Heightened unreality

Tripping the light fantastic extends beyond the world of make-believe

For a moment, let your mind drift back to the year 1902. You’re in the famous Montreuil studios of the film pioneer Georges Melies, who has just hired you to be the cameraman on the famous fantasy film “Voyage to the Moon.” The former stage sorcerer proudly gives you a tour of the set, showing off the large-scale cannon that will “shoot” a spacecraft to the moon; the man-in-the-moon who will get a poke in the eye with that rocket; and the troupe of acrobats hired to be moon men.

And you have been hired to photograph it all.

Just as you’re rubbing your hands, though, all set to light the trip fantastic, Méliès comes over, puts his arm on your shoulder, looks you straight in the eye, and says with earth-shaking seriousness, “Don’t forget, bubby, keep it real.”

This year, few cinematographers have been confronted with the problem of unreal reality — or is it real unreality? — more than Donald McAlpine, who shot “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

“It was to be a film based on a real world, a world that was part of Earth,” he says of the film’s conceptualization. “Narnia wasn’t so much a mythical place but a place on Earth we probably hadn’t discovered yet. It was supposed to be realistically part of the world we live in. Not fantasy at all.”

Easy to say about a “part of our world” with talking beavers; less easy to realize. For example, the film’s villainess lives in a castle made of ice. Just because the idea of the castle was fantastic, though, doesn’t mean the ice could be so.

“How I was going to shoot this ice was the really big problem,” McAlpine says. “If you light it from the front — and it’s fiberglass molding panels in the shape of ice blocks — it just looks terrible. If you start lighting from the back, all sorts of weird light goes through the set. It took three weeks of experimenting to find the key. I think I actually found it on a Sunday afternoon when we were to shoot there on the Monday. Panic is a great motivator.”

Few cinematographers have found themselves in such an extreme position as David Tattersall, who has led the camera brigade on the most recent “Star Wars” films, including this summer’s “Episode III — Revenge of the Sith.”

Beyond deciphering George Lucas’ complex universe of planets, creatures and otherwordly settings, Tattersall’s biggest challenge was working on a bluescreen set on which the backgrounds — and even some of the action — were not visible. Sometimes he caught a break: When filming a spaceship chase, he could shoot without the constrictions of a previously created background. He could set up his lights any way and let the animators create to its cues later.

But in simpler scenes, when the light had to evoke the mood of the characters — when the light had to “act,” so to speak — there were difficulties. Showing two young lovers backlit by a window wasn’t an easy job.

“Shooting against a bluescreen window, when the light is coming from where the bluescreen is, can be difficult,” he says. “It’s been a few years of us messing around, working on different techniques and different types of light to do that, how to squeeze in enormous light sources just off screen, right on the edge of the frame.

“It has to do with the warmth of the light or the coldness of the light or the intensity. You have to be generally aware of the acting mood in a scene and the intention of the sequence.”

Of course, not every idea for an “alternate” reality calls for the creation of intergalactic warfare, as illustrated by many of the Technicolor collaborations between master d.p. Jack Cardiff and the filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (most notably, “The Red Shoes” and “Black Narcissus”). That saturated color effect — more Maxfield Parrish than Caravaggio — finds its way into “King Kong.”

As cinematographer Andrew Lesnie notes, on the one hand director Peter Jackson’s ideas were fantastical (“Peter’s vision of Skull Island was so wild, primal and permeated with an ancient civilization that no one could think of an existing jungle that matched his ideas”) and on the other completely grounded in nature. As such, the New Zealand filmmakers took advantage of what they called “Windy Wellington,” reputed to have the cleanest air in the world.

“The script makes use of what I’d describe as ‘fragile’ times of day — pre-dawn, dawn, dusk, twilight — to represent certain emotional states,” says Lesnie. “These were extended sequences that were very complex to achieve, dictating all sorts of scheduling, design and lighting approaches so that we could allow Peter the maximum flexibility to find the dramatic truth of each scene in an organic manner.”

Sometimes what’s called for is the slow inflection of reality, as with David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” based on John Wagner and Vince Lock’s graphic novel.

In this case, an almost idyllic vision of small-town America is gradually inflected until it is replaced with a nearly hellish view of survival. For Cronenberg’s frequent collaborator Peter Suschitzky, photographing such an insinuating drama required responding to the creative moment.

It doesn’t hurt, though, when you start off with a fair amount of film history, knowledge that reassures you that your task is — and has been — achievable. In this case, Suschitzky remembered another filmmaker who managed to blend the everyday and the violent into a roiling stew.

“In many ways (the movie) reminded me of a Fritz Lang film, in his American period,” he says. “A character can’t escape his past, his fate. But in no way did I decide to shoot it like a Fritz Lang film.

“Usually I discover how to shoot a movie by being with the actors, seeing the sets, the clothes and the locations, of course, and talking about the subject with the director. But I’m not the sort of director of photography who decides very clearly up front that it’s going to be shot with such-and-such a lens or with a particular filter. I mostly discover a film through my gut.”

Suschitzky disdained any formulations for the opening, small-town scenes (“It does have the atmosphere of an ordinary small town, but none of the slightly kitsch, heightened reality of Norman Rockwell”), but did duplicate the film’s sense of insinuation when he used a filter to alter the colors of the film’s lost-in-hell climax (“I had a red set and I suggested we might want yellow in it just because it seemed, at the last moment, that would be an interesting thing to do”). But flexibility remained his watchword.

Given the nature of “Violence,” Suschitzky at least had the opportunity to shoot his exteriors outside. Getting consistent sunlight turned out to be a problem, but at least it was real sunlight.

In 2005, few if any cinematographers tackled the issue of quotidian and heightened reality so directly as did Andrew Dunn. The cinematographer on Stephen Frears’ “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” Dunn was confronted with a World War II-era backstage story that Frears said should be shot as if it were “six feet off the ground.” So, as Dunn says, “It certainly was a real place, real people in a real time, but it has an unreality about it at the same time.”

London’s old Windmill Theater is at the heart of the film, an establishment that skirted British anti-nudity laws by presenting undressed ladies in “living tableaux” behind backlit gauze. Dunn was able to duplicate these scenes literally, by employing “the old theatrical mechanics.”

In other sequences, Dunn whipped together natural materials to evoke a theatrical set. For example, when the Windmill’s producer discovers a new starlet, she’s emerging from a dunking in a stream. In her drenched clothing, backlit by the headlights of the producer’s car, she both reproduces and transcends the theatricality of the tableaux, bracing the stage’s illusions with cinema’s immediacy.

In discussing the specifics of his work, Dunn veers off into observations that might serve as a manifesto for all the cinematographers who try to graft the real and the unreal into a sustainable hybrid.

“As a cameraman, with the ego side of the human being, there is the need to do something to be noticed,” he admits. “The other side is, of course, if somebody does look for your name in the credits, you haven’t done your job properly because it has to be so much part of the whole that it should go unnoticed — a sort of sleight of hand, a delicate maneuver that contributes to the texture of something without drawing attention to itself.”

(Anthony D’Alessandro contributed to this story.)

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