Charm City Kings, directed by Angel Manuel Soto, took home the U.S Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast this past Saturday at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. From Executive Producers Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, and James Lassiter, comes the story of a young man named Mouse, who hopes to take his place in the Midnight Clique, a notorious group of dirt-bike riders in Baltimore, among whom who his late brother had ridden to glory and tragedy. To learn how the incredible performances of this award-winning cast went from set to screen, read our interview with the film’s cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi below.
Name: Katelin Arizmendi
Film: Charm City Kings (dir. Angel Manuel Soto)
Competition Category: US Dramatic Competition
Camera Body: Alexa XT and Alexa Mini
Glass: Panavision Ultra Speed Mark II + Detuned Ultra Speeds
cinema5D: So you went the university route. How has that influenced the trajectory of your career?
KA: I studied my undergrad at UC Santa Cruz which was essentially all film theory and a few experimental film classes. I shot on a 1 chip camera where I wrote, directed, acted in, and edit- ed a few weird experimental films. Needless to say, I had no idea what I was doing when I graduated and needed to continue my film studies in a more hands-on collaborative setting. The one thing I took away from my undergrad, however, was the mentality of my film teachers : “Screw Hollywood. You need to be different and experiment. Break the rules.” I think that’s carried with me through the years.
I decided to study my MFA at Academy of Art University in San Francisco, mostly being lured by the chance to shoot 16mm and 35mm. Truthfully, I learned technicality of working with film cameras, but the lighting department lacked there and the way the school was structured, I ended up doing a lot of my own projects, hardly collaborating with other students.
cinema5D: So grad school forced you to be really self-sufficient.
KA: Only one director asked me to shoot his thesis project, so I had to come up with ideas for the other 4 thesis films I was required to shoot. Because of this, I continued to make experimental fashion films and music videos after school to build a more interesting reel than the work that came to me from the tech-world in the bay area. Building that reel on my own led me to shoot more creative commercials and music videos at the beginning of my career.
cinema5D: Can you pinpoint a particular movie or filmmaker that nudged you toward cinematography?
KA: I was (and still am) hugely influenced by Buffalo 66. There’s something about that film quality, the stock they used, the way they held on shots, the things you don’t see, the way faces are cropped, the unintentional romance of the characters, use of slow-motion, bizarre but brilliant coverage of the scene at his parents kitchen table…I still feel all kinds of ways when I watch it today.
Films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Being John Malkovich influenced me because I felt they used experimental cinematography in a really effective way for the story, pushing the boundaries but not distracting from the narrative. You actually feel something deep and emotive from the subjective camerawork.
cinema5D: Fast-forward to now, how do you like to run your camera department?
KA: I like my camera and G&E departments to feel like a family. I hate egos and like to believe I don’t act above anyone on set. I’m only as good as my crew. Having like-minded people that are respectful of everyone on set, who are passionate about the project, and who bring a good attitude every day is super important to me.
cinema5D: What’s your advice to directors on how to optimize their relationships with their DPs?
KA: I would say I’ve worked with a various level and style of directors. Some are incredibly
prepared and know exactly what they want, actually leaving little input for me. Then there’s the opposite where you feel all the weight is on your shoulders. Most I’ve worked with are some- where in between, where both of us bring ideas to the table and are willing to be challenged on why something should be shot a certain way. Having those discussions in prep, or even on set will make sure you’re always favoring the story, but still doing it in the most creative way you can.
cinema5D: How did you come to work on Charm City Kings?
KA: Angel, who I didn’t know before, told me that when he went into his initial meetings with the studio, they asked who he wanted to shoot it and he said me. They offered up some other more experienced DPs for him to consider but his gut always came back to me. We only skyped for about 20 minutes about how we wanted to approach the movie but I think it was an instant click for us. We were on the same page from the beginning. We had the absolute best time to- gether in Baltimore.
cinema5D: How did you feel about making a narrative retelling of an established documentary?
KA: This was an authentic portrayal of Baltimore, ending with a positive message. I really loved the doc, but I was very cautious about making a film about such amazing subject matter…this special bike life community that could easily become a Hollywood flashy interpretation of it. I had no desire to do that. After speaking to Angel and seeing his first feature, which was incredibly raw and powerful, I knew authenticity was his number one priority. That even came down to using almost all real Baltimore riders in the film.
cinema5D: What influenced your choices in assembling the camera package?
KA: I’ve always been a fan of Panavision glass and had fallen in love with the Ultra and Super Speeds from previous short films. There’s different characteristics in each lens – even the few overly warm coated focal lengths in the set have their place and use. I also knew Panavi- sion would be able to customize and work with us on some specialty lenses. We added a few detuned Ultra Speeds to increase the bloom and flares for some of the riding at night – adding to the magic of being on a bike.
cinema5D: Were there any special considerations regarding shooting the dirt-bikes?
KA: Well—first and foremost, we needed to experience being on a bike hitting twelve. That was the first thing we wanted to do when we got into prep: experience a real ride, how people interact with the bikes and riders, feel how low-key or high energy the crowd really is, whether it’s a family type event, and so on. The Sunday Ride scene in the movie needed to be as real as possible.
We had Wheelie Wayne, basically the ringleader of all bike life in Baltimore, bring us to a few rides. The energy was insane. I was smiling the whole time—feeling the thrill that just comes from the sound of those bikes alone and watching these incredibly talented riders make it look effortless. I needed to feel it firsthand, so no one better to trust when hopping on the back of an ATV (doing a wheelie) than Wheelie Wayne. It was both the most invigorating and most terrifying thing I’ve ever felt.
cinema5D: Did you and Angel watch any movies together beforehand?
KA: When it came down to Angel and I pulling references and coming up with shot ideas, he really wanted the camera to move as much as possible for a good portion of the movie, referencing impressive oners from movies like Soy Cuba. We also watched A Prophet for the very naturalistic subjective camerawork. Angel made a huge list of films for me to watch, but when I admitted to him a few weeks into shooting that I only watched A Prophet and the rest of the nights I watched Sex in the City, he was so disappointed. But I only admitted that to him after I knew he was happy with my work on our film! I need my guilty-pleasure time you know! Ha. But truthfully, I like to have fresh ideas and fresh eyes. I don’t like overdoing the film references, or you get caught up trying to replicate someone else’s work.
cinema5D: How about during principle photography? What was your collaboration like?
KA: Angel and I vibed from the very beginning: from being able to bounce ideas off each other all day at the office, to hanging out outside work constantly, getting tattoos together…He has an incredible knowledge of every department on set. He made me a better DP. I didn’t have a ton of experience with long choreographed oners, so many of those ideas started with him and I would add to them, favoring angles I thought would be more cinematic. I tried things like panning off Mouse when he goes down the stairs in his house and then turning the camera into his POV. You only hear him off screen, and then it pans back around to the front of him and leads him outside. I love disconnecting the visuals and audio, so I often brought ideas like that into our shot list.
cinema5D: Any new tech or tools on this shoot?
KA: We used a giraffe crane where our steadicam operator, Stew Cantrell, had a long steadicam shot and in the end stepped onto the crane, rising up into a high angle. It would have worked amazingly, if we weren’t running out of light and only had 2 chances at it. The street lamps started to come on and at that point it wouldn’t cut with the rest of the day scene. I wasn’t available to do the reshoots, which included much more of the chase scene, so DP Shelly Johnson (ASC) shot them. In prep, we had discussed shooting some of that scene with a remote head attached to a motorcycle, but we didn’t end up doing it in principal photography. They did use that for the reshoots, and it looks incredible. The bike can get through the narrow overgrown alleys that a russian arm could never get through.
cinema5D: What was the lighting strategy? Any location more challenging than others?
KA: If you’ve ever seen Baltimore at night, it’s incredibly cinematic with a perfect mix of sodium and mercury vapor. The “Highway to Nowhere,” where Mouse escapes on his bike toward the end was already lit like that, with the perfect color separation. In other locations, where I didn’t want the sodium vapor to be the only tone, I brought in other colors like greens, blues, or white light.
Many of the interior scenes at Mouse’s house had to be lit cleverly, so the camera could roam through the space. My gaffer Russel Wicks would stick lite tile on the ceiling, tuck away litemats into the ceiling windows, and push our daylight from 18Ks through the front windows of the house. The more “general” lighting style was due to wanting to cover most scenes in one shot.
The bike shop where Meek works was a bit more difficult. We had so many scenes in there. I didn’t want to be stuck with one day and one night look, so we heavily relied on Scott Dugan, our production designer, to help us with practicals. We mixed neons, fluorescents above work benches, and supplemented quasar tubes in places that would look like flourescents but would be controllable. In general, we never wanted to stray away from the colors that would be in Baltimore and didn’t bring in any unmotivated colors to any scenes.
cinema5D: Any new tech or tools on this shoot?
KA: We used a giraffe crane where our steadicam operator, Stew Cantrell, had a long steadicam shot and in the end stepped onto the crane, rising up into a high angle. It would have worked amazingly if we weren’t running out of light and only had 2 chances at it. The street lamps started to come on and at that point it wouldn’t cut with the rest of the day scene. I wasn’t available to do the reshoots which included much more of the chase scene so DP Shelly John- son ASC shot them. In prep we had discussed shooting some of that scene with a remote head attached to a motorcycle but we didn’t end up doing it in principal photography. They did use that for the reshoots and it looks incredible. The bike can get through the narrow overgrown al- leys that a russian arm could never get through.
cinema5D: What about the script really made you want to work on it?
KA: Of course, I was drawn in by the bikes: the excitement and freedom one feels of doing something so dangerous, yet so liberating…and how we could evoke that same feeling through the camerawork. The bottom line is I was drawn to the coming of age story of this well-rounded character, who was portrayed in a 3-dimensional way, which is not always seen in stories like this.
Sony Classic Pictures is set to release Charm City Kings on April 10th, 2020. In the meantime, if you’d like to see the documentary the film is based on, you can stream 12 O’Clock Boys on Kanopy for free, if you have a valid library card or university ID. It can also be rented on YouTube. You can read more interviews with Sundance filmmakers here.