How Cinematographer Jay Keitel Brought His Experimental Sensibilities to Unsettling Indie ‘She Dies Tomorrow’

Cinematographer Jay Keitel, a CalArts alum, credits his cinematic sensibilities to his time in experimental filmmaking and animation. Such background pushes him to go beyond traditional narrative form. In Amy Seimetz’s sophomore feature “She Dies Tomorrow,” (bowing across virtual cinemas this weekend) about a woman (Kate Lyn Sheil) certain she is living her final hours, he got to dive into abstract visuals and unorthodox lighting choices for powerful sensorial stimulation.

“There’s this foreboding feeling that a lot of people started to feel after the 2016 election,” said Keitel. “Amy wanted to talk about fear, anxiety, and isolation.” He previously collaborated with Seimetz on her directorial debut “Sun Don’t Shine,” the Starz series “The Girlfriend Experience,” and the short film “When We Lived in Miami.”

Multi-color washes illuminate the characters’ faces as they each have a terrifying realization served as one of the most effective artistic decisions, as these evoke great dreadfulness and heighten tension. Seimetz had the idea to use those colored lights as a strong motif, and it was up to Keitel to translate that vision practically.

To achieve the desired outcome, he devised a motion-tracking rig to operate the LED units without repeating the same pattern twice. “Those light patterns changed depending on the mood, who the character is, and what they are going through. We changed them up based on emotion,” explained Keitel.

Interspersed throughout the unsettling plot there are images that resemble emulsions seen through a microscope. These abstract depictions that carry an otherworldly connotation were created at a macro level in a backlit room using multiple organic materials and metallic items and shot with the Arri 100mm Macro Lens, as well as the 500mm Leica Reflex Lens.

Keitel also employed a variety of lenses to provide distinct looks for each section of the film as the drama evolves. For example, the Richard Gale Clavius Prime Lenses came into play for the beginning and middle sections, then he transitioned to the Arri Uncoated Ultra Primes starting with the flashback sequences involving Sheil and Kentucker Audley. Finally, the Angenieux Uncoated 28-76mm Optimo Zoom was used for the eerily serene final two scenes.

For Keitel, who’s trained in using and processing film stock, there’s great value in working with tangible elements. As much as possible, he prefers to capture everything in front of the camera before enhancing it. “There’s of course some manipulation, editing, and color correction in the digital intermediate, but our impetus was to keep it organic and not rely on anything solely created on a computer, “ he added.

On the subject of framing, Keitel and Seimetz agreed the visual language of the story would function best in close-ups — sometimes portraits of their men and women on the edge of sanity and others, like in the opening shot, of the protagonist’s eye. “The close-up speaks to an internal monologue within the character, maybe a lot more than expansive, wider frames would. In a lot of our work together we tend to gravitate towards truly showing a character’s emotional state,” he concluded.

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