Cinematography of "The Immaculate Room" by Rasa Partin

Cinematography of “The Immaculate Room” – interview with Rasa Partin

February 17th, 2023
Cinematography of "The Immaculate Room" by Rasa Partin

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Rasa Partin. In this interview, he talks about balancing the art and the craft of visual storytelling, experiencing stories on a variety of screens in our lives, how much planning and preparation goes into every shot, and the impact of Covid on the industry. Between all these and more, Rasa dives deep into his work on the recently released “The Immaculate Room”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Rasa: My journey is a winding one. I was raised by American parents who practiced Hinduism and yoga since the ’70s. We didn’t have TV at home, and we didn’t go to the movies. The first movie I remember seeing in a theater was “Jurassic Park” when I was thirteen.

When I was nine my parents decided to send me to a monastery boarding school in India. And my family moved there for the next seven years. Back then it would take a movie about six months for American films to get to Indian theaters. So for me seeing a movie was always a special, grand affair that was usually a memorial event. I especially remember that seeing “The Matrix” was life-changing for me. Around then I started secretly wanting to make movies when I grew up.

Returning to the US around 16 years old I started doing a computer programming degree in college. While there, I met a friend who turned me on to this car club and I met a bunch of friends there. Armed with a Hi8 video camera I went to the car club meetup, and later that night, found myself in the back of someone’s car doing donuts in the rain. I had enough computer skills to download the footage, get my hands on some editing software, put it to some music and made a 3 min YouTube video before YouTube was really a thing.

A group of us ended up working on a few feature-length car culture documentaries that we self-released and sold on DVD via a website. That opened up some international travel and adventure opportunities.

Yearning for a way to get closer to the real film industry, a friend helped me find an internship in Washington DC at a documentary production company that made History Channel shows. That lead to some documentary production jobs but eventually towards understanding that I wanted to pursue cinematography and that I should attend AFI, which I completed in 2016. It was about 14 years between that night in the rain shooting donuts and graduating AFI. Looking back, it’s been a very long journey and a ton of lucky breaks.

Kirill: Do you think there’s an artist in every one of us? Can anyone be an artist and should anyone be an artist? Is there such a thing as too many artists in the world?

Rasa: I think that everyone has something artistic in them in some way, even if some people don’t look for that art. If you’re a scientist, there’s art in how you’re approaching things or the way you’re thinking about things. You’re taking a problem, and you’re trying to creatively add a human interpretation of it, and maybe seek some other way to go about it.

But, it’s something that I grapple with. Is what we’re doing really necessary in the reality of the world? I do think that people do go crazy without stories. And stories are the only way we can make sense of a lot of the ironies and inconsistencies of the world. So in that sense, storytelling is definitely imperative, and it’s going to happen no matter what. In films, in games, in books, it’s not going away.

Kirill: Expanding on this, between the art and the technical craft of it, is one more important than the other?

Rasa: Going into AFI, I thought I would be learning a lot about the technical things, like lighting, lenses, camera systems, data systems, managing a crew and other topics. We did some, but the main study there was storytelling starting from reading a script.

The curriculum then was that 90 films were made by the first year students that are in all different disciplines. You hear about the scripts, you participate in the film shoot as a DP or as a crew member, you hear about the post, and then you watch it all as a group and criticize it – all as a group. Seeing 90 short films and discussing what worked and what didn’t work – that hones and drills in the need for story.

Kirill: If you are saying what works and what doesn’t work, how much objectivity is there in art in general? You might have 20 people in the room watching the same movie, and it works for 10 of them and it doesn’t work for the other 10. Is it the fault of the audience, or is it the fault of the storyteller when something doesn’t work? Is there even such a thing as somebody being at fault?

Rasa: Everyone is an individual with different taste. That said, you need to start your story with a good premise. It’s not just the art of the telling of the story. The premise of a story needs to have enough narrative friction, in whatever sense that is, to create a fire. And then that fire needs to be able to boil the water throughout the whole narrative. If you start with a weak premise, it’s going to be really heavy lifting to make it successful.

As a filmmaker, you step back and think on what the premise of this movie is. Is it a worthy story to tell, to take up someone’s two hours?

Kirill: Do you find yourself sometimes walking out of a movie theater in the middle because the story doesn’t work for you?

Rasa: I endure it to the end. There are TV shows I’ve not finished because of loss of interest. I know that there are people that just walk out. I don’t like leaving a story hanging.

Lighting pre-vis for “The Immaculate Room”, courtesy of Rasa Partin.

Kirill: Do you find that people are watching less on the big screen? I don’t think that the big screen experience is going away, but is not something that the younger generation craves the same way now that so many screens are accessible in our pockets, on our desks, and really anywhere we go.

Rasa: There’s no question people are viewing through different screens and other devices that they have – compared to going to theaters. There’s definitely some movies where everyone wants go to the movie theater, such as with “Top Gun 2”, or “Avatar 2”. Large event type films. People are going to go out and see them on the big screen because they want that impact. It’s tougher for smaller films to attract those dollars at the theater.

Every movie that I see in the theater, I’m always grateful for the opportunity to experience it that way. That said, on the Roger Deakins’ podcast, a lot of people that he interviews learned movie making through VHS tapes or TV broadcasts of films. My instincts in filmmaking and storytelling came from watching the worst quality pirated VCDs, literally some that were filmed in the movie theater with heads at the bottom of the screen [laughs] because that’s all I could access while in India aside from theater visits. But you’re there for the story, and if the story is strong, you’ll get it.

Cinematography of “The Immaculate Room” by Rasa Partin.

Kirill: There’s something to being in that big room. I don’t really know how to describe it. I watched “Infinity Pool” last night in a movie theater, and “Megan” last week, and it’s just so different to being in front of a TV screen, no matter how big and sharp it is. Certainly I’m a different state of mind.

Rasa: For sure, that’s what I was referring to when I was talking about feeling grateful to have seen something in a theater. It’s physically larger on your retina than any other screen. You can’t pause it. You are forced to experience it. And it does focus you on receiving the film in a different way.

But theatrical costs are also constantly rising. I’m a young parent, and it’s intense to go to see a family movie in the theater when it’s going to cost you $80 or more for four tickets.

Kirill: Popcorn and candy prices are way out there. It’s ridiculous.

Rasa: It’s crazy expensive to go to the movies [laughs] with the family. Not sure what the solution is for that.

Cinematography of “The Immaculate Room” by Rasa Partin.

Kirill: Is it difficult to keep track of all the technological advancements in the sensors, in the camera bodies, in the LED lights, in the other things on the technical side of things?

Rasa: It comes at you quick. What you’re used to is changing, the tools you’re using are changing, always. Luckily not just you, and that’s part of the thing that I love about filmmaking. You’re part of this team, and I’m constantly learning from the camera assistants, loader, DIT, gaffer, and the key grip, from their experience and upgrades. They’re all bringing new tools to every job. And then there’s so much you can read up in the industry news.

They’re all just tools and tools are super great, but your job is to tell stories. Even in commercials you’re still telling a story, creating a world. I’m always at least looking at what is the story angle on this, and how are we saying this. I think seeing the new ways stories are told is more vital and interesting than the tech. But having new tools to help you say things differently is great.

Kirill: Was there a point in time after the first “Avatar” came out where you felt that 3D might have become a thing that was expected from features?

Rasa: DPs were faced with the 3D camera rigs a little before my time. I read a lot about it in American Cinematographer as I was circling the industry.

I always felt like it just didn’t look as good as watching the flat version. The movie is shot with $250k lenses and millions in post, then we put 2 cent plastic lenses over our eyes, usually already scratched and warped to hell. There was a lot of loss of acuity and cinematic feeling. I hoped the trend would go away. Seems like it did, mostly.

On the set of “The Immaculate Room”, Rasa Partin (left) with the director Mukunda Michael Dewil (middle), courtesy of Rasa Partin.

Kirill: Getting to “The Immaculate Room”, I understand that it started for you around the time Covid started, and it was a long winding path when the production was suspended, but you were still working on it a little bit.

Rasa: I think I have a folder that was dated 2018 back when I read the script for the first time. It was written before Covid, which is funny because it feels like a story that someone would dream up in Covid. The road to financing and attaching talent to projects is somewhat mystical. And because of availabilities and dealmaking it eventually moved to the end of 2020 in Los Angeles.

The first line of the script is: a giant white room, nothing in it. A cinematographer’s bane is a white room, because it’s so hard to get depth and interest and control light as it’s all a huge bounce in there. It’s also a windowless room. Windows are the first thing you think of in terms of lighting, so that was a big question on the forefront of my mind.

Kirill: Did you push for a little bit of corners and shadows that you could play with in the structure of it?

Rasa: I started pulling together references. James Turell’s work was a big inspiration. And another one was the cavern in “Arrival” where Amy Adams goes to talk to the aliens. I thought that that could be interesting if the room was lit from one side and would go to darkness on the other side. But the director had a vision to see this room as pristine and super bright, they are under the spotlight, being studied with nowhere to hide.

At that point in time we were still on the forced pandemic break, and I started teaching myself how to use Blender, a 3D modeling and rendering program. “The Mandalorian” had come out recently right when the pandemic was cresting, and everybody was talking about virtual production using 3D engines like Unreal and Unity. To learn the program, after a bunch of YouTube tutorials, I tried creating the room based on Greg Lang, the production designer’s blueprints. It was half work and half trying to figure the program out. I began sending previz renders of lighting studies to the director to see how a single wall of light might look, and Greg was also working on his updates. I would roam around inside the model, looking at ways to light and also camera angles and opportunities within the space. This also helped us explore as we shot listed the entire film.

Lighting pre-vis for “The Immaculate Room” in Blender, courtesy of Rasa Partin.

Kirill: When did you start thinking about nightlights, daylights, and how they changed for the characters and through the day?

Rasa: Some of that was written in the script around when the lights turn on and off. Mukunda and I talked a lot about having some sort of sunlight that would move across the room to show passage of time. We were talking about sunlight coming through a grate in the ceiling, and we had some design iterations of ideas. I looked at a lot of ways to accomplish this with a moving light(s) in the ceiling on a motorized rail etc.

It was also a pretty low budget movie, so we had to be realistic about it. Sadly, we couldn’t afford a stage with high enough grid height to make something like that work out. You’re always playing with dreams and then there are realities[laughs].

We end up having three chandeliers in the room, each with a 12k maxibrute inside, blasting down which motivates the light of the room. They were on chain motors that allowed us to dial in heights per camera setup which really helped. Then for the night work, the LED lines around the bottom of the room help create a motivated light source. Of course there are more movie lights above the set, primarily four 10×20 muslin skinned softboxes each with 6 Skypanels and 2 5k tungsten skypans. I had to light for the slow motion parts of the film and needed a lot of light, especially for some of the Phantom work we did at very high speed.

I have to shout out to the gaffer Isaak van der Meulen and key grip Rich Robles and their teams who really put in their own deep study and battles to get it all ready and running an incredibly efficient set. Very grateful for them and their contribution.

Cinematography of “The Immaculate Room” by Rasa Partin.

Kirill: Did you do anything special for the private bathroom area?

Rasa: We knew we wanted it to be warm. The bathroom is the only place where each character can be alone. That’s where they would allow themselves to drop their guard in the story. We did do a different scheme in there, and it was always to make it feel private.

Kirill: When you are shooting those private moments in small spaces, the camera is right there in the actor’s face. It may feel private for me as a viewer, but how do you minimize yourself while you are still in their face?

Rasa: It’s vitally important. On this movie we had two cameras. A-Camera was operated by Caleb Heller a very accomplished operator and DP, and I was on B-Camera. You are right there in front of the actor or the actress, and you can affect their performance. The actors need to trust the operators a lot and as a DP, you don’t want the operator to taint or say something between a take that could have the actor be self-conscious.

Cinematography of “The Immaculate Room” by Rasa Partin.

Kirill: How welcome was it for you to have a little splash of green color from the crayon, and to be able to zoom on something and see that texture?

Rasa: It was a mile marker and we had to make sure we had filmed everything in the “clean” room before that started. We set up a camera and Emile Hirsch did it live. We captured the first stroke, and there’s no turning back from there. It was some sort of pastel oil crayon that the art director Madeline O’Brien created.

Kirill: Was there any color or any light that you wanted to stay away from?

Rasa: The rules of the room were set in the first 5 minutes of the script. We had three lighting cues that were established by the “Professor” who’s running the Room. A little warm and crispy morning light, then to mid day which was the brightest, and then to the night look, which I thought would be a cool tone.

Cinematography of “The Immaculate Room” by Rasa Partin.

But Mukunda wanted to go with a warm night look. This room has become their hell, and so he wanted to cook them in this warm light at night. It’s not a pleasing release. It’s boiling all night.

There’s that clock above the entrance that’s blue, so that would throw a nice blue light at night in that certain section of the room. I did start going more contrasty as we get further into the story, part of the overall light plan for the film, but you can’t just change colors and lights per scene because of the established and unchanging nature of the Room – except for that one part in the movie when they take the Ecstasy.

Kirill: A lot of movies have done scenes with LSD or some sort of hallucinogens. I watched “Infinity Pool” last night and they have their drug fueled orgy scene, “Euphoria” is one big LSD party most of the time. How do you find your own take on it?

Rasa: I know for Mukunda that scene was a relief to get to shoot. Finally we all get a break from the white room, and everyone’s having fun. Our only Steadicam day was for that scene. And obviously then it leads into him having a bad trip, so there’s a little bit of a carrot given to the audience and then some punishment [laughs].

Cinematography of “The Immaculate Room” by Rasa Partin.

Kirill: When you are at the end of the production, how different is what you have captured from what have you have imagined at the beginning?

Rasa: I usually like to go back through and look at the references I had curated. I would say I can see the references in the film. We stuck to the plan, and that goes generally for the films that I’ve shot. It really puts the pressure on cultivating good sensibilities and references during prep because they really influence things at the end.

Kirill: You were talking about the winding road of getting this financed, and getting the location, and then it going through all the Covid measures. Does it feel sometimes that every production that finishes is a little miracle that had to be pulled by its ears to the finish line?

Rasa: Absolutely. Especially with indie films. You have hundreds of people who are doing 1000s of things, and it’s one of those Rube Goldberg machines where everything affects everything.

I’m always extremely surprised and grateful that I ever get hired [laughs]. How is it even possible that we get to do this? It’s just such a bizarre job. It’s so, so specific, it’s so hard, and there’s so much money at stake and incredible trust involved. It’s a massive privilege.

On the set of “The Immaculate Room”, courtesy of Rasa Partin.

Kirill: What does success mean to you? Do you look at the financial side of it, the longevity of how far it stays with people, the acceptance of critics, maybe something else?

Rasa: It’s something I think about a lot. You look at the final film and ask do you like it? Did the audience like it? Did the critics, festivals etc. Was it financially a success for both yourself and the producers? Did you take a lot of risks doing things differently? All of those are the things that you can measure success with. Likely, it’s not a 10 in every single category, but hopefully the score is high.

“The Immaculate Room” checked a lot of boxes for me. Technically it was very challenging but really being there in that front row seat, watching Kate Bosworth and Emile Hirsch perform inches away from you, that was one of the major highlights. That’s another qualification of a success for me – having experienced that, seeing artists like that so close.

Kirill: But you never know which ones will have that longevity and which ones will not?

Rasa: No, for sure. Every movie you work on, you have some hope that there is something special about it. There’s always something special because you’ve gone through it, spent some of your life with it. And to be honest, it’s hard seeing some of them somewhat disappear into obscurity.

On the set of “The Immaculate Room”, Rasa Partin (right) and Kate Bosworth (middle), courtesy of Rasa Partin.

Kirill: Do you see the industry going back to how productions were working before Covid hit, or do you see things being different going forward?

Rasa: “The Immaculate Room” production was pre-vaccine. Everybody was double masking and following the SAG rules that anyone near an actor or Zone A had to have a face mask and a face shield. I think we tested every other day. It was cumbersome and tedious. I also remember being on set and thinking that maybe I’m taking my life in my hands. I could be dying to make this movie. Is this really worth it?

Fast forward two years, I just finished a feature film in Atlanta. SAG and the unions decided they are no longer requiring masks on set, and literally everyone pulled their mask off and put it in their pocket. And there wasn’t any big outbreak. I do see things going back to normal from “The Immaculate Room” time, for sure.

Kirill: If you had a time machine to jump back and give your younger self any advice to not worry about X, what would that X be?

Rasa: This is a tough one, because I’m still worried about everything. I have some regret that I wish I had figured out that I wanted to pursue narrative film while I was an undergrad doing computer programming and went directly towards that. It’s always this fantasy of what would have happened? I would have been maybe six to eight years ahead of myself now.

Cinematography of “The Immaculate Room” by Rasa Partin.

Kirill: But you did have all these experiences that maybe others did not have.

Rasa: That’s how I see it when I look back. The documentary producer stuff taught me how to keep good records and organization and be adaptable. Every step and every journey, the weird spaghetti of life [laughs], has all been beneficial.

There is a lot of art and envisioning, but it’s almost like you do the art on your own time. Producers are asking you for lists and plans, you’re figuring out crew, and solving logistical problems, making location requests and art requests, special effects per certain scenes, tracking director’s notes and comments and questions etc. – there’s a huge amount of management, especially as it scales.

When you’re in the thick of the battle of filmmaking – and it really feels like a battle a lot of times – you want to be able to focus on just the frames in front of you and be confident with all the other decisions that you’ve made before that moment. And that you won’t be dropping the ball for the next setup or the next scene, or the car chase stuff you are shooting at the end of the week. So I think my experience has helped me be a better planner.

Cinematography of “The Immaculate Room” by Rasa Partin.

Kirill: A lottery ticket finds its way into your possession, and it’s for the amount of money that you don’t need to work anymore in your life. What do you do?

Rasa: It would be great, because raising kids in LA is not cheap! This field is a narrow and scary path sometimes. There’s that .1% who have a massive success when they start out and get to ride that to the top, but I don’t think that’s the story for most filmmakers. So, then it becomes a marathon rather than a sprint, and balancing career life with personal life and keeping relationships up while not burning out, or letting your ego blow yourself up.

My wife and I had our first child during my time at AFI. That forced me to take things seriously and not be lazy or hold back energy. And I know some of my successes were because of that drive. However, I think some clarity would come out of taking money out of the equation. I think I would only take on projects that spoke to me in some way. At the same time, even the projects I’ve taken on out of financial need have a silver-lining. There is always some new discovery to be made which is why I don’t think it will ever get old. I will always want to get behind a camera, work with all those go amazing artists and crew members, jump on a dolly, and make a movie.

On the set of “The Immaculate Room”, courtesy of Rasa Partin.

And here I’d like to thank Rasa Partin for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, and for sharing the supporting materials. The movie is available on a variety of digital platforms. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.