The Evolving Look of “Once Upon a Town”

By Erik Clapp (Once Upon A Town, Director of Photography)

There are very few art forms that are intrinsic to the United States. If you really think about that there really are only a few. One is Jazz and Blues music. The other is the Western. Those are art forms born from the blood sweat and tears that built this country. So in creating the look of “Once Upon a Town” for director Coleman Anderson I wanted to pay tribute to the great westerns of directors John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Sergio Leone.

My father introduced me to the films of John Ford as a kid. “The Searchers” was in permanent rotation in our household. In it contained big shots. And I mean big vistas and tremendous compositions of the west. Over the past few years I have been studying the films of Sergio Leone. Not just his famous Man with No Name trilogy but “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Duck you Sucker”. For me Leone even though his works took place in the U.S. they were all filmed in Italy. They took on a surreal feel for me. Leone was an alien to the states who spoke no English yet made films about our past. He was a voracious researcher of U.S. history and watcher of westerns. His films offer a unique outside perspective of the West.

When I was approached to shoot this series, I wanted to get into that world as best I could with what we had to work with. To do so required those big vistas. So I decided to shoot this in the anamorphic aspect ratio and stay wide as much as possible. To get the resolution I also decided to go 4K, which is the newest in HD resolution. Using a small 4K DSLR from Panasonic called the GH4 and a 1.5 X anamorphic lens adaptor from SLR Magic I was able to get the look it required.

I didn’t want to use a zoom lens, so I stayed with primes. In fact on the first episode in Thalia, Texas I used a 14mm Lumix lens the entire time. I loved the feel of it. It felt like home and I stuck with it. I am using a Small HD brand monitor, which allows me to un squeeze the 16:9 feed to 2:35 as I am shooting.

One thing that was interesting for Coleman and I was shooting an interview in the 2:35 aspect ratio. I think that in retrospect that if we had had more time to do the interview we would have probably changed to a zoom lens to give the interview a closer more intimate feel but we didn’t. We rolled with what was on camera and I’m really delighted with the results. It’s fun to compose in this ratio. It really feels unique and you really don’t see interviews composed like this very often. A happy accident I suppose, that I am quite enchanted with and hope to continue as this series progresses. And of course push it a bit further.

If you would like to see some of the raw footage in 4K go to this link and check it out.