"What are we going to talk about today?" cinematographer Anastas Michos, ASC, GSC asks almost immediately after answering his phone. It's late July when Panavision connects with Michos, and though the vast majority of productions had ground to a halt back in March due to COVID-19, the cinematographer has managed to keep busy whilst also taking all necessary precautions to stay healthy and safe. After doing some shooting around New York City for a documentary about the pandemic directed by fellow ASC member Ellen Kuras, Michos lifted anchor and has recently been sailing along the East Coast. "Isolating socially became 'let me go commune with nature,' just to put a different spin on it," he shares.
The cinematographer also just had the romantic comedy The Kissing Booth 2 — director Vince Marcello’s sequel to his 2018 feature The Kissing Booth, which also had Michos behind the camera — premier on Netflix, with the debut of another feature, director David Prior’s supernatural thriller The Empty Man, on the docket for later this year. And that is what we’re going to talk about today.
Though light years apart in both style and subject matter, the two movies are inextricably linked for the cinematographer due to the fact that both were predominantly shot in and around Cape Town, South Africa. Michos photographed The Empty Man in late 2016, and he describes the film as "a very dark supernatural thriller adapted from the Boom! Studios comic book. I do believe that those of us who are totally immersed in our work pick up the story’s emotional vibes, and when it’s a dark subject matter, it affects you. Towards the end of that show, I bumped into [The Kissing Booth] producer Michele Weisler in Cape Town. We went out for dinner, I asked, 'What are you doing?' and she said, 'Oh, this little, sweet teen comedy.' I thought, 'Right now, that would be so much fun,' so I said, 'That's great - are you looking for a DP?'"
Weisler then introduced Michos to Marcello, who was prepping the first Kissing Booth, with principal photography slated to begin in January 2017. "We got along great," Michos recalls. "He's witty, he's smart, he had a vision for his film and pitched it in a way that was so appealing." Based on the book by Beth Reekles, The Kissing Booth followed Elle Evans (Joey King) through her junior year of high school and the awkward realization that she was in love with Noah Flynn (Jacob Elordi), the older brother of her lifelong best friend, Lee (Joel Courtney) — and that the feeling was mutual. Released on Netflix in May 2018, the film quickly became a sensation, and it wasn't long before a sequel was in the works.
In fact, Netflix greenlit two sequels, with The Kissing Booth 3 shot in secret right on the heels of The Kissing Booth 2. The third film, slated to debut in 2021, was finally announced two days after the second premiered and quickly rocketed to first place in Netflix's "Top 10 in the U.S. Today" ranking.
The Kissing Booth 2 picks up the story with Elle and Lee beginning their senior year, and with Noah now on the other side of the country as a freshman at Harvard. Principal photography on the film began in February 2019, with Michos and Marcello reuniting on location in Cape Town. Though set in and around Los Angeles, each Kissing Booth film has spent only a few days actually shooting in the City of Angels, relying instead on South Africa to serve as a convincing stand-in. "Part of the sell is that Cape Town is as far south of the equator as L.A. is north of it," Michos notes. "So in terms of climate, it's similar."
The illusion is further sold with a shallow depth of field that keeps the backgrounds soft whilst simultaneously bringing the audience into Elle's headspace. "We wanted to keep the film intimate and let the background be pretty and drop away," Michos says. "We used Primos, which are wonderfully sharp, and I had a little bit of glass in front of them just to take the edge off. We shot wide open all the time, even if we had to ND down, so we could really get the full effect of the softness in the background, with the bokeh being soft and round. The background became L.A. because there wasn't anything in focus that wasn't L.A. It was all in the viewer's head."
Indeed, in depicting Los Angeles, the filmmakers sought to present what Michos calls a "heightened" version that speaks to a collective mental image of the city. "Everything that we were doing is a fantasy - there is no high school that is necessarily as opulent, people don't necessarily live in those huge houses. To make that work, we wanted it to be bright, glossy, poppy and friendly, and to keep the mythology of Los Angeles working so that the global audience's idea of L.A. was satisfied. So everybody has beautiful rim light, they have a soft cheek light - that is the world that we're portraying."
One of Cape Town's bigger challenges, when it comes to a film that takes place in the States, is the fact that cars drive on the opposite side of the road. For one particular day exterior when the production wasn't able to stop traffic, Michos shares, "I pitched an old trick to Vincent, and he was thrilled, so we asked wardrobe and the art department to print everything backwards - all the signs, all the logos, all the licence plates - as if they were in a mirror. Then we just reverted the image, and nobody was the wiser for it. It worked out well, but it was weird doing it, and it was weird in coverage to remember that if they're exiting frame right, they're actually exiting frame left."
The Kissing Booth movies are all framed for a 2:1 release, and for the sequels, Michos opted to shoot with Panavision’s Millennium DXL2 camera system, which he had used on the series Ambitions after wrapping the first Kissing Booth. For The Kissing Booth 2 and 3, he explains, “We decided to keep it spherical and shoot in 6K but frame for 5K. That allowed Vincent later to have some room to reframe and take the shake out. Particularly when we were moving quickly in [Part 2’s] dancing situations, if the only thing wrong with a take was that the dolly had a bump, we knew we could fix that later.”
Two cameras were the norm throughout production, with a third often coming in for scenes involving more than two characters. "Then, for the dance sequence," Michos adds, "we had over seven cameras."
The sequence in question depicts a massive "Dance Dance Mania" arcade-game competition that Elle and Marco (Taylor Zakhar Perez) enter as partners, with a grand prize of $50,000 on the line. "Vince embraced the idea that it was a live performance that was going to be broadcast within the story," Michos notes, "so in some of the shots we could see our camera crew, and that was okay.
“The dance-off was a far bigger set piece than anything we had in the first Kissing Booth," the cinematographer continues. "We scoured the country and used every light, every piece of staging truss, and every physical effect that we could find. When you see the sequence, you go, ‘Whoa, that’s a lot of stuff they got in there!’ It was a totally empty space at 6 p.m. on Monday, and we rolled camera on Thursday. So we only had 48 hours to put everything in, we shot for two days, and then we had 12 hours to pull everything out.” With a laugh, he adds, “One lives to tell the story.”
Michos embraced the DXL2's native 1600 ISO, employing NDs for day exteriors, and taking a naturalistic approach to night exteriors. For example, when Elle and Marco sit on the beach, looking out over the ocean with a full moon in the sky and bonfires flickering down the shoreline in the background, "they were lit by firelight," the cinematographer explains. "Gaffer Oliver Wilter had a flame bar, and maybe an LED panel on a bit of a flicker mode as fill, and we just let it go."
For this scene and certain others, Michos swapped the Primo lenses for PVintage optics. "I used them as punctuation marks," he says. "They fall off so softly. My favourites are the 29mm and the 50mm; they're a T1.2 and a T1.0 [respectively]. I used the 50mm on the beach - there's an establishing shot with the real moon reflecting off the real water. It was 1600 ASA, T1, I spun the shutter to 360 degrees, and I might even have bumped it down to 20 fps. You can see the separation of the sky, you can see the moon, you can see the reflection on the water - it was really quite magical."
The production also carried Panavision's 17.5-75mm Primo 4:1 (T2.3), 24-275mm Primo 11:1 (T2.8) and 135-420mm Primo 3:1 (T2.8) zooms. "We liked to call the 3:1 'the Hubble' - and we would put a doubler on it, so we would be on the end of an 800mm," Michos reveals. "Our focus pullers were fantastic!"
Michos also didn't shy away from zooming during a shot, at times subtly whilst following a moving actor, and at other times more obviously, snap-zooming to punctuate a moment's energy. "I would jump on a camera to grab something," the cinematographer recalls, "and I would literally snap it to set my frame, and I noticed Vince's eyes were lighting up. So I thought, ‘Okay, let’s make this a theme.’ This kind of narrative called for it. Part of the thing in the romantic-comedy world of The Kissing Booth is to embrace the idea that things are serendipitous, and to use the camera to recognise those moments that are slightly chaotic."
In addition to the crew's brief time in Los Angeles, the production shot for one day in Boston, grabbing shots around the city for Elle's trip to visit Noah at Harvard. Footage from both cities was put to effective use in montage sequences that move the narrative forward whilst further convincing the audience of the film's settings. "Vincent is a master of the montage," Michos says. "What he needs is what he calls 'bits.' Running and gunning, and grabbing a lot of stuff, he's able to build a very emotional journey in one or two minutes. If there's a cut in a montage that's longer than 48 frames, I'd be really surprised. Which means that one can't be too precious with the 'quality' of the shot, because it's about the emotion of the actor. In this kind of storytelling, you embrace your director and go, 'What matters to this moment is the fact that the characters are having fun together, not whether or not they're in backlight.'"
Amongst the Los Angeles locations that played themselves, the Santa Monica Pier and its Ferris wheel receive the most screen time. Even the Hollywood sign was, in part, shot in Cape Town. "We built a few of the letters, slightly off scale, to a height of about 10 feet," Michos recalls. "We were in an old, abandoned airport in Cape Town, flat as you can possibly be. So we did greenscreen against containers, production put the right kind of dirt on the ground, and that was it." For a shot of Elle sitting at the base of the sign that starts close and pulls back to a wide aerial, a Technocrane move was captured on the set in Cape Town and then stitched in post to a drone shot that actually was executed in Los Angeles.
Like a dark mirror of his experiences on the Kissing Booth movies, The Empty Man had also required Michos and his collaborators to double South Africa for America — in this case for a supernatural story set in the Midwest — with only a few days of shooting on location in the States.
In terms of its visual style, Michos says The Empty Man “was about control. David wanted everything to be very precise." Working with a mix of C, T and G Series anamorphic lenses, Michos primarily shot the film with a single camera, which was often mounted on a dolly. "Very few camera moves used two axes," the cinematographer notes. "If we were to push in, we didn't pan; if it was a pan, there wasn't going to be a tilt. If we had to pan from one actor to another and the second one was taller, David would block the actor to fit within the frame rather than add a tilt to the pan. And the lighting was equally controlled — there were no happy accidents.”
The filmmakers' unwavering precision in the visual presentation underscores the plot's mounting tension. Prior, Michos adds, "is a close friend of David Fincher, so that was a huge influence. 'Fincheresque' became the word, and that really is about control. So it was a single-camera show, very stylized, very controlled. Not every scene was storyboarded, but stills were definitely taken whilst scouting, and frames were examined. Many of our scenes had previs, and we lined up with the previs."
In look, tone and genre, The Kissing Booth 2 and The Empty Man could hardly be any further apart - and, for Michos, that was part of the appeal of both projects. "I'm the kind of DP that revels in a change of genre," he says. "After I did The Empty Man, I did The Kissing Booth, and then I did The First Purge, which is another totally different look. I try to be somewhat chameleonlike in style.”
Clearly, though, that pursuit won’t keep the cinematographer from returning not just to a genre but to a particular franchise, as evidenced by his time behind the camera on three Kissing Booth movies. "The act of collaboration is what keeps us coming back in this business," Michos reflects. "And when I find somebody as delightful to collaborate with as Vince, it makes me want to do it again. The collaborative spirit is paramount. I think that’s what drew me to the film business, and that’s what keeps me in it.”
Unit photography by Marcos Cruz, courtesy of Netflix. Additional photographs courtesy of Anastas Michos, ASC, GSC.