Eye on the Oscars: The Cinematographer

The horror of a monster tsunami. The terror of being adrift in a lifeboat in the limitless ocean with only a ferocious tiger for company. The pressures facing a 6-year-old girl living in a waterlogged Louisiana town. The overwhelming majesty of the planet’s natural wonders, dwarfing its inhabitants. These images of unbridled nature and, most of all, the elemental, destructive power of water, dominated, respectively, “The Impossible,” “Life of Pi,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Samsara” and their tales of the indomitable human spirit.

Based on one family’s survival of the catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, “The Impossible” presented cinematographer Oscar Fauro with many challenges, the first being to, “make the audience smell the sweat and blood of the hospital and feel the heat of Thailand.” He and director Juan Antonio Bayona ultimately achieved this with “a combination of make-up, rich set dressing and warm color grading to create an oppressive sensation.”

The filmmakers also approached the fact-based story “as documentary,” mixing classic cinema narrative with documentary reality and combining handheld cameras “with more elaborate camera movements, such as emphatic dolly movements.” Creating the actual tsunami, “was one of the most complex scenes, filmed combining actors’ plates taken in Thailand with miniature shooting in Spain six months later.”

Another challenge was matching the lighting direction to multiple camera positions. “We set nine Arri 435 cameras on underwater housings and released 1 million liters of water over the miniature of the bungalows,” he says. To create the flood sequence, Fauro used two camera units and a water tank equipped with underwater rails, “so we were able to move actors, camera operators or objects such as a mattress on the water in a controlled and invisible way.”

For d.p. Claudio Miranda, “Pi’s” story paralleled the sheer difficulty of the three-month shoot in India and Taiwan — with the majority of that time spent in “a specially constructed water tank at an abandoned airport in Taiwan, where we could simulate all the different looks of the ocean, from storms to calm. But it was a full-time job just keeping the camera lenses dry, with all the water being sprayed around,” he says.

Miranda and director Ang Lee did “a lot of research, including taking a trip in a little dinghy in the middle of the ocean — both in daylight and at night, where we studied the ocean phosphorescence” to prepare for the arduous shoot. The d.p. shot the 3D “Pi” with six Arri Alexas mounted on three Cameron Pace rigs. “I’m very proud of the way it looks, but constantly moving those 3D rigs around made it three times more difficult to shoot.”

To capture the watery landscape that permeates director Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” cinematographer Ben Richardson literally immersed himself in the bayous of Louisiana, moving and living there for some five months in an attempt to “capture the look and feeling of this extreme area, where the land literally crumbles into the sea.”

“The big challenge was dealing with the environment and tough conditions — all the heat, insects and humidity,” reports the British d.p.

Because of the indie film’s tight budget, Richardson shot the entire movie with one camera, an Arri 416. “It’s their latest Super 16mm model and we had a minimal package, and the entire shoot was a bit like an endurance marathon,” he says. “Thanks to a great local team of fishermen and people who work on the water all the time, nothing we did was actually unsafe, and I was able to get right down in the mud if necessary.”

Also tackling man’s place in nature, but taking a very different approach, is “Samsara,” the latest dialogue-free documentary from filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson, whose previous award-winning films “Baraka” and “Chronos” similarly used breathtaking imagery and transcendent music.

To capture unique vistas and extreme locations, the team visited 25 countries. Director-cinematographer Fricke shot for 3 1/2 years, “and I could have kept shooting for another two, as I thrive on location,” he says.

He and producer Magidson went to Namibia’s Skeleton Coast to shoot ancient sand dunes and trekked over 12,000 feet in Ladakh, India, to shoot a Buddhist monastery.

But the most dangerous locations of all were the sulfur mines in Indonesia. “We had to shoot in these natural clouds of sulfuric acid, as the miners worked in these deadly conditions,” recalls Fricke. “I was immediately blinded and couldn’t breathe — it was very scary. And those miners deal with that all the time, for just $4 a day.”

Despite the digital revolution, Fricke once again shot on 70mm film, “because when we began this project back in ’06, it was still all 2K,” he says. “There weren’t any 4K cameras back then and the Red was just a prototype. And as the images are the main characters in our films, we needed to make the very best, hi-res images possible, and the best tool is the 65mm camera. You can’t beat it.”

Eye on the Oscars: The Cinematographer
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