Best sweeps his way to the top
Thom Best’s stock has soared in the past couple of years. The Toronto-based director of photography has shot perhaps the two most heavily promoted Canadian features: Ginger Snaps, for which he was nominated for a Genie Award, and the recent box office record-breaking curling comedy Men with Brooms.
To the Manitoba native, taking on a feature provides a welcome respite from the grinding world of TV production. Best is currently working on the last three episodes of season two on the locally shooting Super 16 series Queer as Folk, which airs on Showcase in Canada and Showtime in the U.S. In addition to demanding many late calls, the eight-month commitment has kept Best away from the last stretch of post-production on The Ice Men, his feature directorial debut. The film, starring David Hewlett (Treed Murray) and Martin Cummins (Love Come Down), concerns five male friends whose winter cottage weekend takes some unexpected turns. Best handed DOP duties over to Gavin Smith (My Louisiana Sky) so he could concentrate on helming chores.
Best attended the film and television program at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, where he met director John Fawcett. He remained in Calgary until 1995, after which time he relocated to Toronto to shoot Fawcett’s feature debut, The Boys Club. The pair would collaborate again on Ginger Snaps.
Best says he got the gig for Men with Brooms via a recommendation from editor Susan Maggi, who also cut The Boys Club. Men with Brooms, a Serendipity Point Films production in association with Whizbang, tells the story of four estranged male friends (is this a pattern?) who reunite for Coach Foley’s funeral in Long Bay, ON, and end up re-forming their curling team to chase the Golden Broom trophy that eluded them a decade earlier.
The coveted feature presented a different set of challenges for Best than, say, a teen horror flick.
‘On Ginger Snaps, I could play with a lot of lighting, whereas comedy is pretty ‘up’ – you can pretty much see everything,’ he notes.
Although Men with Brooms had a substantially bigger budget than Ginger Snaps ($7.5 million compared to $4.5 million), much of it was spent on the talent, which includes Paul Gross, Leslie Nielsen, Molly Parker, Polly Shannon and Michelle Nolden.
‘[Men with Brooms] didn’t feel like a big-budget movie,’ the cinematographer says. ‘It’s still an independent film. I don’t know that we had that much more to play with.’
No doubt Men with Brooms producer Robert Lantos felt Best’s experience on The Ice Men would help provide a solid support system for Gross, who was not only making his own directorial debut, but also acting in the film.
‘Keeping all the balls in the air is a very difficult thing to do,’ Best says. ‘Paul bit off a large chunk, and he did a spectacular job. He studied curling and made himself aware of production and what it takes. He’s been on a million sets. For the most part, he knows lenses and how he looks good, and he was always very complimentary with the actors. He made that a priority.’
When working with Fawcett, Best has relied on a shorthand born out of familiarity, but the on-set dynamic with Gross evolved throughout the Men with Brooms shoot. Considering Gross’ thespian background (he was the star of the series Due South), it’s no surprise he would be a performance-driven director.
‘He really trusted me to bring a visual sense to it,’ Best says. ‘Initially he left a lot up to me, but as the show went on, he began to take more control of how he wanted to frame things.’
The camera operator on the film was Sean Jensen, whom Best carried over from Queer as Folk. Best says he likes to alternate between handling the camera himself and bringing in an operator with each new project.
There were three weeks of preproduction on Men with Brooms, which mostly involved location scouting in Ontario. The crew used various Toronto locations, including a west-end studio space and streets in Uxbridge.
Best feels that the frequent comparisons between the movie and The Full Monty are justified. In fact, the combination of small-town characters and exteriors shot around the mines in Sudbury recall any number of British social-realism films dating back to the 1960s. The crew picked up three to four days of exteriors in the Northern Ontario town after six weeks of shooting in and around Toronto in April and May 2001. Two weeks in Hamilton and Brampton curling rinks were among the warmest on record.
‘Rocks don’t slide on water very well,’ Best jokes.
The production had three crews shooting on the Brampton rink simultaneously. Aside from big HMIs positioned at a distance for soft illumination, Best installed 14 Space Lights, although he would have liked another seven.
‘You’re trying to get a big enough stop [T4] in there to give everybody enough for focus and yet not melt the ice,’ he explains.
Best shot on Kodak Vision 500T 5279 stock for night scenes, EXR 100T 5248 for daylight exteriors and EXR 200T 5293 for day interiors. He did some tests at the beginning, but ultimately felt confident with those stocks from past use, calling the 5293 ‘a workhorse’ on the movie. He used a minimum amount of filtration, which he attributes to Men with Brooms’ ‘young and beautiful’ cast. (Leslie Nielsen should be pleased.)
Since many viewers have watched hours of TV curling coverage, Best wanted to imbue the curling scenes with a look that was familiar without going too flat.
‘We were trying to give it a Bonspiel [tournament] feel, so you couldn’t fall off too much,’ the cameraman explains. ‘I tried to light the ice and remove it from the [on camera] audience as much as possible.’
The crew achieved overhead shots of the ‘house,’ or scoring area, with a Pegasus crane from Griphouse Films. The filmmakers had also blocked an elaborate Steadicam shot in the curling rink, but it was ultimately abandoned. However, the finished film ends with an equally tricky Steadicam movement, executed by Jensen, that goes from character to character in the local watering hole. Best recollects the difficulty in hiding all the lighting fixtures in the winding shot.
For shots where the camera follows the moving skips and curling rocks, Best considered using the Fraser ‘snorkel’ lens system or the Revolution modular lens system, but instead opted for the Century Precision Optics Low Angle Prism. Griphouse’s Mitch Holmes welded together a unit with a Teflon bottom onto which the third camera unit mounted its Moviecam (from William F. White), enabling them to slide alongside the action.
The crew used Zeiss Super Speed lenses, avoiding the mid-range.
‘Paul and I talked about keeping things either tight or wide, keeping them as cinematic as possible,’ Best recalls. ‘We tried to not shoot on the 50mm. They kept telling me, ‘Comedy plays wide.’ ‘
The camera usually rested on a dolly, although hotel room scenes called for some hand-held action.
‘It was a good mix of styles,’ the DOP says. ‘There wasn’t anything we were sworn to or had sworn off. It was whatever was in service of the scene.’
Exploding curling rocks and CG beavers, which get some of the movie’s biggest laughs, were created by young Toronto CG company Mr. X. Despite a horde of the crazy critters on screen, Best reveals that he actually only shot two of the bucktoothed rodents and digital magic provided the rest.
As for curling, one of our nation’s most fervent passions, Best says that he tried it but found it frustrating.
‘I’m not very flexible anymore,’ he laments.
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