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How ‘Charm City Kings’ Cinematographer Throttled Up the Realism

Charm City Kings Movie
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Puerto Rican director Ángel Manuel Soto stuck with his decision to bring on cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi for Sony’s “Charm City Kings” despite the studio’s desire for someone with more experience. Though Arizmendi’s credits included just a pair of indie features, Soto knew that her use of naturalistic light with touches of heightened realism were ideal sensibilities for his high-octane, Sundance-winning, Baltimore-set coming-of-age story about an African American boy, Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), eager to be part of the city’s dirt-bike-riding subculture. 

“My work can be stylized but doesn’t stray from what the story needs,” Arizmendi says. There was a photogenic quality to the overgrown trees, abandoned buildings and lived-in textures of the city she was portraying that she didn’t want to eliminate or sanitize. Judicious use of vintage Panavision Ultra Speed lenses helped her capture its raw beauty by adding light flare and a sense of foreboding. “We tried to make this not too glossy a film,” the DP says of the movie, co-written by “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins. “We wanted it to be authentic and embrace the grit.” 

In comparison with “Swallow,” another feature Arizmendi recently lensed, which shot on a single site and involved mostly interiors, Soto’s film unfolds outdoors in real locations, with a predetermined cinematic grammar. “Controlling continuity between cloudy and sunny days was difficult, and there’s not much that you can do except help with the grading,” Arizmendi says. “Much of the film was fluid, long Steadicam shots, so I had to embrace the imperfectness of that.” 

Because of the intricacies that “Charm City Kings” demanded, Arizmendi opted for working behind the monitor to ensure the lighting was dialed in correctly and to oversee all other technical eventualities. She trusted camera operator Stewart Cantrell, with whom she’d worked previously, to carry out the most physical part of the process with great expertise. The experience helped Arizmendi push her abilities in new directions. 

“I hadn’t done long, choreographed takes like that in the narrative space before,” she says. “It’s a challenge to light shots like those while having to keep contrast as the camera moves along. You have to get creative.”

Such lengthy shots, which included plenty of variables, were the norm throughout the production, whether on Steadicam or handheld. The approach gained even more significance aesthetically and practically as the team re-created what’s known as the “Sunday Ride,” a large gathering where dirt bikers perform tricks for locals and spend time with family and friends. 

“When shot-listing the Sunday Ride, we wanted it to feel like we were floating through this environment via Mouse and his friends. We wanted it to have energy,” Arizmendi says. “We wanted to pan off of him onto a bike that goes by, and then another bike crosses, and that takes the camera in the other direction. We then pick up with Mouse again, and it feels almost dreamlike. There’s so much to take in, so we wanted to do shots as long as possible.”  

To pull off the complex sequences featuring the bikes, Arizmendi used a Russian Arm crane and an E-car (a remote camera attached to a motorcycle that could navigate narrow alleys where the Russian Arm wouldn’t fit). Still, that the sequence had underage actors at the center of it required her to cheat several key moments. “We had to do a lot of Texas switches where we would see Jahi Di’Allo Winston get on the bike. Then he would get pulled out of frame; we would pan over to something else and then turn back around to him,” she explains, “but in the distance there would be a stunt double riding away.”