An Honest Examination
The lived experiences of writer-director Elegance Bratton are brought to the screen in The Inspection, which follows the character Ellis French (played by Jeremy Pope), a gay Black man who joins the Marines during the "don't ask, don't tell" era in the early 2000s. "One of the things that drew me to Elegance's script and that I love about film making," says cinematographer Lachlan Milne ASC, ACS, NZCS, "is that this is a world I knew nothing about personally, so the film was an opportunity to learn at the same time as create."
The feature had its premiere at last year's Toronto International Film Festival has garnered critical acclaim for Bratton's deft direction and Milne's observational camerawork. The filmmakers partnered with Panavision New Orleans and employed a parcel that included PVintage spherical optics and Panavised Alexa Mini cameras. Panavision had the opportunity to catch up with Milne and ask about his methods for crafting an honest look to suit the story.
Panavision: How would you describe the look of the film?
Lachlan Milne, ASC, ACS, NZCS: We spoke at length about what kind of film we wanted this to be. For this style of deeply personal subject matter, I find it really important to not get in the way. I like to light as little as possible, and I try and rely on practical sources that I can have in the frame or light from outside the room. We wanted this to feel observed and honest rather than influenced — albeit for a few specific dream-sequence moments.
Elegance and I are both fans of minimal coverage, too, so we blocked ensemble scenes so we could shoot them wider. That also meant the actors could step on each other's lines, which I feel helps keep the scene like a real-time event. We shot spherical 2.39:1, which I love - especially when you have a big cast. It lends itself so well to group scenes, plus you have the benefits of faster lenses with closer focus. When you're on a quick shooting schedule, that really helps.
Were there any particular visual references you looked at for inspiration?
Milne: We talked about a number of films during preproduction, but the largest influence for Elegance was Claire Denis’ 1999 film Beau Travail about the French Foreign Legion. Full Metal Jacket obviously came up, An Officer and a Gentleman, Jarhead, Forrest Gump, Goodfellas, even films like Jaws and The Abyss.
What brought you to Panavision for this project?
Milne: I’ve done a lot with Panavision over the years, and you’ve always been so supportive. Even when I was a camera assistant in Sydney, I could turn up anytime and ask to load a mag or lace up a camera I hadn’t used before.
We shot the film in Jackson, Mississippi, which didn't have the camera support we needed at the time, but Panavision New Orleans was just over a 3-hour's drive away. You also have the glorious PVintage lenses that I absolutely love.
What optical characteristics did you see in those lenses that made them the right match for The Inpection?
Milne: I think the PVintage lenses are my favourites because their combination of lens speed, close focus, focal lengths and compact size best suits how I work. I always operate A camera on movies and sometimes pull my own focus on handheld work, so I like a simple setup as much as possible. We had two cameras on The Inspection, with Ben Spaner doing a great job on B cam and Steadicam. I think the 29mm is the best lens I’ve ever used — writer-director Lee Isaac Chung and I shot about 80 percent of Minari on that lens. The field of view is perfect, especially when you frame for a 2.39:1 letterbox.
How did The Inspection differ from other projects in your career?
Milne: The Inspection taught me a lot on a personal level. I had such a fantastic working relationship with Elegance, which has turned into a great friendship. We both love tennis, so we play together when we're in the same town. Minari was also deeply personal, but in a very different way for Isaac than The Inspection was for Elegance, who’s had some unbelievable tragedy throughout his life, and the fact that he made this film in the first place is a huge achievement. It was a kind of therapy or healing process for him, I think. That taught me a lot about perseverance, optimism and patience. Thematically, it’s a film about toxic masculinity transitioning into a brotherhood and ultimately a form of acceptance. I’d never done a project like that before, and I love projects that teach me. The best projects are the ones that better you as a filmmaker and as a human.
What inspired you to become a cinematographer — and what keeps you inspired today?
Milne: I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be a cinematographer, and the remarkable thing is that I never changed my mind. My dad was a director when I was growing up in Adelaide, South Australia, so I kind of absorbed the industry via osmosis a bit. The thing that struck me was how interesting and fun the people were. I think collaborating with smart, creative people is the best part of film making. I always tell a director that I’ll be as collaborative as they want me to be with them. I love it when we get excited about the same things, or when one of us suggests something totally different for a particular scene that makes it better. I really enjoy talking through what a script is about thematically and finding a way to use the camera to say that. Film making isn't a mathematical equation. It's infinite in choices, and I love that.