Charles Bramesco
2.7.2020 3:44 AM

How they win

The high-tech secret behind the stunning cinematography of ‘Uncut Gems’

How did the Safdie brothers keep a perpetually moving Adam Sandler in focus? With a device called the Light Ranger 2.

Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems is a film of relentless, unceasing motion. Harried jeweler–slash–gambling addict Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) hustles through midtown Manhattan’s Diamond District, up and down Sixth Avenue, back and forth from his home on Long Island to his philandering-pad in the city.

Even the closeups have a jittery sort of kinetic energy to them; Howard is always rocking back and forth, pacing, at times seemingly vibrating in place. That the film’s cinematographer, Darius Khondji, won’t get any recognition at the Oscars this Sunday is yet another reason to cast doubt on the Academy’s judgment.

That sensation of constant propulsive force was a tonal must for the film, but the Safdie brothers’ particular filmmaking methods made that a unique challenge. The co-directors get some of their best material by fostering a sense of spontaneity, so they eschew marks — electrical-tape X’s on the floor tipping off actors on where to stand — and encourage free movement about the set. They also believe that actors work best when hulking machines aren’t all up in their faces, so they prefer to situate their cameras far from a scene’s action and shoot using super-long zoom lenses. “The margin of error in these extreme closeups is less than an inch,” says Chris Silano, Khondji’s A-camera assistant on Uncut Gems.

'Uncut Gems' cinematographer Darius KhondjiCourtesy of A24

The combination of unpredictable choreography and a depth of field flattened by distance would’ve made focusing these scenes impossible. That is, if not for a focus-calibrating device called the Light Ranger 2, which has amassed a cult following among Hollywood’s camera crews. “The Light Ranger 2 is going to revolutionize this piece of the industry,” Silano says. “It’s already started.” Everyone interviewed for this article echoed some version of this same sentiment, and the word revolutionize was used by all but one person.

That would be Howard Preston, the inventor of the Light Ranger and a friendly guy who’s modest about his estimable achievements. Preston Cinema Systems has been expanding the frontiers of what cameras can do since the late 1980s, a time when the changeover to video had experts rethinking a lot of what they’d taken for granted. Preston envisioned a way to improve on the autofocus system for both analog and digital cameras. “Something affordable, viable for on-set use, something that could fit in a case,” Preston says. “The idea was a device that someone already handling the work of adjusting focus could use, which wouldn’t require a specialist on the payroll.”

Throughout the 1990s, Preston produced three beta versions of what he’d dub the Light Ranger. (The name refers to the pulse of infrared light used by “time of flight” cameras.) It made the work of keeping a subject in clear view simpler and more intuitive. “The puller” — the person working the knob that keeps the images onscreen in focus — “could simply press a button, and as long as he kept the crosshair on a subject, they’d stay in focus,” Preston says. “It was purely mechanical.”

The most prominent early usage of the Light Ranger 1 took place on Without Limits, a 1998 sports drama about distance runners. The renowned Conrad L. Hall had signed on as director of photography, and found the Light Ranger tremendously useful in calibrating on-the-move closeups of running legs.

'Without Limits' (1988)

Also impressed was Tom Cruise, who’d stepped in as producer on the film while gearing up for Eyes Wide Shut with Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick had already achieved legend status among gear nerds for using ultra-rare lenses acquired from NASA to shoot 1975’s Barry Lyndon by candlelight, and Cruise rightly assumed the Light Ranger would be of interest to the auteur.

Eyes Wide Shut, heh, that’s a fun story,” Preston chuckles. “Stanley gave me a call, which was quite a surprise. I was incredulous, naturally. I spent a few weeks with him in London during the filming, and that was a wonderful experience. But we couldn’t make it work, because his approach changed quite a bit from the time of our chat to when he actually began shooting. He ended up using lenses that didn’t necessitate so much of the Light Ranger. We had a conversation about putting this to work on his next film, but unfortunately, he never got the chance.” (Kubrick died in 1999, prior to the release of Eyes Wide Shut.)

In the ensuing years, Preston kept developing the Light Ranger. “I realized that what would really facilitate the job of the focus puller would be visualizing the full volume of the set, not just a single point,” he says. “I was talking in terms of the use of the knob, the interface between the focus puller and the lens, with the objective of having an exact knowledge of which direction and how much movement of that knob would be needed to bring a subject into focus. The difference was gauging depth simultaneously on multiple points versus on one point at a time.” To put it simply, he wanted exactitude. He wanted to be able to see when he had gotten what he wanted in focus, instead of feeling it.

Camera outfitted with a Light Ranger 2Preston Cinema Systems

Around two decades of research, tinkering, re-conceptualizing, and fine-turning yielded the Light Ranger 2 in 2014. The device — a hyper-jump forward — plugs into a camera and overlays sixteen columns on top of the shot along a center line. This breaks the focus into sixteen discrete zones, each of which appears either above or below the line depending on whether it’s too close or far away to be in focus. “When you hit the sweet spot, a wonderful thing happens,” says Jon Fauer, longtime cinematographer and editor of Film and Digital Times. “The zones in focus light up a bright, satisfying green.”

“With motion pictures, you need a talented puller to keep the actor and the action in focus,” he continues. “No autofocus system has been able to achieve this, because there are so many other parameters to consider — an actor going behind an object or crossing another actor — so human guidance is absolutely necessary. The Preston system aids the focus puller with an onscreen display while letting them keep total manual control.” The camera operator can override the flaws of a pre-programmed autofocus, while also minimizing human error by using the sixteen-bar readout.

Perhaps it’s most easily explained by example. Silano got the hang of the LR2 while working on the 2017 circus musical The Greatest Showman. “The learning curve is pretty steep,” Silano recalls. “I cursed at [the Light Ranger 2] for two days. Do you remember the first time you ever tried to operate a GPS while driving a car? Your exit goes whizzing by, the map starts reorienting itself, it dings ‘Recalculating!’ and you’re like, ‘Wait, what the fuck is going on?’ It’s kind of like that.”

His big breakthrough came in the scene in which Zendaya’s trapeze artist swings back and forth like a pendulum, the apex of her path bringing her face-to-face with the camera. The precision of the LR2 allowed Silano such surgical accuracy that he contrived the dreamy look of the shot below, which keeps the actor’s eyes glossy and in sharp focus while her nose and ears soften just out of focus.

'The Greatest Showman' (2017)

“It’s like a Formula One race car,” Silano says of the LR2. “Pretty much everyone can drive. But not everyone can whip around the track at 150 miles per hour.”

Silano brought the LR2 with him when he signed on to work with Khondji on Uncut Gems, but for B-camera assistant Olga Abramson, the tech was all new. “We played around with it during prep,” she says, “and it was a Frankenstein operation getting it to work at first, because we were shooting on film and it was difficult sometimes to fit 21st-century technology with 35mm equipment. We started experimenting, did some camera prep at a warehouse lab, worked a lot of kinks out.”

She describes the LR2 as a focus puller’s new best friend. “It was immediately recognized as an amazing, invaluable tool because we’d do blocking and rehearsal without having to put down marks,” she says. “The Safdies had an idea of each shot, discuss it with actors and the camera operators, but so much of this was done on the fly. Every shot was hair-raising. My memories of working on that movie are memories of my heart pounding in my chest.”

Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie, and Adam SandlerCourtesy of A24

Josh Safdie vividly recounts one such memory. “At one point in the film, there’s a zooming shot of Sandler reflected in the mirrored ceiling,” he writes in an email. “This surface had multiple bends and divots in it, making it almost impossible to focus on Sandler's face. As the camera zoomed into the mirror, Chris had to navigate this focal minefield and all the information the Light Ranger was feeding him. He chose a focal plane that purposely distorted Sandler's face and accentuated his mouth and teeth into what looked like a mask. The whole image suddenly became surreal and slightly disturbing and totally beautiful.” (To see the spoileriffic scene in question, click here.)

“The whole image suddenly became surreal and slightly disturbing and totally beautiful.”

Safdie points to another scene that illustrates the handles-like-a-dream quality of the equipment. “There’s a shot towards the end, when Howard hits an apex of ecstasy,” he writes. “In the script, it reads, ‘ILOVEYOU ILOVEYOU ILOVEYOU ILOVEYOU.’ When we started blocking it out, Sandler thought maybe he’d pace back and forth (likely on the same plane), but in the height of the moment, he decided to run in small concentric circles, screaming the line as he did. This is a very hard thing to control, focus-wise.” However, he says, Silano got the shot on the first take. “I don’t know if that would have happened without the Light Ranger.”

'Uncut Gems' (2019)

Everyone agrees that the LR2 demands a greater-than-normal quotient of expertise from the person operating it. “There’s an autofocus component,” Silano says, “and I’ll share a secret with you: I think some people are blindly using it as a crutch.” But for those camera-whisperers capable of making it work, the sky’s the limit. “Once you’ve got the hang of it,” Silano says, “you never want to work without it again.”

Can we expect more and more professionals to rise to the occasion and utilize the LR2? “Oh, absolutely,” Abramson says. “It’ll be the new standard, but only for a certain scale of production. It’s not cheap” — LR2s run $10,000 — “and it’s bulkier than some other things. But after Uncut Gems, I went right out and bought one.” She’s brought it with her to every production she’s tackled since (most notably, a silver-screen vehicle for Clifford the Big Red Dog), and she’ll bring it when she reunites with Kohndji for their next job together, on Pablo Larraín’s Faces.

At a time when most aspects of cinema’s evolution trend towards making the process more approachable for lay people, Preston and his Light Ranger 2 hold fast to the principle that there’s no substitute for skill when it comes to making beautiful art. Streamlining the act of filmmaking doesn’t mean dumbing it down, no matter what the crude bluntness of digital video might have us believe.

Craft is alive and well, though Silano sees a bittersweet poetry to the irony that these advances render the labor of a cinematographer even harder to appreciate for the untrained eye. “People only notice when it’s not right,” he laughs. “When it’s right, when you’ve done your work, it’s all invisible.”