Based on the true story of two best friends, Jane (Yara Shahidi) and Corinne (Odessa A’zion), Sitting in Bars With Cake depicts a harrowing journey of maturity as Jane’s weekly resolution to bake a new cake to bring into a different bar takes on deeper meaning after Corinne receives a life-threatening cancer diagnosis. Director Trish Sie and cinematographer Matthew Clark, ASC balanced the story's comedy and drama across a nuanced visual arc they defined in prep, shaped on set whilst shooting with Panavision VA primes, and polished in post in collaboration with Light Iron supervising colourist Corinne Bogdanowicz. Here, Clark and Bogdanowicz each reflect on the project, which is now streaming on Prime Video.
Panavision: How would you describe the film?
Matthew Clark, ASC: Sitting in Bars With Cake is a funny drama. It starts off being a comedy, but then it gets really serious pretty quick. When we make that turn, I really wanted this portrait of these two women to have this different look. The idea was to show their relationship and how it changes over time. Once Yara's character becomes more emboldened, she's able to take care of her friend, and that's part of what allows her to become her own person. It's a really good story about the relationship between these two people.
This is the third film I've done with the director, Trish Sie. The first two were really sort of straight-up comedies, and this one had more meat to it. We looked at a lot of photographs. Philip-Lorca diCorcia was one of our references; a lot of his work is staged, but it’s very practical lighting-wise. William Eggleston was another photographer we looked at, for his thoughtful naturalism and a lot of wide-angle inspiration, which also took me to a film called St. Vincent. That film has a lot of graphic elements that are super-simple but tell the story very well and allow Bill Murray to be Bill Murray. Manuel Álvarez Bravo is another photographer we looked at for his ability tell a story with one frame.
We had so many different bars, and when I worked with Dave Elwell, my gaffer, we tried really hard not to have the same colour in every bar. For this bar we'll do a lavender and yellow. For that bar we'll go with a blue-green kind of palette. This one's supernatural but not too over the top, just a lot of harsh light in the backgrounds. It was fun to play around with that.
Corinne, how did Matt and Trish describe the desired look for the project?
Corinne Bogdanowicz: They wanted this film to feel grounded and not too poppy and happy. We used a lot of coolness in the shadow areas to create beautiful images that played with light and dark. The film has a lot of colourful locations in bars, contrasted with less colourful locations like hospitals that we let play more natural and cooler.
Clark: Trish and I wanted to make sure that we didn't go back into Trish’s commercial look but walked the line of it. There were times we could have been a little more dramatic or a little more comedic in the shooting of it, but we got it to a nice place. My favourite quote is what Conrad Hall, ASC said: 'You can't have sugar in every shot.' I believe that tremendously.
What led to the decision to shoot with VA primes?
Clark: Dan [Sasaki, Panavision’s senior vice president of optical engineering and lens strategy] suggested the VAs because I wanted a large format for the job. With the VAs, there are so many different things you can do to make them less pristine. Dan was able to really work with the lenses to give me the tone I wanted. It's so great to be able to work with someone who has the ability to see the finer points and make them happen physically in a lens. You don't get that anywhere else.
One of the things Trish and I wanted to do was to go for a very naturalistic look, something that allowed the characters to breathe and find the spaces. That's one of the reasons I wanted those lenses, because I felt like they provided a natural proscenium for them to play in, with aberrations on the edges. It provided them a place to move and still have some quality that wasn't just a wide shot.
What brought you to Light Iron for this project?
Clark: I've worked with Corinne a lot. She's my go-to person. It's always nice to have someone that you’ve developed a second language with. I usually develop a visual book that I'll send her, and we talk about the style - the blue tones, the warm tones, the colours, and how we want to relate that to the texture and the contrast. We talk a lot beforehand, which allows us the time to switch things up and riff on whatever's happening. Working with her and Light Iron allows me to be more creative on set because you can just go with the flow and know that someone's got your back.
How has your collaboration evolved over the projects you’ve done together?
Clark: At first, Corinne was trying to feel out my style, whilst I try not to have a style. I’m looking to find a true fit for the story — that’s my style. I look to be versatile. And she can do comedy, she can do drama, she can do grit, she can do all these things, which is a testament to her abilities.
What were the main areas of focus during the grade?
Bogdanowicz: We added grain for filmic texture and kept the palette a bit muted. We kept the skin tones natural so the audience can really connect with the characters.
Clark: One of the things that Corinne and I worked very hard on was to keep the visual arc going and allow it to be a little gritty in the beginning and a little more naturalistic into the end, where you're not brought down by the look of it. Part of that was having grain, having blue in the shadow detail, having little desaturated looks every once in a whilst, not so much over-the-top comedy things going on. It was just a matter of rounding off the edges.
Bogdanowicz: We did the HDR grade as the primary colour and made the SDR file simultaneously with Dolby Vision. Matt had some very good images as references for his ideas. His beautiful photography lent itself well to the desired look, and we made some really special images.
Matt, what inspired you to become a cinematographer?
Clark: It's hard to say what inspires you from day to day to be a cinematographer other than being able to tell a story and to collaborate with different people to find the truth in the moment, the truth in each scene and each shot.
I've enjoyed telling stories from a very early age. I actually wanted to be an actor first, so I did a lot of that in high school and college. I was going to quit college and spend a couple weeks in L.A. to try and become an actor, and my dad was like, 'Okay, that's cool, but I'm not paying for it.' So I got a job and worked at a factory making video tape. I eventually started getting involved with the broadcasting department, where they had a video camera. I would take it out and mess with it every weekend. So by the time I graduated, I'd already made a couple of video films and really got into writing and directing. I ended up going to NYU to write and direct, but when I got there, I liked the stuff I shot more than the stuff I directed, and I just fell in love with that part of it completely.