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Dining in Style

Peter Deming, ASC recounts the ingredients that make up the visual feast of The Menu.

Expertly blending flavors of comedy and horror, director Mark Mylod’s feature The Menu follows a young couple on an extravagant date to an exclusive restaurant on a remote island, where the courses quickly turn from lavish to outlandish. Working with Panavision Atlanta, cinematographer Peter Deming, ASC cooked up a recipe for the movie’s visual style that included a Panavised Sony Venice camera and prototype large-format spherical VA primes. The result, Deming describes in this Q&A, grounds the unimaginable in an experience that invites viewers to their very own seats at the table.

Panavision: How would you describe the look of The Menu?

Peter Deming, ASC: It’s hard sometimes to put a moniker on a film’s ‘look,’ but this project may touch on the ‘stylistic realism’ category. We wanted to accentuate and heighten certain aspects of this world through the photography, but it was also essential that it stay rooted in reality for the story to land. We had an advantage of an off-kilter, remote world via the island locale and the clearly obsessive proprietor and his staff. There was a very spartan quality to most every aspect of the surroundings, which let the extravagance of the food stand out. For that reason, the lighting reinforced the angles of the sets, and the practical lighting was largely architectural in nature.

The wall of windows on one side of the set allowed for the natural light to play the room and change with the passing of time, as the entire story takes place in about five or six hours. This accommodated the idea of 'light to dark,' which very much reinforced the story aspects. We wanted the story's descent into madness to coincide with the arrival of night and the darkening of the mood and the room. 

Not only were we shooting in one room for much of the story, but the bulk of the cast was sitting stationary for much of that time. From a camera perspective, once we were in the restaurant, where most of the story takes place, we began shooting somewhat from the perimeter with medium to long focal lengths, and over time we gradually positioned the cameras closer and closer to our subjects while using progressively wider lenses to maintain the shot sizes but feel more intimate.

We wanted to move the camera, but not in a stylistically overbearing way. As the story became more and more unhinged, we untethered the camera, first to move with the Steadicam and eventually handheld where we thought appropriate. Combining that with getting in closer proximity to our characters seemed more immediate to us. We eventually get to a place where the audience feels like they are sitting at these tables along with the characters instead of merely watching them from a distance, which is how we started and more the norm. We loved how you could really read the horror in our diners' faces from just a couple feet away on a medium-wide lens!

During preproduction, were there any visual references you looked at for inspiration?

Deming: One of the things director Mark Mylod and I discussed in prep was 'the close-up.' We knew we would have so many of them - how would we handle the sheer volume and make them different and effective? Mark brought up Bergman, and I was able to track down a reel someone had put together of close-ups from many of his films. We cherry-picked a bit what we liked and possibly didn’t like about that collection.

For much of the shooting, the story dictated and informed many of the wider angles. It was the close-ups that really brought the power.

What brought you back to Panavision for The Menu?

Deming: It’s no real surprise that Panavision is always my first stop. I was considering using the Venice for the first time on a long-form project — which we did — and I love the amazing choice of optics Panavision creates and provides. And, of course, as we were outside of a traditional production center, I knew the customer service would be there for us.

What optical characteristics did you see in the VA primes that made them the right match for The Menu?

Deming: We wanted something classic in the optics and not overly sharp, which for me is always a danger with digital capture. My first stop is always a chat with the guru, Dan Sasaki [Panavision’s senior vice president of optical engineering and lens strategy]. He had been working on a new set of large-format primes, the VAs, which I had used on another film project. They were quite pleasing and had a little funk to them — technical term. We liked the shallow depth of field that large format gave us and being able to shoot with slightly wider focal lengths, as was our plan, without the customary image bend. They are also amazingly compact and lightweight, which always helps when you have a healthy portion of Steadicam and handheld.

What keeps you inspired in your work as a cinematographer?

Deming: I just really enjoy telling stories and using the camera and the lightning to support that story and tell it with a unique perspective that gives the audience an enhanced experience — to capture those special moments of collaborative performances without overwhelming them, or getting in the way, or saying ‘look at me.’

Images courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.