Philippe Rousselot

Big Fish

How do you film a story that cuts between the imaginative past of a man who spins tall tales about his adventures and the prosaic present?

“(Director) Tim (Burton) mentioned postcards that he’d seen from the ’50s and ’60s or earlier that were hand-painted or in the kind of color processing they used in those days, which wasn’t very good, but it had a charm,” recalls cinematographer Philippe Rousselot recalls of their work on “Big Fish.”

“We decided to try and emulate that look. Sometimes we used weird filters that polarized the color differently, or we varied the way we exposed the film. Then we retouched images digitally in postproduction. It’s like making a cake. You always use flour and sugar, but it’s the recipe of added ingredients that makes it special.

“The digital intermediate process has given us a whole new set of tools, but the basic principles of cinematography remain the same: as long as you’re aware of what light is made of — the colors, the intensity, the contrast. It’s just faster with a computer, and you’ve got much more leeway. You can do a lot of things that you could not do before because you couldn’t touch the contrast when the film was exposed. You could not manipulate colors one by one.”

Key tools: Panavision Panaflex, shot in 1:85. Film stock: Kodak 5218.
Aesthetic: “Tim (Burton) and I decided to do things that were subtle, not as extreme as other films that operate in the realm of fantasy. We wanted to give a desaturation and softness to the image, but we wanted to keep the colors.”
Challenge: “I’m particularly happy with the scene where Ewan McGregor meets the lady in the lake. That was a night scene but I didn’t want to have it too lighted at night, so we decided to do it day-for-night. The luminescence of her naked body was achieved through a combination of lighting and digital enhancement.”
Oscar pedigree: Nominated for “Hope and Glory” (1987), “Henry & June” (1990); won for “A River Runs Through It” (1992).

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