Tom Stern

Mystic River

“Mystic River” is Tom Stern’s second d.p. credit, after debuting on Clint Eastwood’s previous film, “Blood Work.”

Starting his career as a gaffer, Stern has worked since the late ’80s as one of Hollywood’s top chief lighting technicians, including on several of Eastwood’s films. His lighting work on Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” (1992), and Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” (1999) and “Road to Perdition” (2000) — the latter two films working under the late Conrad Hall — prepared Stern for the dark, brooding “Mystic River.”

“I was fortunate to work with Conrad Hall and other top people at the highest levels, and that really helped me develop my eye, which was very important on this film,” says Stern. “The idea was to make this movie somber, and take a lot of the color out of it, highlighting blacks to fit the story. My experience in lighting was very helpful in achieving this goal.”

Stern says there was discussion about performing a digital intermediate on the film to desaturate the images to achieve Eastwood’s vision, but there wasn’t sufficient time to test for, and then perform, a DI before the movie debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. Therefore, creation of the desaturated look was largely an in-camera affair.

“I never used diffusion on the lens, my F-stops were reasonable enough to keep a very sharp focus, and we never used zoom lenses,” he says. “There is almost no fill light in this movie, and there was also a certain amount of mechanical stuff done to remove stray light. Often, away from the key side of the frame, we set up black fabric panels to absorb light.

“In the mortuary scene, for instance, we have a transition out of darkness as Sean Penn’s character emerges to identify his daughter’s body. That is typical of how Clint likes to work and clearly expresses the tragedy of the film — fusing the themes of parental love with the need for revenge. That whole thing was done with just two or three little lights.”

Snapshot
Key tools: Panavision cameras with Panavision anamorphic Primo lenses (Series ‘C’ and ‘E’); Kodak 5246 stock for exteriors and Kodak 5279 for interiors and night work.
Aesthetic: ” ‘Mystic River’ is a classic tragedy, but set in a working-class Boston milieu, if you will. Starting from that point, we kept framing pretty static and classical for many moments, but then, it’s broken up with Steadicam stuff for dynamics, and then, it returns to the static sort of frame. Clint wanted a very somber look to fit this story — a desaturated look.”
Challenges: “Clint likes resounding blacks in his films very much — real solid blacks — but it’s not always easy to get them. When we lit the piece, we had to make sure to preserve black elements and references in a lot of scenes.”

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