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How ‘Downsizing’ DP Phedon Papamichael, Director Alexander Payne Stayed Intimate With the Actors

Downsizing,” one of the opening night films at the Camerimage film festival, is the fourth collaboration between director Alexander Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. Unlike the other three – “Sideways,” “The Descendants” and “Nebraska” – this new mix of comedy, drama and sci-fi uses plenty of visual effects to tell the story of a future in which many people miniaturize themselves in order to enjoy a better life.

Papamichael, who introduced the film, shot on ARRI Alexa cameras using older Panavision lenses. Here he reveals how he and Payne were able to maintain the director’s signature style even on a large-scale movie.

Alexander Payne is known for actor-focused, intimate films. “Downsizing” is a bigger movie with lots of visual effects. Was that a big change for him?
It was definitely an adjustment for Alexander. When he and I shoot, we don’t really storyboard or do shot lists, we just bring in actors and see how they move around in the space. Alexander gets inspiration from the space itself. On this film we had bigger crews and more people, yet we still were able keep things intimate.

How did you manage that?
With Alexander, I usually operate the camera. He doesn’t set up a video village, and he’s not by a monitor. He’s always right next to the camera. There’s a focus puller, a boom guy, the actors – and Alexander and me. Even on “Downsizing” we maintained that close atmosphere.

I suppose the actors appreciate that.
They really do. When I talk to Bruce Dern, or Dustin Hoffman – all the old timers – they remember the names of all the camera operators they’ve worked with over their careers even more so than the names of the DPs. [DPs who don’t operate the camera] go around the set and do the lighting, but the operator is the first human an actor sees when someone says “cut.” Those are the first eyes they see. We do fewer takes because of that. I met George Clooney when we were doing “The Descendants.” Because of the way we worked on that set he approached me to shoot “The Ides of March,” and then we did “Monuments Men.” As a director, he works in a similar way, without a monitor.

“Downsizing” made far more use of visual effects than previous Alexander Payne movies.
Yes, and [visual effects supervisor James Price] was on hand to explain what will be there, what things will look like. But despite the visual effects element, the bigger budget and more days, we tried to shoot it as much like an Alexander Payne film as possible.

Where did you shoot?
It starts in Omaha, Nebraska, as a regular Alexander Payne movie would, with typical characters. We shot there, then for the Leisureland scenes we went to the Mohave Desert and L.A. And we did stage work in Toronto, and also shot a lot of the film’s big houses in the Toronto suburbs in this bizarre neighborhood where everyone builds their own little Versailles.

What about the housing complex outside the walls of Leisureland where the poor people live?
We really enjoyed designing that. Our production designer was Stefania Cella. We built that on a big stage in Toronto on actual scale up to three levels. The rest was set extensions.

What was it like to shoot people of radically different sizes in a single frame?
We had two concepts: big camera and small camera. When we were with regular-size people and they were interacting with the downsized people, we photographed them with a big camera, an actual camera. When shooting a closeup of a downsized person, we used the depth of field of photographing a small object. It was almost like microphotography.

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