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Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City

Todd Blankenship

The events in Bomb City needed a larger-than-life feel and a gritty reality. We talked to DP Jake Wilganowski about how he pulled it off.

Top Image via Ericka Estrella Photography.

On December 12, 1997, Amarillo, TX native and punk rocker Brian Deneke was murdered in a deliberate hit-and-run attack. The events both before and after this attack are steeped in controversy and vitriol, and the news of the murder and the associated controversy quickly rippled across the entire state of Texas — as well as punk/skater groups nationwide.

The film Bomb City, directed by Jameson Brooks (who also co-wrote the film with composer Sheldon Chick), tells the story of this murder and the questionable actions of the justice system to reprimand it.

The film is now playing in select theaters and available on Video On Demand.

Trailer via Gravitas Ventures.

The film, which portrays some visceral, gritty moments from late ’90s Amarillo (a.k.a. Bomb City — the film’s title — because of its nuclear bomb disassembly plant), includes some stunning cinematography by Jake Wilganowski.

With the use of grungy lights, colorful practicals, anamorphic lenses, stellar camerawork, and authentic locations (including some of the places where the events actually occurred), Wilganowski created a beautifully gritty reality.

Check out this video for a behind-the-scenes look.

Jake was generous enough to answer some questions about his work on the film and some of the techniques and tools he used to achieve the look.

Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City — Mosh PitImage via 3rd Identity

PremiumBeat: Will you give me a bit of background about yourself and your previous work? Is this your biggest narrative project so far?

Jake Wilganowski: Definitely the biggest narrative project I’ve photographed. I did one narrative feature before this one. And a feature-length doc. Other than that, it’s been shorts, music videos, and commercials.

Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City — Camera RigImage via 3rd Identity.

PB: What was the genesis of your involvement with this film? Was the story something you had known much about beforehand? Had you worked with this director before?

JW: I was 17 and lived in a town of 50,000 in Texas when the events happened in 1997. I remember hearing about it because it got quite a bit of news coverage. I was then — and still am — a skateboarder, and at that time in a small Texas community, we were on the outskirts of normalcy. We weren’t jocks or preps or kickers (western). So that’s why this story hit home with me when Jameson and Sheldon (director/writer and writer/composer) told me about the film, and I remembered the story.

Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City — DenekeDave Davis as Brian Deneke. (Image via Gravitas Ventures.)

We had worked on a few commercial projects together, and I remember them mentioning this project to me when we first met, but you take everything with a grain of salt when people start talking about projects that are in development because it’s a long process to actually get something made, and most people quit somewhere in the process. So a couple years (I think) went by, and we worked together periodically on commercial projects, when one day Jameson called and said it was happening if I wanted to do it.

MaeMae Renfrow as Jade. (Image via Gravitas Ventures.)

PB: The film has a very pronounced visual tone that works really well with the story. How did you come up with this approach? Was there anything in particular that you drew inspiration from?

JW: The whole style and look started with a look-book the director put together. We both love the same aesthetic, so it was easy to get on the same wavelength. We needed stylized naturalism in the lighting. I don’t know if that’s a thing or not, but it describes the lighting look to me in a nutshell.

We used the camera movement to support the feeling of the characters and the scenes. All the courtroom and jock scenes are smooth movements — jib, dolly etc. Punk and fight scenes are mostly handheld. Jameson always said “Make it pretty.” Ha. We wanted the look to be raw and realistic, but beautiful and interesting to look at — stylistically heightened a bit from reality while still feeling grounded.

Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City — HazeImage via 3rd Identity.

PB: What sort of pre-production did you do? Did you work off of storyboards, or was it more of an organic process?

JW: The director and the writing and producing team pretty much lived at the production office for a month preceding actual shooting. I would go and visit to talk about things. We would plot things out generally or talk about different shot ideas. But on the actual shooting days, pretty organic.

We definitely had ideas and notes going into each scene, of course, but I generally would light for areas instead of shots so we could figure out how we wanted to cover it as we rehearsed. We would have quick meetings beginning each day to go over everything, talk about certain shots or story points, then jump in.

Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City — Camera RigImage via Ericka Estrella Photography.

PB: Can you give a quick rundown of the gear that you used to create the look of the film? (camera/ lenses/lights, etc.)

JW: Two RED weapons using the 6k Dragon sensor. Shot everything at 1280 ISO for the most part. Kowa 2x anamorphic lenses: 40,50,75,100. For lighting on the bigger side, we used a few 6k HMIs, a 12k HMI, and a 4k HMI balloon light. We didn’t carry these larger lights with us to every location — only for specific scenes.

We probably had a 3-5 ton grip package and would order additional things like lifts or the larger stands when needed. We also used traditional smaller movie fixtures, jokers, kinos, and tungsten lights, and all sorts of “found”-type lighting fixtures in the punk warehouse space, for example.

Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City — Grip CollectionImage via Ericka Estrella Photography.

PB: How/why did you decide on the anamorphic lenses you used?

JW: Kowa’s are by far the smallest 2x anamorphics made, so that was a big factor. I like to keep it light and tight. Also, in my opinion, they give the most interesting and one of the heaviest looks. Very alive and atmospheric. Modern lenses are fairly boring. This story needed lenses with some grit and soul. Jameson and I are both big anamorphic fans, and it just seemed to make sense aesthetically. We wanted this to be stylized and organic at the same time.

Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City — CharactersImage via Gravitas Ventures.

PB: The lighting in the film has a very natural, practically lit feel, yet there is a lot of color and style to the lighting throughout. How did you approach the lighting in the film?

JW: A lot of my work wasn’t until we were walking the sets and really getting a feel for the spaces. I’ll go through a few setups:

We had a couple days to pre-light the punk warehouse in particular, where the first week of shooting happened. The fun thing about that space was a lot of the scenes there take place at night, so we got to use DIY lighting just like kids in a warehouse would in real life. An old lamp or neon sign, a raw bulb in an old microwave for example, then we would supplement with hidden movie lights. The scene when they walk outside after the punk show for example is lit by an m18 HMI into an overhead ultra bounce for a soft blue ambient glow, then a few warm Home Depot work lights in frame and a couple other small movie lights creating some green. We wanted the color temps to be inconsistent. It was part of making it feel alive and real.

Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City — WarehouseImage via 3rd Identity.

Hotspots in frame are another thing I like, so seeing all these fixtures play in frame is great — it creates life in the image. For the courtroom scenes, we wanted these to be bright and sunlit, but still contrasty and stylized. I think we secured that location right before we actually shot there, so we couldn’t do a lot of pre-pro, but we made it work, and thank God the weather cooperated.

We created the main sunlight beam with a 12k HMI, if I remember correctly. The courtroom was on the second or third floor so the lights had to be on lifts outside the windows. There was also a 6k or 4k HMI outside, and inside was another smaller HMI bounced into an 8x ultra bounce, and then some negative fill we floated around depending on the shot. All the courtroom was shot on remote head jib, for the most part.

Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City — Key GripKey Grip Richard Porter prepping an HMI for the courtroom scene. (Image via Jake Wilganowski.)

The bonfire scene we had a 4k HMI balloon light with a double net on it hung from a lift. Then some tungsten fixtures bounced and dimmed around to create the fire glow. The lighting team also rigged all the red lights underneath and on the interior of Ricky’s truck using LED panels and ribbon light. For the main fight scene, we had three 6k HMIs that did the bulk of the lighting. They were parked on lifts or hydraulic stands a good distance away from the action to simulate parking lot lights.

Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City — BonfireImage via Jake Wilganowski.

PB: Were there any significant challenges or limitations you encountered during production?

JW: Production is hard in general. Lack of sleep is probably the biggest challenge to any long-term production, especially with shooting so many nights. But when you’re making cool stuff as a DP it’s so invigorating, you just kind of go into work robot mode, and it consumes your life. That’s the hardest part: the grind, the flipping of days to nights and back. Keeping up with the real world in the period of production is hard. But you know it’ll be worth it.

Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City — ProductionImage via Ericka Estrella Photography.

PB: What did your crew look like? Did you generally keep things pretty small, or take it on a day-by-day basis?

JW: For lighting, it would go up and down a bit depending on the days and locations, but we had 3-4 guys in electric and 3-4 in grip, plus the gaffer and key. The camera team was me and another op, a first AC for each of us, one 2nd AC, and a camera PA. It seemed like there were a million other people always around between production design, wardrobe, hair, actors, fight choreographers, extras, safety folks, PAs, etc. But there were some times when we would just go shoot with Dave (who plays Brian), Jameson (director), and me.

The scene where he is out skating and stands really close to a train was just me and Dave and Jameson, who was driving us around at night in Amarillo. Dave just did this thing, and I shot it, and that was that. That is part of what’s cool about this movie. There are moments that are small and very documentary-like.

We were doing exactly what Brian was doing at some point I’m sure — skating around, waiting for a train to pass at night in downtown Amarillo. Surreal.

Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City — Production StllImage via Gravitas Ventures.

PB: The subject matter of the film is very personal and emotional. Was it difficult or intimidating to tell such a heavy story like this?

JW: There was definitely a weight involved. The coolest thing about this project was how everyone involved was very respectful about the project and Brian as real person. Literally, from the first day of shooting, there was great morale and energy. We all felt this wasn’t some crappy indie flick. There was something special here.

I know the director/writers/producers all were very involved with the family for a long time before and during production, so they felt a special weight to do Brian justice and give more people a chance to know this story. I was there in a very, very small group with Brian’s family when they saw the movie for the first time in a closed theater. That was pretty heavy.

Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City — ProductionImage via Ericka Estrella Photography.

PB: Where was the film shot? Did you do any scenes where the events depicted in the film happened?

JW: It was shot in Dallas, Amarillo, Fort Worth, Denton, Rockwall, and some other places I’m sure I’m forgetting. Amarillo was for a lot of the skating and exteriors, since that was where the story takes place. And yes, lots of places we were probably walking right where Brian walked or skated or stood or whatever. Just 20 years later.

The courthouse exterior you see in the film is in downtown Amarillo and is the real one. The weird thing is that we’d be out shooting scenics in Amarillo and we’d get approached by people who were friends with him back then. One girl owns a tattoo shop now that we were shooting B-roll in front of one night, and she came out and talked with us. This happened a few times. This crime was a national news story the late ’90s — Oprah, 20/20, everything.

People there definitely still remember.

Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City — Cadillac RanchA Image via Gravitas Ventures.

PB: What was post-production like? How did you collaborate with the colorist? Were any LUTs used during production that carried over into post?

JW: I used a custom LUT I built for the production, I’d say 80 percent of the final look is what we saw on set. I wasn’t able to attend the color session, but they mostly used the look and doctored it up a bit. The director edited the entire film himself and went through a ton of revisions over the course of a year. There’s probably a solid hour of edited footage cut out of the final film.

PB: What has it been like seeing the response to the film so far?

JW: Seeing how people are affected after watching it is pretty amazing. It really works. It’s hard to elicit a genuine emotional response from people, and this film does it several times in different ways — from cringes to tears. It just reminds me the power of film: how it can cause people to think about things differently. When you can affect someone’s emotions and appeal to their intellect, that is a very powerful thing.

Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City — Camera RigImage via Ericka Estrella Photography.

PB: Any advice for someone who is primarily in the lower-budget, commercial/doc space trying to break into narrative filmmaking?

JW: It’s a very different way of thinking, and the best advice I can give is to try and make some things however you can. Even if it’s super low budget or with friends — as long as everyone is serious about trying to make something good. There is a switch that happens in my brain when approaching something narrative vs. a commercial. Long-form narrative is so completely different than a commercial in pretty much every way. You are way more into servicing the acting and actors than you are in a commercial. More respectful of the performance and of the moment. You are thinking about pace and sequences and mood and actor emotion so much more than in a commercial.

When an intimate or highly emotional scene plays out between two characters over a few minutes, and you are right there next to them experiencing it, too, that’s something different. That’s where you want all your lights and equipment to just get out of the way, and you can just create art in the moment and be there with the actors. That doesn’t really happen in commercials. But basically if you want people to start asking you to shoot narrative work, then you have to shoot some narrative work. Or at least narrative-style work. A lot of the music videos I worked on earlier were narrative-based rather than performance-based, and those were the ones I enjoyed the most. I think every person will have a different path as to how they get to shoot their first legit narrative project, but it’s really about having people trust you to do a good job. You have to become friends with aspiring directors as an aspiring narrative DP.

Behind The Scenes: Crafting The Stylized Naturalism of Bomb City — ProductionImage via 3rd Identity.

PB: What is your main takeaway from the experience of helping to tell this story?

JW: It’s spoiled me. I’ve turned down a couple other features because to me, a feature is so hard — you have to be passionate about the story. And the director and producing team. If all three of those things aren’t there, I won’t do it. I think this movie will always have a special place in my heart because it’s nostalgic to me. I was 17 when this happened, and Brian was 19. We both skated and lived in conservative, small Texas towns. I can relate to him, his friends, their lifestyle.

What happened that night in Amarillo is a tragedy, and what happened later in the courtroom is an injustice. This film is so relevant right now, it’s astounding. Bomb City for life!

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