DP Jared Raab on BlackBerry

ARRI Rental Toronto services “BlackBerry”

"BlackBerry" takes inspiration from real-life events into the creation and decline of the BlackBerry technology. Cinematographer Jared Raab shares the production process at shooting with the ALEXA Mini. 

Aug. 18, 2023

“BlackBerry” takes inspiration from real-life events behind the extraordinary rise and fall of Research in Motion (RIM), one of the world's first smartphone companies. The Canadian production, directed and co-written by Matt Johnson, was the first to be serviced by ARRI Rental’s new Toronto facility. Cinematographer Jared Raab spoke to us about his creative approach to the project, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.

How did you get involved in this production?

Many of the people who made this movie have been working together since we met at film school, so there were a lot of good friends on the team. The first feature film we made was called “The Dirties,” which won the jury prize at Slamdance and was then picked up by Kevin Smith for distribution. We have basically been working closely together ever since, so when Matt Johnson and (writer/producer) Matt Miller started writing “BlackBerry,” I was well aware. Then one day we got together for a meeting, and they said, “Okay... we think we can make this movie... and we can do it in our style.” The next day we started planning.

And what kind of a style was that? What look and feel did you and Matt Johnson want? 

We knew that if the film was going to work, we couldn't shoot it like a conventional drama with standard coverage. First of all, that's not my strong suit and, more importantly, it didn't suit the tone that we were going for. I remember that early on, Matt said the audience should be thinking, “I can't believe I'm seeing this. Am I even allowed to be here?” The shooting needed to feel like it was being caught in the moment, almost by pure chance or clandestine filming. As a result, we chose to be as far away from the action as possible, on long zooms. We chose locations that allowed us to witness the action from several rooms away, through multiple layers of glass. When those locations weren't available, we would build them, or sometimes just build a window to get us further away. We wanted it to feel like the audience was being let in on a secret.

Much of the shooting ethos of classical cinema was developed in a time when the goal of cinematography was to create a visual language out of conventional shots: the “every frame a painting” kind of thing. The assumption is that the more control a filmmaker has, the better they are. I think there's some merit to that, and I’m as much a Roger Deakins fan as anyone. My own shooting ethos, on the other hand, comes from watching YouTube videos and home movies sent to me from a mobile phone. There’s an entire parallel cinematic language out there, and that's the language of the “real.”

I truly believe that the general public, especially anyone born in the 1980s or later, understands this language much better than they do the language of conventional cinema. That's why I, along with Matt and the whole Zapruder Films team, have been so obsessed with mixing those two worlds. It's incredibly powerful when you can harness the language of “real” footage but have a huge degree of cinematic control. I believe we've only scratched the surface of these ideas with “BlackBerry,” and we will continue to see how far we can push it.

Zooms are not often used for narrative drama – what was it like using them on this shoot?

 We had an interesting puzzle to solve with this film, in that we were trying to capture scenes in long, single takes with minimal setups and usually from only one or two workable angles. We needed to feel the spaces as living and breathing offices where work was being done, but at the same time be able to get into a screaming close-up when someone was having a moment of realization. One solution was to capture the wides almost by accident as the camera was searching for the action, eventually crashing into the close-up on the characters, almost like the camera operator was trying to figure out what was going on by reading lips.

Another solution was to stage the scene as a long continuous zoom, starting with the whole environment, but landing on the character's subjective experience. The result of doing this in a continuous zoom, rather than as a cut from wide to close, is that you feel the world is quite literally closing in around them. We used this every time Mike was getting bad news on the phone, and also in the final confrontation between Mike and Jim, where in some ways they are both getting bad news.

 People think of zooms as belonging to the language of comedy, reality television, and documentary. Perhaps this is why the film gets so many comparisons to “The Office.” Personally, I think a well-timed zoom has the same power as a dolly-in or any other dynamic camera move. You can almost think of it as a cut plus time. Don't get me wrong, it's great for landing a funny moment, but it can also land a dramatic one or give you an unsettling feeling. Used correctly, it’s a subconscious signal to the audience that the camera operator thinks something is interesting, and worth a closer look. Used in the inverse, with a zoom out, it can make us feel uncomfortable, or like we're trying to get away.

There are flares in the trailer with net patterns – was that diffusion behind the lens?

The use of nets was another fun discovery born out of necessity. We wanted the texture of the film to feel like it belonged in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We had to cut the digital sharpness and maybe even nod a little to the classic Kamiński-esque shooting in the Hollywood films these guys at RIM were watching. When you put diffusion in front of the lens, like a Black Pro-Mist, it loses strength when you go from say a 24 mm to a 100 mm lens. You're looking through less of the filter, so you get less diffusion. Behind-the-lens diffusion doesn't have this same problem. Because we were doing so many scenes that started wide and then zoomed to 290 mm or longer, by the end it was our only option for diffusion. As I started doing net tests, I noticed the chunkier vinyl fabrics gave a sort of grid-like pattern that mimicked both the LCD pixelated displays of the BlackBerry and also the grid-like keyboard. It was just a happy discovery, courtesy of the tulle section at Fabricland.

The film builds tension as the story develops. How much was that done with the cinematography and how much with the edit? 

Obviously, the nature of how we shot the film meant that some of the editing could happen in-camera. We always tried to give the camera freedom to move around and find the action, searching for what might be the most interesting thing in the frame. On the other hand, it's actually a tremendous skill to take that footage and make it work in the context of the edit. Curt Lobb, who is an absolute master and worked on almost everything we’ve made, has somehow managed to find a recipe between letting the shots play out and reigning in the dead space. We also did quite a lot with the shooting to try and make things feel more claustrophobic as the story develops. As RIM became a more rigid and boring place to work, we locked the camera down more on sticks and moved further and further away from the action. Almost like the audience is losing access to the spirit of the company, the same way the original engineers were. There was also a color shift from warm analog light to the cool digital blue of backlit LEDs. It all contributes to that growing feeling of dread and impending doom.

What made the ALEXA Mini the best camera choice?

We extensively tested camera bodies, along with lenses, before landing on the ALEXA Mini. It was the only camera we felt could be used like a documentary camera, with a level of versatility that also give us that warm nostalgic film-era feeling. On the technical side, we were shooting into a lot of windows with lots of bright reflections, and the highlight roll-off on the ALEXA sensor was unparalleled. Because of the zoom range we needed, full frame was out of the question, and Super 16 didn't have the depth of field to direct the audience's attention where it needed to be. The ALEXA 35 wasn't widely available when we were starting production, or I imagine it would have been a likely candidate. 

In what different ways did you rig and use the camera during the shoot? Were you often working with more than one camera?

 Another puzzle to solve was how to recreate the feeling of a handheld camera while shooting on a 27 lb. lens at over 200 mm. If we were going to feel the agency and excitement of the camera operators, we needed an authentic handheld feel and the freedom to whip around the room as if we were on light, shoulder-mounted cameras. The Angénieux zooms we used are 24-290 mm with a constant T2.8, which is amazing, but they’re far too heavy to actually handhold – especially for hours at a time. We watched a featurette for “The Big Short,” and Barry Ackroyd had a setup where he put the camera on a short slider, loose on the head. When we tested it out, it worked, but it still didn't feel quite as human as we wanted it to. That's when my cinematographer friend Maya Bankovic suggested I check out the Newman Airhead, which was invented by Peter Newman, a grip right here in Canada. It's essentially an inflatable rubber tube that is mounted under the camera, taking the weight but letting the camera float freely. In combination with the short slider, we got the look we were going for. We had to go to Peter Newman himself to track down a second Airhead for our two-camera setups.

 For scenes with multiple characters, we built out two of these rigs and positioned them at cuttable angles, much like you would if you were shooting a documentary. Then, working with trusted DPs as camera operators – Adam Crosby and Luca Tarantini – we just let the scenes play, comparing notes and making small adjustments between takes to try to make the coverage as cuttable as possible. 

Did you feel well supported by ARRI Rental Toronto?

We quite simply could not have done what we did without the support of ARRI Rental Toronto. We are obsessive about testing, which means a lot of lenses and a lot of time building and rebuilding setups in the months leading up to production. Dina Maragos let us come and use the space at ARRI Rental before they even had the walls up. Another thing I really loved about working with ARRI is that they understand film is a collaborative medium. Some other rental houses, that I will resist naming, refused to rent to our production once they learned that we were also renting equipment from other sources. The folks at ARRI Rental are happy to do what works best for the filmmakers, even if it means sharing parts of the business. In an industry as small as ours, that goes a very long way. It might seem like a small thing, but when it's the difference between getting the tools you need or not, that flexibility means everything. It's just proof that they care about the films they are a part of, and it's why we will keep coming back. 

What were the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the shoot for you?

For me, the film served as a bit of a successful experiment in film language. I was genuinely concerned that the shooting style of the film and the level to which we mixed vérité doc style with more traditional shooting would pull people out. At the very least I thought it might divide audiences a little between young and old, who maybe didn't grow up watching as much handheld, doc-style drama. On the contrary, it feels like people are just along for the ride, which is the best compliment of all.