Searching is the first movie to be filmed entirely with smartphones, cameras, tablets, and Go-pros, and a bunch of other smaller cameras you'll learn more about later. The dramatic thriller follows a desperate father (John Cho) as he searches for his teenage daughter who has gone missing. He unfolds the mystery from clues he finds on her computer and phone, hence the need to be a screen driven film.
Using these handheld devices provided quite a challenge for cinematographer Juan Sebastion Baron. "Cinematography" is how a movie is filmed to look a certain way by using light, different cameras, types of film, and angles. Baron had to make viewers see everything through a screen and have the same realistic look as if you were actually seeing everything through a screen. Very tricky. Since it had never been done before, he didn't even have a guide as to what to do. He was writing it.
Searching is incredibly well done due to it's acting, writing, and directing but it's a success largely in part to Baron's finesse and confidence behind the scenes. We had the wonderful opportunity to talk to Baron about how he got started with cameras, why he loves film, the unique challenges he had making this movie and how he pulled it all off.
TheThings (TH): When did you know you wanted to work in film? What first drew you to cinematography? What do you like most about it?
Juan Sebastion Baron (JSB): Photojournalism rocked my world, that was my first introduction to communicative art. It felt like an incredible power, to be able to capture a moment and infuse it with your point of view, with a sense of performance. I took violin lessons from a concert violinist growing up, and seeing her build a life around this very personal and expressive art had a huge influence on me. A friend asked me to shoot a short film in high school. I didn’t know what that meant, but I discovered cinematography and going through the process, and seeing the final product; it was a high I still chase every day. It felt like a magic trick I needed to know how to do, and what I love about it is even so many years later I still feel like I’m trying to figure it out.
TH: Prior to Searching, what type of projects did you do the most? What type of jobs are you drawn to?
JSB: Almost all my work revolves around the relationships that I’ve developed over time. I’m a big believer in investing everything in my collaborations and being very committed to the final product. It’s still a personal process for me. My first feature film was a micro-budget feature we shot in a house we all lived in out in Kansas. I pulled my own focus, set up my own lights. We cooked our meals. My second feature we made with a French cast, deep in the swamps of Florida; it was a chaotic cultural pressure cooker. I’m very drawn to the story, not just of the narrative but also of the experience of making the film.
TH: How did you get involved with Searching? Were you apprehensive about taking it on knowing what you were trying to do?
JSB: Aneesh and I met at USC when we were paired up to do an intermediate project. That was another crazy story of aiming way higher than we had any right to, and working together to push ourselves to make the movie we had in our head. He’s the hardest working, most committed and passionate filmmaker (and person) I’ve ever met. So I didn’t really have any apprehensions, even though I knew it was going to be very challenging. I have a deep respect for his process the type of movie he is trying to make, and I knew that as long as I stayed true to his vision we would pull it off.
TH: Going into Searching what was your biggest concern? Did you have an immediate idea on how to make everything look like the audience was seeing everything through a screen just like the characters?
JSB: I had an entire workbook of concerns. We were in very uncharted territory, and very early on I felt the pressure of making sure this would all work. The script was brilliant, I had never read anything that penetrated the digital world like that. There was an incredible level of authenticity, pulling from internet culture with a commitment to realism. I knew that for the cinematography to succeed, it had to share that commitment, even if it meant taking serious risks and inconveniences. It meant that we would have to shoot with the right cameras for the look, even if they weren’t professional products.
TH: What type of cameras did you use the most and why? What looked the most like a smartphone on the big screen?
JSB: An actual smartphone.
Other than having to shoot on GoPros for the laptop webcams, every camera in the film is as close to what would have authentically been used as possible. That meant we shot on MiniDV camcorders, point and shoot cameras, iPhones, DSLRs, etc. It went completely against conventional wisdom (which exists for a good reason), but we didn’t want to degrade any footage in post. The only real compromise we had to make was that we couldn’t afford to shoot on professional news cameras or news helicopters. So, for those I found a small sensor 4K camcorder (Sony Z100) that gave me the right texture when we punched in digitally in the screen capture, and our drone footage was shot on an Inspire drone.
TH: What was the biggest challenge you had during filming? Is there any particular scene that stands out as the most difficult one to shoot?
JSB: So, a good example of the level of difficulty we faced on this shoot was shooting a simple scene where Detective Vick (Deborah Messing) FaceTimes with David (John Cho) on her phone in her car. We shot that scene on an iPhone (which happened to be Aneesh’s personal iPhone due to budgetary constraint). Shooting selfie scenes on the phone was a challenge because we had to tape over the front of the screen so the actors wouldn’t be distracted, but this meant many times the camera would flip, or the recording would be cut and we wouldn’t find out until the very end. With only one assistant having to wrangle and charge over a dozen cameras, we ran out of batteries and had to set up a whole new phone to shoot with. We also had a very tight schedule, sometimes shooting over 10 pages a day, and because we had to shoot dozens of locations all at this one house, we could literally only shoot a single angle into a wall that was getting blasted by the sun.
We got it done, but it was a truly humbling moment that definitely made me miss even the hardest days on a lot of regular productions. At least this time I didn’t forget to put the phone on Airplane Mode so we didn’t have any calls come in.
TH: Did you draw any inspiration from other films? What other influences did you use to get the look you wanted?
JSB: I watched a lot of thrillers going into this. It taught me a lot about how to stay with characters and evolve the photography around them over the course of a psychologically challenging arc. There were some great lessons about exploring vulnerability and using lighting and framing to complement the performances. Ultimately though, in terms of influencing the look, I spent most of my time in prep watching hundreds of YouTube videos, exploring the aesthetics of selfies, fight videos, helicopter chases, all of this visual media that has it’s on technique and style.
TH: What was your favorite scene to shoot and why?
JSB: There’s a scene that takes place when Margot is very young and she wakes up her dad on his birthday. It’s this beautiful family moment that isn’t really a part of the narrative but it strikes such a powerful chord. We shot this on a little MiniDV camcorder that just had the perfect nostalgic texture, with that iconic little stuttery zoom. Sarah Sohn, who plays the mom, operated that scene. It was so satisfying, watching that because it felt like such an effortless family moment but was the culmination of so many decisions, many which were very hard to make. The chemistry of the cast, the location giving such an organic feeling of suburbia, the set design, the camera. It represented a lot of what we had to do in this movie, setting everything up and stepping back to let something original happen.
TH: How did you achieve what you wanted with the lighting? What were the challenges you had with portraying light from screens to an audience?
JSB: Lighting this film meant having to learn the black art of convincing GoPros and iPhones to do what you want them to do. I did a lot of testing to try and understand the mechanics, but even after two weeks of shooting with them I still have no idea how it works. Creatively though, I came in with a thorough plan of how I wanted to establish the world, to lure the audience with a sense of realism and normality, and then play variations on that to explore the mood of the scenes. We had a lot of symbolic and expressive ideas we wanted to communicate with the lighting, for example, the significance of the light on the screen to the process of discovering the truth about Margot’s digital existence. Originally, wanted to use everyday light sources to shoot the movie, but in the end, we still had to use traditional movie lights to augment every scene.
TH: Do you think these types of films will become more commonplace? Would you want to do work on a project similar to this one again?
JSB: There’s obviously too much potential in the format. It really opens the floodgates to a lot of storytelling drama that can’t be represented any other way. That said, it’s so difficult, and the least of which is because of the cinematography. The post-production process has to develop a lot further before these movies can be made without the incredible sacrifice and effort of the editors. My thought initially was that I would never have made a movie like this if it wasn’t for Aneesh. I will say that it was a very satisfying experience and it felt almost like going back to film school and learning a whole new way of thinking about the magic trick of cinema.
Thank you so much, Juan Sebastion Baron, for chatting with us and sharing all of your knowledge about cinematography. It was truly a pleasure! Be sure to check out Searching, now playing at a theater near you!