Cinematography of “Drugstore June” – interview with Sherri Kauk

March 19th, 2024

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Sherri Kauk. In this interview, she talks about making connections across projects, what it means to be an artist, the role of film as a physical medium, the effect that Covid has had on the industry, and the potential impact of generative AI on the creative side of visual storytelling. Between all these and more, Sherri dives deep into her work on the recently released “Drugstore June”.

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

Sherri: My pleasure.  Thank you Kirill.  I am Sherri Kauk, and I’m a cinematographer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. I grew up in a small midwestern town and I always had a feeling of a larger world beyond my city limits.

Somewhere around high school, I took over my dad’s Canon AE-1 Program 35mm film camera, and that was the beginning of the lifelong process of filmmaking, and working with technology to express visually a response to what is before me. Probably the first rolls were out of focus, or the shutter angle was miscalculated, or exposure was off [laughs], but it was a lesson both in craft and costs! But then you get that perfect frame…

I remember first experiencing a room of hundreds of people laughing at a scripted punchline in one of my college films. At that moment the image created became not about “the shot,” but about creating a moment together with those around me. These are the magical moments for me.  And, that Drugstore June, premiered in theaters offers the magic of sharing space together back to films.  The filmmaking journey is long and winding, but it’s creating these moments that keep the fascination alive.

So, my career path started with that Canon camera, and the curiosity about what else was out there, which then led me to leave Ohio and go to film school at Ithaca College in upstate New York. While in college, I was able to meet Shane Hurlbut ASC, and I interned on The Greatest Game. That internship put me on my first Hollywood film set (in Canada!) and allowed me to feel and experience the filmmaking world from the inside. 20 years later, I am a mentor at Shane and Lydia Hurlbut’s Filmmaker Academy!  On that film set, 20 years ago, I experienced movie making magic from the inside of the filmmaking industry. Today, the Filmmakers Academy continues to bring filmmakers into the inner circle, but on a level reaching thousands of aspiring storytellers versus 1.

And, 20 years later, I have traveled the world. I’m blessed to be able to continue to fulfill that deep curiosity of the myriad ways people live and wake up and go to sleep every day.

Kirill: Hollywood is well known for creating and maintaining a very glamorous image of itself. But probably it’s not as glamorous in the day-to-day goings on sets.

Sherri: When I have friends visiting Hollywood, everybody wants to go to Hollywood Boulevard – but if you live here, you know that it’s not the glamour corner of LA [laughs].

What we create is an interpretation of life. It’s a creation of an emotional experience. That is the magic. You get to Hollywood and you see that the magic is not literal. It doesn’t exist in front of your face. You have to create it. It’s a great parallel to life and how we live life as well. You do have to create your own interpretation of what you want reality to be, in a way.  You have to perform your own magic trick of life!

Filmmakers are creating a curated, intentional experience. But the creation itself is like everything else in life. So much of what goes into every production is a physical act and an active exploration of different versions of every scene, dialogue, location, blocking, lighting and frame.

Kirill: The word “camaraderie” is often used to refer to connections formed on set. How do you see these connections when every production is its own thing?

Sherri: Working in film and television production is unique. Depending on the size of the project, I start a new “company” every 12 weeks, or 6 months.  Once a project is done, the “company” shuts down, and we the creatives all disperse. And then a few months later, there’s a new company, a new project that starts, and a new team assembled.

On every new project there is a need to be able to find a way to connect, communicate, and hear what somebody else is trying to share.

As much as I try to implement processes that are repeatable, maybe my pre-production or my morning routine, the world building is completely new every time. There’s that balance between controlled and uncontrolled, between exploration and diligently moving forward, between the business and the art. Camaraderie keeps me sane and excited about the adventure we are all on!

Kirill: Do you think that anybody can be taught not just the technical side of things, but also the artistic side? Or perhaps it needs some sort of a spark of storytelling, a spark of being “born” to be an artist?

Sherri: I think possessing artistry is less about being born special and more about gaining exposure.

I did not grow up with “art”. I grew up in a small commuter community playing sports and going to church.  But I do remember vividly when my mom managed to get the family all dressed up because we were going to the theater in the big city, and we watched “Hello Dolly!” starring Carol Channing! Another experience in my home town when I did go to the cinema was watching “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” For a kid growing up in cornfields and on softball fields, experiencing these dramatic, female-led, epic performances provided some early exposure.

Traveling the world and traveling through life has continued to expose me. What I started to experience is there are certain pieces of art that, when I am near them, reverberate deeply throughout my body.  And I’m starting to recognize different forms of art that touch me with that deep resonance. I’m sure that other people have that with different artwork.

The key is to be exposed to art and to discover what touches that inner place in you, that leaves you still and in wonder and with a vivacity to want to be with that feeling. Part of my travels today always include visiting museums. And with exposure, one may start asking themselves how can I create a feeling or expression like that?

For example, Richard Serra’s large scale sculptures move me deeply, and I have discovered that is what classic cinema has in common is scale. As cinema is being experienced on smaller and smaller screens, I think about how can I bring back scale to what I do. That crossover with different mediums is what stokes the artistic curiosity in me.

Kirill: How do you see the role of film as a medium in today’s industry. Is it an artifact of the past like vinyl in music? Is there a resentment of a sorts to see film being pushed out for mainly financial reasons while these stories are brought to our screens as pieces of art?

Sherri: Like choosing to listen to music on vinyl, choosing celluloid as a filmmaking medium is a nuanced decision absolutely grounded in present day filmmaking.  This reminds me of a deep dive I took with directors Kevin Smokler and Christopher Boone while filming ‘Vinyl Nation.’  There are many reasons to choose vinyl today!  And same with celluloid.  Choosing one format does not negate other formats.

Technically, celluloid still has long-term archival possibilities exceeding that of digital negatives. It’s still the highest resolution.  Some of the earlier films I made digitally were 1920×1080, and it’d be difficult to watch them right now in a 4-12K world. Whereas, I just recently re-scanned a 35mm print of a work that I did 15 years ago. Back then I scanned the film at the high resolution of 720p and I just re-scanned it at 6k. So I’ve been able to bring that 15-year old work into a modern screening environment, and I can project it either digitally or in 35mm on some of the largest surfaces out there. That’s what film still has.

Separately, one of my pursuits is sensor and negative format size. I love larger sensors formats and the immersive experience they bring. It feels like you’re inside the image. Alexa 65 and RED Vista are pulling us closer into the frame with their larger format systems. IMAX has us inside the image! There’s still gaps in format sizes between film and digital. The naming is misleading, because what cinema cameras call large format is smaller than what you get in medium format still photography. Digital is making great strides to close the gap, and to also make shooting larger formats more affordable.

Behind the scenes on “Drugstore June”.

Kirill: Getting to “Drugstore June”, what brought you to it?

Sherri: “Drugstore June” came into my world through a recommendation from Cinematographer Seamus Tierney. Thank you Seamus!

I was wrapping up the HBO soccer docu-series “Angel City” when the call came in. I came to it about a month before filming started, even though it’s been a project that Nic Goossen and Esther Povitsky developed for over 7 years.

Kirill: Is it a miracle that any movie gets made?

Sherri: It is a miracle that anything gets made. It’s a miracle to create something that didn’t exist just a year ago. There are Initiators that say, yes the world is wonderful, but I think it could also be more wonderful if I put “this unknown thing” into it.

The process of making a movie is insane. It’s thousands of different people going in different directions that have to intersect at critical junctions. And you make it enough in advance that you don’t know what the zeitgeist or the culture or the mood is going to be when it comes out. It’s a leap into the unknown.

It also requires an inner tenacity and a willfulness of the filmmaker who decides to forge a filmmaking path. Jumping on board a production as Cinematographer is potentially like jumping onto the side of a plane going full throttle for take off. It is addictive. It is high energy. For the producer, you have to have will, personality and communication to get buy-in and excitement from others. You have to persist through all the ups and downs to make something. And then once you’ve made it, you have to refill your tenacity tank to distribute it, and that is an entirely new journey to will yourself through!

This is what I saw on “Drugstore June” – the will to make a modern comedy based on classic Hollywood John Hughes-esq 35mm films, using classic Panavision lenses, shooting in Los Angeles, the classic film town. You need to have gumption to even say those things in terms of cost, in terms of mobility through the large city of LA.  For the classic anamorphic, Panavision had such a small window of availability on the E-series. It’s a miracle our film lined up with the availability of those lenses – and they shipped out to the next show the day we wrapped.

Kirill: How long was the schedule?

Sherri: I came on for three weeks prep, and then started shooting mid October for 24 days shoot days. It’s doable [laughs].

Kirill: I don’t think you’re in the business where you can say “No” to time or budget limits.

Sherri: That’s interesting. I don’t hear “No” a lot on set. What I’ve observed is that it’s not a “No” in the most creative collaborations, instead, time and budget limitations spur conversations about priorities, value, and new perspectives.

Getting to ‘Yes’ is about being creatively flexible in telling the entire story, not just one scene or shot.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as the fondest memory or favorite scene that you did on “Drugstore June”?

Sherri: I appreciate Nic and my’s approach to the driving scenes. Straight out, Nic pondered “How can we shoot these multiple car scenes differently?” Drugstore June is an indie film. We don’t have a lot of big exteriors and driving is an opportunity to get a sense of the exterior world. But on a budget level, how can we shoot them differently so we can dynamically build this world.

Using a process trailer allowed us to shoot two cameras and move between front and profile windows with lighting support, and then we framed French overs on another scene.  Add to that a simple push in to static car, a hostess tray oner with Esther driving and a car to car scene.

For the car-to-car, we rigged a Black Arm and Ronin to a Jeep Wrangler. We had a beautiful open-top picture car. And we blew down San Fernando Boulevard with police escort. That was a high energy approach to cover a high energy scene.

The process is going through a script and identifying repeated spaces, and asking, ‘how can I move through this repeated space’ in a unique way to build the internal experience and physical dimension of the characters.

Another example is the Dispensary scene. “Drugstore June” is visually designed with no handheld. But while prepping that scene Nic and I calculated that covering seven characters and spontaneous actions, would take 23 setups and around 8 hours to film the scene with one studio camera.

Breaking our rules in “Drugstore June” and shooting the dispensary scene handheld really opened up our ability to tell the best story in that scene and make our day.

Kirill: I loved the lighting in the getaway house and in June’s bedroom. What were your lighting choices?

Sherri: The getaway house was day one of our film shoot. It’s a night sequence with multiple characters in a small location. That’s when shooting with people you’ve worked with before comes full circle. As a DP, you can call every light and every focal length and everything else, but you will never make it to the end of the first day. When I am working with a new collaboration, being able to establish a common language is key. That’s where craft comes in. There’s certain language to our craft.

I’ve worked with Gaffer Armando Ballesteros before, as well as with Key Grip Mark Beckerman.

We lit “Drugstore June” with Arri M40‘s outside through windows during day scenes and with S60’s during night scenes. Inside, we used S60’s, Litemats, Astera Titan Tubes and Aperture B7C LED lightbulbs. Our grip flavors included Bleached and Unbleached Muslin, 1/4 Grid, and 1/2 Soft Frost. The getaway house is a real ‘flophouse’ in LA, and it looks like it. When you walk in, you put a mask on whether it’s Covid or not. It’s pretty disgusting, but that made it perfect for one night. And on a indie film, you can walk into a flophouse that looks like it, or you can go to a stage, build it and blow your budget. After we found that location, it became a conversation with Production Designer Jen McClaren of what can we add or take away. We added set dec and extended the newspaper pasting on the wall.

Working with people you’ve worked before is great. As we are blocking the scene and choosing our lenses, Armando already knows what the exterior lighting is going to be, and we can get to a point where it’s 80% roughed in. And from there we set our frame and get into the micro details and the taste choices. Color wise, the flophouse is warm. So, I skewed the lamp at the entrance towards the greens to create a bit of color contrast in the space and Armando directed the cool moon light into our frame background when possible.

What is interesting is that we did not get our exterior shot of the flop house because we ran out of time. It’s a bad look to go into overtime on Day 1!  Nic and I, on a production off day indie-film style, went and shot exteriors of different places around LA. The exterior of our getaway house is a different rundown house in Venice. So we shot the flop house in Burbank, and we found a quasi-abandoned house in Venice. We went out at night with an S60 and a Titan Tube, and we shot an exterior that cut in great.

It is a little bit of the filmmaking magic out of necessity.

Kirill: Was June’s room built, or did it exist?

Sherri: All of our locations are practical. June’s room is in a house near Long Beach that serves as the location for all of the June House Interiors scenes.

There are two kids’ bedrooms in this house, that we looked at for June’s. But, a kid’s bedroom can be hard to film in because it gets dramatically smaller after putting a dolly, a camera, large anamorphic lenses, lighting et al in the room too, and suddenly there is no space for the actual scene work and for talent to move. So we transformed the largest “primary bedroom” that would normally be for the parents into June’s room. That was a big production design lift on our film and Jen layered that room to show how June has been in this room since childhood!

Gaining that extra square footage and shooting in the larger bedroom also allowed us to work a jib in the bedroom. It allowed us to dolly in through an attached walkthrough closet which gifted us a new angle of storytelling and we had room outside the windows for our Arri M40s.

Kirill: What about the pharmacy? It feels like pretty much the only choice is to flood it with pure white light, because that’s how all pharmacies look like.

Sherri: A film pharmacy should look however is best to convey the emotion of your scenework and the overall filmic tone.  The pharmacy in ‘Sharp Objects’ is high contrast, dark even.  The one in ‘Marriage Story’ has a throwback look with overly warm orange hue saturation; Cake’s is warped a bit, green and dramatic in contrast; Stranger Things 307 has primary-colored sec dec on its shelves giving it a punchy “this-right-now” feeling.

Our pharmacy balances with the large window light and skews blue with pops of red.  Originally, the walls were orange. We committed to more of a blue, clean white look.

Then we got into color correction with Alastor Arnold! Even with the more neutral pharmacy look, he was able to draw out cherry reds like punchlines to the blue.  There’s so many ways that you can introduce a feeling or a hint of color to worlds that we think can only look one way.

Kirill: There are so many screens in our lives, from the big movie screens to TV to laptops to tablets to phones, and now the recent addition of immersive headset from Apple. How is this affecting your approach to how you would want the audiences to see your work?

Sherri: I always shoot for the highest level of viewing possible for each film. Going into “Drugstore June” I knew that Nic has a deep admiration for, respect, and desire to create classic cinema, that a film print or even a digital print in the theaters would be the ultimate get.  We shot Drugstore June for a classic cinema experience. And the beautiful thing is Drugstore June premiered in theaters. It’s a limited theatrical release, but it’s there. Additionally, many streaming and limited series feel like episodic feature films, regardless of the assumed viewing screen size.

What we have today is choice. I just read this week that “Amelie” is being rereleased in theaters. As consumers, but also as people living today, we can choose what we want to interact with. I can choose to watch some films on my tablet. I can choose some films to watch in the theater. Cinema culture is still a thing, we just have to silence our pocket screens while attending!  There is more choice nowadays – both how I want to experience films and how I want to experience my life.

Behind the scenes on “Drugstore June”.

Kirill: What are your thoughts on Covid and its impact on the industry? Are the audiences coming back to movie theaters, are productions going back to the pre-pandemic setups and routines, is there something that has changed in significant ways?

Sherri: Covid profoundly shifted our psyche and hopefully some of our patterns. I caught a cold recently while working and I put a mask on. I did not want to get anyone sick. Pre-covid, the culture was to work through it all.   Recently, my best electric on a show took a day off because he felt sick. Five years ago, that never would have happened, really.

There is definitely a psychological shift in what we value. We value our time differently, we value what we do differently, and we value how we approach what we do differently. And I see that shift in filmmaking one hundred percent. If someone needs to go home early because they’re not feeling well, or something shifted in their parenting scheduling and the babysitter is not available, there’s space for that within the conversation of the team. Go take care of that life thing, we’ll cover for you. That, to me, is what has shifted in a large way in terms of how we make movies from where I stand in the filmmaking world.

During and immediately after Covid there was hyper-growth in tv production, hyper viewership increases and film financing interest rates were low.  But now we are experiencing a rebalancing in terms of number of viewers, number of productions and size of budgets.

The major on set change compared to the early days of Covid is that we’re no longer shooting remotely or off-set. Thank goodness I can be at the camera, again. There is a literal closeness in filmmaking. It is a tactile, gritty experience to make a film, and I have to be able to make things with others within arms reach. Filmmaking has always been a space where there is a focused dedication to the creation. You have to be able to get in and get dirty, put a camera where you need to, rig up a light, be in vans together, travel together, and be in an enclosed space together.

We have to let go of the fear, but lay our boundaries so that we’re not bringing health issues to set. It was a paralyzing experience to try and film post-Covid in masks and shields, in six feet of distancing. On multi-camera shows we would have clunky, mobile plastic barriers in between operators, and the hair and makeup artists doing their best in full face masks, and the actors trying to wear a mask around takes. That was so cumbersome, and I know there’s a relief that that’s not necessary anymore.

Kirill: Maybe for yourself personally, and maybe for the conversations that you are having with other creative artists in the field, what kind of concerns are you yourself or other people feeling around generative AI tools in terms of the impact they might have on creativity and how these stories are made?

Sherri: AI technology has been in our cameras for years in some way – the auto-focusing, the face detection, the distance metering. I use these in-camera options on non-scripted shows and interviews. In some way, that is a form of artificial technology, artificial intelligence that’s already built into our worlds.

What’s terrifying to the human is the unknown, and you can approach the unknown with both wariness and wonder. I look at what Unreal Engine is doing, and I am full of wonder similar to when Final Cut Pro V1 launched.

There isn’t a pure good or evil in AI.  I use AI to make my luts.  AI is in our lidar focus systems. On a larger scale, I just read that Tyler Perry halted an $800 million dollar expansion of his Atlanta studio after seeing the video demos of Sora from OpenAI.  Although, again, post covid, we simultaneously are in a period of reduction.  Technology alters how we approach our tasks.  Sometimes adopting a new tool helps and sometimes the old tool just works better, still.  What is important and technologically possible along with AI, is attributing credit and following through with remittances to the Creatives using both their analog and ai skillsets to provide creative services and solutions.

I recently worked with ASC cinematographer Sam Nicholson. He has positioned himself at the intersection of technology and storytelling. We were using the Sony Venice cameras in Rialto mode with his crew – and his crew is not made up of only camera, lighting and grips. His crew consists of engineers and technologists working in Blackmagic live compositing, unReal engine, and they carry 3D printers in their kits! It was eye opening to see what the modern Cinematography Department can look like.  Sam’s team printed 3D tracking devices on set that mounted to our cameras and tracked the camera X, Y, Z axis (roll, pitch, yay) throughout the shot which interacted with their live unReal background screens.

Kirill: What keeps you going and staying in this field despite all the challenges, and being away from your family and friends for long periods of time, and long days that sometimes stretch into long nights?

Sherri: Aspects of what light me up have changed throughout the years.  But what hasn’t changed is the feeling I get when I immerse myself into a new world.  My favorite movie-going is a matinee screening. It’s the experience of leaving the outside world and going into this black box space environment where the world is now multiple times larger than I am, and being whisked into the unknown for a couple of hours, not being aware that I am somewhere else physically. And when that experience ends, as I sit through the credits to see who made the film, as I am being slowly drawn back up into my reality. And when I leave the theater and step back into the daylight, it’s always the same thing – cacophony of cars and buses and blinding sunlight screaming ‘welcome back!’.  The exit, immersion and re-entry is the essential experience that moves me.

I want to be able to create this experience, too.

In all of the shifting primary needs, there is that moment of being completely lost in an experience.  That to me is absolutely incredible.

Kirill: Sometimes it feels like this word is overused, but to me it is a magical experience to be watching a story on that big screen in a dark theater, and to almost fall into that world.

Sherri: The black box is an overriding of the senses. It’s using audio to pull you into a space oftentimes before the picture arrives. And then it’s about how the maker reveals the visual world, and how they merge the audio and the visual – whether they are harmonic to each other or not. It’s creating all of these internal cues that are manipulatable. These elements appear to be like the world we live in, but instead are intentional choices presented to the viewer to sometimes affirm the world one lives in, question it, or to exit from it completely.

So even though we’re physically present watching a movie in the theater, so much is happening inside us, in our psychology and anatomy – our optics reflecting the images in the back of our eyes, our eardrums “playing the vibrations’ in our ears – both are interpretations of a projected image and sound. The magic of it is that it is both something outside of us, but really it is being composed inside of us spontaneously. If I can get a big enough screen where I can’t see the edges, and I’m sucked in enough and I’m in the right seat, I am one hundred percent removed from my exterior experience. That to me is the magic and the wonder of cinema.

Kirill: Wonder is a great word.

Sherri: It is a beautiful word. And there’s another thing about cinema. In 2022 we had a biopic about Elvis from Baz Luhrmann, and then in 2023 we had a biopic about Priscilla from Sophia Coppola. It’s fascinating. It’s not the same story, but the same people operating in the same world. One tells the story from his perspective, and the other from hers along the same period of time. In Priscilla’s story, you see Elvis arrive at Graceland and then you see him leave, and to me that is also what cinema does. I can “live” the same period of events from a completely new point of view. Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures” tells the story of NASA through it’s mathematicians – black women NASA mathematicians – whose calculations of orbital mechanics not only launched John Glenn into orbit but also returned him safely – I had never been exposed to America’s space story told through the experience of the black women NASA mathematicians before Hidden Figures.

When making films and telling stories, the filmmaker is choosing what piece of the story to tell, and from whose point of view. I find this aspect of storytelling and filmmaking most powerful, influencing, and life changing.

And here I’d like to thank Sherri Kauk for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography. You can also find Sherri on Instagram. I also want to thank Jordan von Netzer for making this interview happen. “Drugstore June” is playing in theaters now. And 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.