Lensers expound on methods, aesthetic
John Bailey has compiled more than 40 feature credits, ranging from “Groundhog Day” to “The Big Chill” to the forthcoming “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” Even he was surprised by the reception of “The Anniversary Party,” a 2001 collaboration with Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh that was shot with a PAL digital video camera in 19 days.
“I’d seen a lot of digital video features. I was very curious to see for myself — applying the technique that I would bring to a traditional movie — whether I could incorporate some of the digital video Dogma techniques, while still rendering a polished, Hollywood look,” says the Montana-born d.p. “I had heard people extol DV and as kind of a corollary to that, and say that film was dead. (But) I wanted to see if you really can make it look as good as possible and how DV stacked up next to film.
“The end result took enormous expenditure of time and effort, but given a proper amount of attention, it looked much better than I had expected. It made me feel very comfortable about using it for certain kinds of projects, but it also reinforced my own sense that celluloid is not dead.
“The most frustrating aspect of it was the loss of detail in highlight areas, especially on the human face. What we would think of as normal highlights in film would burn out in video. Overall, ‘The Anniversary Party’ was an opportunity to execute some notions and ideas I had about what it might be like to work in the video realm, and to reaffirm that film is alive and well.”
In only his fourth feature, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, along with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, managed to work magic on the City of Light, giving Paris — a place already laden with romantic associations — an uncommonly storybook quality on “Amelie.”
“I made a fake Paris, a really nice place, like in musicals,” director Jeunet says of his collaboration with Delbonnel.
“We knew we wanted to have an explosion of color for everything,” he adds, knowing that they planned to correct and enhance the color digitally after filming — even turning cloudy Paris skies blue.
The gorgeous color scheme was inspired by an artist living in Jeunet’s Paris neighborhood of Montmartre, Brazilian painter Machado, particularly his palette of reds, browns, golds and greens.
“Basically, what we wanted was a gold-green look with a lot of red,” says Delbonnel. This palette dictated everything “from production design to costume design to makeup … even the fabric we used in the wall in the apartment.”
“I decided that I wanted to use filters on the camera just to go as far as I could to achieve this look. I used mostly an antique Suede filter, which is really yellow, on the interior shots, because I was using a tungsten-balanced film, Kodak 5277/320. For the exterior shots, I was using daylight film (Kodak 5246/250) and I chose a coral filter to match the two different kind of films.”
Achieving “Amelie’s” impossibly rich hues and picture-perfect Paris wouldn’t have been possible before the digital process, Jeunet explains. “Before, with the chemical process, you had some limits. For example, with the ‘City of Lost Children,’ it was very difficult to get the red and the green in the same frame. And now with the digital process, you can get everything you want. It’s amazing, because you can fix just one small part of the frame or you can make a moving matte.”
Enthuses Delbonnel, “The object was to have this kind of fairy-tale look like you have in a book for children. We were really, really thrilled with the end result.”
For “Ali” — which chronicles a decade in the life of the heavyweight champion’s career from his TKO of Sonny Liston to the famous “rumble in the jungle” with George Foreman in Africa — Michael Mann chose Emmanuel Lubezki to literally step in the ring to get up close and personal with the Ali legend.
“‘Ali’ was a nice change from fantasy-based material like ‘Sleepy Hollow,'” says Lubezki about his work with Tim Burton vs the docu-reality of “Ali.” “It required framing and lighting as close to reality as possible. This is not a documentary, but it has to feel very naturalistic, so that the scenes surrounding the famous moments feel real.
“We wanted the movie to feel very immediate, to make the audience feel the excitement and energy as if the events were happening for the first time. That meant no black-and-white, no sentimental brown filtering, or anything like that. Ninety-nine percent of the camerawork consists of either handheld or Steadicam shots to achieve the flexibility, quickness and spontaneity Michael wanted.
“A good example is the dual-lipstick camera technique that we developed with Mike McAlister at Cinesite Hollywood. We were looking for ways to bring the audience into the ring. McAlister suggested using two PAL cameras side by side and digitally stitching the images together down the middle.”
Digital color correction, as well as the kinetic movement in those shots, helped blend the images. “When Michael Mann saw it, he loved it,” says Lubezki, whose previous credits include “Great Expectations,” “A Little Princess” and “Reality Bites.”
Don McAlpine, who has been photographing features since 1972, had previously collaborated with “Moulin Rouge” director Baz Luhrmann on the stylish “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.”
“I had a lot of personal satisfaction from ‘Romeo + Juliet,’ so when Baz asked me to do his next film, I jumped at the chance,” says the Aussie d.p. “I worked on the project for a year prior to shooting, doing film tests, actors’ tests, working out the costumes, everything. It was fun, like taking an intellectual holiday.
“I basically became brainwashed into the concepts of Baz and production designer Catherine Martin. We developed digital stills to use for inspiration, and through research, we worked out our own visual language for the film — a very stylized, heightened reality. During the shoot we used the Kodak Preview System offered by Panavision for verification of the style and to enhance communication.”
“Moulin Rouge” is also unusual in that every shot except for one background was done on studio soundstages. “That gives you an absolute degree of control. And I think that a stylized film like ‘Moulin Rouge’ needs that. Without that control, you just couldn’t put that stamp of style on it.
“(For a tango sequence, set to the Police’s ‘Roxanne’), we used four follow spots, even though they didn’t have that technology in 1899. We kept the dancers in three-quarter backlight, partially silhouetted. The actual shooting of that scene was a great buzz — a wonderful experience. In that way it was emblematic of the entire project.”
McAlpine’s work can next be seen in the upcoming “The Time Machine.”
Two-time Oscar-winning d.p. John Toll (“Legends of the Fall,” “Braveheart”) first teamed with writer-director Cameron Crowe on the helmer’s semi autobiographical “Almost Famous” before facing the challenge of remaking Alejandro Amenabar’s “Abre los ojos” into “Vanilla Sky.”
“We spent quite a bit of time discussing the script and exploring ideas for a visual style for the film,” says Toll. “I felt the challenge was always to find the right visual tone for the various levels of reality that Tom Cruise’s character, David Ames, finds himself in as the story progresses.
“The story is essentially reality-based, but moves in and out of dreamlike states. Since the story is told from David’s perspective, we wanted a visual style that would suggest a change in his perception as it drifts from reality to dreams to nightmares.
“For example, the film begins by portraying David as a rich playboy. It feels like a New York-based semiserious romantic drama, with soft, warm, comfortable lighting in a wealthy setting. Then there’s a flash cut to him in a psychiatric prison. They’re talking about a murder. Photographically, the style has completely changed. It’s a harsh environment, the palette has changed to cool cyan tones and the images are very contrasty. David is played in shadow, trying to hide his face from his interrogator. An element of mystery is established.
“The juxtaposition of these two completely different worlds is one example of how we used lighting, color, camera movement, and composition to subtly delineate David’s state of mind and enhance the storytelling.”