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Is it real or is it fx?

Cinematographers, vfx crews use digital magic to fool the eye

Blending quality visual effects and live-action motion pictures is a science and an art, with roots that go back to the dawn of cinema and Georges Melies. Today’s cinematographers work very closely with visual effects supervisors to seamlessly marry digital trickery and traditional photography.

“Inception,” director Christopher Nolan’s excursion into the world of conscious dreaming, mixes the latest digital techniques with old-school tricks reminiscent of Fred Astaire and Stanley Kubrick, like rotating sets and wire harnesses to simulate zero gravity. Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister made extensive use of slow motion to depict various levels of dreams within dreams. A range of film formats was used, from 35 mm anamorphic to 65 mm and even VistaVision 8-perf. Photosonics 35 mm and Vision Research Phantom HD cameras were used at extremely high frame rates.

Pfister teamed with visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin to ensure that the world of “Inception” had internal visual consistency.

“Chris’ philosophy was that dreams feel real to us, so the camerawork and lighting should feel naturalistic,” says Pfister. “There are times when we’re inside a dream, and the audience doesn’t know it.

“Paul Franklin has a great eye for color,” says Pfister. “He sees what I see. There’s a very collaborative aspect to what we do. For example, in one composite where buildings collapse into the sea, Paul and his team had done a beautiful effect, but I sensed something wasn’t quite right. I realized that the amount of overexposure the sun was creating on the windows didn’t quite match the overexposure on the whitecaps on the water. I mentioned it, and they addressed it, and it made a world of difference. In another case, we adjusted contrast to help make a miniature fortress feel properly distant.

“That’s what it’s all about — picking each effect apart and asking ‘What, if anything, is making this look less than real?’?” says Pfister. “These are concerns we share. We’re both responsible for every aspect of the visuals entrusted to us, and we have each other’s back.”

In the case of “Alice in Wonderland,” cinematographer Dariusz Wolski says the film was initially conceived as a completely animated CG movie. Director Tim Burton decided that he wanted a real actress for Alice, and the door was opened. In the end, the film consisted mostly of completely CG environments populated by some CG characters along with main characters — Alice, The Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, and others — who were totally or partially real actors shot live action.

“The key to maintaining any kind of control comes from my understanding what the visual effects people do, and their understanding of what camera can do,” says Wolski. “It’s a constant dialog, with no formula or recipe. In spite of all the previsualization and planning, we solve each problem together on a shot-by-shot basis.

“When you work with a creative and visual director like Tim, everything is constantly changing, and that is a good thing,” says Wolski. “Certain elements are planned, but you always leave room for adaptation. All three of us have the right to say, ‘I don’t like this.’ Visual effects take time, because you don’t have an instant result. Also, you want to explore the options, and the options are vast.”

“Alice” features bookend sequences that were shot on film. For the majority of the story that takes place in Wonderland, Wolski shot the live-action elements on a Panavision Genesis digital camera. Certain scenes that required extra resolution were done with the now-defunct Dalsa digital camera.

“The technology is changing so fast,” says Wolski. “On ‘Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides,’ we’re using a completely new generation of tools that is so far beyond what we used on ‘Alice’ just a couple years ago.”

More from Eye on the Oscars: The Cinematography
From pretty pictures to fatal beauty | Filming ‘Hours’ a challenge | Is it real or is it fx? | Sensuality floods frame | ‘Town’s’ unfussy authenticity | Read my lips | Gothic tone asserts itself

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