Saturday, January 20, 2018
  • Friday, Mar. 24, 2017
Toby Oliver, ACS, Reflects On "Get Out"
“I love working with Jordan. He is a smart guy and a generous collaborator who is always happy to hear ideas.” --Toby Oliver, ACS
Cinematographer discuss his collaborative relationship with 1st-time director Jordan Peele on the critically acclaimed hit

Lensed by Toby Oliver, ACS, the comedy-horror film Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele, is a hit, recently bowing in the #1 slot in the U.S. weekend box office. Get Out has also garnered critical acclaim for its dark, subversive commentary about racial tensions. 

The film stars Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington, a young African-American man, who ventures out to meet his Caucasian girlfriend’s family for the first time on their estate. The girlfriend, Rose Armitage, is portrayed by Allison Williams. The story quickly and wryly descends as Chris learns that many local black residents have mysteriously gone missing.

Get Out marks the directorial debut of Peele who previously was best known from the varied characters he played in the sketch comedy series Key & Peele.

Oliver formed a close-knit collaborative relationship with Peele on Get Out, bringing extensive lensing experience in the U.S. and internationally to the film. Oliver won an Australian Academy Award for his cinematography on the documentary Miracle in the Storm (2010), while being nominated four other times for the narrative features Looking For Alibrandi (2000), Tom White (2004) and Beneath Hill 60 (2010) as well as the TV movie Carlotta (2014). He also won Gold Awards from the Australian Cinematographers Society (ACS) for the theatrical features Tom White, Beneath Hill 60 and Wolf Creek 2, the dramatized doc Miracle in the Storm, and the telefilm Beaconsfield.

A graduate of Melbourne’s renowned Swinburne Film School, Oliver first established himself Down Under and then moved to Los Angeles in 2013, lensing several films and now making arguably his biggest stateside splash with Get Out.

Oliver’s filmography also includes short films (Minutes of a Separation, and ACS Gold Award winners Stitched and The Big House) as well as commercials for such brands as Samsung, Hyundai, Quiznos, TiVo, HSBC Bank, IWC, Channel 4 and Amnesty International.

Oliver’s work in varied disciplines has been seen at major festivals worldwide including Venice, Sundance, Sydney, Melbourne, Busan, Montreal, Tokyo, Shanghai and Toronto. His career has spanned collaborations with many prominent artists including Kevin Bacon, Cate Blanchett, Aaron Eckhart, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Radha Mitchell, Anthony LaPaglia, Paul Reiser, Colin Friels and Jessica Marais.

SHOOT: Provide some backstory on Get Out. How did you get the opportunity to work on the film and how did you connect with Jordan Peele?

OLIVER: Get Out was produced by Blumhouse Productions. I had already worked with them shooting The Darkness for Australian director Greg McLean, along with some reshoots for the movies Incarnate and Sinister 2, so I was developing a good relationship with the Blumhouse folks. When Get Out was gearing up for production, Couper Samuelson from Blumhouse and co-producer Gerard DiNardi were keen to have Jordan meet me as a potential DP. They sent me Jordan’s script, which was terrific from the word go. I really wanted to be involved with a film that was clearly breaking the conventions of typical horror/thriller genre pieces. I also wrote up a short pitch about how to approach the film visually and provided supporting reference images. Essentially, I wanted to create a grounded, naturalistic approach in setting up Chris’ world and the Armitage Estate—at least at first. We hit it off on our first conversation. I was able to plug into the way Jordan wanted to make the film and also made him feel confident that we had a decent chance to achieve his vision within the short schedule. So he agreed to bring me on board.

SHOOT: What was (were) the biggest creative challenge(s) that Get Out posed to you as a cinematographer?

OLIVER: Going into the film, there were a couple of things on my mind. Firstly—a common challenge on these lower budget movies—is how do we achieve and do justice to Jordan’s script in a tight shooting schedule of 23 days? The answer is in detailed planning. To that end we spent a lot of the prep time refining and adding to Jordan’s existing storyboards and also shooting a set of “photo boards” of every scene that took place at the Armitage estate, where we felt our time would be most precious. The photo boards were shot in prep about a week or so out from shooting, with Jordan and a number of the producers standing in for the characters. The other challenge was photographing our main protagonist, played by Daniel Kaluuya. Daniel has quite dark toned skin, so lighting him—particularly at night and where he is standing next to the very fair Allison Williams—required extra thought. Ultimately, Daniel’s skin is amazing with a lovely subtle reflective sheen, so I found I needed to mostly light him with larger, softer sources to the side. He looked great.

SHOOT: Get Out marks Jordan’s directorial debut, arguably making the choice of a cinematographer all the more important. Would you shed some light on the nature of your collaboration, how you worked together?

OLIVER: I love working with Jordan. He is a smart guy and a generous collaborator who is always happy to hear ideas about how we might cover a scene. But he is also very clear when he needs something done a certain way. He had been working with this story and developing his script for quite a few years before we went into production, so he had distinct ideas about the performance tone and the atmosphere he wanted. He also had a bunch of storyboards drawn up for key sequences. He knew what he wanted. 

It’s often the case that a first time director will be paired with a much more experienced DP to help them creatively realize their vision on camera and help ensure that the film is shot to budget and on schedule. I came in to perform exactly that role for Jordan. Judging by the glowing press reviews that highlight Jordan’s sophisticated visual style, I humbly hope to think I made a meaningful contribution to the success of the film. Part of that is helping Jordan find the best choice of camera angles to advance the story and emotion while ensuring he gets enough coverage and setups in a day to give him plenty of options in post. Another part is creating a lighting and color plan that hits the right tone, feel and mood for his story. It is also important—and I do this with more established directors as well—to back them up and support them in making the best version of their movie as humanly possible. There are often budget or political pressures where compromise is required — sometimes significantly. I feel it’s the DP’s role to help the director keep as much of their vision intact as possible.

SHOOT: What was your choice of camera(s) for Get Out and why?  Choice of lenses and why?

OLIVER: I used the ARRI ALEXA Mini for both cameras. I chose them for their cinematic image quality, reliability and much smaller size and weight than the original ALEXA. I find the Mini allows faster changeovers between hand-held Steadicam and studio mode and is also faster to move between setups. We chose to use Angenieux Optimo zoom lenses exclusively. I showed Jordan a range of prime lens kits in prep, but he felt more comfortable working with zoom lenses. They gave us sufficient flexibility and the Optimos have a lovely cinematic quality. Not too perfect or clinical, which worked well with the ALEXAs. I also used Tiffen Glimmerglass diffusion filters at all times to take the edge off the digital image and add a subtle glow to highlights.

SHOOT: What lessons were learned from your lensing of Get Out? What were your biggest takeaways from the experience?

OLIVER: It really reinforced the adage that one should give every project its due respect. Meaning you never really know which project, whether it be low budget, high concept or just “out there,” will be the one that becomes a massive success. All projects you choose to take on should receive your greatest effort and total focus. I subscribe to this ideal regardless, but the stunning success of Get Out really drives the point home.

Also, Get Out was my first U.S. project shot in the South. In fact, it was only my second American project shot outside of Los Angeles. I had a crew who were largely local from Alabama or nearby Louisiana. Their hard work, skill and dedication to the film really impressed me. I was able to build on some of those new relationships, with both my key grip Eric Damazio and gaffer Sean Finnegan joining me again on other films later that year.
(Oliver currently has four upcoming films in postproduction: Insidious: Chapter 4, Wildling, the documentary Roller Dreams and Half to Death.)