Stretching across the grand Tennessee River, the Walnut Street Bridge is Chattanooga’s iconic landmark; connecting its residents from the city’s historic riverfront to its downtown district. Owing to its city-owned fiber-optic network, the small southern city over the course of just over a decade, however, has transformed into a burgeoning tech city. Today, Chattanooga boasts the title of having the fastest internet in the country.
While these days the city enables its local residents to have access to ultra-high-speed internet — rendering the world to seem more accessible and interconnected — this new iteration of the city is not the small southern city cinematographer Dustin Lane, remembers as his hometown,
“It’s a small city, but it felt a lot smaller growing up. It felt kind of disconnected from the world in a way,” he recalls.
After graduating high school, Lane left Chattanooga and moved to Nashville to study art at Middle State Tennessee University. During his studies, Lane experimented with different art mediums but came to find the culture around art in a college setting, a milieu he could not completely thrive in.
During his year out of college, Lane met a production assistant, who came from a family involved in filmmaking. Her mother; a producer and her father; a key grip. Aside from its obvious allure, filmmaking, for Lane, was a way to make a decent living, as well as feed his creativity.
Though Lane started out as a PA, he soon became drawn towards the camera department, eventually landing a job as a camera assistant. He went back to college and enrolled in a production course where he could learn the basics of film production. Balancing his time on a film set and in a classroom, his on-set education, however, ultimately won out and Lane ended up dropping out of college, again.
In speaking to Kulture Hub, Lane insists he has no regrets about that decision. The Chattanooga-native admits that he was fortunate that some of his closest friends were aspiring directors at the time. Their budding careers as filmmakers not only enabled Lane to avoid creating kitschy music videos for the next aspiring country music star, but also allowed Lane and his friends to work tirelessly on each other’s projects, thereby allowing each of them to grow as artists and learn together.
Plus, when ‘the music city’ became the base of filmmaker, writer, and painter Harmony Korine, widely known for his audacious film, Spring Breakers (2012), his presence in Nashville was a strong incentive to bring more creatives and interesting projects into town.
Indeed, the city welcomed visits from talented DP’s such as Alexis Zabe (The Florida Project, Silent Light), and Christopher Blauvelt (Certain Women, The Bling Ring), who Lane was able to meet and connect with. As Lane began to develop his reel and work on bigger projects, he got an agent and moved to Los Angeles.
While Lane now resides on the West Coast, most of his projects take place in the middle of America. In fact, his first feature film, Dayveon (2017), landed the DP in a rural small town in Arkansas.
The film follows the story of 13-year-old, Dayveon, who after the death of his older brother, falls in with a gang in his rural Arkansas town. Though his sister’s boyfriend tries to provide stability and comfort as a reluctant father figure, Dayveon becomes increasingly drawn into the camaraderie and violence of his new world.
The director of Dayveon, Amman Abbasi, reached out to Lane after seeing a short documentary he had shot. Enthralled by Lane’s reel they conversed about the idea for Dayveon in 2013.
Two years later and two weeks out from prepping to shoot the film, Abbasi called Lane with the news that an investor pulled out of the film. Already having limited funds to shoot the film, the news was a major blow for the project and put into question whether the film would actually come into fruition. Speaking on this time, Lane recalled in our interview,
“Amman rang me and told me that an investor pulled out and it was a big chunk of money. But he said, ‘I feel like we still have to carry on and if we don’t do it now, when are we going to do it?’ I was very excited about that attitude — that kind of by-any-means-necessary attitude and that is very much Amman. He is just the kind of guy that never assumes he is not going to accomplish what he wants to accomplish — in a really amazing way.”
With an extremely low budget and a very small and relatively inexperienced crew, in a guerilla-style shoot, Dayveon, was shot in three weeks.
The stripped-to-bone minimalism and rawness of the film is akin to Lane’s overall visual approach as a DP; imagery embedded in what he described as “an extreme naturalism.”
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Lane’s boxy approach to framing and his choice of aspect ratio is a turn away from the wider, anamorphic and cinematic-looking frames, that he noted in our interview, is what seems to be the current trend.
“I feel like I want to see things very boxy. I like the aspect ratio of 4:3 and I think it makes a lot of sense for shooting faces especially. I think I am more interested in making photographic-looking frames. Sometimes that is as simple as instead of shooting 2.0 widescreen, you shoot 4:3 and it immediately feels like a photograph. But there is a time and a place for all of it, but it is definitely a conversation I like to have before every project; where we talk about what kind of imagery we want to see, maybe what aspect ratios suits us the best,” he says.
While the majority of movie-goers often completely credit the director for the overall look of a film, in actuality, a films’ aesthetic is contingent upon collaboration between the director and the DP.
As such, in any project, there must be a level of chemistry and trust between the director and cinematographer and a consensus over what they want the project to look like; a discussion that occurs in preproduction but continues over the course of filming. In discussing his visual approach, Lane says,
“I like when things look sloppy and imperfect. I feel like that adds to a realness, especially when watching performances. When the backlight is perfect and everything about the frame looks so curated, you start to feel that curation and then things start to feel false to me. Even though I am sure I am tricked sometimes, but I get the most excited when I am watching a film and I’m unsure of what I saw is something scripted or something happened spontaneously.”
In our interview, Lane revealed how his vehement desire to capture an authentic performance, may render formal elements such as lighting and composition not be the priority in certain moments of filming,
“The performance feeling real will always feel more important to me, so if that means I can’t light it much because it means I need to move the camera almost 360 degrees I will choose to do that. I would rather the person’s face be dark, not lit, than it be too lit that you don’t believe it,” he says.
Admittedly, Lane is not the most versatile DP. If you are looking for someone to shoot a glossy, pop music video, he isn’t your guy.
“I really like what I like and not much else,” he reveals.
Yet, by no means is Lane ruling out doing music videos. In fact, his reel shows he has created the visuals for artists like Vince Staples, James Vincent McMorrow, Alt-J, Inc. No World, Bonobo and more.
Lane also acknowledges that there is a certain artistic freedom that music videos afford you as a DP and a visual artist, which narrative film is not able to, due to the cinematic convention of maintaining spatio-temporal coherency.
“Usually when I am working on music videos, they are music videos that feel like feature films or feel like a scene out of a movie. But you can get away with things in a music video that you can’t in narrative film because you’re only ever suggesting story, and you can distill ideas down to very suggestive moments than actually having to tell a story. There are good and bad things about in terms of what you can get away with, but also how you are limited about it,” he explains.
On his advice for aspiring DP’s, he noted,
“Try to get a job as a PA, just get on set, see other people working — that’s an amazing way to learn. Shoot on the side as well. Even if you are shooting on your iPhone, go shoot something, because you are going to learn something,”
Right now, Lane finds himself again in the middle of America. The DP is currently shooting in rural Ohio for an upcoming film about a young girl who gets involved in the scrapping world as she tries to earn a living in order to leave her hometown.