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The International Journal of Film & Digital Production Techniques

Features

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A Great Escape Dean Semler, ASC, ACS captures an epic pursuit for Apocalypto

Darkest Noir Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC investigates L.A.’s most infamous unsolved murder in The Black Dahlia

Humanity’s Last Hope Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC creates a future dystopia for Children of Men

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Ghost in the Machine Robert Richardson, ASC declassifies CIA secrets in The Good Shepherd

Conjuring the Past Dick Pope, BSC lends cinematic sleight of hand to The Illusionist

Fear and Fantasy

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Guillermo Navarro, ASC unleashes memorable monsters in Pan’s Labyrinth

Lords of Illusion Wally Pfister, ASC turns L.A. into turn-of-the-century London for The Prestige

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www.theasc.com ———————————————————————————————————— PUBLISHER Martha Winterhalter ————————————————————————————————————

EDITORIAL EXECUTIVE EDITOR Stephen Pizzello SENIOR EDITOR Rachael K. Bosley ASSOCIATE EDITOR Douglas Bankston

EFilm/Deluxe 67 Frame Forge 59 Focal Press 51 Formatt Filters 3 Kish Optics Technicolor Creative 5

TECHNICAL EDITOR Christopher Probst CONTRIBUTING WRITERS Benjamin B, Robert S. Birchard, John Calhoun, Bob Davis, Bob Fisher, Simon Gray, Jim Hemphill, David Heuring, Jay Holben, Ron Magid, Jean Oppenheimer, John Pavlus, Chris Pizzello, Jon Silberg, Kenneth Sweeney, Patricia Thomson, David E. Williams, Jon D. Witmer ————————————————————————————————————

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CIRCULATION, BOOKS & PRODUCTS CIRCULATION DIRECTOR Saul Molina CIRCULATION MANAGER Alex Lopez SHIPPING MANAGER Javier Ibanez ———————————————————————————————————— ASC GENERAL MANAGER Brett Grauman ASC EVENTS COORDINATOR Patricia Armacost ASC PRESIDENT’S ASSISTANT Kim Weston ASC ACCOUNTING MANAGER Mila Basely ASC ACCOUNTS RECEIVABLE Corey Clark ———————————————————————————————————— American Cinematographer (ISSN 0002-7928), established 1920 and in its 88th year of publication, is published monthly in Hollywood by ASC Holding Corp., 1782 N. Orange Dr., Hollywood, CA 90028, U.S.A., (800) 448-0145, (323) 969-4333, Fax (323) 876-4973, direct line for subscription inquiries (323) 969-4344. Subscriptions: U.S. $50; Canada/Mexico $70; all other foreign countries $95 a year (remit international Money Order or other exchange payable in U.S. $). Advertising: Rate card upon request from Hollywood office. Article Reprints: Requests for high-quality article reprints should be made to Sheridan Reprints at (800) 394-5157 ext. 28. Copyright 2007 ASC Holding Corp. (All rights reserved.) Periodicals postage paid at Los Angeles, CA and at additional mailing offices. Printed in the USA. POSTMASTER: Send address change to American Cinematographer, P.O. Box 2230, Hollywood, CA 90078.

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The ASC is not a labor union or a guild, but an educational, cultural and professional organization. Membership is by invitation to those who are actively engaged as directors of photography and have demonstrated outstanding ability. ASC membership has become one of the highest honors that can be bestowed upon a professional cinematographer — a mark of prestige and excellence.

OFFICERS - 2006/2007 Daryn Okada President

Michael Goi Vice President

William A. Fraker Vice President

Caleb Deschanel Vice President

Victor J. Kemper Treasurer

Michael Negrin Secretary

John Hora Sergeant-at-Arms

MEMBERS OF THE BOARD Curtis Clark Caleb Deschanel George Spiro Dibie Richard Edlund William A. Fraker Michael Goi Francis Kenny Isidore Mankofsky Daryn Okada Robert Primes Nancy Schreiber John Toll Kees Van Oostrum Roy Wagner Haskell Wexler

ALTERNATES Russ Alsobrook Victor J. Kemper Laszlo Kovacs John Hora Stephen Lighthill MUSEUM CURATOR

Steve Gainer 4

Editor’s Note 2

006 was a banner year for cinematography, as evidenced by the exciting images in the seven films nominated for ASC and Academy awards. In this special online supplement, we take you behind the scenes on each of these outstanding productions, where you’ll enjoy illuminating insights from their directors of photography. Three of this year’s honored cinematographers earned nods from both the ASC and the Academy: Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC (Children of Men); Dick Pope, BSC (The Illusionist); and Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC (The Black Dahlia). They were joined in the spotlight by ASC Award nominees Dean Semler, ASC, ACS (Apocalypto) and Robert Richardson, ASC (The Good Shepherd), and Academy nominees Guillermo Navarro, ASC (Pan’s Labyrinth) and Wally Pfister, ASC (The Prestige). The work of these visually gifted artists is not only technically impressive, but aesthetically audacious. Lubezki’s remarkable handheld work in Children of Men evokes a gritty, dystopian near-future, punctuated by action sequences so effective that audience members could be seen cowering in their seats. The thrills were equally visceral in the Mayan Empire epic Apocalypto, which Semler shot with Panavision’s Genesis camera. In The Illusionist and The Prestige, Pope and Pfister transported viewers to the turn of the century to witness mind-blowing acts of magic. Zsigmond and Richardson used darkness and shadows to exceptionally artful effect in the CIA drama The Good Shepherd and the film-noir thriller The Black Dahlia. And for Pan’s Labyrinth, Navarro convincingly limned two settings: a Spanish military outpost besieged by rebels during World War II, and a fantastic realm conjured up in a young girl’s imagination. Our coverage of these memorable movies offers the rich vein of expert analysis that our discerning readers have come to expect from American Cinematographer. Here’s hoping that this editorial retrospective will inspire you to savor each film’s nuances all over again.

Stephen Pizzello Executive Editor Photo by Douglas Kirkland.

American Society of Cinematographers


Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC Guillermo Navarro, ASC, AMC Wally Pfister, ASC Dick Pope, BSC Robert Richardson, ASC Dean Semler, ASC, ACS Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC We applaud your artistry! >>

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AGreat

Escape 6 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

Apocalypto, shot by Dean Semler, ASC, ACS, uses spectacular locations and digital cameras to tell an epic tale set during the decline of the Mayan civilization. by Benjamin B Unit photography by Andrew Cooper, SMPSP


Images courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures and Icon Productions. Frame grabs by EFilm.

D

uring preproduction in Mexico for Apocalypto, Dean Semler, ASC, ACS shot various tests with the Panavision Genesis and viewed the results on a hi-def projector in the production’s “dailies trailer.” When the lights came on, he had an epiphany. “I couldn’t believe what I had just seen,” Semler recalls. “I had looked at a firelight test, a flare test, a strobing test, and a long lens in the jungle at night, and I was just astounded. I said to myself, ‘God almighty, where’s this going?’ First, I never thought in a million years I

would be shooting digital, and second, 2500 ASA is something that has never been in my vocabulary.” He chuckles and hastens to add, “I didn’t break down and weep or pound my fists in the dirt, but it was a big moment for me, realizing we could now do things we never thought we’d be able to do. This is a revolution in cinematography.” Apocalypto was actually the second of three consecutive features Semler has shot with the Genesis, a digital camera that uses film lenses and accessories. The first was Click, and the most recent is I Now

Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, which he was shooting at press time. “I can’t say I won’t go back to film,” he remarks, “but I’m still exploring the Genesis at the moment.” Apocalypto was his first feature collaboration with director Mel Gibson, although the two had worked together previously, when Gibson was not in the director’s chair, on We Were Soldiers (see AC Feb. ’02), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and The Road Warrior. Apocalypto is set in the 16th century during the decay of the

Opposite page: In Apocalypto, young Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) must use every ounce of ingenuity to outwit his enemies in the jungle. This page, top: In happier times, Jaguar Paw and his wife (Dalia Hernandez) enjoy some time together. Left: On location in Mexico, Dean Semler, ASC, ACS keeps some unusual company while contemplating the work ahead.

American Cinematographer 7


A Great Escape After escaping his Mayan captors during a solar eclipse, Jaguar Paw runs for his life (right), with the Mayans (below) in hot pursuit.

Mayan empire in Central America. The movie opens with the camera slowly moving into the jungle; the shot lasts almost a minute and ends as a tapir bursts out of the undergrowth and past the camera. This shot was made on film with an Arri 435 at 48 fps. “I was going to use the upgraded Genesis, which can shoot up to 50 fps,” says Semler, “but there was a good chance the animal would hit the camera, and that body was one of only three in the world at the time — sorry, Arri!” The story then moves to an isolated jungle village, where Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) lives with his pregnant wife and child. The idyllic simplicity of their world is shattered when brutal Mayan warriors, the Holcanes, raid the village and take captives for slavery and sacrifice. Jaguar Paw manages to save his family by lowering them into a deep well, a cenote, before he is taken prisoner. He and other prisoners are taken on an incredible journey that involves a raging river, treacherous cliffs, and a limestone quarry worked by slaves bleached white by limestone powder. They finally enter a Mayan city, where Jaguar Paw and 8 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

others are prepared for sacrifice. Semler explains, “As Jaguar Paw is about to have his heart cut out, a solar eclipse puts an eerie end to the executions, and he’s allowed to run free — sort of. Actually, he and the other survivors are made to run the gauntlet, a killing field of 150 yards where every available weapon is used to prevent them from reaching freedom. Jaguar Paw escapes, and the last act of the movie is a wild foot chase through the jungle. “Production designer Tom Sanders, costume designer Mayes Rubeo, and hair/makeup designer Aldo Signoretti collaborated to create the extraordinary look of Apocalypto, and our job was bringing it to the screen,” he continues. “Mel and I are both fans of anamorphic, and our original plan was to use a widescreen frame, but during tests it became obvious that 1.85:1 was better suited to the tall trees and canopy of the jungle, where most of the movie takes place. We originally talked about shooting ‘down and dirty,’ sort of the Road Warrior approach, but I still decided to take a 50-foot Super Technocrane along, and Nick Phillips provided the


brand-new Libra V Head. I thought I’d use this equipment for special shots, but as it turned out, we shot with it for most of the movie. I must give full marks to A-camera operator Ian Fox, 1st AC Tony Rivetti, dolly grips Jeff ‘Moose’ Howery and John Murphy, crane operator Carlos Gonzalez, and Libra technicians Rocky Babcock and Adam Austin for their coordination in not only executing many magnificent shots, but also using the Super Techno as a day-to-day workhorse.” Based on his experience on Click, Semler knew he would be spending most of the Apocalypto shoot in the “Digi Tent,” basically an 8'x8' portable darkroom set adjacent to video village. The Genesis cameras’ outputs were wired to the Panavision and EFilm equipment in the tent, where Semler could switch between cameras and view the image on a 24" Sony HD monitor in 4:2:2 color space, alongside a waveform monitor and wireless iris controls. The HD signals were then down-converted to NTSC feeds to video monitors set up for Gibson in the video village. The director joined Semler in the tent to view the HD image when he had a concern or question. Although Semler started the shoot working with his light meter, he quickly grew to rely on the HD monitor to evaluate exposure and the overall image, occasionally using the waveform monitor to doublecheck particular highlights. “The tent was my workstation — I was basically looking at the release print!” he says. “I’d prefer to be outside, by the camera or the director, but it was a small price to pay for being able to see exactly what I was getting. The dailies, or ‘immediatelies,’ as Mel called them, were very reassuring for us, because at the end of the day, we knew we had it.” On Click, Semler worked with EFilm to define a workflow, and he used the same one on Apocalypto.

Left: After kidnapping Jaguar Paw and several other men from his village, the Mayans take their prisoners across a raging river. Below: Director Mel Gibson runs through the scene with the cast.

American Cinematographer 9


A Great Escape

Above: One of the most striking environments the captives are taken through is a limestone quarry, where slaves have been bleached white by their work. Right: Gibson outlines his plan for the actors.

William Feightner, EFilm’s technical vice president, explains that the strategy involves emulating the look of Kodak’s Vision2 500T 5218 negative and then previsualizing the look of Kodak release-print stocks. “We decided with Dean to match a traditional film look, to make it look as though he’d shot and printed film,” says Feightner. “Experienced cinematographers like Dean intuitively know how to use film to get certain looks.” The EFilm team developed 3-D look-up tables (LUTs) to make the Genesis output resemble a 5218 negative. “Viewing LUTs” were also 10 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

developed so that Semler could see on set what the image would look like after it was output to film and printed on Kodak Vision Premiere (2393); these LUTs were incorporated in a “Colorstreamer” box developed by EFilm. (Feightner notes that Panavision will soon offer a similar previz capability in its Genesis Display Processor boxes.) Two Colorstreamer units provided separate viewing LUTs for the 24" monitor in the “Digi Tent” and the HD projector in the dailies trailer; these were monitored by Liz Cotter and Nicholas Greico from

EFilm. As a result, Semler saw images on the HD monitor and the HD projector as they would appear in the final release print. The production’s 2nd-unit cinematographer, Richard Merryman, didn’t have the gear for previsualization, “so he shot using a meter,” explains Semler, “and then checked his work in the dailies trailer, where Bobby Hatfield, our one-man digital lab, could screen footage for him to make any necessary exposure adjustments. Bobby’s duties grew considerably from the traditional role of projectionist; he was able to do simple dailies color timing as per the cinematographer’s instructions, which were included in the editorial tape clones he also created.” It might seem paradoxical to create LUTs to make a digital camera “behave” like negative film, but Feightner notes that the result is a better final release print. “Print films are designed to complement negative film — the two combined give you a very good aesthetic that has evolved over the years,” he notes. Semler chose 5218 because it is his favorite stock. “Since it came on the market, I’ve shot most of my movies with it. I even shoot outdoors in daylight with it; I prefer to shoot with


NDs and pull them off as we lose the light.” Semler notes that although the Genesis output was set up to resemble 5218, the camera has considerably more sensitivity in the shadow end. He typically rates 5218 at 400 ASA, and he sets the Genesis at 640 ASA with a 180-degree shutter. The digital camera’s electronic shutter can be varied and even turned off completely. With the shutter off, the camera’s sensitivity is doubled to 1280 ASA, while motion blur is increased because the exposure time is 1⁄ 24 instead of 1⁄ 48. In extremely low-light situations, Semler increased the camera gain by as much as one stop, yielding an ASA of 2560. “This all sounds wonderful, but care must be taken to avoid noise and unwanted blurring,” he says. “At these extremely low light levels, the Genesis sees what your eye doesn’t, what you’ve never been accustomed to seeing. I prefer a 270-degree shutter and a 1⁄ 2 stop of gain for less blur and noise at an ASA of 1280, but in desperate times, I have gone all the way.” Semler recalls shooting a scene at the beginning of Apocalypto in which several villagers tease a neighbor who is having difficulty impregnating his wife. “The scene involved most of the principal actors and the whole village, men, women and kids. It was late afternoon, and we were losing light rapidly under the heavy jungle canopy. We’d only done a few takes, and even at 360 degrees and +1 gain, I’d run out of light. Mel really needed to go again, and obviously, we didn’t want to re-create it the next day. The camera boys quickly whipped the zooms off, put on primes, and removed the 85 filters. We shot two more takes wide open, and Mel got what he needed. I was amazed when I stepped out of the tent, because it was truly dark — my light meter read 21⁄ 2 footcandles, and this was a day scene! EFilm has since given me

the ability to make color corrections in the trailer, so printing in an 85 for dailies isn’t a problem. I believe I had an extra hour or two of shooting on most days because of the Genesis’ low-end response. “I just wanted the village to look real, and I used very little lighting at the location,” he continues. “I didn’t want to change it, even when it got dark. Mimicking the light that was there would have required big sources above the jungle canopy. There’s no way I could’ve done that — the trees were massive.” The only practical alternative would have been “big soft sources that would fall off and leave the background black. Thanks to the Genesis, we could shoot longer and still have it look real.” The shooting conditions on Apocalypto were about as tough as it gets. The production shot in Veracruz, first in jungle locations near the small city in Catemaco, then on several locations and sets built near Veracruz City. In the jungle, the set had to be checked for poisonous snakes every morning. Then there was the weather. “We now know why it’s called a rain forest,” deadpans Semler. “For the first month or so, we were plagued by

Above: Jaguar Paw celebrates his miraculous passage down a towering waterfall. Below: A crane and Libra V Head capture the shot. Although Semler initially planned to reserve the remote head/crane combination for special shots, “we shot with it for most of the movie,” he says.

American Cinematographer 11


A Great Escape Right: Mayan women are among the sights that are new to Jaguar Paw when he arrives in the Mayan city. Below: Jaguar Paw’s wife and child await his return in the bottom of a cenote, a deep well where they have taken refuge from the Mayans. Lighting the 25'deep set “was either going to be a pain in the ass or very simple,” says Semler. “Thank goodness it turned out to be the latter.”

rain and sometimes high winds. Weeks went by where nothing much happened because of the rain. We shut down a couple of times, and other days we just sat around waiting for the rain to clear. It was very frustrating.” There was also extreme heat. “For a period of weeks, the temperature was 105-110 degrees every day with over 90-percent humidity. Thanks to Tony Rivetti

12 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

and his team, the cameras and electronic equipment kept running smoothly. The same was true of the monitors, Colorstreamers and other software in the Digi Tent, which was maintained by Felipe PerezBurchard. “Initially, what I liked about the jungle was the dappled light from the sun spearing through the leaves, with burning-hot highlights

on the foliage and the rest in deep shadow,” he continues. “The contrast is just so beautiful. Because many of the village sequences were shot over a long period of time, and the dappled light was changing every five minutes as the sun moved, we couldn’t match take after take, so, with the help of the magnificent Mexican grips, I sacrificed the contrast for a softer and controllable look by covering big areas with multiple 20-by light grid cloths. Now, there’s a lot of dappled light during the chase in the last third of the movie. But whenever there was a pause in the chase, I silked out the area, so the characters are running in dappled light, and when they hit the brakes, they’re in soft light. That’s all I could do to give us the [necessary] shooting time in those locations, because the light moved across the jungle floor so rapidly.” The imagery in Apocalypto involves a certain amount of natural firelight. At the beginning of the picture, the villagers gather around fires to listen to an old storyteller


Left: Production designer Tom Sanders’ Mayan city set “was an extraordinarily meticulous design and allowed us many fabulous choices,” says Semler. Below: For safety’s sake, close shots of action atop the city’s main temple were filmed on a fullsized set 12' off the ground. This photo shows Semler’s lighting rig for the solar eclipse.

and dance. For these scenes, Semler bounced an HMI gelled with White Flame Green and 1⁄ 2 CTO into an Ultrabounce 35' above the action to create a “dirty nightlight” 1-2 stops under the overhead ambience. “I then approached special-effects supervisor Jesus Duran and said, ‘Tonight, you’re going to be my gaffer!’” recalls the cinematographer. “He had his crew build six propane fires in the village to provide the main illumination. I was sitting in the tent, and my screen was black. Then the fires came up, and it was absolutely beautiful. My concern was that the fire would be too bright and the faces not quite bright enough, but the range was superb. I had no trouble in the highlights, and it didn’t flare out. The blacks stayed black; the faces were really beautiful, and I was able to stay on the zooms and shoot any direction without having to avoid lights hidden in logs and rocks.” There wasn’t a building in Veracruz tall enough to construct the cenote set, which was 25' deep.“I needed another 15-20 feet from the top of the hole to the TransLite [image of treetops], and then space above that for John Martens and the electrics’ rigging crew to mount a Kino Flo rig,” says Semler. “Once again, [rigging grip] Kim Heath and

his crew came up with a brilliant solution, and basically built an entire stage using empty shipping containers. The set worked extremely well and survived some pretty violent weather as we headed into hurricane season. “Lighting the cenote was going to be either a pain in the ass or very simple,” he continues. “Thank goodness, it turned out to be the latter. I had the grips hang a hard reflector above the set against the TransLite, laid a sheet of Opal

diffusion over it, and hit it with a 4K Par. The light reflected straight down into the bottom of the hole, and was really the only key source. We added a bit of fill from down below, and I added HydroFlex lights for the underwater shots, which were shot on film.” Semler praises Sanders’ 40acre set for the Mayan city.“It was an extraordinarily meticulous design, and because Tom knows his angles and his lenses, it allowed us many fabulous choices for the cameras.

American Cinematographer 13


A Great Escape The crew prepares to film Jaguar Paw’s emergence from the jungle onto the beach. The sequence called for a semicircular camera move around Jaguar Paw and for rain, which the production had to create — for once. To keep the rain backlit, Semler’s crew used forklifts and 50' arms to rig several SoftSuns across a 180-degree arc; as the camera moved, the lights were cross-faded.

The main temple in the city was over 50 feet tall and therefore impossible to use as a stage, so Tom built a fullsized set only 12 feet off the ground, where we filmed the sacrifices and eclipse sequence for several days.” To simulate the eclipse, Semler and his crew created largescale negative fill by suspending a 60'x40' solid above the set from a 200' crane and positioning two 20'x20' side panels on Condors “to take ambient light off the actors.” Sunlight was created by a Musco light, and the eclipse was simulated by a motorized rig that slid a 12'x12' solid across the Musco. The effect was heightened by “four of us riding iris on four cameras as the sun went out and then came back again,” says Semler. Jaguar Paw’s escape sets off the lengthy chase sequence that Semler sums up as “a mix of all the film tools possible, including Spydercam, Cablecam, Steadicam [operated by Andrew Rowlands from a fast-moving ATV], 14 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

HydroFlex underwater camera housings, 435s, 2-Cs, and even 16mm handheld. At one point, Jaguar Paw runs toward camera with a jaguar right on his ass. That was a real jaguar on a cable, with the stunt guy’s hands on the brake in case the animal got too close. That’s what we call motivation for the actor!” Stunt coordinator/2nd-unit director Mick Rogers rigged a Cablecam between trees with a Libra Head, yielding fast and fluid moves over a 100-yard stretch. The actors could be followed or led by the camera without damaging “the greens” below. To get frenetic POV shots, the filmmakers sometimes used a tiny 16mm Ikonoskop ACam with 100' loads, with the fittest operator (usually camera assistant Chad Rivetti) running alongside the warriors. Occasionally the actors would “hold it in their hand and squirt it around,” says Semler. The image quality was rough, but “we got fantastic shots we couldn’t have

gotten any other way.” Some edge fogging resulted from the actors squeezing the film magazine too tightly and causing light leaks, but this wasn’t noticed until the filmmakers received their film dailies from Los Angeles one week later. “The frantic feel of fast-moving cameras was heightened by the motion blur that resulted from the 360-degree shutter on the Genesis during fast panning or tracking. It’s like when you shoot a still photo of a motorcycle at a slow shutter speed and pan with the bike, and the world around it is a streaky blur. That effect really helped the sequence.” Another spectacular sequence takes place at a waterfall, where Jaguar Paw, with the Holcanes in hot pursuit, plunges off the top into the raging waters 150' below. “I brought in my old friends from Spydercam, mounted the Genesis camera on the Libra Head, protected it in a HydroFlex soft housing with a spinner up front, and away we went,” says Semler. “The camera flew over


the top, plummeted down the face of the falls into the mist, then pulled back and finally rose up to a long shot of the entire waterfall. [Visual-effects supervisor] Ted Rae used the same rig for the numerous plate shots required for the sequence.” Ironically, when it came time to shoot the chase in the rain at the end of the story, the weather was sunny and dry, so the grips flew light grid cloth over a large area. Semler used backlight wherever possible and had his gaffer, Jimmy Gilson, mount small HMI SoftSuns high in the trees. “Those lights were brilliant because they could be dimmed down as the ambient light faded,” notes Semler. The end of the movie involves a dramatic, semicircular camera move around Jaguar Paw as he bursts out of the jungle and onto a beach, and it’s still raining.“We had two hours to shoot this sequence while in the shadow of a cliff, and once again I used a series of small SoftSuns across a 180-degree arc, using forklifts and 50' arms. As the camera moved, the lights were cross-faded to keep the rain backlit — another great rigging job by [key grip] William ‘Bear’ Paul and his team. “I must also acknowledge the work of cinematographers Mario Cardona and Daryn Okada [ASC], who got great shots for us in Costa Rica and England, respectively,” he adds. Most scenes in Apocalypto were shot with three Genesis cameras, and Arri 435s were used for high-speed work. Tony Rivetti notes that Gibson quickly learned to take advantage of the Genesis’ longer recording time. “We recorded some very long takes, some as long as 40

minutes. We just kept doing the scene over and over again without breaking momentum, and if Mel felt we he had something, we’d shoot it again, tighter.”Semler agrees that the digital camera’s long cassette load was “a huge advantage. As soon as you cut camera on a set, everyone goes in — electricians, makeup people, prop people. But we were able to continue rolling, and that enabled Mel to keep the actors going while they were hot and get the performances he wanted. I’d say we saved an hour a day on reloads. When you have three cameras reloading at different times, and a Steadicam with 400-foot magazines, it all adds up.” During the DI at EFilm, Semler collaborated with colorist Steve Bowen for the seventh time. “Steve has a great eye, and I love to watch him apply the final brushstrokes to my work,” says the cinematographer. From the start, Semler designed the picture for a Vision Premier finish, and he marvels at the result. “People talk about 2K, 4K, 10 bits, 12 bits, megapixels, and so on, but my theory is: if it looks great, it looks great. The developments in film stocks have been superb, and Vision Premier is magnificent, a beautiful, gutsy stock. When I saw

the print of Apocalypto, I was blown away.” Looking back at his time in Veracruz, Semler muses, “Everyone on the set knew we were doing something special, something that hadn’t been done before. It was like an independent film because it was one man’s vision; Mel knew what he was doing and what he wanted. No one worked harder on the set than he did. This was the toughest shoot physically that I’ve ever worked on, but also the most gratifying. In fact, it was the best filmmaking experience I’ve ever had.” 

Semler and his crew line up a shot with the Libra V Head in the cenote set.

TECHNICAL SPECS 1.85:1 High-Definition Video, 35mm, 16mm Panavision Genesis; Arri 435, 2-C; Ikonoskop A-Cam Panavision Primo, Lightweight; Nikon lenses Kodak Vision2 500T 5218/7218, 50D 5201 Digital Intermediate Kodak Vision Premier 2393

American Cinematographer 15


Darkest Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC brings an air of dread and doom to The Black Dahlia, whose plot springs from Los Angeles’ most famous unsolved murder. by Stephen Pizzello Unit photography by Rolf Konow, SMPSP 16 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

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Noir

ust after 10 a.m. on January 15, 1947, a young housewife named Betty Bersinger was walking south on Norton Ave. in Los Angeles, pushing her 3year-old daughter in a baby carriage as she made her way to a shoe-repair shop two blocks south of 39th St. Strolling down the sidewalk, which bordered an empty field, she suddenly noticed a pale-white figure lying among the weeds. As she slowed to take a closer look, she mistook the form for a discarded mannequin because its top and bottom halves were lying a foot apart. On closer inspection, however, Bersinger realized to her horror that she was staring at the mutilated corpse of a neatly bisected female.

Bersinger quickly pushed the baby stroller to the nearest house, pounded on the door, and told the woman who answered to phone the police. That call set off a rapidly growing sensation at the crime scene, where the late Elizabeth Short would, in death, finally receive the attention that had eluded her as a would-be Hollywood starlet. The ghastly tableau inspired months of lurid headlines in the nation’s newspapers, which referred to the raven-haired victim by her nickname, “the Black Dahlia” (a moniker inspired by the 1946 noir movie The Blue Dahlia). A gruesome landmark in the annals of L.A. crime, the Black Dahlia murder remains the city’s most notorious unsolved crime.


Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Numerous authors have written books detailing their pet theories on the case, but no one has definitively identified the killer. Surprisingly, given the classic noir trappings of the case and its era, few films have used the incident as a backdrop. Aside from the 1974 telefilm Who Is the Black Dahlia? (a production that employed retired lead detective Harry Hansen as its “technical director”), the 1981 feature True Confessions (which incorporates elements of the case into its plot), and the recent indie-film exploitation effort Black Dahlia, this seemingly fertile material had remained neglected. Enter director Brian DePalma, who knows a thing or two about

creating morbid thrills onscreen. Rather than adapting one of the true-crime accounts of the case, DePalma opted to adapt James Ellroy’s novel The Black Dahlia, in which Short’s murder threatens to destroy the lives of two Los Angeles police detectives who team up to hunt the killer. Ellroy, of course, has staked a claim as the king of literary noir by exploring men’s darkest impulses in such books as L.A. Confidential, American Tabloid and My Dark Places. Intent on lending his picture an appropriately stylized ambience, DePalma recruited his old friend Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, who had

worked with the director on Obsession, Blow Out and The Bonfire of the Vanities. Zsigmond relished the opportunity to apply his skills to a noir drama, although he admits he was unfamiliar with source material. “I didn’t know much about the Black Dahlia before I signed onto the project, so the whole story was basically fresh to me,” he says. “I didn’t read Ellroy’s novel, so my approach to the movie was based on Josh Friedman’s script and my discussions with Brian. Of course, we all knew this was a film-noir idea. I’d seen L.A. Confidential and knew it was based on a book by Ellroy. That movie is a good example of what I call ‘color

Opposite: Police detective Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) hunts for a killer in the Hollywood Hills. This page, above: The murder victim, would-be actress Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), sees her showbiz dream turn into a horrifying nightmare. Below: Director Brian DePalma (left) confers with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC (center) and production designer Dante Ferretti on location in Bulgaria.

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Darkest Noir

Above: Police and reporters converge on the grisly crime scene at 39th and Norton. The murder site was re-created at an uncompleted residential development in Sofia. Right: During a nighttime sweep of the area, Bleichert (right) discusses the case with his partner, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart).

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noir,’ because it’s shot in color but has the feel of a black-and-white movie.” Zsigmond was well prepared to explore Ellroy’s shadowy milieu of hardboiled cops and dangerous women. A native of Hungary, he grew up watching an era of blackand-white classics such as Citizen Kane and The Third Man, and learned most of his lighting techniques while shooting black-andwhite projects. “In film school, I got my training in black-and-white only, because it was 1951 and we didn’t have color film at the school yet,” he recalls. “During my final year, we started to get some color film, but I never got to use it. Black-and-white always depended on light and shadows, so we had to learn to light well. With black-and-white film, you cannot just bounce a light into the ceiling and get good results, because it would look so boring you wouldn’t be able to watch it. You have to create lit areas and shadow areas, and essentially, the shadows are more important than the lights. “When I started to shoot color, I still lit like I was working in black-and-white because that’s the only way I saw movies. Later on, when soft-lighting techniques came along, I tried to use them but never really enjoyed it. I find soft lighting very boring. I grew up studying painters like Caravaggio and Georges de la Tour, whose lighting is more realistic, with light coming through windows and from sources like candles or fires. For me, lighting is always about trying to duplicate the romanticism of sources. I think the more abstract forms of lighting, like soft-lighting techniques, don’t create any tension in movies, especially crime movies. When you’re doing a crime film, you have to create shadows. The Black Dahlia was certainly that kind of movie, so I couldn’t think of a more appropriate way to light it.” Lighting was only part of


Zsigmond’s challenge on the show, however. He and a fellow Academy Award winner, production designer Dante Ferretti, were also tasked with creating a believable facsimile of 1940s Los Angeles in Bulgaria, where tax incentives and inexpensive labor helped reduce the project’s budget. Zsigmond recalls, “There was talk about shooting in France, and then they talked about shooting in Italy, and then Germany, but we ended up in Bulgaria. That was a shock to me, because I thought we’d lose a lot of familiar territory by not shooting in Hollywood. Ultimately, we did about eight days of shooting in Hollywood, and I think we got enough flavor from the real locations. At any rate, the site of the murder doesn’t look like it did back in the Forties because it’s become a more residential neighborhood. It was easier to re-create that street and others from scratch in Bulgaria, where the mountains actually looked pretty similar to the Hollywood Hills. Of course, if we had shot in the States, all the interior sets would have been built on stages

anyway, because I don’t think we could find many interiors today that look like they did in 1947. By building everything from scratch, we were able to better re-create the period. “Still, it’s a shame that doing a picture in Hollywood now costs so much, because it would be so much easier to stay in town,” he continues. “It’s hard to believe that shipping heavy furniture and props and hiring local technicians would reduce the

budget by 50 percent. It’s a real struggle to shoot in L.A. for economic reasons, so you have all of these shows going to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Romania. It’s really a pity that we cannot somehow find a way to make these movies in Hollywood.” Ferretti was also nonplussed when he learned he would have to build wholly believable L.A. settings in Eastern Europe. “Brian basically

Above: Ferretti’s Art Decoaccented police station, constructed in an abandoned paper factory, gave Zsigmond the opportunity to create a classic noir atmosphere with hard shafts of light generated by HMI units positioned outside the set’s windows. The overhead fluorescents were mostly cosmetic for day scenes, but for nighttime scenes in the squad room, gaffer Nimi Getter fitted the fixtures with Osram tubes (Lumilux 830 Warm Whites at 3,000°K) to boost their illumination. Left: Zsigmond manipulates a handy set of moveable Venetian blinds to paint Eckhart with slashes of light.

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Darkest Noir

The film’s opening sequence, depicting the notorious Zoot Suit Riots of June 1943, was staged on an exterior “East L.A.” street set built by Ferretti and his crew in Bulgaria. The complicated shot, which begins on a burning palm tree and then glides down to the fighting at ground level, was executed with a SuperTechnocrane mounted on a dolly.

gave me the script and said, ‘Good luck,’” he recalls with a wry laugh. “He felt that I knew L.A. very well and could pull it off. Nevertheless, I did a scout in L.A. just before we left, and we did a lot of research about the Black Dahlia. I looked at the real murder site, even though that street doesn’t look the same today, and I also looked at all of the pictures that were taken back in the Forties. When you have good information at your disposal, it’s not that difficult to design convincing sets. What makes it difficult is when you have to work in an unfamiliar country with crewpeople you don’t know very well. I brought all of my key people from Italy, the States and London — construction coordinators, painters and so on. Plus, I brought a graphic designer from L.A. to work on all of the neon signs and posters for our street sets. But I also used a lot of Bulgarian laborers from Sofia, and they were very good. We hired local carpenters, plasterers and other craftsmen, but most of them had

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only worked on low-budget projects, so we had to teach them certain things about working on a movie of this size. “Initially, I was told I could find whatever I needed in Bulgaria, but after two weeks I realized I couldn’t get anything,” continues Ferretti. “So I spoke with my set decorator, who then went back to L.A. for several weeks to collect props. In all, we shipped over about seven containers full of props and set dressing; we even shipped over the period cars! We ultimately built everything from scratch in Bulgaria, including about 25 interiors that were constructed in an abandoned paper factory. I started my work four months before shooting began, and it was a very big job.” The interior sets built within the former factory included a police station, a portion of City Hall, several nightclub interiors, the houses and apartments of various characters, a seedy motel, and many offices. Exterior sets built at other

locations in Bulgaria included the murder site, a stretch of Hollywood Blvd. (which did double duty as a street in East L.A.), six Beachwood Canyon bungalows, and two boxing rings (one of which was built in an ice-hockey arena). Back in L.A., the production built a diner on a beach in San Pedro and newspaper-office interiors, and also lent a Forties look to a block of the real Hollywood Blvd. in front of the Pantages Theatre. The Black Dahlia opens in spectacular fashion with a sequence depicting the infamous Zoot Suit Riots of June 1943, a vicious outbreak of hand-to-hand violence on the streets of East L.A. that pitted U.S. military soldiers and sailors against Mexican-American youths. Ferretti and his team built the “East L.A. street” in an unfinished development just outside Sofia, where only the sidewalks had been completed. (This set was later converted into a stretch of Hollywood Blvd., and the opposite


U.S. sailors charge toward their hand-tohand battle with MexicanAmerican youths.

side of the same street was redressed as the murder site.) The riot scene begins with a shot of a burning palm tree and glides down to street level to sweep viewers right into the fighting. After dollying down the street through the action, the camera zooms into a side alley, where hardnosed cop and former boxer Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) rushes to the aid of Sgt. Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). Their friendship — and partnership — ensues. The riot and other scenes afforded DePalma prime opportunities to cover action in one continuous shot, a tactic he generally prefers to traditional coverage. Zsigmond enthuses, “What I like about Brian is that he has the courage to do a shot that’s two minutes long, and if it’s well-choreographed you end up with a really classic sequence. As a camera-

man, you enjoy doing those shots, because when you’re finished you’re so proud that you managed to photograph something that was so difficult to do. It also looks great on the screen, because there aren’t so many cuts; I hate watching movies that have lots of cuts. If Brian can do something in one shot, he will. He never does the usual, boring stuff. He knows when he needs an extreme close-up, but over the course of an entire movie he’ll only go to an extreme close-up maybe 10 times. That way, they have more impact.” To capture the riot scene, the filmmakers dollied a SuperTechnocrane along a track that ran the length of the street. When the shot reached the end of the track, they took advantage of the crane’s telescoping arm to move the camera into the alley with the two hero cops. Gaffer Nimi Getter, who has worked

with Zsigmond on and off since 1992’s The Long Shadow (the cinematographer’s only attempt at directing), estimates that 40 percent of the film’s scenes were done as continuous shots. He expresses admiration for DePalma’s free-flowing style: “We were only supposed to use the SuperTechnocrane for the riot scene and one other scene, but Brian liked it so much that we kept it until the end of the shoot, since we only had a few days left in the schedule — and he took full advantage of its unique capabilities. Some people have a lot of equipment lying around the set, but often they won’t use it or will use it for things you could accomplish more easily with simpler methods. On this show, we used equipment to do things that only those pieces of equipment could do, which was nice.” In lighting this street set, American Cinematographer 21


Darkest Noir Right: Blanchard and his paramour, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johannson), form a cozy romantic triangle with Bleichert. Below: Bleichert also finds himself tempted into a series of passionate encounters with wealthy, bisexual bad girl Madeleine Sprague (Hilary Swank).

Getter says he and Zsigmond “exhausted the entire equipment supply of Bulgaria” and also employed additional lighting equipment that had been shipped from Mole-Richardson and other facilities. “We had lots of Dino lights, lots of cranes, miles of cables, you name it. The set dressings that Dante and

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his people created were incredible — all the marquees and neon signs looked completely real. We had to use one generator just for that stuff! Then, of course, we had to bring in our own streetlights, which were numerous. We used Dinos mostly for backlight or three-quarter backlight, but we also used many 10Ks, 5Ks and

smaller units to light the sides of the buildings and shape the architecture. There were a lot of fires burning during the riot scene, and we augmented those by creating a variety of flicker effects on the Dinos and on small 1K and 2K units that we hid around the set.” The SuperTechnocrane is also showcased in a grand reveal of the Dahlia’s corpse, a shot staged as a vertical crane move that culminates in a God’s-eye view of the murder site. The early-morning scene begins with a shot of the two detectives in their squad car. The camera then rises up the side of a nearby building and over the roof to reveal the corpse in the distance. The ambitious shot doesn’t end there, as Zsigmond details: “A woman starts screaming, and we follow her to the next street over, where we see a bicyclist go by. Then we pan to the original street where the cops are, with the crane still high up. The camera eventually drops and tilts down to show a truck driving by and a couple of principals walking in the street. Taken as a whole, the shot establishes the entire


Left: Hartnett and Johannson prepare for a scene staged in the house Kay shares with Lee, where Zsigmond and DePalma (observing at far right) strove to create a lighter, more inviting ambience. Note the fluorescent fixtures supplementing the hanging oncamera sources. Below: Bleichert reaches out to Kay as a potential source of salvation.

geography of the scene, and it goes on forever; it’s a beautiful, beautiful shot. Everything had to be just right — the timing, the choreography, the driving. The 1st and 2nd ADs had to give cues while Brian was watching the video monitor, and it took us about six tries to get it just right. Someone other than Brian might have shot the scene in the standard way, with a wide establishing shot and then a person walking by the body, but we don’t even go close to the body in our shot.” No less ambitious were the scenes shot on Ferretti’s interior sets, which presented a variety of logistical difficulties. The production designer notes that the cavernous space was often “freezing cold,” and Getter reveals that the structure was hardly an ideal place to create a soundstage: “When we saw it for the first time, it was completely rundown. The windows and skylights were broken, and we had to use miles of black plastic to cover them. Also, there wasn’t really any way to hang lights. Fortunately, we didn’t really have to do that, because most

of the sets had hard ceilings that we rarely removed; if we did hang anything, it was inside the sets themselves. Sometimes we cut holes in the ceilings to accommodate lights, but most of the time we just let them be.” One of the most important sets was the spacious police department, which was dressed with Venetian blinds that allowed Zsigmond to create the hard slashes of light that have always been a classic motif of film noir. “The fixtures you see in that set were not really lighting anybody in the day scenes,”

notes Zsigmond. “They were just decorative, because we needed much more light than they could provide.” Getter and his crew lit the set through the windows with a row of HMIs of varying intensities that included 18Ks and 12Ks; when lighting from inside the room, they deployed 6Ks or smaller units. Smoke was added to enhance the shafts of light. “For the night scenes, we based the lighting on the practicals that were in the set,” Getter adds. “There were fluorescents hanging overhead that we fitted with good American Cinematographer 23


Darkest Noir

Above: The detectives observe the interrogation of a prime suspect from behind a one-way mirror. Right: Bleichert and Det. Russ Millard (Mike Starr) ponder the evidence in a hotel room illuminated by a red neon glow.

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Osram tubes, and lamps on all of the desks. Those were our main sources of light.” “On this picture, I used directional light as much as I could, and that allowed me to create shadows because I could cut it more easily,” says Zsigmond. “We mainly used

Mole-Richardson lights with Fresnel lenses in them. I used the barn doors on the fixtures to create soft shadows, and flags to create hard shadows. Many times we used dimmers when we had characters moving from one room to another. “When it came time to do

close-ups, I tried to go with the mood of the scene, so I was often keeping the characters in silhouette or half-light,” he continues.“I usually try to avoid toplight because it’s not really pleasant on any actor’s face. I always try to get a modeling quality from my key light. Many times I would use a 45-degree angle for my key light, or a 90-degree sidelight. I hardly ever use backlight, because it looks unnatural unless the sun is directly behind the actors. I use fill light almost all the time, and I’m a great believer in it. Many people feel that with today’s film stocks, you don’t have to use fill because your ambient light basically gives you fill. Sometimes ambient light can look good, but sometimes that kind of light is not so great because it’s coming from the wrong angle — especially if it’s coming up from the floor. If the effect of ambient light isn’t good on the faces, then I would rather use fill light that comes from the direction of the camera. The nice thing about fill light is that it also gives you a little eyelight; even a very


small amount of fill will show up in the actor’s eyes. To create fill on this picture, I would usually use a big source, like an HMI or a tungsten 5K or 10K, coming through a 4'x4' piece of diffusion material in a frame, like Rosco 216 or 250.” To create moonlight effects for night scenes, Zsigmond usually used gelled HMIs, but he did employ a lighting balloon for one scene in which Bleichert hunts for clues around the Beachwood Canyon bungalows beneath the vintage “Hollywoodland” sign. The balloon, which contained six 1.2K HMIs, was gelled with 1⁄2 CTO. “To tell you the truth, it’s rather difficult to work with a balloon because it’s very hard to control the light,” Zsigmond opines. “If you go too high with it, it doesn’t give you enough light, and if you’re low, it can create too much light in some places.” In creating moonlight with standard fixtures, “I like to go just halfway toward a blue effect,” he says. “If I used an HMI, I’d warm it up with 1⁄2 gel. If I used a tungsten light, I would only put a 1⁄2 CTB on

it. Using half correction on HMIs and half on tungstens makes it easy for me to avoid using filters on the lens. I don’t like to use filters in front of the lens too much.” Zsigmond did apply some lens diffusion to scenes involving lead actresses Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank. Johansson plays Kay Lake, a woman living with Blanchard who becomes increasingly interested in Bleichert, and Swank plays a bisex-

ual femme fatale who lures Bleichert into a series of torrid trysts.“I couldn’t possibly shoot such beautiful actresses without a diffusion filter on, because lenses are too sharp today and people don’t want to see raw faces,” he maintains. “My favorite diffusion filter is the Tiffen Soft/FX. I would go with a strength of 1⁄2 or 1, up to a maximum of 2, because that’s already very heavy; I try to be careful, because I don’t like

The hardnosed detectives make a name for themselves by beating each other to bloody pulps in a boxing match that provides the police department with some splashy publicity. To illuminate the ring, the crew installed 500watt bulbs in “mushroom lights” hanging from an overhead grid. According to Getter, “On the ring itself, we had a stop of about T5.6. Above the grid, we hung some additional units to create lighting that gradually fell off; the first two rows around the ring were at T4, and the next few rows were at T2.8. Vilmos wanted to see all the way to the back of the arena.” Zsigmond adds, “All of the boxing sequences were shot with long lenses or with wide-angle lenses on the Steadicam. We were mostly shooting inside the ring, almost creating the POVs of the boxers. When the Steadicam was not in the ring, we used long lenses from a Giraffe crane, or dollies. We also got some low angles from very close to the ring, shooting up into the lights.”

American Cinematographer 25


Darkest Noir

The seedy Red Arrow Inn, where Bleichert has his trysts with Madeleine, was another set Ferretti’s crew built in the “freezing cold” paper factory. The production designer flew in a graphic designer from Los Angeles to create the show’s neon signage, and all of the period cars were shipped from the States.

the look of diffusion. If you watch any of my movies, you’ll never detect that I have the diffuser on. That would be bad, because we’re not in the Doris Day era! Many times, to make the cut better, I even use a bit of diffusion on the male actor, because otherwise the shots will not blend together.”

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According to A-camera focus puller Alexander Bscheidl, Zsigmond’s primary lenses on the show were Angenieux’s 24-290mm and 17-102mm zooms, although he also employed an Arriflex Lightweight Zoom, as well as Zeiss Ultra Primes for situations involving multiple cameras, longer-lens

compositions or Steadicam work by operator Jaromir Sedina.“I like zoom lenses — I have since my days with Robert Altman,” says Zsigmond. “You have all of the lenses you need in a zoom; I don’t like changing lenses all the time, so it’s very convenient. Also, there are many times when I like to change the size of the lens during a shot, especially on dolly shots. When you use a zoom, you don’t have to build the dolly track so precisely to suit a particular lens. Many times when you’re shooting with a standard lens, you’ll make a little mistake and realize the dolly should have ended up a bit closer to the actor. With a zoom lens, I can accomplish everything easily, because I can start at 24mm and go to a 27mm or 30mm. Or I can keep the dolly and zoom moving and end up in a close-up. For me, all the conveniences of using a zoom are unbeatable. Some of the directors I’ve worked with never liked the zoom before we worked together, but they started to like it when they saw how convenient it was and how


Left: Seeking leads in the case, Bleichert questions an actress in her moodily lit apartment.

much faster we could work. Plus, the lenses are so good now that zoom lenses are really almost as sharp as standard lenses. Some of them are even so sharp I have to use diffusion on them!” As an aside, Zsigmond points out that The Black Dahlia includes a number of split-diopter shots, one of DePalma’s favorite special techniques. “Brian doesn’t like to use techniques that are very obvious, and I don’t see that particular technique as being manipulative because in real life, the human eye can see both foregrounds and backgrounds,” he says. Getter adds, “Split-diopter shots are always a bit tricky, especially when you’re shooting moving actors from a moving dolly and you want to keep two different focal planes sharp at all times. Those particular shots took a lot of time and calculation, but we always managed to pull them off.” Because the show’s main production company, Nu-Image, had its own supply of Arriflex cameras, Zsigmond shot with

Arricam Studios and Lites and used Arri 435s for high-speed work. He encouraged DePalma to shoot in 3perf Super 35mm (2.35:1) for both practical and economic reasons, and used Kodak Vision2 500T 5218 as his sole film stock. By opting for Super 35 over anamorphic, he could employ spherical lenses, which gave him a bigger stop for the film’s lowlight situations. Zsigmond also knew 3-perf would save money in terms of film costs and developing, savings that could later be applied to the show’s 4K digital intermediate (DI) at LaserPacific. “I realize now that if we hadn’t done a DI, I could not have done as good a job with the period look,” says Zsigmond, who adds that The Black Dahlia was his first experience in a DI suite. “With the DI, you don’t lose anything [in the final transfer] like you did when it was an optical step. Another advantage of the DI is that all of the dissolves, fadeins, fade-outs and special effects can be incorporated when you’re actually doing the scanning, which means

you’re not losing a generation when you go from regular footage into the opticals. “The 4K scan was the selling point for me,” Zsigmond continues. “I told Brian that the only way I would do the movie in Super 35 was if we could go 4K; I didn’t think 2K would be good enough because Super 35 has a smaller negative size than anamorphic. Brian really loves the anamorphic format, so I had to convince him we wouldn’t lose much image quality by shooting in Super 35 with a 4K scan. That’s how we ended up at LaserPacific — they were willing to give us 4K at a good price. The DI was absolutely a budget consideration; I had to promise I wouldn’t get too fancy, and that I wouldn’t spend five or six weeks doing the work. I knew that if I lit the movie properly, I wouldn’t have to spend as much time on the DI. In the end, the grade took about 14 days.” Colorist Mike Sowa confirms that LaserPacific was eager to tackle the 4K process on Dahlia, not only American Cinematographer 27


Darkest Noir A lighting balloon illuminates a Beachwood Canyon bungalow, built in an area of Bulgaria that resembles the Hollywood Hills. Zsigmond notes that the illumination from balloons can be hard to control, but adds that “the digital intermediate rescued us by allowing us to tone down the parts of the scene that were too hot and make it look like a dark, moonlit night.”

because of the project’s prestige, but also because it gave the facility the chance to streamline its DI workflow. “At that point, we had only done 2K projects,” says Sowa. “We had some limitations in terms of 4K — data storage, rendering time, and the amount of time it takes to record to negative, which is a very slow process when you’re dealing with 4K files. On Black Dahlia, we were able to smooth out some of those issues.” Sowa adds, “Because Vilmos had never done a DI before, his primary concern was whether what we were looking at would translate to film. That’s a pretty typical fear if a cinematographer hasn’t done a DI, but we took great pains to ensure the quality of the images before Vilmos saw them. We did some little filmout tests to show him, and they were right on.” The DI was carried out on a 28 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

Discreet Lustre, and the footage was projected on a 33'x13' screen with a 2K Christie “Black-Chip” (or DLP) Digital Cinema Projector. Sowa says Zsigmond’s mandate for the look was “desaturated sepia.” The cinematographer notes that during production, he “tried to avoid selecting colors that were too garish, and we stayed away from greens during interior scenes because greens are not great against skin tones. We let the wardrobe department do what they needed for the period clothes, but they knew we didn’t want too many colors. We wanted the whole movie to have a desaturated look, with the exception of certain scenes involving Kay, Scarlett’s character. When we showed her in the house she shares with Lee, we tried to make those sequences warmer, lighter and more inviting, because that house is the only place where Bucky truly

feels he’s at home. In the rest of the environments, we wanted the atmosphere to be darker and desaturated, with lots of cigarette smoke and other stylistic touches from the Forties.” Sowa reveals that he and Zsigmond also dialed a bit more color into Johansson’s skin: “Brian felt that her beauty didn’t come through with the desaturated sepia look, so we scaled it back a bit on her.” He adds that scenes involving blood were “toned down” during the DI to make the effect subtler.“We use the Lustre as a data-conform tool and a grading tool all in one. It gives me great latitude to create a lot of the visual effects through rotoscoping, and it gives me all of the basic colorcorrection tools as well. I really love the box, and once Vilmos saw the kinds of things I could do with it, he became thrilled with the process. I


Zsigmond’s crew had high praise for the veteran cinematographer, whom they described as “exceptionally generous with his knowledge.” From left: 2nd AC Alexandre Szabo-Fresnais, A-camera focus puller Alexander Bscheidl, Zsigmond, and gaffer Nimi Getter.

found this project to be a lot of fun, because the movie has quite a few interesting transitions, like window wipes that start in the middle of the shot and work their way to the outer edges of the frame. Those were an interesting challenge, because I had to make the following scene match into the previous scene and track the windows with my color correction.” Zsigmond, of course, is no stranger to creative image manipulation. In fact, he can be considered a pioneer in that regard. On McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he famously flashed his negative with light to create a desaturated, Old West feel; on Deliverance, for which he used the Technicolor dye-transfer process, he introduced a black-and-white matrix to mute the forest colors and create a more ominous, suspenseful tone. On later projects, he went back to flashing and also experimented with the Technicolor’s ENR process. He maintains that the DI allows a level of creative control that goes well beyond these old-school tricks. “The DI gives us a lot of tools that allow us to do practically anything, and I don’t think I could do another movie without one,” he says. “We can make the look more contrasty, less contrasty, more colorful, less colorful and so on. We have a tool here that really improves the final answer print. Before the DI, we were very limited in what we could do with the

timing of a print. In order to control our images and get a good result, we had to be very sharp and very good on the set. Today, we sometimes can let certain things go on set if we don’t have enough time to fine-tune the lighting or if we don’t have the right weather. For example, we can rely on the DI to diminish the difference between sunny footage and overcast footage. That’s a great thing for us. Today we have the problem of never having enough time in the schedule, so a DI helps in that regard as well.” “Some people say, ‘Today we have faster films, so you don’t even need to light.’ But I say regardless of whether you have slow film or fast film, you still have to create a look! It did help me to have a 500-ASA film on this movie, because I needed a negative that allowed me to control contrast. With black-and-white film, we always had that kind of control — if you needed more contrast, you overdeveloped your negative, and if you needed less contrast, you underdeveloped it. With color, you could not do that to the same degree. But now, with the DI, we can achieve those results much faster.” Zsigmond’s continued enthusiasm for his profession is obvious, and his love of moviemaking was readily apparent to his crewmembers. Speaking to this point, Getter has the last word: “Vilmos is not only a great craftsman and artist, he’s also

an amazing person, and you can feel that straightaway. On the set he’s quite amazing. He’s not young, as we know, but he has an incredible amount of energy, and more than that, he belongs to a generation of working people, which is becoming rarer and rarer, especially when you become a star in your profession. He’s up on his feet from call time to wrap time. Even when we were doing a very, very complicated shot, where it would take an hour or two to reset for the next take, he would not sit down to wait for everything to be ready. He would constantly walk around, look around and find something to improve here or there. He’s extremely willing to adopt whatever ideas you can give him.” 

TECHNICAL SPECS Super 35mm 2.35:1 (3-perf) Arricam Studios, Lites; Arri 435 Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm and 17-102mm zooms; Arriflex Lightweight Zoom; Zeiss Ultra Primes Kodak Vision2 500T 5218 Digital Intermediate

American Cinematographer 29


Humanity’s

Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC devises a naturalistic approach to depict a grim future in the sci-fi drama Children of Men. by Benjamin B Unit photography by Jaap Buitendijk 30 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

E

mmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC stands in the street and anxiously scans the clouds above. He needs the sun for the next scene. We are visiting the set of Children of Men on a day when the production has set up in an industrial section of London. A doubledecker bus rolls up into position, its windows covered with grating that gives it a penal quality. Thirty extras dressed in drab clothing are lining

Photos courtesy of Univeral Pictures.

Last Hope


up, ready to board and provide background action. The story takes place in the near future, and nothing feels radically different, until a strange motorbike with a passenger platform pulls up alongside the bus. Big green panels on the sides of nearby buildings indicate where huge video images are going to be inserted during post. Director Alfonso Cuarón starts a run-through of the action. Gaffer John “Biggles” Higgins squints at the sky through a neutraldensity monocle to calculate the sun’s path for the next half-hour. Camera operator George Richmond is handholding an Arricam Lite, framing the open bus door, while his brother, Jonathan “Chunky” Richmond, is riding focus using a wireless control. The bus starts its motor, and actor Clive Owen runs alongside the double-decker and jumps on. The camera swings over as Owen sits next to an elderly woman passenger. After the rehearsal, Lubezki quietly confers with

Higgins. They decide to bring up the dim interior of the dirty vehicle by setting up some lights to bounce off beadboard outside the bus. The lights are in position in five minutes flat. After some more tweaking, Cuarón is ready to roll film. Just before the first take, Lubezki turns off the lights, and the entire scene is shot without any film lighting. In the dailies the next day, the bus scene looks great. The image is gutsy; you can distinguish the bright exterior, and the bus interior is dark, but it brightens momentarily as the vehicle goes past a large, sunlit façade. Lubezki reviews his decisions of the day before. “When you’re not using lighting, everyone on the set needs to be conscious that if you lose the sun, that’s it.” The fill from the sunlit building, he continues, is “the kind of accident you get when you don’t light. However, accidents aren’t always good.” Asked about the unused light on the bus ceiling, Lubezki says, “Sometimes you panic because

you’re used to doing things in a certain way. I’m a feature-film cinematographer, and I haven’t done documentaries in a while, so my instincts are to always try to make the image appealing. It took me a long time to go back to basics and say, ‘No, I don’t want this movie to look conventionally beautiful.’ This is a movie I couldn’t have done when I was younger. I don’t know if I’m going on the right path. The more I learn, the less lighting I want to do.” With a chuckle, he adds, “Maybe I’m getting lazy!” Lubezki’s résumé suggests otherwise. His recent credits include Ali (see AC Nov. ’01), Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (AC Dec. ’04) and The Assassination of Richard Nixon, and last year he earned his third Academy Award nomination, for Terrence Malick’s The New World (AC Jan. ’06); he was previously nominated for Sleepy Hollow (also an ASC Award nominee; AC Dec. ’99) and A Little Princess (another

Opposite page: English bureaucrat Theodore Faron (Clive Owen) finds himself drawn into a conflict that might decide the fate of humankind in Children of Men. This page: After agreeing to help a group of underground resistance fighters, Theo safeguards Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a young woman with a dangerous secret.

American Cinematographer 31


Humanity’s Last Hope Right: Marichka (Oana Pellea) helps Theo and Kee plan their escape from England’s totalitarian police state.

ASC nominee). Children of Men is Lubezki’s fifth feature-film collaboration with Cuarón, following Love in the Time of Hysteria, A Little Princess, Great Expectations and Y Tu Mamá También. Children of Men, an adaptation of a science-fiction novel by P.D. James, takes place in England in the year 2027. For unknown reasons, women have stopped having babies, and as the human race contemplates its own extinction, society begins to crumble, and a dictatorial government is threatened by a group of rebels. The protagonist is Theodore Faron (Clive Owen), a bureaucrat who is approached by an ex-girlfriend, Julian (Julianne Moore), who is leading an underground movement that is fighting the authorities. At Julian’s request, Faron reluctantly agrees to help two fugitive women move across checkpoints and borders to the seashore, where they are to flee the country. He soon learns that one of the women is pregnant, and that her companion is a mid32 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

wife. The treacherous voyage leads to dangerous encounters with police and rebels, and Faron dedicates himself to safeguarding the first baby in a generation. Laced with themes of ecological disaster, media saturation and terrorism, Children of Men has a timely message that surpasses its entertainment value. “More than the specific plot of the movie, what I like is that it’s a future that reminds you of the present,” says Lubezki. “It’s a political film that says we have to save the world right now, before it’s too late.” Shot entirely handheld with very little film lighting, Children of Men has a visual aesthetic that borders on documentary. Lubezki recalls that the genesis of this look started with a decision to avoid standard shot breakdowns. He explains that he and Cuarón have an aversion to traditional coverage, with “A-B-A-B” intercutting of opposing shots of two actors. “We decided to have every shot be a shot

in itself and avoid the A-B-A-B of coverage, even though we couldn’t get away from doing it sometimes. The more I work this way, the more I realize that conventional coverage is what makes most movies feel the same. You go to see a comedy, a drama, or a horror movie, and they all somehow feel the same. It’s as if the cinematic language hasn’t really evolved that much. Many films just cover the dialogue without really exploring the visual dimension.” To avoid intercutting, much of Children of Men was shot in lengthy single takes, which were shortened in editing “either for rhythm or dramatic intent. We did the movie in long shots to try to get the audience to feel they are there.” One of the key decisions Lubezki made early on was to shoot Children of Men with as few movie lights as possible. “I didn’t want to light the movie, or at least I didn’t want it to feel lit. I want the viewer to feel as though the action is happening for real. I didn’t want to


make anything pretty or beautiful unnecessarily. For example, I didn’t want to put a backlight on an actor [for beauty reasons]. Of course, I couldn’t get away with not lighting at all. When winter came, the locations we were using between buildings started getting dark very early, so some of our locations had to be built on a soundstage. I had to light them, but I did it in such a way that the light was always coming from a natural source, usually through windows.” He used the same approach for the film’s climactic birth scene, which he lit with a single bulb (mimicking a gas lantern) to achieve a minimum exposure of T2. A scene in a pothead’s abode was lit simply with a “gigantic China ball” above the actors on the couch, along with a background awash in a greenish light used by marijuana growers to nurture their crops. When a location or set required lighting, Lubezki tried to incorporate the lighting fixtures in

the set. For example, the ceiling of a police bus terminal was filled with a grid of Nine-light Mini-Brutes, yielding convincingly oppressive toplight.“We didn’t use them as film lights, but more the way the police would do it,” he says. Similarly, for a night exterior of the fortified police center, he used a series of open-face metal-halide lights.“These lights are used by the army in England. It’s

also the kind of work light used by workmen repairing roads at night. We simply stripped them out of their bases.” Lubezki also used sodiumvapor light, as when Julian confronts Faron, interrogation-style, in a dark interior with an open-face light beside her. The cinematographer adds that the violence of this lighting was heightened by a camera-

Above: Theo is approached for help by his exgirlfriend, Julian (Julianne Moore), the leader of the underground opposition group. Below: Our hero narrowly escapes a bomb blast on a London street.

American Cinematographer 33


Humanity’s Last Hope Right: One of Lubezki’s favored techniques for exteriors is to suspend a lightbox from a crane. Below: Longer lightboxes were used to illuminate both sides of a bus on a greenscreen stage.

shutter setting that was slightly out of sync, creating a subtle, slow flicker. Lubezki asked the sound designer to underline the effect by adding a variable humming sound. “Then they turn the light off, and there’s a little moment of darkness, and you don’t know what’s going to happen

34 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

next.” The cinematographer punctuated several scenes with these disturbing darknesses. When the time came to film the young woman revealing her pregnancy to Faron, Lubezki hesitated about the type of lighting to use. The scene takes place in a

manger, and his research indicated that such settings have “two types of lighting: fluorescents or big tungsten lights. At first I thought the lighting should be warm, but then I decided it should be industrial.” As elsewhere, he heightened the green coming from fluorescents because “green is a color that makes you a little uncomfortable.” He supplemented fluorescents with a beautiful soft source on the woman’s pregnant belly, because given the subject matter, he “just had to.” Lubezki filmed Children of Men on Kodak Vision2 Expression 500T 5229 because its low contrast allowed him to shoot in extreme situations without lighting. “When I did tests in the car, the interior was f2 and the outside was f16! Because I had decided not to light, using this stock was a way to solve the exposure problem. It’s so low-contrast that if you expose it correctly, you will have enough information to show what’s happening outside. Of course, in some scenes you will


never able to see the clouds because the sky is blown out. With [Kodak Vision2 500T] 5218, when you don’t light faces they look a bit harsh. I wanted the midtones to be softer in the faces, and 5229 allows you to achieve that. It’s very similar to flashing the positive.” He adds, “The blacks in 5229 are not very rich, but you can crush them in the digital intermediate [DI].” The cinematographer did not want the production to screen lowcontrast dailies with washed-out blacks, so in consultation with Beverly Wood, vice president of technical engineering at Deluxe Hollywood, and Ian Robinson and Clive Noakes at Deluxe London, he had the 35mm dailies treated with a 30-percent application of Deluxe’s proprietary ACE silver-retention process. This gave the filmmakers a better idea of the picture’s final look. “The midtones and highlights were not too contrasty, but the blacks remained black because we left some silver,” says Lubezki. “You can never duplicate silver-retention processes exactly in a DI, but you

can get close to the kind of contrast and curves they give.” For the DI, he worked with colorist Steve Scott at EFilm to desaturate the images. “We didn’t want the full Kodak-color look; we wanted something more naturalistic.” Even with a low-contrast stock, one of the biggest challenges on Children of Men was shooting

lengthy scenes that take place in a car, as the protagonists journey to the coast. “Most of the car scenes aren’t lit, and I love all the accidents you get when you don’t light — sunlight coming through a canopy of trees, hitting the actors and bouncing around in the car … is an effect that comes as suddenly as it disappears. I love that all these variations

Left: An Arri 235 was attached to a Sparrow Head and mounted on The Two Axis Dolly so the filmmakers could remotely dolly, pan and tilt their camera in moving vehicles, creating dynamic camera angles. Developed by Gary Thieltges of Doggicam Systems, the Sparrow Head earned a Technical Achievement Award at the 2005 Academy Sci-Tech Awards. Below: The futuristic vehicle’s real drivers get ready to roll. The crew “duplexed” the roof so the dolly operator, focus puller and Lubezki could operate the camera from a ledge above the actors while the car was in motion.

American Cinematographer 35


Humanity’s Last Hope Right: Over dinner in the “Picasso Hall’ at the Ministry of Arts, Theo asks his old friend Nigel (Danny Huston) to provide him with transit papers. Below: Actors Owen, Huston (far right) and Ed Westwick (head of table) absorb some guidance from director Alfonso Cuarón (standing and gesturing), while Lubezki (at camera) awaits his cue.

happen naturally. It would take you hours to re-create that with lighting.” Lubezki’s minimalist approach even extended to wardrobe choices. “I learned on Tu Mamá and The New World that you get a more natural image if you let the wardrobe department do their work without trying to control it, like having everybody dress darker. I didn’t want to impose the cinematographer’s concept of what’s right and wrong, and this really surprised them. They would say, ‘Are you sure, Chivo? Because a lot of cinematographers …’ and I would say,‘If it’s right for the character, I’m not going to tell you if I like it or not.’ The only mistake I made in this regard was in a car scene, where the midwife is wearing a very bright, tan outfit and is sitting where there is the most light. But you have to let these mistakes go in the interest of realism. It’s like putting on an 85 filter — everything looks better but the image isn’t as complex.” Lubezki notes that not relying on lighting units encourages prob36 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

lem-solving on location. He gives the example of the encounter between Faron and the midwife in an abandoned, run-down classroom with bay windows. Despite the bright sunlight outdoors, the day interior did not have enough fill light. Lubezki’s solution was to cover one of the big windows with transparent tape and shatter its glass; the fractured pane provides a bright source of diffuse light. The vagaries of natural lighting mandated a constant attention to exposure. “One of the reasons I couldn’t operate is that I was constantly changing the f-stop,” says the cinematographer. “That was the scariest part about the shoot. As Clive enters the classroom, he’s at f2. As we reveal the room, we’re almost at f4, and as he walks in toward the window, we go to f11. When we go to her, it’s f5.6.” Lubezki’s desire for naturalism sometimes necessitated modifying the story. For example, the scene in which Faron and his crew escape from a rebel farm was originally written as a night scene. “Once they

left the farm and went down a country road, it was going to be really awful — I would have had to put up some horrible, fake-looking lights,” says the cameraman. “When I read a script that says two lovers are holding hands on a beach at night, as a cinematographer I know it’s going to look fake. For some movies, that fake, over-stylized look is beautiful, but in this movie it would have betrayed everything we had done before. So I pleaded for another approach to the scene.” It is a testimony to Lubezki’s relationship with Cuarón that the director agreed to change the script, and set the action at dawn. The cinematographer worked with 1st AD Terry Needham to change the shooting schedule so that the scene could be shot dusk for dawn over three evenings. The result is a sequence that starts in the dark farm, which is lit with fluorescents and sodiumvapor lights, and ends, after a series of dawn-like transitions, with a daytime shot. The gradation from dawn to daybreak is masterful and,


Lubezki confesses, partly accidental. “I started shooting the last shot early to get everyone concentrated, and later we shot it at dusk. But the best scene was the one I shot in daytime. So I timed the whole scene to get lighter, so that we could end up in daytime. You think differently when you have a DI. It was brilliant, but a brilliant accident. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie. “The wonderful thing about Terry [Needham] is that he has a lot of experience as a 1st AD on very complicated movies, like Full Metal Jacket and Black Hawk Down,” adds Lubezki. “I was very fortunate to work with him on this project.” The search for naturalism extended to composition as well as lighting, and the filmmakers made a conscious effort to avoid careful framing.“We were trying not to do a perfect frame, so it doesn’t look framed. We tried to shoot it so that you feel the character more than the filmmaker. It looks like you are there; the image is very objective. You don’t see our tracks.” Much of Children of Men was shot with an Arri Lite, and the production was among the first to use the new Arri/Zeiss Master Prime lenses.“I think these lenses have a bit of two worlds — they’re sharp, crisp and clean, but they also have flare,” notes Lubezki.“They kept the blacks black but also allowed halation to happen.” His only criticism is that the lenses were sometimes too heavy, and he confesses that he always carried an “extra Zeiss Ultra Prime” for occasions when weight was an issue. The filmmakers tried to create an objective camera viewpoint by shooting with a wide-angle lens at some distance from the actors. “We shot most of the movie with an 18mm lens; we have no POV shots; we watch the actors from a distance, and there are almost no close-ups. There are exceptions to everything I say, but the main idea was to stay

Overhead space lights illuminate a woodsy “exterior” setting created in Stage D at Pinewood Studios.

American Cinematographer 37


Humanity’s Last Hope Right: A crowd of Londoners cannot elude England’s everwatchful authorities, represented here in signage created by the Soho-based effects company Double Negative. The company completed more than 160 shots for the film, and their work included building CG environments, “futurizing” London and creating invisible transitions between scenes. The LED displays and billboards went through several iterations, which began with a super-futuristic look but culminated in a rougher, more organic design. Bottom: Lubezki makes some adjustments while working with a car rig.

38 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

objective, and not too close to the actors. I see an incredible abuse of close-ups in many films these days. Why is that? I don’t know whether it’s due to directors being accustomed to watching things on TV, or because they’re watching the video assist on a small monitor, but they want to get closer and closer. Some movies are all medium shots and close-ups and what they call the master shot. Maybe our ideas for this movie came as a reaction to some of the stuff that bothers us in the current cinema.” Lubezki explains that one motivation for naturalism was to convey the violence in the story properly.“There’s a lot of violence in the film, and I don’t know why, but violence looks beautiful on film. Destruction and the attendant texture and smoke all photographs well. Violence is very cinematic, and I didn’t want this movie to beautify or glorify it.” To deglamorize the violence, Lubezki took his cue from documentaries. “When you’re watching the news or a documentary on war, one of the things you notice is that


C ONGRATULATIONS C HIVO! Emmanuel Lubezki Academy Award Nomination ASC Nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography

“Children of Men”

We are proud and pleased to have played a part in executing your bold vision. 1500 West Verdugo Avenue • Burbank, CA 91506 • www.doggicam.com • 818.845.8470


Humanity’s Last Hope

Theo crosses a bridge to visit his friend in the Ministry of the Arts. This scene’s futuristic setting was also created by Double Negative. The ministry building was actually a composite of two elements: London‘s Battersea Power Station and a bridge located over the M3 roadway in Surrey. Once a suitable bridge was located, Double Negative’s 3-D team, led by CG supervisor David Vickery, began augmenting the station with a glass structure to create a building of the future. The designs for the glass structure were taken from actual plans for the station’s development, but were enhanced by the Double Negative team to match the aesthetics of the film. Final touches included the addition of a sculpture to the right side of the station and a CG floating pink pig (visible above the third chimney from the left), built by Philip Johnson and anchored to the roof in homage to the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1974 album Animals. Finally, a matte painting of London was used as a background.

there is no coverage. It’s not all cutty with beautiful close-ups of the gun, or the trigger in slow motion. The other thing you notice in many good war documentaries is that the cameraman is often running with a fixed lens — running to cover the action and also running to save his life. So we tried to avoid cutting and beautiful framing. Somehow shooting handheld and not cutting makes violence not only less appealing, but stronger. It looks more naturalistic 40 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

and you feel more for the characters, as opposed to falling in love with the horrible beauty of war.” Lubezki says he and Cuarón had two major disagreements on their approach to the picture. The first had to do with Steadicam. “In my mind, I wanted to do a combination of handheld and Steadicam, because I think if you shoot everything handheld [the technique] loses its power. In my dream, Children of Men was going to be 60 percent Steadicam; with a good operator, it doesn’t look mechanical. But on the first day of shooting, we did five takes with the Steadicam, and then Cuarón said, ‘Take away the Steadicam, we’ll do it handheld.’ After that, the Steadicam stayed in the truck, and every day I tried to put it up, until one day Cuarón said, ‘Chivo, forget the Steadicam. We’re never going to use it.’ One of the things I don’t like about handheld is that when you’re trying to concen-

trate on a person’s face in a wide shot, you lose definition because there’s motion blur. It drives me crazy, because I want to be able to focus on the actor’s eyes.” The other disagreement between the director and cinematographer had to do with staging the handheld camera. It is customary to have camera movement motivated by the actors, but in Children of Men, the handheld camera sometimes creates its own path, independent of the actors’ movements. “Alfonso and I started doing that on Tu Mamá,” Lubezki notes. In one scene in Children of Men, there is a confrontation when two cops stop the fugitives’ car. The camera follows Faron as he steps out of the vehicle. When the cops are gunned down and Faron runs back to the car, the camera stays behind to film the car speeding away, and then pans to linger on the two dead cops. Lubezki comments


that the camera is almost another character, a persona who is “introducing the energy of the filmmaker, telling you what is important and what we should be looking at. The camera is telling you that these two cops are also parents, or fascists, or whatever. The camera is inviting you to see something external to the plot and saying that it is also important. The camera is inviting you to see the context in another way. I like that a lot.” The staging of handheld camera motion was the subject of much discussion between Lubezki and Cuarón.“When the camera moves in on an actor who is sitting, it distracts me,” says the cinematographer. “I didn’t want to feel the camera’s presence, but Cuarón said that on the contrary, we should feel the cameraman, almost like in a documentary. Sometimes the camera operator had difficulty doing a shot, because it’s counterintuitive to start moving the camera when the actor is not moving, or to let the actor move out of frame. I still had in my mind a more naturalistic approach, which is that once you cannot follow the actors anymore, the take is over. But Cuarón took this idea of the handheld to the extreme and made it very complex. That’s something we still debate.” One of the most memorable scenes in the film is an uninterrupted six-minute shot inside a futuristic car. Five characters, including Faron and Julian, have a playful moment together and suddenly come under brutal attack by a gang of marauders; the car escapes with one dead passenger, only to be stopped by two cops, resulting in the ensuing gunplay discussed above. In this tour de force one-shot sequence, the camera moves fluidly across the car from front to rear and left to right, easily placing itself between the characters. The secret to this extraordinary scene was a camera car outfitted with The Two Axis Dolly, a special rig

designed and built by inventor Gary Thieltges of Doggicam Systems. Three carbon-fiber track sections formed an H-shaped rig that was suspended above the roofless car. The Two Axis dolly moved an Arri 235 on a Sparrow Head back and forth along the horizontal track, which was itself moved fore and aft along the two supporting parallel tracks. The camera was suspended from the dolly into the car below and controlled by Frank Buono, the Two Axis Dolly operator, who was seated in a translucent cabin above the dolly. The camera car was steered by two low-riding drivers, one in front and one behind (when driving in reverse). Lubezki explains that the one-shot sequence actually contains a couple of seamless cuts, such as one at the time of a bullet impact and one as the camera leaves the car to follow Faron outside. Looking back at the challenge of shooting an entirely handheld film that avoided coverage and lighting, Lubezki reaffirms his admiration for Cuarón. “You need a great director to take these kind of chances. Our argument over handheld vs. Steadicam was the first time we’d had a disagreement, and in the end, I think he proved me wrong.” Using the Spanish slang for chutzpah, he adds, “Cuarón said he wanted the film to have huevos, and it does.” 

TECHNICAL SPECS Super 1.85:1 (Super 35mm for 1.85:1 extraction) Arricam Lite; Arri 235 Arri/Zeiss Master Primes Kodak Vision2 Expression 500T 5229 Digital Intermediate Printed on Fuji F-CP 3513DI

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Ghost in the

Machine

In The Good Shepherd, Robert Richardson, ASC dramatizes the evolution of the CIA through the eyes of a key operative. by John Pavlus Unit photography by Andrew D. Schwartz, SMPSP 42 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

T

hree of contemporary cinema’s most aggressive stylists — Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino — have all had one collaborator in common: Robert Richardson, ASC. From the concussive visual overload of Natural Born Killers (see AC Nov. ’94) and JFK (Feb. ’92) to the gilded sheen of Casino (Nov. ’95) and The Aviator (Jan. ’05) and the pop-pulp pastiche of Kill Bill (Oct. ’03),


Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Opposite: Reluctant CIA spymaster Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) listens to a mysterious recording. This page, top: Wilson and his espionage partner, Sam Murach (Alec Baldwin), confer while supervising surveillance. Bottom: Cinematographer Robert Richardson, ASC shapes a scene with director Robert De Niro.

Richardson’s body of work is nothing if not forceful. But in teaming with director Robert De Niro on The Good Shepherd, which reveals the history of the Central Intelligence Agency through the eyes of an increasingly world-weary spy (played by Matt Damon), De Niro and Richardson chose to move in a different direction. The cinematographer abandoned his trademark burning key lights in order to “illuminate with darkness,” and stilled his balletic camera to create “clinical, dispassionate” compositions.“There is a blend of the overt and the covert,” Richardson says of his approach to the film, which he calls “a portrait of a ghost.” From Richardson’s diary: May 11, 2005: Have been for some time cautious of The Good Shepherd — go/not/red/green — many twists — “wilderness of mirrors,” indeed. May 13: Watched New York, New York once again. The brilliance of Bob as an actor is riveting. Perhaps the intensity evident as an actor will

rise within his direction. Certainly the passion [will]…. Prior to Good Shepherd, Richardson had worked with De Niro on two projects in which the actor starred, Casino and Wag the Dog. “It felt like a fruitful relationship,” says Richardson, and that connection carried him and De Niro through almost a decade of false starts in readying Good Shepherd for production. After completing The

Aviator, Richardson shot commercials for a year while waiting for De Niro’s labor of love to receive a green light. During that time, Richardson began to feel an increasingly personal attraction to the project and its protagonist, Edward Wilson (Damon). “The most interesting aspect of the script was the invisibility of Edward as a character,” he says. “He is swallowed into a philos-

American Cinematographer 43


Ghost in the Machine Right: Alongside his fellow intelligence officers, Wilson ascends to the Office of Strategic Services — the precursor to the CIA. Below: Wilson hunts for evidence of a mole within the OSS.

ophy of that time, and in the process of being devoured, he ends much of what was his personal life and loses his ability to demonstrate anything that might have had to do with his heart. Sadly, I found myself thinking that the degrees of separation between Edward and myself were not small. My willingness to sacrifice family for film [paralleled] his sacrifice of family for country. I lost a family on this picture, and it most

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certainly influenced my shooting.” June 9: Three intense days of work with [De Niro]. We focused upon defining the film visually — privacy, commitment to a belief, secrecy, paranoia, mirrors, frames within frames. Push the audience, force them to work. Shadows of different densities to hide within, to obscure, to illuminate — edges of steel blue on black — gray, ashen, cool. Battles on the home front flood the

interior of my mind. I sit blank and gray. Richardson applied his usual thoroughness to researching the film’s background, poring over histories of the CIA and its predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, as well as espionage novels such as Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost. He also watched a number of films, “including The Parallax View, The Conversation, anything having to do with paranoia and the government, as well as [Jean-Pierre] Melville’s films for the precision of framing and the minimalism of action and acting.” But his main source of inspiration turned out to be still photos, particularly the works of Walker Evans. “They have solid framing. They’re not flamboyant. But they’re a very detailed insight into a time. Seeing one photograph after another, they build detail upon detail, whether it’s a chair, a wall, or someone’s face …. There’s a purity of vision in that which I found inspirational, and I felt [this film] should build in a similar way.” The palette Richardson


Left: In the OSS inhabited by Wilson and his trusted lieutenant, Ray Brocco (John Turturro), even the locks on the agency’s secret files aren’t to be trusted. Below: Wilson presides over an interrogation with his comrade, Russian defector Valentin Mironov (John Sessions).

designed for Good Shepherd mirrored the script’s themes, enshrouding much of the story in ghostly monochromatic tones and soft, dim lighting to evoke “that invisible nature as Edward disappears into the crowd every day. De Niro came up with a shot for the opening of the film that is repeated at the end; it showed one large façade of the CIA building in Washington swallowing men and women, including Edward. There’s a glumness as this gray building obliterates the spirit of the individual. They swallow him whole in a very dispassionate way — he’s not known, not spoken to, not looked at. “The ashen look applies to the present-day sequences, which are set in 1963 and woven throughout the film,” he continues. “The palette helps the audience separate the present from the past and enables us to tell the story through color. We could have lit those buildings with a beautiful setting sun or a hard, raking light, but we chose to shoot them in overcast light. Most

of the exteriors were shot at the right time of day to allow us to achieve that look.” Richardson credits colorist Steven “Sparkle” Arkle at Complete Post for shaping the cool tones in the production’s hi-def dailies, and colorist Stephen Nakamura of Technicolor Digital Intermediates for shaping the look of the final film. The cinematographer used

three Kodak Vision2 film stocks on the show — 500T 5218, 200T 5217, and 100T 5212 — but not toward his usual end of creating distinct looks for different scenes. “The choice of stocks was primarily determined by practicality,” he says. “I’d utilize 500 at night and move toward 200 if possible, and 100 was used exclusively for day sequences.” Working in 3-perf Super 35mm,

American Cinematographer 45


Ghost in the Machine Right: Richardson rides atop a Phoenix crane while filming Wilson’s initiation into Yale’s secret society, the Skull and Bones. Below: Richardson again rides high while shooting another setup.

Richardson shot with his preferred Panavision package: Panaflex Platinum cameras and Primo lenses, which were most often zooms (11:1, 4:1 and 3:1). He occasionally fitted the lens with an 81EF filter and a 1⁄8 Tiffen Black Pro-Mist, but 1st AC Gregor Tavenner notes, “we were recording a very clean, not heavily stylized image. That beautiful softness all happened in the lighting.” June 14: Rain falling, outstretched hands. Walked the streets of NYC when I visualized them as empty — perhaps through Edward? Ordered, no one to be seen, gray buildings surround. When was the color of life evident in his life? Was there any color in his life at the end? Force the camera lens to watch — to hold — tension in the lack of obvious POV — do not signify. Richardson found another visual metaphor for Wilson’s character arc through camera movement — or the lack thereof. “The further he slides toward paranoia, the greater the restraint shown by camera,” says the cinematographer. This meant that scenes set in the 46 Special Digital Edition: February 2007


Left: Richardson rides the crane in “low mode” while capturing a street scene set in Africa but filmed in the Dominican Republic. Below: The cinematographer is surrounded by propane flame bars, which provided a demonic key light for the Skull and Bones sequence.

film’s present of 1963, depicting Wilson as a haunted, middle-aged spymaster, were framed with stillness; meanwhile, scenes set two decades earlier, showing Wilson as an exuberant Yale graduate being groomed for the corridors of power, “were designed with a deliberate attempt to have more fluidity.” Richardson’s frame was further restrained by one of De Niro’s directorial techniques: fastidious repetition. “Sometimes Bob would take key dialogue and start to break it down,” he explains.“Rather than it being 20 lines, he’d turn it into one sentence or one gesture and work on that until it was completed, or until that specific line delivery was perfect, and it might take an entire roll of film to accomplish that. If you intend to do a move during that kind of work, the move can’t exist within that repetition. So that tended to guide us into finding precise frames that both told the story and allowed Bob to work with the actors in the manner he was most comfortable with.”

This camera style “is not really Richardson’s style,” says Tavenner, “but it became his style. The transitions and simple closeups became very powerful. He is dedicated to fulfilling the director’s vision, and because he’s doing the operating, his intuition gets transferred right onto the negative.”

Richardson adds that De Niro has specific ideas about composition: “He is extremely precise about what he wants in the frame. The direction a face looks — whether profile or three-quarters — what percentage of the frame [it fills], whether we see both eyes, whether the chin is up or down. That level of precision is fur-

American Cinematographer 47


Ghost in the Machine Right: After being recruited for the OSS by intelligence veteran Bill Sullivan (De Niro), Wilson finds himself facing difficult choices between family and duty. Below: De Niro and Richardson frame up a shot of Wilson and his bride, Clover (Angelina Jolie), whose marriage is soon strained by the demands of Edward’s clandestine career.

ther reflected in the choice of angles.” This approach can be seen in one of Good Shepherd’s tensest sequences, in which Wilson and a Russian defector, Mironov, preside over the interrogation/torture of another Russian who is claiming to

48 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

be the “real” Mironov. The two men stand behind a one-way mirror, scrutinizing the newcomer as he pleads his case during an increasingly vicious beating by Wilson’s lieutenant (played by John Turturro). “That was quite a camera challenge,” recalls Tavenner. “How do you play

someone behind glass and work with reflections as well as what’s going on in the background? We’ve seen it in other movies for a shot or two, but this is a whole sequence.” Richardson explains, “At specific moments, [De Niro] wanted to see [Wilson and Mironov’s] reflections in the glass falling upon the interrogation that’s happening before them. We weren’t ever looking at them directly from the front; it was always from the side, or looking past them from behind. The focus had to move from 11⁄2 feet to 15 feet, to shift the eye’s attention from background to foreground, so the challenge was about balancing how to land at the exact moments Bob wanted.” To finesse the shifts of attention, Tavenner and Richardson communicated with De Niro via headsets, and much of the tension in the scene came from playing the focus opposite to where the action was taking place. Tavenner details, “If something’s happening in the background and you’re seeing it over someone’s shoulder in the fore-


Wilson’s paranoia grows as he becomes embroiled in increasingly secret intelligence operations.

ground, you can keep the focus on the person who’s watching, if he’s reacting. Just because you’re seeing the back of somebody’s head doesn’t mean you should be focused on what he’s looking at. By keeping the foreground sharp instead, you can feel what [the watcher] is feeling, and you can still understand what’s going on in the semi-focused background.” Because the sequence was originally scripted to take place over the course of a whole day, Richardson lit the early part of the scene with a hard-daylight-motivated key coming through a window behind the man being questioned, “bouncing off the floor to act as the primary lighting source for John Turturro.” As the interrogation continues into dusk, “the background slips into a softer, cooler tone, and the light becomes more incandescent in the foreground [on Wilson and Mironov].” Using ceilingmounted 5Ks on dimmers, Richardson continually adjusted the illumination in the foreground so that Wilson and Mironov’s reflec-

tions would be distinctly visible. “You have to balance that reflection to the background, because in order to read onscreen, it has to be at a higher level of illumination,” he notes. Unfortunately, the scene was later shortened, forcing Richardson to blend the two lighting schemes together, “which was a very difficult situation for me in the timing.” The delicate balance between “overt and covert” in the lighting begins to take shape in the film’s

early flashbacks, which depict Wilson’s first steps into shadowy deception via Yale’s secret society, the Skull and Bones. Wilson undergoes a sinister initiation in a cavernous, crypt-like chamber where rich brown tones blur into deep shadows cast by dim firelight. “We wanted to evoke the golden age of ‘the best and the brightest,’ where extraordinary power was put into the hands of a few and the result was proxy wars and secret operations,”

American Cinematographer 49


Ghost in the Machine Richardson and De Niro celebrate a landmark moment during the shoot.

says Richardson. “But initially the intentions appeared honorable, hence the quality of light.” Richardson and Ian Kincaid, his longtime gaffer, based their lighting scheme on practical fire effects generated by propane bars, a technique they had improvised while on location for Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth (AC Feb. ’94). “We first lit a scene exclusively with flame bars when we were caught in a huge storm in remote caves in southern Thailand,” recalls Kincaid. “Electricity became incredibly dangerous and daytime became as dark as night, so we lit an enormous area simply by igniting these long flame bars. The Skull and Bones initiation scene seemed to deserve a similar look.” Richardson also preferred the propane bars for their realistic effect. “The vast majority of fire effects appear to me to be just that: effects,” he asserts. “To my eye, the variant provided by the propane bars is rich, realistic and creamy. Beyond that, the flames and smoke generated by the bars created an atmosphere that the actors could draw upon, which was vital for Bob as a director.” (The crew apparently found it less inspiring: Tavenner recalls that “after one take, the room got so filled up with propane soot that it was almost unbearable.”) Firelight sounds simple enough, but Kincaid also faced some formidable rigging challenges, first 50 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

in converting the electric torchieres approved by the art department to accept propane rings, and then in c o n v i n c i n g the administrators of Bronx Community College, where the scene was filmed, to allow real flames in the building.“Then, of course, the fire department got its shot at shutting it all down,” he adds. “After developing a plan complete with extractor fans, ventilation schemes and escape maps, our special-effects crew had to design a system of baffles and hoses that the art department could disguise and the sound department could not hear!” With all parties satisfied, Kincaid and Richardson supplemented the scene with “two large, sausage-shaped lighting balloons, four 6-foot-long flame bars, and Blondes gelled with CTS powered through mercury flicker-effect gags,” says the gaffer. For a later scene in the same location depicting a mudwrestling ritual, Richardson created “an ominous cloud of light” by rigging two 4'x8' 6K softboxes gelled with 1⁄2 CTS to the ceiling and pushing the light through a dimmer, “which added to the depth of color in the dark wood.” The resultant light required shooting at a shallow T-stop that surpassed even Richardson’s preference for shooting wide open. Tavenner recalls, “On Snow Falling on Cedars, his favorite stop was

T2/T2.5, almost as shallow as you get. In this case we were shooting at T1.4 [with Panavision Ultra Speed MKIIs], so all the softness in the lighting was enhanced.” The Yale flashback sequences also afforded Richardson the opportunity to indulge one of his favorite techniques: riding atop a swooping crane. “Instinct and emotion, not simply technical prowess, are key to an operator,”he says.“I prefer to ride because I can feel the camera as one can feel a lover. I do not wish to react when operating, I prefer to dance. Of course, there’s minimal movement in this film, but we had decided to have more camera motion in the earlier phases of the picture, so the crane was utilized where appropriate.” One such moment occurs at the climax of Wilson’s initiation rite, in which he is compelled to prove his loyalty to his brethren by revealing a secret he has never told anyone else. Lying on a stone slab within a ring of firelit balconies, he recounts the story of his father’s suicide as the camera drops down toward him from high above, culminating in an intimate close-up.“For that particular shot, we were able to get an incredibly subtle sense of composition and symmetry with Bob riding the crane,” says Tavenner, who pulled focus remotely.“I don’t think you could achieve that on a remote head off a monitor. With a monitor, sometimes you can’t feel the subtleties of the move, and you might design it to be more graphic than it needs to be. But on the crane, Bob can direct the movement as he feels necessary, and he can feel when it’s just right because he’s seeing and feeling it directly.” Richardson stretched his interpretation of Good Shepherd’s ghostly palette in a key sequence set on the rain-slicked cobblestone streets of London. In the scene, Wilson turns a corner in his evolution as a spy by trying — and failing


— to protect his mentor (Michael Gambon). Kincaid explains, “The dilemma was how to justify any illumination at all, because during World War II, the streets of London had no lights at night. We fell back on our reliable friend: potent, powerful backlight.” Richardson describes the look as “a liquid-mercury version of noir,” an almost monochromatic combination of hard white edges gleaming around inky shadows, with hardly any grayscale in between. Dinos, MaxiBrutes and 20Ks were placed on Condors behind buildings and above bridges and turned on fullblast.“The wet cobblestones provided a superb angle of reflection for the lighting sources,” says Richardson. “The result was like looking into a mirror or body of water.” Even these apparent flourishes fit within the tense, spectral atmosphere Richardson had in mind. “What was extremely important in this film was that nothing should feel out of place, yet at the same time, nothing should feel certain,” he says. “Our hope was that viewers would question what’s constant in this man’s life. What is constant, I feel, is paranoia, and what we’ve created is a portrait of the circuitry of that paranoia.” 

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Conjuring the

Past

Dick Pope, BSC creates a handsome, antique look for The Illusionist, the tale of a turn-of-the-century magician whose tricks put him at odds with a prince. by Patricia Thomson Unit photography by Glen Wilson

T

hough he is best known as Mike Leigh’s longtime cinematographer, Dick Pope, BSC has acquired another particular specialty in recent years: 19thcentury costume dramas set in the world of the theater. Pope first ventured into this territory with Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (see AC March ’00), one of seven films he has shot for his 52 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

compatriot since 1990; in that film, the focus was 1880s England and the light opera of Gilbert and Sullivan. A few years later, Pope revisited 1850s England for Nicholas Nickleby (2002), in which the titular protagonist attaches himself to the traveling Crumbles theater troupe. Now there is The Illusionist, written and directed by Neil Burger

(Interview With the Assassin), which required Pope to immerse himself in the Austro-Hungarian empire circa 1900 and explore the world of magic, early cinema, and an early color-photography technique called the autochrome. Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, The Illusionist tells the tale of Eisenheim (Edward


Photos courtesy of Yari Film Group Releasing.

Opposite: During a commanding performance onstage, mindblowing magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) proves that he still has a powerful effect on his former paramour, Sophie (Jessica Biel). This page: Eisenheim teaches Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) a simple but effective trick under the watchful eye of his business manager, Josef (Eddie Marsan).

Norton), a brilliant magician who becomes entangled in a love triangle. Set in Vienna and shot largely on practical locations in Prague, the film begins in 1885, when the adolescent Eisenheim and young Duchess Sophie are smitten with each other, but prohibited from contact because of class differences. After they’re separated, the story jumps to 1900, when Eisenheim is attracting ever-growing crowds with his stage performances. As his fame rises, so does the status of his audiences. Soon he is performing for the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and his fiancée (Jessica Biel), who turns out to be the duchess Eisenheim once loved. Suspicious of the illusionist, Leopold orders Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to spy on him. Meanwhile, Eisenheim ruffles the prince’s feathers with public taunts about his ambitions to the crown. When tragedy strikes, Eisenheim summons his powers to bring down the monarchy before it destroys him. Though Burger was planning to work with a mostly Czech crew on the production, he sought out

Pope because he was convinced the cinematographer’s work would enhance the story’s emotional dimension considerably. “Dick’s films with Mike Leigh are incredibly cinematic because they’re so wellobserved,” says Burger. “He’d done these period films for Leigh — Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake [AC Jan. ’05] — and made them look so beautiful and inhabit their particular time so perfectly. Plus, there’s a real emotional quality to the lighting. Dick has a very beautiful way of lighting faces that makes them more luminous. I knew The Illusionist was going to be a dark film, yet I wanted to be able to connect with these characters, and I knew he would be able to do it.” Pope acknowledges that lighting faces “is a big thing for me. I’m totally in love with it and have been since I was a young boy, took up a camera and immediately concentrated on portraiture.” He adds that this is one reason he gets on so well with Leigh. “The landscape of the human face is, in a way, what cinema is all about. That’s where the emotion is. The rest of it leads up to that.”

From the time he wrote the script, Burger wanted to conjure an early-cinema look for The Illusionist, and he made autochrome photography the cornerstone of the visual design. “In films like Nosferatu, there’s something very creepy in the image itself — in the grain and density, the way it flickers, the vignetting,” says the director. “Those create a disquieting feeling, and I wanted a disquieting, unnerving undertone for this picture. I didn’t necessarily want to make it look old; I wanted it to be real but otherworldly, to inhabit this realm of dream and mystery.” Burger did not want to go with black-andwhite, and he eventually discovered the autochrome, a color-photography technique that was almost contemporaneous with his story. During that period, cinema and magic were closely interwoven, and magicians tapped early movingimage and projection devices to help create their illusions. Burger arrived at his first meeting with Pope carrying a copy of The Art of the Autochrome. “When I met Neil, I knew very little American Cinematographer 53


Conjuring thePast The purposeful Eisenheim ignores Uhl’s advice to forget his feelings for Sophie, who is engaged to marry Crown Prince Leopold.

about the history and detail of these autochromes,” recalls Pope. “It came as something of a revelation to me when he opened the book.” Invented by the Lumière brothers in 1903, autochromes involved unique transparencies created by coating a sheet of glass with microscopic starch grains dyed red, green and blue, which formed a screen of color particles. Carbon black was applied over the plate, filling in the spaces around the starch grains. Then a silver gelatin emulsion was applied over the color screen. When the plate was exposed, the base side was turned toward the subject, and the color screen acted as a filter over the emulsion. The developed plate rendered a positive color image with delicate color qualities that resemble handtinted photographs. “There’s almost a sepia tone without any sepia,” notes Burger. “Because of the primitive emulsions, certain colors that are the predominant dyes seem to leak into all the other colors. You can get a green or golden tinge, even though it’s not 54 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

sepia and may have all the colors of the rainbow.”In The Illusionist, gold, ochre, rose and green dominate the palette, particularly before Eisenheim’s emotional decline motivates a shift to a more monochromatic look oriented around sickly green hues. “They were not quite like anything I’ve seen,” says Pope of the autochromes. “Many were really crude but very beautiful, like looking at color for the first time, which back then, of course, was the case. The focus too could be really selective, as you would achieve with Swing & Tilt lenses. The glass wasn’t perfect; it could be quite bubbly in places, and you’d lose focus in those spots. So color wasn’t the only unusual characteristic; it was the focus as well.” Pope’s challenge was mimicking the look of the period technique with modern cameras, lenses and emulsions. He chose to film The Illusionist with an Arricam Studio/Lite package from Arri Munich that included Cooke S4 prime lenses, and he shot the pic-

ture on Kodak Vision2 500T 5218 and Vision2 200T 5217. “It took us quite a while to find the best way to capture this look,” says the cinematographer. “It was quite tricky and involved quite a lot of experimenting. For instance, I did a major test of various scenarios inside and outside Eisenheim’s theaters with stands-ins in costume and makeup. It was a full day, from morning until very late at night.” After putting various lighting techniques, film stocks and filtration through their paces, Pope began experimenting in collaboration with visual-effects supervisor Viktor Müller at UPP in Prague. “We worked together on different manipulations of the film, including various strengths of bleach bypass applied to the print, the interpositive, and the original digital output neg,” recalls Pope. Müller adds, “We also combined bleach bypass on the positive with bleach bypass on the negative, as well as combining digital bleach simulation with positive bleach bypass.”


Uhl’s admiration for the magician tests his loyalty to the prince.

The principle was there, but the effect was always “too much,” says Pope. “It’s a difficult thing to describe, but autochromes are very subtle. When you first look at them, they appear quite desaturated and pastel, but when you look closer, certain strong colors shine through. So we abandoned the physical bleach bypass but took the basic idea into the digital-intermediate [DI] suite and manipulated the image with a lookup table we devised, one that would bring out these greens, reds and yellows. After that, we were there very quickly.” Because the production did not plan to print any dailies, this lookup table became a critical tool in maintaining a consistent look for the DVD dailies, he adds. Knowing that time for the DI would be limited, Pope tried to accomplish as much as he could in camera. “I thought perhaps all I’d need, come the DI, was this magic lookup table, this simple twist of the dial, to immediately bring the whole thing into this fabulous autochrome

world,” he says wryly. “If only life were like that!” Down the line, the autochrome illusion was completed at EFilm by colorist Steve Scott. Highly regarded by Pope, Scott was introduced to Burger by Pope early in the project. “After a good deal of exploration with various software tools and filters, a final look was achieved by first desaturating the image, then reintroducing saturation to the skin tones and various spot colors,” explains Scott. “A filter was then applied to slightly blur the luminance of the shot while keeping the color component sharp. This represents a pretty broad generalization of the process and techniques, as each shot was dealt with individually to optimize the effect and to keep the look understated. Of course, there were shots throughout the film that required unique solutions. For example, in one scene, Leopold slaps Sophie across the face. We animated and auto-tracked a very soft shape onto her cheek, which allowed us to slowly bring up

a flushed color as she recovered from the blow. It’s subtle, but it supports the narrative. A final pass was taken to make sure all of the blacks and highlights were rich and consistent, and to make final color tweaks to assure the entire picture had a cohesive ambience.” During production, the book The Art of the Autochrome steered Pope toward certain lighting decisions. For example, most autochrome landscapes “were taken with the sun over the shoulder and were never really backlit — it’s the forerunner of the early Kodak Box Brownie,” says Pope. He and his collaborators scheduled exteriors with this in mind. “Luckily, we were shooting in spring, so we had quite a low sun. I love some of these exteriors because they are absolutely like that autochrome book.” One favorite is a wide shot of Eisenheim running down a riverbank and plunging into an icy river to reach Sophie; another shows young Eisenheim chasing after her carriage along a main street beneath the casAmerican Cinematographer 55


Conjuring thePast Initially impressed with Eisenheim and his abilities, Leopold (Rufus Sewell) turns confrontational as he senses a rival for Sophie’s affections.

tle walls. In keeping with the look of early cinema, Pope avoided Steadicam shots and wide-angle lenses. He mainly used the S4 primes in the 32mm-150mm range. In the theater, he used an Angenieux 17-80mm Optimo zoom on the camera crane for maximum flexibility. In order to maximize the picture area and record the most information, Pope shot The Illusionist in Super 1.85:1. He notes, “We talked about doing Super 35mm, but the film is set in a theatrical environment, so the proscenium arch was important to capture, as was the audience stacked up vertically in balconies and circles. We would have missed a lot of that or been forced out very wide to get it.” In addition to the autochrome look, other techniques of early cinema occasionally come into play, particularly during the prologue, which is set in 1885. These include the flicker effect of hand-cranked cameras, vignetting, distressed film, and 56 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

iris transitions. During preproduction, Pope tested different ways to create such effects in camera, but the filmmakers ultimately decided to construct them all in post. “I really think that was a wise decision, because without an assembly, how do you know exactly where these effects are needed?” says Pope. “We might have chosen wrong areas to apply it to, the wrong strength of the effect, and so on. Most importantly, it would have taken our eyes off the ball of the main event.” Instead, these effects were achieved in the DI. Scott explains, “Where required — and especially in the first section of the film, which was a semi-flashback and the most complicated look — a very soft and subtle oval vignette that matched the proportions of the aspect ratio was added to bring down the outside of the frame. Sometimes this oval shape was discarded and irregular vignettes were used to take advantage of the particular composition of a shot. The final touch was adding a subtle hand-animated

flicker effect to suggest early cinematography.” During principal photography, Pope’s biggest challenge was filming Eisenheim’s performances on practical locations before a live audience. The production used two historic theaters: an opulent theater in Prague and a more dilapidated one in the rural town of Tabor. Both are still active stages, so filming had to be squeezed in between shows. The production’s very first location was the Prague theater. “It had to be, because it was their only dark week in our entire schedule, and we had exactly five days inside to finish,” recalls Pope. “It was a baptism of fire. “We went straight into illusions on the stage,” he continues. “The very first thing we did was the illusion with the growing orange tree, which was a logistical nightmare.” Based on magic tricks of the period, the illusions were to be achieved in camera as much as possible. “I always wanted the audience to be thinking, ‘How does


Eisenheim do it?’ rather than, ‘How do the filmmakers do it?’” says Burger. In the case of the orange tree, an intricate set of gears pushed out leaves folded within stems, which then bloom. This mechanical process constituted the major part of the illusion, but it was just one part of the puzzle facing Pope. Sweeping camera moves on a Super Technocrane meant the tricks would share the shot with both Eisenheim and his audience, which was a kind of collective character shouting at the stage. The bigger camera moves encompassed all three elements: audience (including principal actors), magician and magic trick. “On the very first day of the shoot, we had our principals on stage and amongst a full theater audience of hundreds,” says Pope. “Very first up was the most challenging shot of the entire film! This was compounded by the fact that a play was just finishing its run, so all we had was the one day to get in the theater and prep the entire interior. The grips and the producers had

sweat pouring off their brows with the thought we wouldn’t make it. The camera was to be placed at the back of stage looking out at the packed theater, while in center-stage foreground, Eisenheim was to step up to the table and begin the illusion. As the orange seed in the pot began to sprout and grow, we were to track in towards it, then circle it 180 degrees, then track back out over the front of stage and then out over the audience, skimming their heads as we pulled right back towards the rear of the theater stalls, while all the time the shrub was to continue to grow into a fully mature orange tree bearing fruit, but now with the camera angle diametrically opposed to where we had started. “The fact that I had never before worked with any of my crew made what was a very ambitious and complicated camera move even trickier,” continues the cinematographer. “We had to deal with how to physically move around Edward Norton without destroying his performance, communicate with a

largely non-English–speaking audience, and deal with the really complicated mechanics and timing of the tree growing. It’s the type of move that could be a serious contender for a heavily rotoscoped CGI effect, but it was mainly achieved in camera, which makes it so much more believable. The credibility of The Illusionist hangs on the very authenticity and believability of its illusions.” Pope decided a Technocrane would enable him to achieve many angles fairly quickly. “I know from experience that theaters are really awkward to work in, and setting all but the simplest of shots can be really time-consuming,” he says. Key grip Robert Kodera deliberated for some time about what was physically possible in such a tight space, and he ultimately decided a 25' SuperTechnocrane was the only option. “Full credit to him, as this decision proved to be spot-on,” says Pope. “The crane hadn’t as long a reach as I wanted but was very short at the back. Our only option was to

Eisenheim demonstrates his showstopping “orange tree illusion.” This complex sequence was shot with a SuperTechnocra ne on the very first day of the shoot at a rented theater. “Because a play was just finishing its run, all we had was the one day to get in the theater and prep the entire interior,” Pope recalls. “The grips and the producers had sweat pouring off their brows with the thought we wouldn’t make it.”

American Cinematographer 57


Conjuring thePast

Pope ponders his camera placement. “My challenge was to make the magic look believable,” he says.

build its track along nearly the entire length of a side aisle, largely to maximize the number of positions we could achieve, but also to keep it out of the shot from onstage. But of course, it was a theater with a steep rake, and the track had to be leveled to stage height. Although we could quickly remove sections of track on stage when necessary, the downside was the real possibility of the bucket knocking against the theater boxes that lined the aisle. But because everything had been measured perfectly, that didn’t happen, and the shot worked.” During the orange-tree illusion, he continues, “we had to fully extend this shortish arm to get the camera across to the center of the stage and auditorium so the symmetry would be maintained. We tracked into and then tightly around the table with the growing plant, sucking the arm first in and then out, while Edward deftly moved out of and then back into the sweeping shot while the camera maintained perfect alignment with the center of the theater.” The shot also incorporated a hidden zoom and a major lighting change. “It was the toughest of calls, but it worked great straight off, and my crew were superb,” enthuses Pope. “I think the success of this first major challenge set the

58 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

tone for the rest of the shoot, which became a hugely enjoyable and rewarding experience.” Pope’s lighting package was based on the rig he’d developed for Topsy-Turvy’s historic theaters, “units that were fast, flexible and omni-directional, because with Mike Leigh I had to be prepared for whatever he was going to hit me with.” Helium balloons, China balls, and practicals were the main sources. “With skirts and systems of chopping the light, I can control [helium lights] like a directional soft light. I’m very specific about how they’re played. It’s something I’ve evolved over the past few years. I use them as specific lighting tools, not as big, general sources of illumination My gaffer in Prague, Vaclav ‘Enzo’ Cermak, was brilliant at taking all this onboard and had everything patched through dimmers and fed back to a lighting desk.” These units were combined with practical footlights, which housed Edison-style bulbs with low color temperatures appropriate to the era. The footlights were designed, built and installed by production designer Ondrej Nekvasil and his art department. “They had reference pictures, and Ondrej had them made by Czech craftsmen, beautifully,” says Pope. No flames

were used in the location. In fact, says Pope,“We weren’t even allowed to strike a match.” But once the production moved to the theater in Tabor, Pope eliminated electrical sources and based his look on flame. “We did the footlights in flame, the units again custom-designed and built by Ondrej, and they rule the whole feel of the theater. We installed gas lighting in the auditorium, and I supplemented that with both real and simulated flames.” This theater is where Eisenheim performs his more seditious tricks: conjuring souls from beyond the grave to make accusations against the prince. For Pope, just as for magicians of the period, smoke and mirrors were instrumental in producing the ghostly apparitions, which were actually a form of hologram. How smoke was used is crudely demonstrated in the film by the chief inspector, who uses a rudimentary movie projector to throw a person’s image onto white smoke. For Eisenheim’s more subtly crafted apparitions, Pope “tested many things, and it was tricky. If you fill an enclosed area with smoke, you can project a moving picture onto it and create a hologram-like effect with a wavering, otherworldly feel. One of theater’s favorite tricks consists of projecting ghostly images onto carefully lit shark’s-tooth theatrical gauze and making them appear and disappear to great effect. This goes right back to Victorian theater. Those magicians extensively used these early holograms in such a sophisticated way that I’m sure they could trick a turn-of-the-century audience. They wouldn’t have so much luck these days, but studying these tricks formed the basis of how we went about creating the apparitions.” Pope’s proudest moment was a mirror illusion done almost entirely in camera. For this trick, Sophie is brought to the stage and shrouded in a hooded cloak. An 8'-


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tall mirror is brought before her. Initially, her reflection is as it should be, but soon its movements no longer mirror hers. A puff of vapor rises and exits the mirror, like the breath of life escaping, and the reflection collapses to the floor. “We discussed this scene endlessly,” says Pope. “At the beginning, we considered using bluescreen and covering the mirror in chroma-key blue, rather than going through the possible nightmare of revealing the entire rig of film lights and film crew in the reflection and also revealing the fact that there was no audience in the upper circles! So I had a swivel mechanism put on the mirror. Then, when we were looking into it, I lit up the audience quite a lot to compensate for the fact that the glass was quite old and I was losing a lot in the reflection. So I was able to control the reflection problems and light levels, and to me it looked perfect.” In the end, bluescreen was limited to just a few of the reflected elements in the middle of the scene. Actual mist was pushed out through a hole in the mirror; it was enhanced digitally only as it began to dissipate. “I had been dreading this scene, but it came together,” says Pope. “My challenge was to make the magic look believable. Doing so much of it in camera definitely makes it more believable, and I’m really pleased with it.” 

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59


Fear and

Fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, shot by Guillermo Navarro, ASC, marries the horrors of war-torn Spain with the surreal visions of an imaginative girl. by John Calhoun Unit photography by Teresa Isasi Additional photos by David Lee 60 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

P

an’s Labyrinth is an R-rated fairy tale, the story of a little girl who seeks refuge from the violence and misery of her life in a fantasy world that turns out to be just as menacing. Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, the film is not quite like anything you’ve seen before, except perhaps Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001), which also imposed supernatural elements on a grim tale


Photos courtesy of Picturehouse and David Lee.

The Pale Man (Doug Jones, opposite page), a creature whose eyes are in its hands, is one of the frightening characters that occupy the fairytale realm in Pan’s Labyrinth. This page: Miserable in her new surroundings, young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) cannot bear the imminent departure of the kindly housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú). This scene, set in Ofelia’s attic bedroom, illustrates the filmmakers’ blend of cool background tones and warm light, a mix that characterizes several settings.

involving historical events. Set in 1944, when scattered Republican rebels were still holding out against Gen. Francisco Franco’s fascist government, Pan’s Labyrinth centers on Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a bookish, 11-year-old girl whose mother has married a brutal Civil Guard captain, Vidal (Sergi López). With her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) bedridden and her stepfather busy hunting down insurgents,

Ofelia sets about exploring the grounds of her new home: a remote mill that has been converted into Vidal’s military headquarters. It doesn’t take her long to uncover the magical features of this environment. Chief among them is the labyrinth out back, where a towering faun (Doug Jones) guards a portal to the underworld. According to the faun, Ofelia just might be a long-lost princess, and before she can be whisked away to her rightful domain and leave the sadness of her earthly life behind, she must prove herself by completing three tasks — and she must do so before the moon is full. “This is a movie that makes a very strong political statement and is also a mirror of how the world is now,” says Guillermo Navarro, ASC, the film’s director of photography. “But by creating parallel narratives of a fantasy world and a reality world,

we could tell a political story without it coming across like a pamphlet. It’s a fairy tale with ultimate consequences, and not the nice fairy-tale ending.” Pan’s Labyrinth is Navarro’s fourth collaboration with Del Toro, and the picture shares themes and visual motifs with their other works, the Spanish productions Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone (see AC Dec. ’01) and the Hollywood comic-book adaptation Hellboy (AC April ’04). Navarro, whose other credits include Jackie Brown, Stuart Little and Spy Kids, says the Spanish projects have been particularly gratifying. “After doing work in Hollywood on other movies and with other directors, working in our original language, in different scenery, brings me back to the original reasons I wanted to make movies, which is basically to tell stories with complete freedom, American Cinematographer 61


Fear and Fantasy

After chalking out a doorway on her bedroom wall, Ofelia steps through it and discovers a mysterious hallway. Small holes in the set’s ceiling facilitated the placement of Source Four Lekos, which were bounced into white or silver cards to send soft light into the corridor. Gaffer David Lee and key grip Rick Stribling then proceeded to hide small lamps throughout the hallway, taping them off until they created an interesting effect.

and to let the visuals really contribute to the telling of the story,” says Navarro. Whatever the filmmaking milieu, Navarro and Del Toro are definitely comfortable on the same visual wavelength: they share a love of darkness and stylized color, and of letting the images carry the narrative burden.“We can see the same movie, and we’ve worked enough together and spent enough time together that we have a shorthand,” says the cinematographer.“I understand his writing process, and he understands my process, so by the time we see the same movie, we can just go execute it. We’re not lost in the set, trying to figure out what to do.” A strong visual concept was especially crucial on Pan’s Labyrinth in order to establish the parallel narratives and then bring them together.“This isn’t really a dialoguebased movie — the images become the grammar of the story,” says Navarro. “So it was important for us to create bridges that would connect the two narratives, and to place the camera in the shoes of Ofelia, our lead character. The audience is learning with her and discovering things

62 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

with her.” As the film progresses, the question of whether what’s happening is real or only in Ofelia’s imagination arises with increasing frequency, and becomes more complicated to answer. In his conceptualizing of Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro cites influences as diverse as Francisco Goya, James Whale, Mario Bava, George Romero, David Cronenberg and fairy-tale illustrator Arthur Rackham. He relies strongly on the sketches that pour out of him as he prepares a film. “Guillermo does little drawings very quickly in a book, and he keeps the book through the shoot,” explains Navarro. “We cannot afford to do them all, of course. They’re guidelines, and we go for the setups we need to tell the story.” The director also compiles a scrapbook of textures to help guide the work of the art and costume departments; on Pan’s Labyrinth, these filled more than 100 pages. According to Del Toro, the key element in the design of Pan’s Labyrinth was color. “I put up a big board to color-code the movie for the three key departments,” he says, referring to Navarro, production

designer Eugenio Caballero and costume designer Lala Huete.“Those were the colors that were allowed. If it wasn’t there, it wouldn’t exist [in the film].” The initial color differentiation between the film’s two worlds was simple: Ofelia’s fantasy world would feature mainly warm colors, primarily “deep crimsons and golden ambers, almost like amniotic fluids,” notes Del Toro. (Indeed, the director’s goal was to suggest a “womblike” environment in some of the fairy-tale sets, a feeling underscored by the use of rounded shapes.) This warmth also infuses the worlds of the rebel fighters in the nearby hills and the friendly housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), who secretly aids the rebels and befriends Ofelia. By contrast, the harsh reality represented by Vidal and his troops is coded in cold hues of blue and green, and many of their environments feature sharp angles. As the story unfolds and the parallel narratives start to, in Navarro’s words, “bridge over and rub together,” the colors begin to mix in quite striking ways.“I decided that we were going to do a contamination process, that one world was going to start infecting the other,” says Del Toro. “As the movie goes on, they combine more and achieve a unity, and Ofelia’s view of the world becomes as real as the fascists’.” By using color as their key, says Navarro, “we found the language we needed to help the audience understand the complexity of the movie.” The concept also kept the filmmakers within a framework that helped offset the film’s modest budget and short prep time. Navarro recalls that extensive testing of film stocks and equipment wasn’t possible before shooting got underway in July 2005. Much of the preproduction time and energy was spent scouting the primary location and creating the setting. “We looked for an open space surrounded by forest,”


Above: Seated at the head of a food-laden table is the Pale Man, a potentially dangerous but long-dormant creature. Below: Although the faun has warned Ofelia not to touch anything on the table, the girl is unable to resist a plump grape — a transgression that causes the Pale Man to spring to life.

recalls Navarro.“We found one location in Navarre, in the north of the country, but we ran into a stubborn guy who wanted to charge us half the budget of the movie to use it, so we had to abandon that. Eventually we found a place that was about an hour outside of Madrid, near Segovia. It was fantastic, because we were able to tie in the big building with the labyrinth and the mountains.” All of the settings were built by the design department and scaled to fit the 1.85:1 format that Del Toro and Navarro favor. “In Hellboy and in this film, we were dealing with characters who were very tall, but in addition to that practical reason, I feel that the sense of space and framing in 1.85 is in more of a human scale,” says Navarro. Most of the sets that connect with the outdoors, such as the kitchen of the house and the storage room where Vidal carries out most of his torture, were built on location. Other interiors, as well as most of the fantasy settings, were created on a soundstage in Madrid. Working with the Madrid

rental house Cherokee Luz, Navarro assembled a Spanish crew that featured many new faces. He recalls, “Pedro Almodóvar was shooting Volver at exactly the same time we were shooting Pan’s Labyrinth, so a lot of the guys I had used on Devil’s Backbone were already busy. I had to

have some ‘blind dates,’ but it actually worked out very well.” The film’s gaffer, David Lee, who has worked with Navarro on a number of projects, says, “It was mostly a younger crew, but they were very good technically and very enthusiastic. In Spain you get your crew

American Cinematographer 63


Fear and Fantasy

Above: In the pozo beneath the labyrinth, the faun (played by Doug Jones, seen here with greenscreenclad legs that will facilitate digital leg removal) explains the tasks Ofelia must carry out. Right: Angered at her lack of progress, the faun visits the girl in her room. The creature’s considerable height gave the filmmakers a practical reason to shoot in standard 1.85:1, but Guillermo Navarro, ASC notes that he also finds the format appealing for its “human scale.”

through the same place that you get your equipment, so Guillermo got in line with an equipment house that offered up a younger, less-set-intheir-ways crew. This was important, because [key grip] Rick Stribling and

64 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

I wanted to use an American grip/electric system, as opposed to the European system they were used to.” The production also benefited from the Spanish film industry’s

tradition of 51⁄2-day weeks. “Saturday is a half day — you finish things up or do a little scene,” explain Navarro. “That was one of the advantages of working in Spain: we bought more days. Also, the dynamic is slower, so we were accomplishing the setups we needed, but they were not big numbers.” The schedule allowed shooting to continue for three months. Along with Lee and Stribling, Navarro arrived in Spain with the Moviecam Compact cameras he owns and uses to shoot all his movies. In addition, he used his own Arri 435ES for some of the film’s visual-effects scenes. The cinematographer used two lines of Zeiss lenses, Ultra Primes and Variable Primes, depending on the setup. Some of the production’s most-used equipment was homemade in Spain, especially a small crane dubbed the puchi, in an appar-


Navarro lines up a shot of Ofelia and her ailing mother (Ariadna Gil).

ently garbled translation of the English command “push in.” Navarro explains, “I first used the puchi on Devil’s Backbone and immediately fell in love with it. It’s a crane that’s handled by one operator and gives you the ability to move the camera very freely. It’s very versatile. You can rest it somewhere, undersling it, or sling it over your arm; you can lay track and move it; you can start very low and go up to the height of a person. It’s one of the most brilliant pieces of equipment I’ve encountered. I actually purchased one and brought it to Los Angeles.” Usually equipped with one of the Variable Primes, the puchi was often operated by Navarro; it was occasionally used side by side with a Steadicam operated by Jaromir Sedina, another of Navarro’s frequent collaborators. Navarro defines the picture’s camera style as “searching.” From the earliest scene, as it follows the flight of a mysterious insect that catches Ofelia’s attention, “the camera is looking and revealing things to you and teaching you, rather than simply presenting things to you,” he says.

“We had very elaborate setups. The camera moves and finds every corner of the set, and it was a very complicated lighting proposition each time. It was also very difficult for the focus puller, and thank God I had a fantastic one, Juan Leiva.” To create fluid transitions — or sometimes just to enhance the constant prowling of the camera — the filmmakers used elements in the frame to motivate wipes. “The camera would go by a tree, or by a black flag that we would put in the shot, and boom, we were in another shot,” says Navarro. The cinematographer used three Kodak film stocks on the picture: Vision 250D 5246, Vision2 500T 5218, and Vision2 200T 5217. The latter emulsion was used for interiors and exteriors that occupied a visual middle ground, either those with a particularly blue palette or those that required day-for-night photography. The filmmakers shot day for night for sequences that take place in the forest at night; this was necessitated by the scope of the shots and the difficulty of lighting the location after dark. Navarro under-

exposed 5217 by 3-4 stops to film these scenes, which take place at a point in the story “where the worlds are crossing each other,” he notes. “You feel in a naturalistic environment of the night, but with certain ingredients that only the sunlight gives you. We were basically collecting light with boards and silver reflectors, so that when the sun hit the greens in the forest, they would pop.” The extremes of color are easy enough to spot in Pan’s Labyrinth. When Vidal’s men greet dinner party guests at the mill during an evening rainstorm, the Steel Blue gel Navarro uses lends the images a forbidding, almost monochromatic sheen. “It’s a blue that has a bit of green to it, so it has a silvery look,” he says. “I dislike the traditional candy-blue nights. This steely blue is colder and doesn’t feel so foreign.” At the other extreme, sequences where Ofelia undergoes her trials in the fairy-tale world, such as one where she must snatch a knife from the dining hall of the faceless Pale Man, have uniform warmth. “Sometimes the color was on the lights and sometimes it was on the American Cinematographer 65


Fear and Fantasy

Above: Ofelia is terrorized by her new stepfather, Capt. Vidal (Sergi López). Below: The captain and his troops investigate a rebel attack on a local train.

camera,” says Navarro.“If I wanted to affect the entire image, I used a chocolate filter on the lens.” But the filmmakers did not adhere to the color guidelines rigidly, even in the picture’s early scenes. Ofelia’s encounters with the faun in the deep well, or pozo, beneath the labyrinth are clearly within the steelblue range, as are the faun’s visits to Ofelia in her attic bedroom. “In the pozo, cooler tones felt more organic to the exterior nights and to the scenes that would connect with it,” says Navarro. In Ofelia’s bedroom, the cold palette contrasts dramati-

66 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

cally with the warmth of the Pale Man’s set, which she enters after drawing a chalk doorway on her bedroom wall. The film’s fantasy environments were particularly challenging to light. “The pozo was basically a cave with a 10- to 12-foot-wide hole at the top, and squeezing enough light to light the entire space through that hole was logistically tricky,” recalls Lee. “We didn’t have a lot of ceiling height, so we couldn’t get very far back from the hole. The only way we could get some distance from it was to do a bounce.” Lee’s crew

surrounded the hole with instruments that shot up into a silver card overhead, which then bounced the light down into the well. “The quality of the light was a bit soft and felt organic,” says the gaffer. “Because it was silver, we could punch through a little bit stronger light here and there, and just sort of paint this big room through that little hole.” In the Pale Man’s intensely warm environment, which is dominated by red tones and a blazing fire, Navarro’s lighting team was faced with similarly limited options. In the corridor Ofelia walks through to reach the dining room, small skylight-like holes were built into the ceiling to allow for sources. Lee recalls, “We brought in something fairly soft from there, just so there would be a little bit of level as she walked through. Rick Stribling and I rigged Source Four Lekos around the holes and bounced them into white or silver cards. Then we had places to plug in small lamps hidden throughout the hallway. We hung 150-watt Linestra tubes on the backsides of the columns and then taped them until they were doing something that didn’t look like we’d just hidden lightbulbs everywhere. Sometimes we put an Arri 150 or 300 on the floor and bounced it into something, but this was rarely possible because the camera moved so much and saw so much. “We didn’t do much fill at all — just enough to lift stuff out of the black,” continues Lee. “We’d do a little piece here, a little piece there, just grabbing what little light there was with a card. Guillermo and I tend to work that way anyway, but the degree to which we’d just let it go was greater on this film.” Indeed, one of the things Del Toro likes about Navarro is that “he’s not afraid of the dark,”says the director, adding, “I’ve always fought for movies to be as black as possible, with figures emerging from the darkness.” Navarro notes, “Darkness


Fear and Fantasy Navarro and his crew had to light the dark pozo set entirely from above, through a 10'-12' hole at the top, and ceiling height onstage was limited. The solution was to surround the opening with lights shooting into a silver card overhead, sending a generous bounce down into the well.

is a very important part of Pan’s Labyrinth, and we didn’t chicken out about it. Many times, the way to keep things dark is not necessarily having very low levels of light. Today’s film stocks are very sensitive, so they can actually see quite a bit more in the dark areas than you would imagine. To keep things dark, you actually have to have highlights at a stop where the film doesn’t have an opportunity to reach in — something where you might think you’re at a T1.4 but are actually at a T3.5. That also avoids milkiness. On this film, the look is pretty contrasty.” Lee says that for most of the shoot, “We were well outside my comfort range — it was throw-yourmeter-away dark! In most interiors and in a lot of the night work, we were playing down in that range where the number you’re getting on the meter bears no correlation to the number on the lens.” On top of that, the production’s only dailies were on high-definition video. “With video dailies, you’re never quite sure what you’re getting, so I just trusted 68 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

Guillermo [Navarro], who would say, ‘That’s fine, it’s enough light.’” The filmmakers’ mixing of color temperatures was equally bold. In the storage room, for example, the only obvious source is daylight; this light is glimpsed through the doorway and appears quite cold, yet the palette inside is warm. “If you look at that set closely, you’ll notice a lot of weird stuff going on colorwise,” says Lee. This was partly because “we would be doing a setup and the light would be one way, and by the time we were done with the setup, the clouds had rolled in and it was a very different feeling.” Meanwhile, the lamps pushing in the windows stayed at a warm color temperature. “Guillermo [Navarro] was aware of the color imbalance and might decide from scene to scene that it was desirable, or at least interesting,” says Lee. “It was a decision both Guillermos made instinctively. If it worked for them, they’d let it go, and they have enough experience to know what they will get in the end.

“Part of what was liberating about the film was that the approaches were fairly simple and straightforward,” continues the gaffer. “I didn’t have a bank of 900 Pars outside a window on a construction crane. When the time came to light the scene where Ofelia crawls into a tunnel and finds a giant frog, the answer was drilling tiny holes [into the set] and putting tiny lights outside them, and trying to pick out little bits here and there. We had a little fiber-optic light on the camera for her face, and that was it. For about 70 percent of the movie, I was somewhere in there with some kind of card just to get a little bit of light in the eyes, a little bit of reflection here or there, a little bit of fill on the face.” One of the few “toys” the production allowed itself was a sausage-shaped lighting balloon, which Navarro’s crew gelled Steel Blue to illuminate the final scene in the labyrinth. “We had to use a balloon because there were so many wide shots and there was no way to


really rig anything in the labyrinth, which was built around trees,” recalls Navarro. “That became a very strong limitation for both lighting and camera.” During this sequence and other overhead shots of the labyrinth, the puchi was retired in favor of a Technocrane to achieve greater height. All of the story’s visual motifs come to a head in the climax, which is heavily filtered in blue but backlit by bright-orange explosions caused by rebel activity nearby. Because there was a record dry spell during the filming, no fire was allowed, so the explosive effects were created using “dirt and cork and a festival of lights on dimmers,” says Navarro. “The units had to be very big. We had [Nine- and Eight-Light] Maxi-Brutes and some instruments that are not necessarily in the catalog.” A digital intermediate (DI), carried out at Deluxe/EFilm in Toronto with colorist Chris Wallace, allowed Navarro to improve continuity in certain outdoor sequences that were too difficult to control on location, and smooth out the day-fornight work. But he notes that the picture’s color extremes were “pretty well decided in camera, and we could see them in the dailies.” Lee’s digital stills of lighting setups served as a reference in the DI, and also “helped the lab that did our processing and dailies [Image Laboratories in Barcelona] understand what we were doing, because they always think you’re making mistakes, and when they try to help you, they screw you up big time,” says Navarro. About 300 shots in the picture involve digital effects created by CafeFX, Inc., but the bulk of the effects were created in camera under the supervision of David Marti and DDT FX in Spain. Animatronic puppets included the giant frog Ofelia must confront, numerous insects, and a fetus-like root that Ofelia places under her mother’s bed to help drive her illness away. The

larger creatures were a combination of puppetry, special makeup and digital enhancements. “For the faun, the blinking of the eyes and the movement of those awkward animal legs were digital, so they were greenscreened, but otherwise, the mechanisms and servomotors were hidden in the horns or in other prosthetic pieces,” explains Navarro. “In general, the visual-effects treatment was very casual, in the sense that we knew what the technical requirements were for each shot, but we didn’t stop everything and say,‘Look out! Here comes a visual effect!’ We tried very hard to integrate effects into the dynamic of the shot.” This attitude toward some rather extraordinary elements in front of his camera is one of the qualities Del Toro appreciates in Navarro. “His images are highprotein, not eye candy,” says Del Toro. “He has a beautiful understanding of the tonalities of light, and the beauty of his light comes from the beauty of everyday life — even if it’s fantasy life.” “We took enormous chances on this movie,” concludes Navarro,

drawing a connection between the lessons Ofelia learns and the concepts governing the creation of Pan’s Labyrinth. “It’s a movie about choices and disobedience. Disobedience puts you at risk, but it’s also what you need; you cannot just follow the rules, you need to take chances. We adopted that as our rule. I did things on this film that I’ve never done before, and that in another context would have been interpreted as wrong, and I feel it’s one of the best movies I’ve done.” 

Key grip Rick Stribling lines up the puchi for a shot in Ofelia’s bedroom. Visible on the wall behind him is the chalked-in doorway that leads to the Pale Man’s room.

TECHNICAL SPECS 1.85:1 Moviecam Compact; Arri 435ES Zeiss Master Primes, Variable Primes Kodak Vision2 200T 5217, 500T 5218; Vision 250D 5246 Digital Intermediate

American Cinematographer 69


Lords of

Illusion

70 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

The Prestige, shot by Wally Pfister, ASC, tells a compelling tale of rival magicians. by Jay Holben Unit photography by Franรงois Duhamel, SMPSP and Stephen Vaughan, SMPSP


Photos courtesy of Touchstone Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures.

C

inematographers often invoke the art of smoke and mirrors, sometimes in a very literal sense, in their visual storytelling. The very science of motion pictures is a kind of cinematic legerdemain, with the director of photography serving as the magician who guides the audience’s eye to a precise area of the frame through the delicate balance of color, light and shadow. Academy and ASC Award nominee Wally Pfister,ASC has been practicing this photographic prestidigitation for more than 20 years. The title of his latest project, The Prestige, refers to the third and final act of an illusionist’s magic trick, when the amazing and impossible is accomplished before the audience’s eyes. Based on the 1995 novel of the same name by Christopher Priest, the film centers on the friendly rivalry between two competing magicians, American Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Englishman Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). Borden seems so adept at accomplishing the impossible that Angier

begins to suspect his rival isn’t using sleight of hand at all, but has somehow harnessed the power of real magic. Naturally, Angier will stop at nothing to discover Borden’s secret. The Prestige reunited Pfister with director Christopher Nolan, for whom he shot Memento (see AC April ’01), Insomnia (May ’02) and Batman Begins (AC June ’05). Prior

to embarking on their latest venture, Nolan told Pfister he wanted to shoot “down and dirty,” simplifying the physical requirements of the filmmaking process. “When Chris came to me with this project, he was really itching to do something much more grounded, much simpler in terms of our approach,” says Pfister. “Batman Begins required a very

Opposite: American magician Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) makes a dramatic entrance in The Prestige. Magical apparatuses and mechanical effects play a large role in the film, which is set in London during the early 1900s. This page, top: Angier takes a bow during a scene that cinematographer Wally Pfister, ASC says “was lit by overhead lighting to feel like a daytime rehearsal.” Bottom: The friendly rivalry between Angier and English magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale, left) becomes a bitter feud.

American Cinematographer 71


Lords of Illusion Right: One of the few indoor sets for the film was an understage area built at Downey Studios. The set included trap doors and a practical elevator. In this scene, Angier steals a moment alone with magician’s assistant Olivia Wendscome (Scarlett Johannson). Below: Candlelight created the warm fill light for this restaurant scene, which was shot in the former Herald Examiner newspaper building in downtown Los Angeles.

complicated strategy to deal with the visual effects, practical effects and grand scope. For The Prestige, Chris wanted to take an approach that involved less waiting-around time. He likes to go, go, go, and he asked me if we could work in a more organic style and move really fast. Right off the bat we talked about how much lighting we would need

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to do. Could we take a Barry Lyndon-like approach and light practically with real candles? Nothing would make Chris happier than if we could light a scene with only candles, so I started down that path to see what was possible.” Pfister began experimenting to see how far he could push modern film stocks. One weekend, he

borrowed a camera from Panavision and took it Nolan’s house. “We had some dinner, and then Chris, Emma [Thomas, Nolan’s wife and the film’s co-producer] and I shot some footage in nothing but candlelight. I brought some [Kodak Vision2 500T] 5218 and broke off a number of rolls, designating them for 1-stop, 2-stop and 3-stop force-processing. Three stops was kind of crazy, but Chris and I wanted to see just where the film would go and how much it would fall apart. Well, it fell apart completely — at 3 stops it was just a mess. Even at 2 stops, the stock was really quite milky, but surprisingly, we did get an image. Later on, as we continued testing, I rejected the possibility of pushing 2 stops because the result was too milky and grainy for me. Fortunately, I was able to talk Chris out of gaining light that way. I explained to him that it would be more difficult to clean up later on, and it wouldn’t save us any money.” Pfister and Nolan also put together a list of films to screen at Warner Bros. each week during prep. Along with producers Thomas and


Left: The movie’s magicshow scenes gave Pfister an opportunity to mix footlights (fitted with gas lamps) with spotlights (HMI Lekos) in the various theaters used by the production. Below: Most of the film’s London settings were shot in practical locations like this attic space, which served as an apartment.

Aaron Ryder, production designer Nathan Crowley, and “anyone else who wanted to join, we had these movie parties and said, ‘Let’s watch this, it might apply,’” Pfister recalls. “They weren’t movies we were trying to copy or emulate, per se; the ones we chose were just successful visual movies. Barry Lyndon [AC March ’76] was probably the closest, visually, to our concept. It was an interesting education.” After his research and testing, Pfister settled on shooting most of the film on 5218, and some scenes on Vision2 250D 5205. “I’ve used 5205 a lot on commercials, and it tends to be a little too low-contrast for me, so I push it a stop and rate it at 400 ISO. I also pushed the 5218 a stop for a lot of the film, rating it at 800 ISO. I found that 5218 pushed one stop is really good in terms of grain; the 18 adds color and contrast where I like it, but it does tend to block up in the mid-range quite a bit. I tried not to push it as often as we could get away with it, especially if we were shooting at one of the stages where the magicians perform,

because I knew we’d have to light there. Why push when we have to light already? I saved the pushing for when we were shooting almost entirely with practicals, when we really needed the extra stop.” In addition to squeezing sensitivity out of the emulsion, Pfister turned to Panavision senior technical adviser Dan Sasaki to procure a

set of prototype high-speed anamorphic lenses that open up to T1.4. “There are two ways to get more light: one is through lab manipulation, and the other is by getting faster lenses,” explains Pfister. “Chris and I have done all of our films together in the anamorphic format. We wanted to stick with that approach, but I was concerned

American Cinematographer 73


Lords of Illusion Rather than depending on real oil lamps for practical lighting, Pfister asked gaffer Cory Geryak to rig the show’s lamps with 750-watt globes.

about the speed of the anamorphic lenses in relation to the minimal lighting style we were planning to use. I put the challenge to Dan, he applied himself to the task, and after a couple of months of R&D, he came back to us with some spectacular lenses. He made us 35mm, 40mm, 50mm and 85mm anamorphic lenses that could open up to almost T1.3. They fell apart a bit at that stop, but they looked absolutely beautiful at T2. I was able to shoot quite a bit of the film at T2 or T2.4, which was really amazing.” Sasaki explains, “It’s difficult to work with such a large surface area of the glass and still get great results. A lot of the aberrations that are easily correctable at T2.8 double themselves at T1.4, and it took a lot of massaging to create an image at that stop that we could call ‘Panavision.’ The new high-speed anamorphics are a lot like the E-Series lenses, in that they have a very organic feel. To save some time, we used old E-Series housings and put new glass in them. 74 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

They look a little chopped up and glued back together, but we got some fantastic results. The prime elements are high-speed Zeiss glass with proprietary Panavision anamorphic cylinders.” Pfister doesn’t mind mixing his lenses. As he did on Batman Begins, he used a combination of Cand E-Series anamorphics for The Prestige. “I’m not overly technical about my lens selection,” he confesses. “I want them to have good contrast and match color fairly well, but beyond that I really look for what feels best to me. My 1st AC, Bob Hall, is extremely good at testing and putting together a good set of lenses for me, and I trust him to take care of that. What was really amazing about having these new lenses made, and being part of the process, was that I got to tweak them a bit to suit my taste. Dan would show us flare tests and talk about how we could tweak the individual flare properties of each lens. With a few adjustments, he could make the flare bigger,

smaller, harder or softer. It was amazing to have that option presented. In the end, Dan created an astounding set of lenses that are just gorgeous. I think they just may be the most beautiful lenses I’ve ever put light through, especially at a T2, which I haven’t done in years. I’m also very thankful to have an extraordinary 1st AC like Bob, who can pull off the focus at that stop!” The filmmakers strove to find practical locations in and around Los Angeles that could be redressed as turn-of-the-century London. Pfister explains, “Chris and I had both just had kids — our third each — and we all really preferred to stay close to home for this film. Even though the story takes place in London, Nathan [Crowley] was confident we could utilize L.A. for London and stay in town without having to build too much on stages.” The trio scouted the streets and alleyways of downtown Los Angeles, paying particular attention to the area’s historic proscenium theaters.


“A lot of the architecture in downtown L.A. is actually very similar to what you might find in 1906 London: big brick buildings, alleyways, and so forth,” says Pfister. “Chris didn’t want the movie’s period to get in the way of the storytelling, so we decided to break with convention by using a handheld camera throughout the film, which is not often done in movies depicting the turn of the century! That was a lot of fun, because it was a different approach to this type of material.” Knowing that the project would involve significant handheld work, Pfister chose the Panaflex Millennium XL2 as his main camera. “I made the decision to operate myself, primarily because of the shooting style we had in mind. Not only were we trying to keep the lighting simple, but Chris also wanted to give the actors total freedom of movement. That meant the camera was on my shoulder the whole picture, which allowed us to handle the

entire execution in a very organic way: the actors were free to move around however they wanted, and I followed. We were often showing 180 to 360 degrees in each location. On certain scenes, Chris empowered me to make decisions about where the camera would be at any given moment. It was a very documentary-like style, and I was helped considerably by the years I’d spent shooting docs and working in cutting rooms. Chris never told me who to follow or where to point the camera. Instead, he told me, ‘Go with your gut. If we’re missing pieces, we’ll pick them up in the end.’ That’s exactly how we did it, and I think that gives the film a very free spirit. “That kind of shooting can work with an operator, but there can also be a detachment when you bring in a third party,” he continues. “Chris trusts me enough to let me tell the story with the camera. He also prefers simplicity, and having a third person in this kind of rela-

tionship requires more communication and time. Chris isn’t a director who sits back in video village; he’s right beside the camera, which creates a certain intimacy between us and the actors 12 feet away.” Pfister is quick to point out that this working style is not for every production. “I couldn’t have done The Italian Job without an operator as good as Scott Sakamoto. I don’t feel like I always have to operate, and I value the input from a great operator. But in this case, it worked much better that I was the one with the camera on my shoulder. However, we did carry a standby operator, Craig Fikse, who did most of the Steadicam work.” The cinematographer admits that from a physical standpoint, handholding the camera for nearly the entire show was an exhausting challenge. “In the beginning, I really started to fall apart physically; it was like training for a marathon. After about five grueling weeks, I was finally able to keep up with the pace

A Los Angeles warehouse provided the setting for the London workshop where Angier meets with Cutter (Sir Michael Caine, right), the ingenieur who crafts the technology behind the magic tricks.

American Cinematographer 75


Lords of Illusion Right: A painting by English artist John Atkinson Grimshaw inspired Pfister to use a green/yellow color palette in his lighting for the London street sets. Below: Helium balloons containing 8K globes were dimmed to half voltage to create the warm light that bathed the Universal Studios backlot for this street scene.

after sufficiently developing the muscles in my shoulders, upper and lower back. When I really got in trouble, we tried using an Aaton camera, but the anamorphic lenses made it too front-heavy, which created a whole new set of problems. In the end, the Millennium XL2 was the best option; I just had to train on

76 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

the job to keep up with the demanding handheld work Chris was throwing at me.” The handheld style permeates the whole film, and was even used for establishing shots that would typically be captured with cranes or dollies. Nolan and Pfister took a different approach to these wide mas-

ters, keeping them more reserved and not dwelling on the grandeur of the period elements. The cinematographer observes, “You always see period films with big, sweeping shots of London streets that show horse-drawn carriages and people wandering about in period clothes. Those pictures try to sell the idea of the period with big production shots, but we decided to go against the grain; our establishing wide shots are more like a brief peek around a corner. The perspectives are tighter and more voyeuristic.” This approach also dictated that the majority of the film would be shot with a single camera. On the topic of single-camera shooting, Pfister offers, “I know there are a lot of directors who love shooting with two cameras to maximize the coverage quickly. If you do that, though, you always have to compromise something, and it’s not always the lighting. When you’re shooting with two cameras, the actors’ eyelines inevitably suffer. No matter how close you get the cameras together,


one camera is always going to be further off the ideal eyeline at any given moment. Chris and I also agree that unless you’re doing a movie like Mike Figgis’ Time Code [AC April ’00], where simultaneous images are used as a creative tool, only one image is going to be on the screen at any given time, so only one camera is needed to capture it.” An added benefit of the organic, handheld style is that coverage can happen very quickly, often within a single shot. As a result, the crew on The Prestige enjoyed 10hour workdays and finished the film three days ahead of the original 60day schedule, according to Pfister. Inspiration for the film’s lighting style came from an unexpected source. “I was saying goodnight to my son one evening, and on his desk there was a copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which he was reading for school,” recalls the cameraman. “I looked down at the cover and thought, ‘That’s it, exactly! That’s the look I want for the night exteriors of the London streets!’” The book sitting on his son’s desk was a Signet Classic 100th anniversary paperback edition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved Sherlock Holmes tale. Its cover features a painting of turn-of-the-century London by John Atkinson Grimshaw, View of Heath Street by Night. Pfister enthuses, “I loved the soft contrast of it — a little warmth from the glow of the gaslight, but also this great green cast. It was exactly what I had in mind. I also found another painting by Grimshaw called Boar Lane, which was a great inspiration.” Given his combination of high-speed anamorphic lenses and fast film stock, Pfister found that he was lighting less and less over the course of the shoot. “In the end, we only did a couple scenes just with candles. Most of the time, I was augmenting a bit, but honestly it was very little. I found these LitePanels

While Pfister’s general philosophy on the show was to keep lighting setups small, larger rigs were occasionally employed for street scenes. In this example, Maxi-Brutes are bounced into 20'x20' frames of Ultra Bounce to create a soft, overhead light source.

LED fixtures in an ad in American Cinematographer featuring my friend Mauro Fiore [ASC], and those things were great for adding a subtle boost to our candlelight. They were really fantastic.” A prime example of Pfister’s low-tech approach is a sequence shot at a Victorian-era museum in Pasadena that doubled for Borden’s home. Because the museum already offered perfect set dressing and ambience, very little additional work was required to prep the location. Pfister kept things even simpler by lighting with the museum’s existing fixtures. “The scene

involved an argument between Borden and his wife [played by Rebecca Hall],” he explains. “We were using the museum as their living room, and during the location scout, I had noticed this beautiful chandelier. While we were walking through, I stuck my meter out and found that the chandelier was giving me a reading of T2.8. That was even more light than I needed, so I could afford to diffuse it. On the actual shooting day, we came in and shot the wide stuff with the natural chandelier. When we went in tighter, I simply wrapped the fixture in a layer of 251 diffusion, and it created a American Cinematographer 77


Lords of Illusion Right: Nearly 300 practical lightbulbs create a surreal glow for the “Field of Lights” set, located atop Mount Wilson just outside of Los Angeles. Below: An eerie fog engulfs the setting.

beautiful half-key light on the actors’ faces. I wound up shooting that scene at T2.3, and it looked fantastic. “That scene was shot with almost no movie lights at all,” he continues. “There were these great sconce fixtures on the walls in the background that added some wonderful texture, but that was it. I could have put up a movie light to mimic

78 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

the chandelier and get a little more stop, but then I would have had to augment the sconces and add more light to the background. When you start doing that, it suddenly becomes an arms race. Why do it if you don’t have to? “Of course, in a situation like that, the light doesn’t look great from all angles. Only certain angles

are going to look good, so you have to assert more control over where you’re shooting. For that scene, we gave the actors marks, and I only shot from one side. The key is knowing what looks good. That kind of lighting — or not lighting — can easily look like crap without the proper approach. It may sound a bit immodest to say that, but it’s the truth. Quite honestly, I rely on every ounce of my experience to take this kind of approach to a big feature and still have it look right. I used these kinds of low-tech techniques when I was starting out with Roger Corman, but it’s the years of experience since then that have given me the confidence to return to those techniques and carry them off with more quality and style. I feel I’ve reached a point in my career where I can take a major risk and still have the confidence to do a good job. That said, I don’t want to give the impression that we didn’t use any lighting on this film, or that you don’t need to light in general. The scene at the museum was a special circumstance where we could be


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Lords of Illusion

Pfister takes a meter reading before filming a magic-hour scene with Caine, with whom he had previously worked on Batman Begins.

much more clever and organic with our lighting, so we took a very minimalistic approach.” Warming to this subject, Pfister says that his approach to cinematography is greatly influenced by the work of Gordon Willis, ASC. “Willis was never afraid not to use a light. He was never afraid to use practical lights or whatever it took to bring the story to life. Honestly, he’s my absolute hero. Every time I do something, his work is in the back of my mind. Watching his films taught me that cinematographers can serve as partners in the storytelling, but that we should never grandstand or force anything that will work against the story we’re trying to tell.” Providing another example of his stripped-down approach to The Prestige, Pfister cites a scene set in the workshop of Cutter (Michael Caine), who serves as Angier’s ingenieur, the craftsman who creates the technology behind the magic. Cutter’s shop is a large, loftlike space with a big picture window. Pfister decided to work the short scene — a dialogue between the two characters — entirely in natural daylight with no additional augmentation. For scenes where lighting was required, Pfister allowed the film’s

80 Special Digital Edition: February 2007

era to dictate his choices. In London in 1905, electrical power was just beginning to replace gas- and firelight, so the cinematographer could pick and choose from these three sources, depending on the environments of various scenes. While shooting on the upscale theatrical stages where the magicians perform, he turned to electric light fixtures. Source Four ERS fixtures with 2K backs simulated “limelight” theatrical spotlights, while tungsten balloons provided a soft, overall ambience. Scenes involving gaslight fixtures were illuminated with a combination of actual firelight and electrical fixtures, simple gas lamps with glass chimneys. To simulate the effect of handheld lanterns, Pfister and gaffer Cory Geryak rigged up some “super lanterns” for the actors to work with, incorporating 750watt tungsten globes that were powered through AC cables hidden in the actors’ clothes. Another fixture that was created specifically for the film was the “EB” or “Easy-Bake” light, named for the intense heat it generated. Geryak strung 1K globes together in groups of three or five, mounting them in softbox housings created with pieces of material from fire-

men’s turnout coats that had been riveted together. The faces of these fixtures were covered with the diffusion of choice, and the small units could be placed in corners or easily hidden. “The EB fixtures created a great throw that would reach all the way across a room and give me a decent stop,” says Pfister.“I was usually using Light Grid on them. They ranged in size from 1-by-2 feet to 5 feet long in a big, soft snoot. I must share credit with my exceptional key grip, Ray Garcia, who always had his eyes and ears sharply focused on the set, and whose contribution to the film is evident.” Addressing the film’s post phase, Pfister notes that “the prints were skillfully timed, in a completely photochemical process, by David Orr at Technicolor in North Hollywood, and the results reflect exactly what we had been hoping to achieve way back in our earliest conversations about how to tell this story.” Reflecting upon his overall experience with The Prestige, Pfister enthuses, “Our working style on this film was an incredibly liberating experience for me. I really enjoyed not being fussy with the lighting, letting things go raw at times, and sometimes not lighting at all. I could really feel the shackles being unlocked. It was an exciting approach and a great way to work. I’m very grateful that Chris took me to that place, and I’m extremely proud of the results.” 

TECHNICAL SPECS Anamorphic 2.40:1 Panaflex Millennium XL2 C- and E-Series lenses Kodak Vision2 500T 5218, 250D 5205


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American cinematographer february 2007  
American cinematographer february 2007  
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