For lensers, often the best way to deal with the elements is to embrace them
To this day, Russell Carpenter is less than satisfied with the nighttime shots in “Titanic.”
Originally, the director of photography planned to use three helium balloons, filled with lights, spanning the length of the ship, to give the sky a moonlit quality. But typhoon-like conditions ensued nightly at the Fox studio location in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, tearing and deflating the 8- to 12-foot-wide dirigibles.
Dismayed, Carpenter settled for Musco lights. Typically used in stadiums, the lamps brought out the imperfections in the ship and gave the night exteriors a harder edge. These elements, coupled with a water shoot, impeded “Titanic’s” production. Despite compromising his design, however, Carpenter outsmarted the climate. After all, the cinematography in “Titanic” won Carpenter an Oscar.
Like the U.S. Postal Service, neither rain, sleet nor gloom of night will keep d.p.s from doing their job. Mother Nature can be the cinematographers’ nemesis or inspiration, depending on the result. While none of this year’s Oscar contenders were harmed by South Asian tsunamis or New Orleans hurricanes, weather was a frequent unwelcome guest on the set.
“One used to hear, ‘We’ll take a day off. We’re coming back tomorrow,’ ” says Carpenter. “This use to happen on the older Woody Allen films with Gordon Willis. That’s an era gone by. It’s the sheer economics of films nowadays that prevent that from happening.”
There are several ways to dodge a storm, whether it’s filming in a backup locale, correcting with a post-production digital intermediate or thinking on your feet. For example, on “King Kong,” Andrew Lesnie needed to give New York an ambient, soft light without using textiles due to wind conditions. To achieve this, his gaffer built five upside-down circular hemisphere rigs, dubbed the UFOs, each holding 250 to 400 par cans (stage lights) and suspended from several cranes.
Another way to overcome foul weather is to meet it head on — if the story permits.
If harsh weather was ever appreciated on a production, it was during the shoot of Terrence Malick’s “The New World.” Shot around the original Jamestown settlement in Virginia, as well as in Cornwall, England, the entire shoot survived four hurricanes, a tornado, floods, gale-force winds and a Virginia heat wave.
All of these conditions contributed to Malick’s design for capturing the harsh environment encountered by the natives and settlers.
“The motto of the film was to allow accidents to happen; to capture the slowness of life, the changes of season, the awareness of rivers flowing and the shifting of clouds,” says “World” lenser Emmanuel Lubezki. When Lubezki interviewed for the job, he convinced Malick that the only way to achieve a naturalistic look was to shoot the exteriors without any lights. “Terry’s response was, ‘Are you crazy?'” adds Lubezki.
But hurricanes gave way to gorgeous skies. And the soft light from overcast conditions proved perfect for capturing actors’ faces. If the sun became unbearable, Lubezki would canopy the location. And those British gale-force winds? Malick ventured into Penzance with a camera to capture 8-foot waves. Above all, the least of Lubezki’s worries was matching shots.
“There’s an absolutely incredible shot where big clouds with thunder and lightening are rolling in, and the camera slowly moves into Pocahontas’ face. The frame tells you everything that’s happening inside of her,” recalls Lubezki.
Even the impromptu water snake in a bog, which left an unpleasant sensation swimming around Lubezki’s legs, served as the signature Malick flora-and-fauna moment.
According to Lubezki, full days were never lost on “World,” merely hours.
Rain also pelted the set of Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” in west Texas, creating intense floods that delayed the pic’s wrap by 10 days.
“There was more rain during our 43-day shoot in Texas than the whole area had seen in eight years,” says d.p. Chris Menges. The downpour produced a slew of colorful vegetation, creating a contrast to the brownish desert colors Menges originally shot. While Jones and Menges incorporated reds, blues, yellows and greens into the frame, the flood had washed away a gravel island in the middle of the Rio Grande.
The site, at Santa Elena Canyon, was being used for the scene where rancher Pete Perkins (Jones) ropes border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) around the neck and drags him across the river to Mexico. However, the real Border Patrol forbid the filmmakers from filming beyond the border. Originally, Menges was going to place the camera on the island. Instead, he prepared a long tracking shot so that he could cheat a visual of the two crossing the river. Much to the d.p.’s content, Jones and Pepper illegally crossed the border.
One of the more infamous productions to tolerate a typhoon was Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” which lensed from February 1976 to May 1977 in the Philippines. The storm, which halted production for three days, nearly decimated an army stage where Playboy playmates performed for the troops. It also caused the river to rise, flooding an entire camp and toppling telephone poles.
The pic’s cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, was quick to capture the fallout for its “apocalyptic” look; however, those scenes didn’t make the pic’s original cut. They did resurface in the 2001 “Redux” version, where a rain-drenched sequence shows Benjamin Willard’s (Martin Sheen) brigade landing at a desolate river port, where they exchange fuel for the playmates’ personal services.
“The most important thing during production is that it’s not about the weather, it’s the concept or the visual design of the film,” Storaro says. “In the case of ‘Apocalypse,’ it was one civilization enforcing itself on top of another, which was emphasized by placing artificial light on top of natural light. If you strongly believe in your design, the weather follows you magically.”
A typical headache for cinematographers has been matching shots, especially during a 12-hour workday when the sun shifts from one horizon to the other. Robert Elswit faced this dilemma on “Syriana” when lensing Matt Damon and Amanda Peet at a fountain scene in Geneva.
“Jarhead” d.p. Roger Deakins had to continually move the “Fargo” shoot from the actual setting in North Dakota toward the Canadian border because there was never enough snow.
When the skies turned cloudy on Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor,” Storaro used it to his advantage. In the scene when the Chinese army arrests Pu Yi at his tennis court in the Forbidden City, Storaro had sun. When the crew broke for lunch, extreme overcast ensued. While Bertolucci wanted a sunny shot, Storaro convinced him the overcast would create the quintessential symbolism.
“Yellow was the emperor’s color. When he’s being thrown out of his house, the sun is going to be covered,” explains Storaro.
In subsequent days, Storaro set up a track along the bridge of the palace, so that he could film over the soldiers’ shoulders, ultimately capturing the sun receding into the clouds.
Nowadays, such conundrums in matching can easily be solved with Digital Intermediate, a computerized post-production process that corrects colors, lighting and tones. DI is an alternative process for d.p.’s who previously used photochemical baths and other traditional development techniques to augment their prints.
Cesar Charlone, the d.p. on Fernando Meirelles’ “The Constant Gardener” and “City of God,” is a huge proponent of DI, which is his primary means for accentuating his bleached, colorized style.
“I postpone aesthetic decisions until post-production,” says Charlone. “This takes the stress out of setting up lights and filters on the set.”
Ralph Fiennes’ facial structure is accented by his deep, dark eyes. Rather than lighting the actor from several different angles in a taxi sequence, Charlone simply used a handheld camera to film the actor. In post, the d.p. diffused any dark shadows around Fiennes’ eyes.
“Film is going through a change,” says Charlone, “DI reminds me of the changes sound went through. Sound technicians used to think about the texture of a sound when it was captured. Now they capture technically correct sounds. I think cinematography is capturing technically correct images.”
Carpenter admits the DI process would have made “Titanic” less hectic, especially when it came to matching the blues of the water; however, he has his reservations about the process.
“I’d line up in the camp that you can’t correct an overcast day and match it with a sunny day,” says Carpenter.
Worst-case scenario, a filmmaker can always fool with Mother Nature onscreen.
One of the most notorious cinematic faux pas can be seen in the 1975 pic “Barry Lyndon,” which garnered an Oscar for cinematographer John Alcott. Lyndon is engaged in a fistfight with one of his fellow redcoat soldiers early in the film. As the soldier throws a punch, we see sunny skies above him. As Lyndon counterpunches, the skies are overcast.
“The audience has an extremely short-term memory,” says Carpenter. “You’re allowed certain things.”