Pre-Production—From Lighting Choices to Film Techniques with Emily Topper, DP of Rebel Hearts

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Sundance Film Festival, which took place January 28 - February 3, included 73 feature films, hosted by actor and comedian Patton Oswalt, with jurors presenting 24 prizes for feature filmmaking and seven for Short Films. 

In our latest Sundance interview, we talked to Emily Topper, DP of Rebel Hearts about her experience as DP on the film, including lighting choices and what film techniques brought Rebel Hearts to life. 

PH: How did you get involved with this project?

Emily Topper: Pedro and I had worked together before and he reached out to me at the start of Rebel Hearts. Honestly, I jump at the chance to work at Pedro on anything. He puts so much careful thought into everything he is involved in and he brings you into the process.

PH: Can you describe your approach to pre-production?

Emily Topper: Pedro shared much of the archival footage with me and also before each shoot we talked in detail about what the goals of each scene was. Because Pedro and I had worked together before, we both already knew each other as artists pretty well.

PH: What lighting choices did you make and why?

Emily Topper: We mostly used natural light. For the interviews, we used a single light but tried to use in a discreet way, to supplement the existing natural light. We were lucky to be able to shoot the interviews during the day in rooms with windows.

PH: What film techniques did you use to bring this project to life?

Emily Topper: We were intent on keeping things incredibly simple, both to blend in with all of the archival footage which we knew was going to be the majority of the film. So when we were filming things there was a sense of trying to avoid any unnecessary flourishes or doing anything that would come across as too flashy or polished, because the archival material was not like that, and the film had to work together as a whole. These characters are gorgeous in their unvarnished approach to the world and to working in social justice. It felt only natural to keep the photography simple.

PH: How has your professional experience in the industry shaped your work on this project (and in general)?

Emily Topper: I think because I worked in lighting for several years, I know how to predict what things will look like with just the natural light in play and a general sense of how light behaves and how very little you sometimes need.

PH: What did you shoot on? And why?

Emily Topper: C300 mk2. Affordable option and small enough to be non-obtrusive.

PH: Do you have a favorite/memorable scene that you can discuss?

Emily Topper: The interview with Patrice Underwood was the one that was the most meaningful for me, personally. We filmed in a small chapel in the apartment complex where many of the women live together. I felt very honored to be in that space. I still think to this day about the light in that room and the feeling of love that emanated from Patrice. She spoke in not much more than a whisper and yet what came through was such a force of nature.

PH: Did you face any challenges while working on this project? What were they and how did you
approach them?

Emily Topper: The main challenge that we faced was how to document this community without being a disturbance. It was a challenging time for the community. They were going through a lot of hard changes, and I suspect it was a tough time to have a film crew in the mix. We have to step lightly and weigh our impact at every moment, and prioritize what the community’s desires were over our own concerns.

PH: Now that Sundance is virtual, how do you think the experience has changed? What are some of the ways you, along with other production professionals, can still socialize and collaborate?

Emily Topper: Not sure how to answer this because Sundance coincided with me being on a hectic shoot so I was barely able to keep up with it all. But that’s no different from what happens every year.

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