The Cinematography of “Can I Play Now?”
by Lief Thomason, CIPN Cinematographer
“Can I Play Now?” is a family adventure/drama that aims to bring a kid’s untethered imagination to life as he grapples with the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The visual goal was clear from the script. We needed to pull sleight-of-hand on the viewers while still distinguishing imagination from reality. This was done in 2 parts: the first in camera movement and the second in the color-grade.
I particularly love when films use the filmmaker’s tool-set and medium for symbolism, like how Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” uses variable aspect ratios to represent the era of each storyline, or the way “Halloween” developed the steadicam shot to create ghostly movement to represent the haunting presence of Michael. From the script, it became obvious to me that camera movement could be used to distinguish reality from imagination. So you’ll notice that in all shots of Connor, mom, and dad leading up to him leaving the table, we kept the camera on sticks to literally ground these shots in reality. From there each sub-genre is represented in the camera movement: the first being action with lots of aggressive handheld movement, the second a musical with floating steadicam shots, and the final a cop drama using very loose handheld camera work for that “on-the-scene” feeling. There is a deliberate break in the form as Connor leaves the table since he now aims to marry his imagination with reality to finish his assignment. Something fun to notice is how the opening sequence with Connor reviewing the assignment and trying to escape his reality played off these rules of reality/imagination using camera movement. I’ll let you put those pieces together though.
After we had everything captured, we knew that color-grading decisions would be an important part of keeping our worlds separate. Since we had limited crew, gear, and space for lighting we chose to exaggerate some of the grading to be genre-specific, similar to our use of camera movement. I would normally recommend exaggerating lighting a bit more than we did. It honestly was just a function of our limitations that I chose to keep consistent lighting through the film. I believe that lighting and grading are inseparable co-workers for creating a visual style. By putting a little effort in both you’ll get really nice results that I think will get you closer to your vision.
What’s fun about establishing rules like this for separating our worlds, is that we knew we had a method for seamlessly introducing them and at the same time abruptly ending them. That was a really important part of the humor in “Can I Play Now?” By interrupting Connor’s imagination, I think we were able to successfully keep viewers in the head of Connor at all times, accepting each new world as he drifted into it then disrupting these imaginations, as reality mercilessly tends to do to us. An idea can be really fun in a script, but that has to translate into film. I think where independent films sometimes miss selling an idea is in establishing cinematic rules for an audience. It’s an integral part of the pre-production process that I would never skip.