Casting Natural Light: A Discussion with Spike Lee’s Cinematographer Daniel Patterson

The BFC/A blog welcomes guest contributor, Terri Francis.  Professor Francis is a scholar of cinemas in the black diaspora, particularly independent black film, Caribbean film and Afrosurrealism. She will offer her course Spike Lee’s Filmworks in the spring 2016 semester through the IU Media School. Meanwhile see her Pinterest archive for Spike Lee’s Filmworks here.

Casting Natural Light: A Discussion with Spike Lee’s Cinematographer Daniel Patterson 

Photo Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

By Terri Francis

Daniel Patterson’s work is on television every night of the week on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, because he photographed the Spike Lee-directed opening sequence. But do we really see the cinematographer’s craft?

Naturally, we see the cinematographer’s work the entire time we are watching a movie but we tend to attribute the images to the director or else we look right through them.

Let’s talk with Patterson about the work that directors of photography do, how he approaches his craft, and the look that he brought to Spike Lee’s “newest hottest” Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014).

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

EARLY INFLUENCES

Terri Francis (TF): When or how did you first become aware of and fascinated by photographs? 

Daniel Patterson (DP): I grew up watching and loving movies. My first memory of being aware of the specific craft of photography, I cannot say I actually remember. It had to have been a Spike Lee joint, probably School Daze: the music, the color, the movement, choreography, and production design. I had no idea at the time, but my visual appetite and sensibility were being activated.

TF: Was there a particular moment when you become taken with cinematography? 

DP: My first film experience did it. On 25th Hour, I watched the DP and Spike make decisions. At the time, I thought Rodrigo [Prieto] was some kind of mad scientist genius. My first feature film experience made me want to demystify the process of filmmaking and cinematography, for myself, and anyone else who I could teach.

TF: For our students, what exactly is the role of the cinematographer as you see it? What do you try to bring to this role?

DP: The cinematographer helps bring the director’s vision to life using the moving image. [This includes] the choice of camera, choice of lenses, camera angles, camera movement, choreography within the frame, [and] color palette choices. We help the director visually construct what is in his or her head. Cinematographers are technicians and creative, essentially utilizing all of our knowledge and experience to make the dream a “reality.”

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

CRAFT

TF: Now that I’ve seen your work in Out in the Night, Gun Hill Road, Evolution of a Criminal, Newlyweeds and now Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, I’m really curious about how you apply your take on cinematography in your features, and how it differs from your work in documentaries: Do you approach documentary differently from fiction? What about in a doc like Evolution of a Criminal, which includes dramatized sequences as well as the interviews?  You talked about this a little bit in your Shadow and Act interview so maybe you could expand on that?

DP: I do not know what I said to Shadow and Act. What I can say now is this: Documentaries are narrative. Fictional features are narrative. Two different types of storytelling, but it is still all storytelling. In both instances I must talk with a director about visuals. How do we want each beat to feel, each scene to feel, each moment to feel? The design/visual language differs, depending on the style. I try to approach each film like, “how do we tell this story.” The reality is, in documentary, you get limited takes–generally one take. My improvisational skills are used a lot more while shooting documentary [and] I get to be production designer of sorts, as well DP, 1st AC, camera operator, media manager/downloader. A lot of the docs I’ve done have been crews ranging from 2-5 people. Everyone wears more hats while in production. In fiction, you can have an actor die as many takes as you need. All in all, similar ingredients go into telling a story, you just tend to have less time and takes, essentially making it for less equipment and crew. [Speaking] from my indie world experience. I am non-union.

TF: Would you say your cinematography is a kind of authorship, where your stamp is on the movie, or are you more facilitating the director’s vision? Or maybe the screenwriter’s or actors’? 

DP: DPs should support the vision of the director. We should also always have creative input. Both. Both should be there always. Filmmaking is like cooking. You need the right ingredients at the right temperature for the right amount of time. Each dish we prepare is different and always is subject to the desired affects. Who is our audience? What flavors do they enjoy, or what might they enjoy that they have not tasted?

TF: What’s your relationship to editors? Do you watch daily rushes or do you focus on capturing the image and taking day by day?

DP: I do not edit. I watch dailies every day on a feature film. We try to. Sometimes time does not allow. After the editor does his job, I love putting the finishing touches in the colorgrade. Colorgrading happens after the edit.

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS

TF: Spike has worked with some terrific cinematographers like Ernest Dickerson and Arthur Jafa in close collaborations. How did you connect with Spike? How would you describe your collaboration? 

DP: My first film set was a Spike joint. I also went to NYU graduate film school, and Spike Lee is a professor there and he is artistic director for the grad film program.

I took on his plans with Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus. Spike is amazing because he knows what he wants… after we get the “necessities,” we play. His creative collaborative openness as a director, after all these exceptional filmmaking years, is awesome. I appreciate it a lot because I often work with young new directors who are no-Spike-Lee.

TF: How much did you talk about the movie before you got the job? And how did you discuss the film? How did Spike communicate what he wanted—or did he? Could you give us an idea of how that all happened?

DP: We talked a lot…a lot of conversations. Spike also told me some films to check out.

He called me late on a Friday night and asked me to DP. I said yes. I thought I was dreaming.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

ADAPTATION

TF: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is more like a literary adaptation than a literal remake. How much did you as the cinematographer look at or think about Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess? Were there certain must-haves? Anything that inspired you? Or things that you really wanted to avoid?

DP: Sadly, I have never seen Ganja and Hess…though it is on my list of movies to watch. My professor at NYU, Charles Blackwell was a camera operator on Ganja and Hess. I like to approach films open, and truth is that time did not allow for me to watch many films before we started. We shot the film in 16 days, i.e. we did everything FAST.

TF: I’m surprised seeing Ganja and Hess wasn’t part of the process. Makes sense though! It gives you more freedom to elaborate and imagine from Spike’s script. And you can respond to the two environments where the movie is set. Am I on the right track?

DP: Seeing Ganja and Hess was 100% on the list of films the director gave me to see in pre-production. The unfortunate fact that I was unable to see it was supplemented by the freedom to imagine from the script.

TF: I noticed that the red blood isn’t that red–like a bright red, which is more naturalistic. Right? Was that a decision on your part? And if so what was the thinking there?

DP: I love naturalism. The blood not being poppy was for the reasons you stated. That was part was me. Yes I was thinking dark and naturalistic regarding the blood.

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

TF: How would you describe the overall color palate for the film?

DP: Color: naturalism, naturalistic. More colorful and lush on Martha’s Vineyard.

We added grain/grit to NYC. Also we made it less saturated in NYC. The opening NYC sequence was meant to be special, no grain, not so heavy with the de-saturated colors

Those decisions had to do with Dr. Hess and where he is mentally and emotionally, scene to scene, location to location, beat to beat.

TF: The image that has stayed with me is a shot of the first woman Hess picks up where she has lipstick on her teeth. I guess echoing blood. Also the character was great!

DP: Great character! That shot stays with me too.

TF: Is there anything you want to say that I didn’t ask?

DP: I just want to say that we are in the midst of exciting times in filmmaking. New and more affordable quality technology allows stories to be told by people who may not have had this opportunity without it. I look forward to the audience experiencing all the new cinematic flavors and cinematic languages that are to come. Thank you.


Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is available online via Vimeo ahead of its theatrical release on February 13, 2015. The new Spike Lee Joint revisits the late Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess as a literary source but it is not a shot-for-shot remake of the 1973 indie gothic film. Set on Martha’s Vineyard and in Red Hook, Brooklyn Da Sweet Blood of Jesus seems to connect with Red Hook Summer, perhaps beginning where the 2013 film ended. Planned Super 8, a format featured prominently in Red Hook Summer, did not make the cut for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.

Some of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus’s most memorable moments emphasize naturalistic lighting and Patterson seems particularly skilled at framing intimate scenes with an improvised feel that reveal a character’s vulnerability and introspection.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, (re)introduces a cast of rare middle-class black diaspora characters into contemporary American cinema while exploring various addictions including lust, lies, greed, social status, and religious belief.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Through Lee’s Kickstarter campaign to fund Da Sweet Blood of Jesus he not only brought the public into the filmmaking process, but he also opened up the usually hidden inner-workings of how movies get made and get seen. If Spike Lee, award-winning director of over 30 groundbreaking films in multiple genres, has to crowdfund then what is going on in Hollywood? In this film and in its paratextual materials, Lee elevates entertainment media to platforms of critical discussion about film and culture.

Patterson says he enjoys the collaborative process between a director and a cinematographer as he works to adapt and learn how to work with that particular director. A visual craftsman, he is drawn to a story by the narrative: “I read the script and if I feel the story, if it’s something I’m interested in seeing I say let’s talk. I talk to the director about his or her vision and we can take it from there.” See Patterson’s interview in Studio A, a film colloquium at George Mason University here.

Patterson and his NYU peers have cultivated their network through continuing to collaborate after graduation. Filmmaker and former classmate Darius Clark Monroe (who visited IU Cinema in fall 2014) said of Patterson, “I’ve had the great pleasure of collaborating with DP on 5 projects (Shorts: Testify, Midway, Train, and Dirt; Feature: Evolution of a Criminal), spanning the last decade. Beyond his technical expertise, and this may sound strange, but I love the fact that Daniel is a great observer of human behavior and the human condition. He’s a people watcher and a great listener. Daniel has traveled all over the world, observing, shooting and processing the phenomenon that is this universe and the miracle that we call life. His spirit and perspective are invaluable to our creative process.” Patterson and Monroe’s next collaboration is a feature called Year of our Lord – about a Brooklyn couple whose son may or may not be the second coming of Christ. Train and Evolution of a Criminal feature naturalistic lighting and a willingness to explore moral ambiguity and human frailty.


Tech Specs for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

Camera: SonyF55 using Sony lenses.

Lighting: HMIs KinoFlos, various tungsten units, and sometimes 0% film lights.

Color Grading: Postproduction at Nice Dissolve

Features Filmography for Daniel Patterson

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Spike Lee, 2014

Evolution of a Criminal, directed by Darius Clark Monroe, 2014

Out in the Night, directed by Blair Dorosh-Walther, 2014

Newlyweeds, directed by Shaka King, 2013

Gun Hill Road, directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green, 2011

About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

2 responses to “Casting Natural Light: A Discussion with Spike Lee’s Cinematographer Daniel Patterson

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