<I>Outlaw Posse</I>: Cooke lenses bring a special flair to this new Western
Kurt E. Soderling
January 5, 2024

Outlaw Posse: Cooke lenses bring a special flair to this new Western

For the western drama Outlaw Posse, writer, director and star Mario Van Peebles put his trust in me, and I put my trust in Cooke Optics’ anamorphic/i S35 (2x) Special Flair (SF) prime lenses to make the film look like it was shot on 35mm Kodak Ektachrome film.

Photo (L-R): Kurt E. Soderling, Mario Van Peebles and Kip Konwiser

The Cooke anamorphic SFs were key to achieving my ultimate goal: To make this film look big! 

It’s a great story, an A-list cast and crew, and a picture-perfect location. I knew the Cooke anamorphic/i S35 SF would get me exactly what we needed. I had worked and studied under the tutelage of the late famed cinematographer John M. Stephens, and learned a lot about lenses from him. The Cooke anamorphics make this film look big and beautiful. Watching playbacks, I noticed its infectious result as the cast and crew were extra energized.

Set in 1908, Chief (Mario Van Peebles) returns from years of hiding in Mexico to claim stolen reparations of gold hidden in the hills of Montana, but is chased by Angel (William Mapother), whose rationale for the gold leaves a trail of dead bodies.

We shot in beautiful Montana in September and October of 2022. Outlaw Posse is not a remake or sequel to Mario's 1993 Posse, in which he directed and starred, but we will always be compared to the original Posse film, and I am hoping that we give it a good run for the money.

My collaboration with Mario resulted in a very fast flow of shooting a lot of pages each day, without compromise. This required a proper lens arsenal, which allowed me to quickly adjust to Mario's never-say-cut shooting style and still capture the full spectrum of the classic western look. To aid in my process, I teamed up two sets of Cooke anamorphic/i S35 SF 25mm, 32mm, 40mm, 50mm, 65mm Macro (used as both a macro and a prime), 75mm and 100mm primes, a single 135mm and 180mm, plus a Cooke 35-140mm anamorphic/i SF zoom lens with four Arri Mini cameras – all from Alternative Rentals in Los Angeles. I’m a big fan of both Cooke and Arri – owning both an 18-100mm Cooke Zoom 2.3x lens for full coverage on my Arri 3 35mm film camera.

I’m in love with the magic feel you get from The Cooke Look, and the textures that you can create – capturing a familiar yet one-of-a-kind look with the special blue flares. Cooke’s unique anamorphic flares are something that Mario and I grew up with, and are why they were the only glass that would work for this project.

Although the Cooke SF collection is a little slower stop-wise – being 2.1 lenses – I do like big lights and lots of them, and I like to push my light through window and door openings. I like it clean on the set so the space isn’t littered with equipment, and I can actually extend time, if you will, as I did in the opening scene of the film, where we seamlessly continued shooting day into night. Even after the sun went down, it still looked like the first shot of the day shooting out at the street. All those tungsten lights blasting in our sets certainly found the sweet spot in our Cooke SF lenses, which I set between a 4 to a 6.3 stop. That’s where I found the real Cooke SF magic happens. 

When Mario and I tested cameras and lenses with my representative and good friend of 20-plus years, Cliff Hsui at Alternative Rentals, we were immediately convinced the moment we seated the Arri Mini with the Cooke anamorphic SF, as everything looked perfect! Mario's skin tone, the depth of field, the bokeh — everything just looked right. 

We also knew that with the Arri Mini’s small body size – with the sensor that I love because it makes images look like they’re captured on film – we could also be really mobile, working in tight spaces. Teamed with the Cooke lenses, it was nothing short of magical. I got the classic western imagery that I was shooting for, and a palette consistency that I could only have hoped to achieve. There’s a special connection between the Arri camera and the Cooke SF lenses, and this combination truly delivered for us.

I shot natively at 800 ISO, with an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 for a little bit of wiggle room on the sides for reframing in post. With all four cameras working all the time, my A camera lived on the Cooke 35-140mm anamorphic/I SF zoom lens. The reason was so the camera crew wouldn’t have to change lenses for every setup. The B camera was our Steadicam that favored the 40mm prime. The C camera, usually on a crane, lived between the 24mm and 32mm prime, while the D camera would rotate between lenses and sliders. 

There’s one thing I like to do on every film: I always have a gear head out off of the truck every day, so we had it ready. As we started out each day, I found different crew members playing with the wheels, shooting the sunrise, or some other magic moment, and it makes me proud to keep that gear head tradition alive. I also like to give everyone in the camera department, and others, the opportunity to shoot at least one shot in the movie. I would usually find out that one of my department people may have the skills to become a great cameraperson or cinematographer one day. That’s a way for me to pay it forward.

When the writer and director is also the star, it can lead to a bit of trepidation. But that wasn’t the case with Outlaw Posse. I had really strong A and B camera ops, and I would be on C as needed, and D was mostly remote-controlled. We would bump everyone up a notch when Mario was in the scene, so I could be on monitors with script supervisor Amy Arter. I’m so honored by the trust Mario had in me. We had some code words and gestures so that I wouldn’t have to leave the monitors to tell him we needed another take. The benefit of that was we wouldn’t have to call anyone out if they made a mistake. Mario knew what I meant, I knew what he meant, but all that the cast and crew would know is that we were going again.

When my lifelong friend, Outlaw Posse producer Kip Konwiser and his producing partner Joshua Russell first offered me the gig, I was pretty excited. But after they introduced Mario and I, things really took off, as we immediately got along. Like two little school boys, hanging out in our clubhouse after school, we watched classic Westerns together and analyzed some of the great and iconic Western moments in cinema. That started our conversation months in advance about the three acts of the film that Mario wanted to accentuate using the movement of the cameras.

The first act was in a Sergio Leone style, with very little camera movement, more of a static frame. We open the film with a 65mm macro shot that’s big and bold, and right in Neil McDonough’s face...it’s not something you would normally do to open a film, so right from the opening frame, we break the rules! The second act was beginning to have more fluid camera movements, with shots from our Fischer's 23-foot jib arm that we attached to our camera car, floating around high and low to get a real sense of Montana's terrain, which is actually not smooth at all. The third act was when it ‘hits the fan’ in a Sam Peckinpah style, where we go hand-held, whip pans, drone shots, lots of energy in the camera movements. These three basic elements of movement were used to define the camera functions and to create the visual story arc of the film.

I learned that Mario, son of Melvin Van Peebles, is in many ways just like his father, the person who is credited with being the Godfather of modern black cinema. Working with Mario was a great multi-generational education. He was patient, thoughtful and engaging on every level. And watching him pass that knowledge on to Mandela Van Peebles – Mario’s son, who also plays his son in the film – was priceless.

With regards to lighting, I used tungsten lighting to match the early 1900s western era that Outlaw Posse is set in. My Montana gaffer JP Gabriel and I blasted 3,200K tungsten through every window and door and then would knock it down inside with some burlap, or some atmosphere to get the right look. In tight spaces, like the inside of our stagecoach, we kept it simple and used a little Astra LED panel from Litepanels, placed between the two characters on each side set at 3,200K to give that soft fill. 

One scene of note where the Cooke anamorphic/i S35 SF lenses really helped bring more life to the shots was when the character Carson (John Carroll Lynch) is walking into a bar. You see the swinging doors open, and then as the larger-than-life character walks through the bar, you see the light rays popping through the windows as magic hour sets...these enchanted shafts of golden light, followed behind the other card-playing patrons by our Steadicam, as he walks through, magically breaking up the shafts of sunlight and the special flares. It was stunning.

On set, I used Cooke’s /i Technology lens metadata, especially for VFX work. I want to see all the information at the monitors, or on my app. Having that information at my disposal takes the guesswork out of it. Additionally, the lens metadata was used by VFX artist Anthony J. (AJ) Rickert-Epstein, who also served as my second unit DP. Our VFX was instrumental in removing the modern technology in our scenes: power lines, cars, etc., protecting our narrative and suspension of disbelief. AJ was amazing in both roles – as my second unit DP and VFX – he saved me more than once on this film. 

Chapman University in Orange, CA, would play a small role in some color sessions for the post production of Outlaw Posse. Editor Andrew Shearer and myself are alumni of Chapman, where some of the coloring supervision was done. I also brought three of my former Chapman cine students to assist in the camera department on location to Montana for their first location feature film experience. Another great way of paying it forward.

By contract, I usually supervise three to four weeks of color grading on my feature film projects. When our producers couldn't strike a deal with my colorist, they introduced me to colorist Daniel Goldberg. Daniel is so detail-oriented and really worked his magic, making this genre match, and I am honored to have worked with him.

Upon reflection, if I had to do it all over again, I would do the same exact thing. I would definitely use the same exact lenses, the same cameras, and of course the rental house, Alternative Rentals. I am a huge fan!