the highlights, while also allowing us to pull out the detail and texture in the shadows of some of the darker scenes.”

Having “Sisters” premiere at SXSW was a dream come true for Brunetto. “We have been overwhelmed with the positive responses to the short for both its quality of storytelling, comedy and the production value. I feel lucky to have had an amazing crew of designers, like our production designer Madelyn Wilkime and costume designer Maria Garcia, who gave Wes Cardino a beautiful image to photograph. Luke Cahill’s skills in DaVinci Resolve elevated everyone’s talent even further. I am so happy all the hard work put into this project resonated with the audience and reviewers alike.”

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