Interviews · Movies

A Conversation with DP Toby Oliver on Crafting The Look of ‘Get Out’

By  · Published on March 14th, 2017

How he and director Jordan Peele crafted the look of the allegorical horror hit.

Cinematographer Toby Oliver’s involvement with Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a match made in Blumhouse Productions. Oliver, who had previously worked with Blumhouse Productions on The Darkness, was sent a copy of the script which Peele had spent several years developing, and was immediately impressed. “It was a well worked-through script,” Oliver told me over the phone last week, as we discussed the production of Get Out and the role of a Director of Photography in general. “He put a lot of time into it, he knew what he wanted to say, so that was really appealing.”

Oliver’s name was put forward as a possibility by Blumhouse Productions, and a meeting was arranged.

“We hit it off in our first conversation, and I had a few ideas about how to visually approach the film and those seemed to agree with what he was wanting to do as well, so that was really a great start,” Oliver recalled. After that meeting, he was brought on board with Get Out.

As to what those ideas were, there were two major ones. The first was that the movie, on the whole, should have a pretty naturalistic feel. That, for Oliver, meant that, “most of the movie should feel really grounded in a reality that suggests a real world rather than a heightened, horror movie kind of visual experience… to make sure that it feels very grounded for the main character, Chris.” The second idea was that the Armitage Estate, where Rose’s parents live, should have a warm, inviting look to it ‐ at least in the beginning. “Rather than getting to the house and having it be frightening when you first arrive, that’s something that’s only revealed later on, and so we actually wanted to visually portray the estate as somewhere very welcoming and warm and fuzzy,” Oliver explained. “And Jordan really loved that idea as well so we started working together to refine that.”

While the color grading was enhanced in post, Oliver also used various in-camera methods to set the foundation of the look he and Peele sought. “In camera I used what are called LUTs, and they’re basically a color set-up in the camera that you load up to the camera so you can make the camera take on a warmer tone or a cooler tone or a darker tone or a more contrasting feel by loading up these sets of parameters,” Oliver said. He used multiple LUTs for Get Out, including one for the daytime scenes set at the Armitage Estate, which had a warmer tint to it which he further helped along through adjusting the camera settings.

“What I think is important, for the DP, in conjunction with the decisions they make with the director, is that if they have a look in mind for parts of the movie, or an overall look on the movie, you want to create that in camera and have that applied to the dailies so what the editor’s working with has already got that color burnt into it, rather than having them work with a blank canvas that could go in any sort of direction,” Oliver explained. “And then of course it can be refined later, but at least you’ve got something to start with that’s close to what the original idea was.”

Oliver’s camera of choice was the ARRI Alexa Mini. Due to it’s more filmic look for a digital camera, among other reasons, Oliver has chosen to work with a number of different Alexa models since the camera was first released, but the compact size and lightweight nature of the Mini was particularly appealing to him. Coming from a background of documentaries and films shot on 16 mm, Oliver appreciates the advantages of a more portable camera. “[The Alexa Mini] gives you the same image quality, and that’s really important. You don’t want to cut corners. And it’s much easier for hand-held. Because it’s lighter you can leave attachments on it, you don’t have to strip it down. One of the main things I try to do for a director, and I certainly tried to do this for Jordan Peele, is to get them a lot of coverage ‐ a lot of shots in the day, so they’ve got more shots in the editing room to make the movie as good as it can be. And that means maybe shooting a few extra setups per day than what you’d normally do, but I think that’s really important, because having those options really makes a difference. So I do whatever I can to not have the director and the actors waiting around for too long for the lighting. And then when we do start shooting, they’re not waiting around too long for the camera to swap positions and so on.”

“One of the main things I try to do for a director, and I certainly tried to do this for Jordan Peele, is to get them a lot of coverage… having those options really makes a difference.”

As Get Out had a tight 23-day shooting schedule, efficiency was a top priority ‐ and therefore, so was preparation. “Jordan was really keen on being as prepared as possible. He knew full well that he was a first time director, and Jordan’s a very, very smart guy so he knew that because of that, the preparation for how he wanted to shoot the movie was perhaps even more important,” Oliver said. “He didn’t want to be there on set, trying to wing it, under the pressures of trying to get everything done every day.”

In addition to storyboards, Peele and Oliver, assisted by four of the film’s producers and the first assistant director, Gerard DiNardi, shot a photo storyboard of all the scenes taking place at the Armitage Estate, which basically involved them walking through every scene that took place in the house and acting them out for Oliver’s stills camera. “It gave Jordan a really good sense of space, and where the camera should be in relationship to the actors within that space.”

Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” (2013)

From a DP’s perspective, Get Out offered both some conceptual and technical challenges. Conceptually, one of the bigger challenges was The Sunken Place, where Chris’ hypnotized conscious gets sent. One big inspiration was a netherworld sequence from Jonathan Glazer’s surreal sci-fi Under the Skin, which served as a sort of starting point. They wanted a vaguely underwater feel, without Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) actually appearing to be underwater. As such, they utilized elements of the technique known as dry for wet. “We shot it in slow motion, and had [Daniel] hanging off a wire, and used the camera moving around him to create the sense that he was falling through this vast space, with the help of a little bit of digital effects, like the floating particles and so on,” Oliver explained. “It was a lot of fun coming up with that, actually.”

Technically, one of the hardest shots to pull off in the film (from a DP’s perspective) was the scene where Chris wakes up at night and goes outside to have a cigarette. Though cut into a few different shots in the finished movie, it was filmed as a single Steadicam shot. “Of course you need to light the whole sequence and not show any of the lights ‐ and that’s a common enough challenge for the cinematographer to have to deal with ‐ but it’s always a tricky one when you’ve got to go from an upstairs to a downstairs, and then shoot in both directions,” Oliver said. “The whole walk down was pretty much used, which is great. I think shooting a longer take like that, even if it subsequently does get cut into a couple of pieces, can work really well in horror movies because it tends to build up the tension since you’re not cutting away or cutting out of the sequence and you’re with the character for that whole journey.”

Oliver noted, though, that even though Peele’s script was fantastic and he was happy with the footage he shot, it’s extremely difficult to judge a film before it’s gone through the editing process. “When I saw an early cut of the movie, I realized it was going to be good,” he said. “Its really struck a cord.” As Get Out continues to perform extremely well both critically and at the box office, where it’s surpassed $100 million against a $4.5 million budget, it would seem that audiences definitely agree.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.