When director Danny Boyle and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler set about visually translating the three distinctive acts of Aaron Sorkin’s “Steve Jobs” screenplay, the two artists embraced experimentation, as they have throughout their careers. To convey the idea that the computer pioneer propelled humanity toward the digital age, they decided to shoot each section in an equally distinctive format.
“The three parts feature the same six actors and the same (kind of) incidents — the 40 minutes before a (product) launch,” Boyle explains. “Structurally, that’s very formal and repetitive, and could be very boring.”
For the first act, which takes place in 1984 before the launch of the Macintosh, Boyle and Küchler decided to shoot in 16mm. This section of the story is “quite punkish,” Boyle says. “It’s got a youthful energy and drive. Jobs is maniacally driven as he tries to give birth to a creation story.”
Küchler, who had not worked in the format for many years, appreciated its aesthetic. “You have much more color than on digital, because digital doesn’t have any grain,” he says. “So it’s that painterly quality vs. detail.”
However, on the lighting front, the lower resolution was a liability. Küchler used harsher lighting to amp up the contrast, but also chose period-specific practical lights. “In the corridors, I tried to use fluorescent light and tungsten bulbs,” he says. “If we do that with the lighting, the art department does it with the choices of color, the wardrobe department does it with choices of wardrobe — every element does something little, but they add up to the bigger picture.”
The second act transitions to 35mm photography. That part of the story takes place in 1988, before the launch of the NeXT project, while also featuring flashbacks to Jobs’ dismissal from Apple years before, at the suggestion of friend and boss John Sculley. “It’s elegant and kind of arch storytelling for a very deliberate reason,” Boyle says.
Says Küchler: “Danny always referred to act two as the act of vengeance or revenge. It’s almost like David Lynch meets ‘The Godfather.’ You have these silky colors, and we really embraced red tones.”
The final section leaps forward a decade to 1998, with Jobs reinstated at the company, prepping the launch of the iMac. They shot this portion digitally, with the Arri Alexa camera, to again reference the inner world of the title character. “In act three, Steve Jobs is in control of his environment,” Küchler says. “It was also reflected in the production design; the colors are cleaner. And we tried to stay away from the green of fluorescent lights. It’s meant to be much more whites and blues and grays.”
Adds Boyle: “It’s about the new, infinite future of communication. It’s absolutely pristine simplicity, which is what he believed in for his products. It was his dream. He had arrived there.”
And in order to further distinguish each section, the film was shot in sequence. Each act was thoroughly rehearsed and then filmed before wrapping and moving on to the next piece.
“The interesting thing with Danny is that what happens in front of the camera is what happens behind the camera,” Küchler says. “In front of the camera, Steve Jobs, as a character, is always on the move, never resting. And behind the camera, people had to keep up with Danny Boyle. He’s just bold that way.”