In Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk” and Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is in a rare position right now: he has two major, spectacle films out in the marketplace that are strong showcases for his work behind the camera. Not only that, but each is a unique application of 3D technology, post-conversion for “The Walk,” native for “The Martian.”
Wolski — nominated by the American Society of Cinematographers for his work on “Crimson Tide” 20 years ago — spoke to Variety about collaborating with two filmmakers who see the process in different ways, matching period detail versus enjoying artistic license and living up to a long tradition of dazzling photography in space movies.
Let’s start with “The Walk.” This is the first time you’ve worked with Robert Zemeckis. It’s a pretty big project to take that first dive on. What was the collaboration like?
Actually it was a fairly small movie. Bob is trying to make films that don’t have huge budgets that imply huge expectations.
That’s a fair point. The effect is so big on screen but the practicality of production, I imagine, was much more manageable.
We tried to do it in a moderate way but put as much on the screen as we could, yeah.
I’m sure pre-visualizing and working with effects teams was a major factor, but what sort of look was Zemeckis going for? What kind of references did you look at?
In general, when you prep a film with any director — and Bob is very old school — you look at a lot of references. You analyze the period. You just look at the photographs and try to imitate as much as possible. We tried to keep it a ’70s period. He did say a little bit about the way French movies were shot, there was a little of that in there, and ’70s New York, we talked about that.
The 3D on this was a post-conversion. But I’m sure that was always going to be the case, so I imagine Zemeckis had some idea of the depth he wanted present in the image.
He had done a few motion-capture films that were 3D, but now he was back into live action. So he was trying to make a 3D movie with all his experience that he got from previous films. He decided that we would do this 2D and dimensionalize it later, and I was totally with him. I’ve done a few native 3D movies and I did one dimensionalized film in the early stages, “Alice in Wonderland,” so there were a lot of pros and cons. But the technology is there. You can absolutely dimensionalize it beautifully, as long as you know that when you are shooting it. You design the shots, and if you really want to have 3D effects straight to your face, from my experience, if you really want to shock people with an object coming toward the screen, it’s better to shoot 2D and then dimensionalize it. Because with a 2D camera, you can put it much closer to the object so that it pops out at your face. With a 3D rig, it’s a little bit limiting because it’s bigger. It can be way more beneficial to shoot in 2D first if you’re playing 3D as an effect, which in the case of “The Walk,” it was.
Moving on to “The Martian,” unlike Zemeckis, you’ve teamed with Ridley Scott a number of times over the years. He’s one of the only major filmmakers consistently shooting 3D natively. How do you like it?
Well, it’s technically quite a debacle, but having done a bunch of them, we have it pretty much down to a science. The reason Ridley wants to shoot 3D is he wants to see it. It’s not 3D as a gimmick, like, “Let’s throw something into the middle of screen so people can jump.” He sees it as an enhancement of his vision and he loves big spectacle, so for him, 3D is an enhancement of that. But he’s not going to dwell on one shot to make it the perfect 3D shot, unlike Bob, who would do that. It’s just two brilliant directors who have completely different approaches to filmmaking.
That had to be very interesting for you, to engage with them on such different levels.
I mean, I love it. For me it’s understanding the whole beast, what it is, and giving my experience to both of them in different ways.
What kind of research did you do to capture a realistic environment on “The Martian?”
We looked at a lot of NASA’s stuff. But the more you look at it the more you realize you can take a license. A lot of the images are digitally enhanced. If you think of the photography being taken from rover on Mars, the quality of the images and by the time they’re transmitted — again, we analyzed it. But [you start thinking] “maybe it looks like this, or maybe it’s the fault of technology,” and on and on and on. So you just create your own. The thing I’m most proud of is we’ve matched the studio work with the exteriors, to the point that I can’t even tell the difference.
There’s obviously a long history of dazzling imagery in space movies, from “2001” to “Gravity.” Did you feel any pressure with that in mind?
Of course. It’s a lot to live up to. “2001” is, of course, a masterpiece. It was done a long time ago and it’s still something everyone tries to live up to. “Gravity” was phenomenal, but it was one person’s story and the whole emphasis was on showing space from earth’s orbit, so you have one environment that you dwell on, in a phenomenal way, with impeccable research and post-production. It’s absolutely beautiful and something no one could ever, ever live up to and repeat. But we had a movie that was on Mars and in NASA and JPL, in China, on the space ship — so it’s a little bit of a different beast. I was in awe of “Gravity” and working with Ridley I said, “How are we going to live up to that?” And he just said, “Look, we’re making a different film.”
And just a few films back you and Ridley were working in space on another project, “Prometheus.” Did you learn anything on that film that you applied here?
Well, that’s sci-fi, and, with that you can do anything. You have a license. This is in the realm of reality. But of course, you always learn from every experience. You learn from the “Pirates” movies. Visually, as a cinematographer, everything you do inspires you. You have candles and then the next movie you have practical LED lights. The laws are the same.