DP Toby Oliver Talks Designing Camerawork To Focus On Character For ‘Get Out’
Under the Obama administration, many white liberals viewed the United States’ systemic issues as solved, but things have changed in the last couple of months as a new presidency has come into power. Now, Americans face a massive rise in prejudice and harmful policy as entire sects of the United States choose to ignore all feelings of sympathy for those who are different. Sadly, that political atmosphere makes a film like Get Out all the more relevant.
Get Out is an outstanding piece of filmmaking for first time director Jordan Peele, allowing all audiences to step into the shoes of an African-American man and experience the microaggressions and blatant racism that African-Americans face on a daily basis. The film is scary, hilarious, and delivers a story that is impeccably written and multi-layered. Peele does a magnificent job, and thanks to the participation of Director of Photography Toby Oliver, ACS the film’s visuals build to give us a greater insight into the internal and external struggles of Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris.Shot on an ARRI Alexa Mini and a set of Angenieux zoom lenses, chief among what makes Oliver’s lensing so effective for the film is that his lighting and camerawork are designed to perfectly match the story. After reading the script, one of the key elements that Oliver sought to incorporate was an anchoring in reality, making Chris’ struggles appear more real, despite his existence in a genre film.
By grounding the story and the characters in reality, Peele and Oliver push audiences to recognize the truth in Get Out‘s message. Stylistically, Oliver puts viewers in a position where they feel intimately intertwined with the situation, as actors like Kaluuya frequently carry entire scenes via the emotions that pop up across their faces, delivering a better understanding of characters and situations than we could ever receive via dialogue. And while Oliver’s cinematography frequently captures those moments of Kaluuya, arguably the most demonstrative scene of Oliver molding his work to match the requirements of the scene and character, comes about halfway through the movie when the maid, played by Betty Gabriel, comes in to speak to Chris. Oliver describes the thought process of how he designs scenes in general for the film, but also the way in which they came to shoot that specific scene.
I pitched a much more naturalistic approach that grounded the main character in the real world. When things get crazy towards the end we diverge out of that stylistically, but Jordan always wanted to be based in a reality that people could identify with. We pushed forward trying to achieve that while still being cinematic in telling the story.
It’s always about the characters. In Get Out we would shoot close ups with the camera just a few inches away from the actor’s face. It gives you a different perspective, where if you’re ten feet away or two feet away the shot might be the same size for the closeup, but it gives you a totally different emotional feeling. Being a little bit closer with a wide angle lens on the characters sort of positions the audience inside the character’s head where they’re almost uncomfortably close.
The film of course, doesn’t limit itself to simply dictating character with those wide close ups though, no matter how incredible so many of them were. As Oliver tells it, Peele was extraordinarily bold for a first-time director and wanted to do some different stuff as well. One of the other great shots in the film comes early on, where Chris and Rose (Allison Williams) first arrive at the family home, the Armitage estate.
In the scene where [Georgina] comes into the bedroom to explain why she was unplugging [Chris’] phone, she comes closer and closer, and the camera inches back as she makes her way towards Chris, keeping the camera literally only a few inches away from her face. [Betty Gabriel] delivers this amazing performance with the camera right in her face and that was really amazing. That was one of my favorite scenes in the movie and the way those elements came together was through decisions that we made on the day.
During rehearsals she didn’t come forward at all. She just stood in the doorway and it was a static a scene. I suggested why doesn’t she creep forward and we’ll track back with her, because she was building up her performance towards the end and she gets to this emotional crescendo, and then she comes back down again, and to have her walking towards Chris at the same time adds this extra layer to all of that, and it ended up working really well.
The shot is so effective because of how creepy it winds up feeling, especially in retrospect once you understand what it means for the audience to be watching this shot from Walter’s point of view. It serves as a stark contrast to what the audience has already seen, and sets the tone for the changes, cinematically and tonally, that are about to go down on the Armitage estate.
We shot that wide shot and let the action all play out through the whole greeting and the hellos and grabbing the bags and going inside, and all of this plays out in the wide shot, and towards the end of the shot we slowly back away on the dolly and we reveal that the groundsman, Walter, [played by Marcus Henderson], is just standing there staring. Jordan was always very clear in his mind that that meeting scene would definitely be covered partly, if not wholly in that shot. The intention was to use it as a wide shot to break up the audience’s expectations, but also to introduce that sinister feeling that we’re watching that scene unfold from Walter’s perspective, which isn’t a perspective you’re necessarily expecting to see it from.
While the lensing of the story transitions into even more of the eery close/wide shots as the story starts to get weirder, Oliver also used the lighting as a key signifier of how to establish the tone of the movie. For the most part, the film takes on a relatively muted color palette, but Oliver explains that there’s more to the colors than simply muting everything. Everything is built around showing us how Chris is feeling.
Oliver’s contributions to Get Out were vast, helping to draw out an intimacy from the characters and aiding first-time director Peele in the technical aspect of shooting, but Oliver is more proud that as an artist, he was able to work on something that’s so much bigger than he is.
The idea was that back in the city with Chris’ apartment and Rod on the phone it’s generally a cooler, more real feeling, with more natural and desaturated color. Then, when Chris and Rose go to the Armitage’s early in the movie it’s quite warm, and welcoming and sunny, with a golden kind of feel to the estate. We maintained that feel as a contrast to the city and also as a kind of false security for Chris. It’s this beautiful, warm place, that there’s nothing horrific about at all, but of course there’s the weird stuff going on underneath the surface as the days pan out. We kept that warm feel to the estate for the daytime scenes going right through to the party and the auction scene before he gets captured. Then at night, I played around with the colors a little too, where rather than just a straight up blue moonlight, I played with cyan and a range of tones with some special gels on the lights. So, I used the warmer colors for the Armitage estate, the cooler ones for the city, and a different look again for the night.
Oliver is by no means a new face on the block, having been a successful cinematographer in his native Australia for around two decades, but a recent move to Los Angeles and his phenomenal performance on Get Out have set up Oliver as a breakout DP. His work on Get Out serves to brilliantly heighten Peele’s amazing film, and Oliver’s camerawork is something that horror audiences should get used to seeing, as his upcoming slate, includes names such as Insidious: Chapter 4, Wildling, and Half to Death.
For me it’s really important [that the movie is so relevant]. That really was what grabbed me and first made me want to do the movie when I read the script, because you’ve got a film that is a genre piece, a horror piece, that’s usually to titillate and scare and entertain audiences, but what it really is is a movie that’s making a very powerful social comment about race in the US today. And that’s what makes someone like me, as a creative artist, really excited to be involved with something. Get Out has so many layers to it and it’s got a powerful message and not every movie or show that you work on has that. When you find a project that is able to [have a message] and a really entertaining story and experience that keeps you on the edge of your seat it’s just fantastic. It’s the ultimate really, in terms of what you want to collaborate on.