When I first came on to this film, Director, Joe Johnston and Production Designer, Barry Robison were referencing the work of Orientalist painter Jean-Leon Gerome. Largely, his work with eastern subjects and how they related to the portion of our story that took place in Syria. We had a few large-scale encampment scenes that take place in the desert where we wanted to extend this Orientalist influence. These camps are built in layers from the grand and ornate Sheik’s tent, to the more workaday black Bedouin tents, which were numerous. Considering we were shooting on film and in anamorphic format with older E Series lenses, we were limited to how far we could feasibly open those lenses and still expect a certain level of performance. Panavision would sit in on our lens test screenings (which are much more comprehensive than a typical lens test in spherical formats). They would advise and adjust where they felt the lenses were performing best. But lens performance on a focus and resolution chart is very different than photographing for practical scenes. There are contrast, color and distortion intangibles that become visible… Good or bad. Suffice to say, a T4.0 at ASA 400 was as fast as I was willing to go for this film. So now those black Bedouin tents against a black desert sky were looking like a real puzzle. I came up with a plan to silhouette the tents against layers of lit air that would contain drifting smoke from cooking fires. At the top of this frame, you can see the layers of backlit tents that probably extend back 400 feet beyond where Viggo is taking his shot of whiskey. Gaffer Dave Maddux had dozens of 5k skypans set low to backlight the smoke as it drifted up the rows of tents and skypans. We needed that much wattage to register past our four-stop. Funny enough, when the smokers were off, the camp went completely black. It was unnerving. There was literally nothing visible. But when the smokers came on, the rows of tents hiding in the darkness showed themselves and life was good. We augmented with firelight effects near the actors and those elements, when all combined in a single frame, began to look like our Orientalist Gerome paintings. The camp was set up in a circular pattern and Joe could freely face any direction, as Dave had broadcasted something in the area of 80 of these skypans in all directions and featuring every row of tents.
We wanted to give our US scenes a similar type of mood and respect to Gerome as well. Here are the great JK Simmons as Buffalo Bill and the unequaled Viggo Mortensen as Frank Hopkins. An interesting scene on a moving train shot on stage in West LA. In the scene, Frank’s friend and former Chief Eagle Horn beseeches Buffalo Bill to help him save the wild Mustang that roam the Dakotas. The meeting doesn’t end well as Buffalo Bill resorts to grandstand posturing as opposed to any sincere help. In this scene, I would have been tempted to key from the windows and let the train fall off in the interior and play the scene in moving shadowed light. However, much of the Gerome work had a more pronounced key, so I made the decision to abandon naturalism and go for the feel of a more orientalist style. Thus, the formal staging around the table that clearly favors composition… and a key top-source that is brighter than anything to be found in the late 1800’s. To be honest, it feels uncomfortable to part with reality in such a way, but I think it’s important for a cinematographer to previsualize not only the look of a scene, but also that scene’s composition in the larger telling of the story. In many cases, the DP is the only one truly viewing the story on that level while shooting. It’s certainly easier to stick with naturalism and shoot with old lenses… very easy in fact… but I think that the art of previsualization and execution of an authored visual idea is what transports an audience to a new world.