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Lensers aren’t afraid of the dark

Eye on the Oscars: The Cinematographer

Maybe it’s just a reflection of the ongoing global financial meltdown and overall sense of impending disaster, but it was a dark and stormy night indeed in a number of films released in 2011, with the apocalypse looming large in such diverse productions as Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” and David Yates’ “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” while the Big Bang informs Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.”

Writer-director Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone artfully ratcheted up the suspense scene by scene in “Take Shelter” — in which the gathering storm could be construed as either the result of a disintegrating mind or warnings of the real thing — carefully blending real “storm-chaser” footage with CGI by Hydraulx. “We wanted the film to look natural and unfettered with,” says Stone. “Our main goal was to remove as much artifice as possible from the filmmaking process — ironic since ‘Take Shelter’ is chockfull of CGI work.”

To achieve this look, they shot on film, “as celluloid would add honesty to the film and help blend the CGI with the rest of the movie,” according to the d.p.

The only deviation from the plan was in shooting the storm shelter, the film’s set piece. “We wanted it cramped, claustrophobic, and dark,” Stone says. “To achieve this, Jeff instructed our production designer to build the set using dimensions of a real storm shelter. This meant no drop ceilings or flyway walls.”

The mandate forced their hand when it came to shooting and lighting, and is why a fuel-burning Coleman lantern is “the main source of light” in the shelter.

The end of the world is also front and center in “Melancholia,” with its two-part story of a planetary collision prominently featuring the doom-laden transcendent music of Wagner juxtaposed with the restrained visual approach by Danish cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro.

The film’s introductory, dream-like “overture” was “very difficult to envision for me,” says the d.p., “because the shooting of it was like collecting puzzle pieces. … As (the rogue planet) Melancholia approached, we intensified the blue, but kept it bright and austere. We wanted a very clear and crisp apocalypse.”

According to Claro, von Trier wanted “maximum freedom for the actors, which was perfect because we were working on such a beautiful location, which easily could have taken over if we had staged things more.”

Shooting on Alexa and mainly using a 28-76mm zoom “to be as flexible as possible,” the d.p. referenced von Triers’ own back catalog for much of the moody and natural look, which he terms “expressive naturalism.”

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” the climactic final chapter in the decade-long cinematic series, conjures up an equally dark, dangerous and ominous world, thanks to lowering skies and the steady hand of director Yates and his d.p., Eduardo Serra.

“What I loved about the last film is that David pushed me to go dark, which all cinematographers love to do,” Serra says. “And usually you’re fighting with the producers (about the look) but they all wanted it dark and atmospheric, too.”

Serra shot the film on Arri cameras, and notes that while the only “Harry Potter” film to be released in 3D “wasn’t shot in 3D, the conversion to 3D in post made it look even darker than it was.”

Serra also had to contend with a multitude of night shoots and omnipresent visual effects work. “We had so much greenscreen work, in almost every scene,” he says. “But as we shot the last two films back-to-back, it was all very carefully planned out way in advance, and I think we did justice to the last Harry Potter film.”

The wonder and origin of life as opposed to the destruction of the world informs the ambitious, enigmatic “The Tree of Life,” directed by the equally enigmatic and ambitious Malick, and shot by his “New World” d.p. Emmanuel Lubezki. “While we blocked scenes in a more conventional way on ‘New World,’ Terry wanted this to feel more ‘found,’ like a documentary,” says Lubezki, a four-time Oscar nominee, about their visual approach. “And we never used other films as references — it was photos, art pieces and discussing our travels.”

While “Tree” was “carefully scripted, not improvised,” Malick often used index cards, “with various ideas jotted on them,” Lubezki says. “On the day he’d pull one out and go, ‘We don’t have to shoot the script. How can we shoot that feeling of a kid’s memory of being young? How do we capture that and get that emotion into film?’ We’d throw ideas back and forth, and the movie’s style evolved from all that. We’d try to create ‘happy accidents.'”

The d.p., who shot “Tree” on Arri cameras and master primes (“for that crisp, clean look”), says the biggest challenges were making all the scenes “look completely unrehearsed” and dealing with the complex visual effects, “especially for the natural history part of the film.”

Because a considerable amount of the imagery had been culled over time, including some stock footage, continuity was key.

“The (digital intermediate) took many months, as Terry had shot some of the plates 20 years ago,” says Lubezki, “and matching the lighting for the dinosaurs and so on was very difficult. But ultimately we got it the way we wanted.”

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