Written by Ellie Powers Lance Oppenheim’s documentary filmmaking lexicon incorporates elements of narrative filmmaking to show a reality that feels…


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Written by Ellie Powers

Lance Oppenheim’s documentary filmmaking lexicon incorporates elements of narrative filmmaking to show a reality that feels both within and without our world. His approach factors in the grade from the beginning, and he uses the color process to craft images that live on the edge of fiction and verité. His most recent film, FX’s SPERMWORLD, delves deep into the lives of women seeking sperm donors via unregistered domains (e.g. Facebook groups) and the men who travel the country to provide their seed free of charge (minus travel reimbursements) to help these women get pregnant. 

Oppenheim and Cinematographer David Bolen began working with Colorist Damien Vandercruyssen on Oppenheim’s breakout, Some Kind of Heaven, which follows the lives of Floridian retirees at the Villages, the largest retirement community in America. Oppenheim was struck by Vandercruyssen’s versatility from film to film, and knew he wanted to engage Vandercruyssen early in the process to help perfect the look for FX’s SPERMWORLD. Vandercruyssen recalls, “during editing, Lance would invite me to screenings to discuss creative direction for the DI. The look itself was then pushed to the extreme in the DI. I think what we did started from a film look but clearly evolved into its own unique universe.”

The final look sits somewhere between film and digital but feels wholly unique. It’s dark and moody with deep blues and greens, thanks to Vandercruyssen’s LUT which Oppenheim described as “nuclear,” and broken up with splashes of warm oranges. The mix of cool tones and high contrast, for Oppenheim, mirrored “the loneliness and the feeling of disconnection, despite connecting with each other via the Internet.” Oppenheim referenced the first sequence of the film, where two people meet in a motel room followed by “a sort of reverie of dreamy images of babies and more abstract imagery,” as the key to accessing “another dimension to the emotion of the movie and inhabiting the dream.” 

Oppenheim intended for the color to reflect his desire to transport the viewer “inside that experience, into someone's headspace, or fantasy, using all the cinematic tools in our arsenal. Hopefully, we leave you with the feeling that you're living inside of a world that's our world, but not.” He recalls as well how many asked him if they had put Vaseline on the lens when they shot due to the halo-like effect to the light in certain shots. 

Cinematographer David Bolen added that the team wished for the color “to feel subjective to the characters and the surreal worlds they inhabit. We leaned heavily into cold and dark tones to portray their loneliness, isolation and desperation. To counter this, we added halation and glow to always provide a glimmer of hope in each frame - a visual representation of each person's dream of one day creating a baby."

When it came time for the grade, Oppenheim says that Vandercruyssen “dialed up the halation and created a filmic look that didn't feel like a filter or pasted on but intrinsic to the footage. Damien always says, ‘it's like God's light, the way everything is blooming.’ And even in these dark, mundane places where people are meeting up to exchange genetic fluids, how does the light look?” Vandercruyssen described his efforts to add “extra diffusion and glow to enhance the sacredness of the semen, resulting in a magical dimension to the precious product. The softness of the resulting image was then balanced by a heavy grain to tighten the image back together.”

Oppenheim adds that he, Bolen, Vandercruyssen, Editor Daniel Garber, Composer Ari Balouzian, producers Lauren Belfer, Sophie Kissinger, and Christian Vazquez, along with the rest of the crew, shared a mutual understanding to “portray reality that will divide people and elicit strong opinions but present the world really without commentary or judgments.”

For Oppenheim, documentaries should be more than educating an audience; they should offer a slice of life that audiences engage with as they would a narrative feature. A big part of earning the viewer’s trust in that regard comes from Oppenheim’s collaboration with Bolen and Vandercruyssen to sell the world as both our reality and one that lives perhaps just beyond.

FX’s SPERMWORLD is available to stream now on Disney+.

All Images Courtesy of FX.