Skip to main content

Interview with Bradford Lipson DP for Wilfred and The New Kevin Hart film The Wedding Ringer

Courtesy of Screen Gems
Bradford Lipson is an incredibly gifted cinematographer whose work on Wilfred earned him the  Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Half-Hour Episodic Television Series from the ASC. His latest film is The Wedding Ringer and it open in theaters everywhere this Friday.  

The role of DP is a complicated one. It’s both tactile and intangible. In a way I guess it’s the manipulation of light and shadow for the purpose of storytelling. How do you define the role of DP and what drew you to the profession?

For me, the role of the DP is to help support the director in the telling of a story.  The lighting and lensing is all about pushing the story forward. As a DP, I get to add to this and be a vital part of the process, whether it’s lighting and lensing a scene to add more emotion, or to emphasize a comedic moment.  It’s also a technical role, which demands attention to detail, organization and being able to figure out how to block, light and shoot something within the confines of a particular budget or location.
In my youth I was into magic, at the age of 13 I was performing professionally.  I was always attracted to illusions -- whether it was an optical illusion or a manufactured trick -- or simple sleight of hand.  I bring this up because I think there is a direct correlation between magic and film.  Film is ultimately an optical illusion, tricking our eyes into believing there is motion.  I was also taken with movies, I loved how they could take me to far-off places or give me an experience that was formidable. Movies had a huge impact on me.  They were a part of my childhood and many films had a huge influence on me.  I was always wondering how they were made and once I became aware that they had to be lit, then it was even more intriguing. In middle school I started messing around with photography and developing film, this was also magic to me.  Spooling up a roll of film that I had shot and processing it was thrilling to me.  The chemical reaction was science but the rest seemed like magic.  In high school I took a film class taught by a retired documentary filmmaker.  We shot and edited 16mm film all the time. I was hooked from that point on. 

How did you transition from gaffer to DP?
Throughout my years of gaffing I shot various things, commercials, music videos and short films.  I started getting very serious about leaving my gaffing career and transitioning to shooting in 2004.  John Peters, a friend and wonderfully talented DP I used to work with called me about shooting a half hour comedy series he was involved in producing and directing.  I shot the show, which also got me into local 600.  After that, I was careful about what shows I was taking as a gaffer, if there was a shooting opportunity on the show then I would take it.  I had great support from my DP friends while doing this.  Once I felt like I had enough shooting credits I stopped gaffing all together.

What attracted you to Wilfred?
It was a small show with an incredibly interesting concept.  It wasn’t a huge network show so it was a great opportunity for me to get an episodic series DP experience and credit.  I also loved the dark aspect of the show’s content and how we could work with it cinematically.
I was shocked when I found out Wilfred was shot entirely on DSLRs. The show has a dark cinematic beauty that I honestly didn't think was possible to achieve with that camera setup. Is Wilfred the first show shot entirely on DSLR cameras?
Thank you for the compliment.  I had a great deal of fun setting up the look of the show, especially from a lighting standpoint.  It was a thrill to have such challenges and then to be recognized by the American Society of Cinematographers.  I believe Wilfred was indeed the first show to be entirely shot on a DSLR.
 What led you choose the Nikon D800?
We liked what the Nikon D800 had to offer at the time, with the ability to have Full HD out of the HDMI and some other options, such as being able to go from crop mode to full sensor mode.  These were attractive to us given the nature of the show.
 What are the challenges unique to DSLR vs film?
DSLR’s shoot in an 8 bit color space in H.264 codec, which by its very nature, is incredibly narrow compared to film.  DSLRs also have much less dynamic range then film.  So when shooting with DSLRs you have to light more to balance for exposure and you cannot let your highlights go as easy as you can on film.  I’m by no means saying I wouldn’t shoot with a DSLR again, just as much as I would never say I’m not shooting film again.  The camera and medium that is chosen should complement the storytelling as well as the budget. It’s an exciting time to be a director of photography.  Another challenge with the DSLRs is to accessorize them to work with the demands of television production.  We were always dealing with issues like cables losing connection, matte boxes falling off and so on.  Most of the rigs available at that time weren’t really designed to handle large production needs.
Wilfred is shot with 3 cameras. What led you to this vs a one or two camera setup?

This was a choice made by the show creators when the pilot was shot (which I didn’t shoot).  It was done largely for efficiency as well as the ability to have greater continuity and smoother editing.

It seems like digital photography has in many ways leveled the playing field. When I was in film school Clerks had just been released. I remember everyone talking about how it was made for "only" $27,000 and that just seemed impossible. I was a kid from a working class background and that was a years salary. There was no way I could raise that kind of money. Now we have a generation of filmmakers whose main limitation is their creativity. The money hurdle exists but not nearly the same way it did 20 or even 10 years ago. Do you think this is a good thing for the film industry?

I totally relate to this question, Chris.  I wish I would have had the technology that is available today at my fingertips when I was a kid!  I think it’s good for the industry on several levels.  Those who have a talent for storytelling and shooting can use this technology to be seen and heard and further their careers along more easily than ever before.  Conversely, I think there are people out there who think just because there is an image when they turn on the camera they are a DoP.  Learning composition, lighting and controlling the frame are essential for good filmmaking and storytelling.  I think it’s a life long journey, every production I’m involved with I learn something new.  All this technology can be used to open up creative doors -- like never before.  To have a camera that is so small, yet capture amazing images, allows us to move and put the camera in places we never used to be able to.  It’s an exciting time to be a cinematographer.

The Wedding Ringer was originally called The Golden Tux and was in pre-production for over ten years. Were you familiar with the project before you were brought on as the DP?

I was not familiar with The Golden Tux script until Jeremy handed it to me to read.

What was it about this project that grabbed your attention?

The script was hilarious, the casting fantastic.  I was excited for the opportunity to work with Jeremy Garelick.  It was also a decent size budget with Screen Gems and a great career opportunity for me.

This is the first feature film for writer and director Jeremy Garelick. Did you have a prior working relationship with him?

I met with Jeremy in early 2013 about shooting a pilot. I immediately loved his creativity, humor, energy, enthusiasm and his down-to- earth nature. At the time I had no idea he had a feature project over at Screen Gems ready to jump into production, nor did I realize shooting the pilot would, in a sense, be my audition as the potential director of photography for his feature.
Courtesy of Screen Gems
A few weeks after wrapping up the pilot Jeremy called, asked me to meet some people over at Screen Gems, and explained a little about his feature project. He sent me the script and I was blown away with how funny and clever it was; I wanted to be a part of the project. Soon after, I received a call from Screen Gems to set up a meeting. It was a whirlwind from that point on. The next week I was at Screen Gems meeting with Glenn Gainor, the next day I was scouting so we could shoot the opening scene.  A few weeks later Glenn called to tell me they wanted me to shoot the movie.

What are the benefits of working with first time directors?

I suppose the great thing working with Jeremy on his first feature... it was a deeply collaborative process all the way through.  We spent a great deal of time together during prep blocking every scene and during this process we came up with so many funny things to add along the way.  Jeremy also told me it’s not just his movie, “it’s our movie.”  He wanted to hear any ideas I had and this made the entire process much more fun and engaging.  Jeremy was so on top of everything you wouldn’t have known it was his first feature directing.  He also knew exactly what he wanted and how to shoot and edit for the laugh.

On the surface this is not the type of film that I normally go for but I really enjoyed it. The performances from the whole cast are phenomenal and Josh Gad was especially good. When you are shooting how aware of performance are you?

Courtesy of Screen Gems
On any production I am very aware of performance.  I have witnessed dramatic performances as we’re shooting that have made me tear up, right there on the set and I’ve also been involved on other productions and we’re shooting comedy and no one is laughing and you just know it’s going to bomb. On The Wedding Ringer set there was so much laughing behind the camera that takes were often busted, we had to suppress ourselves so much!  I looked forward to going to work every day.  It was great to be part of the process, working with Jeremy and the cast.  What a great job – and we actually get paid to do this!

Do you ever have a moment where the shot looks perfect but you know it won't make the cut?

Absolutely, but I always remember my film teacher saying to never fall in love with a shot so much you keep it in and it doesn’t help tell the story.  You shoot what’s written and if a shot is really dynamic or the whole scene looks incredible, but the scene is cut later, you can't worry about it.  There is an entire scene in The Wedding Ringer that didn’t make the cut, a very funny piece.  Perhaps it will be in the extras on the DVD release.

I really liked the look of the film. Interestingly, some of the more beautiful shots in the film seem to underscore the relationship between Josh Gad and Kevin Hart. How do you decide the right visual tone for specific scenes?

Courtesy of Screen Gems
Thank you for the compliment. Reading the scenes, I make notes on what would be the best color temperature and how to light it to augment what’s going on.  With a comedy that is often not really much of a consideration.  I would let Jeremy know that I was going to shoot the scene with specific undertones and he was always great with it.  One example would be when we first meet Kevin Hart’s character Jimmy at the rooftop wedding reception.  I went with a cool blue look while he’s giving the best man speech, a subtle way of giving that character a detached feel.  By the end of the movie with the big Doug and Gretchen reception I wanted to really go for warm tones to help with selling the moments between Doug and Gretchen and the warmth in Doug and Jimmy’s friendship. 

I understand that you are currently shooting in New Orleans. What are you working on?

I am one of two cinematographers on a 10 part series for ABC called Astronaut Wives Club.  It’s a period piece (1959 to 1969), which follows the wives of the original seven astronauts chosen by NASA to begin the space missions.  

The Wedding Ringer opens in theaters nation wide on Friday January 16th. A big thanks to Bradford Lipson for taking time out of his incredibly busy schedule to do this interview.