Wild Card

This was my second film with Director Simon West and he is fantastic to work with. Like many of the British Directors I’ve shot for (and a few high-end Americans) he talks only just enough about what he wants to put the thought out there… Then expects you to understand his direction and pursue that and expand upon it appropriately. Quite the presumption by the man who speaks proper English communicating to a California native who speaks the Southern California dialect of American. And Simon is quite the wordsmith and chooses his words carefully. I enjoy his ideas as he’s fantastic at planting seeds and then actually making me think I thought of this brilliant thing. Until I think back later and see that Simon was pulling the strings the entire time. It’s a very fun way to work as the director and cinematographer stay engaged through the entire production. This film starred Jason Statham in a William Goldman written script originally entitled HEAT. There was a Burt Reynolds version of this picture made around 1980 that had been re-written to death. Jason had bought the original script that Goldman had written and intended to make that film with no changes. They only changed some small things to bring it up to date and added a brawl or two, but I’d say 80% of this film is the untouched Goldman script. It was great to see Jason carry a film with his acting abilities as I have always loved his performance as an actor… even when he is engaged in one of his famous action movies. Here he plays a gambling addict living in Naked City (the blue collar working neighborhood in Vegas where all the showgirls, hookers and hotel workers lived). The main character’s goal is to win his way out of Vegas so he can leave that life behind. What can go wrong with that plan?

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Director Simon West is very much a film guy. The first movie I shot with him was on film and we were gearing up this production to be shot on film as well. Until we hit a snag. The lab gave me a ring about 3 weeks prior to shooting and said they would likely be shutting down somewhere around the halfway point of our schedule. I thought this was a practical joke, but sadly they were serious. Our Producers were uncomfortable with shipping film and had not the budget for that anyway, so we made the decision to change over to digital. This did not sit well with Simon who had not done a digital picture. He told me, “Use whatever camera you want… Develop your techniques… But I better not be able to tell it’s digital…. It needs to look like film. Starting with anamorphic lenses.” Ok, that said I went and started studying the Alexa 4:3 which was fairly new at the time. It looked promising until I received a summons into Simon’s office one day. He showed me a clip from a film he was researching, for art direction purposes, that was shot in digital format. “Shelly, this scene is lit extremely well, composed well, the location and art direction are spot-on. Why don’t I like it?” My take was that it was too clean. It didn’t have the kind of texture and depth within the image that film layers help to create. So, I worked for weeks with dailies colorist Bradley Greer at Kyoto Color in New Orleans, and developed grain layers, curves and diffusion techniques… Both in the camera and in the color bay, that would work together to form one whole image and recipe for this film. Simon never complained when he saw the dailies as I was baking-in all this technique into the Avid media to he could feel good about his film as he cut it.

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This film had a plethora of different styles… Including three fight scenes, each with a different style. One highly designed and choreographed to show the main character’s resourcefulness… One in a casino that shows his fantastic martial arts prowess in the Cory Yun style… And one very visceral and violent fight. In addition, there was the dramatic story and gambling montages that played up his addictions. Unusual angles in the casino set built in New Orleans were used to stay in his head during these moments. I felt strongly that the use of multiple cameras would convolute the dramatic story and pitched to Simon we shoot all but our action as a single camera unit. He wasn’t against the idea but didn’t know if Jason would actually prefer the use of two cameras for his scenes. He said that if I talked to Jason and he agreed, that Simon would be fine with it. A few days later (and pardon me if this gets a little crass), I’m standing in the men’s room at the urinal and in walks Jason who stands at the urinal near mine. “Shelly, Simon said you wanted to talk to me about something?” I thought to myself, Really? Am I going to pitch this single camera idea in the men’s room? So, I just started pitching while we both stood there. I got about halfway through my idea and Jason interrupted me, “Shelly, are you saying you want to shoot all my dialogue with one camera? A single camera?… Because if so, I love the idea of acting to only one camera. I don’t like performing for multiple lenses for dramatic scenes. Sold.” I can safely say that was the most productive men’s room meeting I’ve had in my career.

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We shot the majority of this Las Vegas based story in New Orleans… Including our Golden Gate Casino interiors. We scouted the actual Golden Gate Casino on Fremont Street in Vegas and it was amazing, but quite limited in terms of availability for film production. Our Designer, Greg Berry, proposed building the Casino as a set but ran into a speed bump when he ran the costs on the hundreds if slot machine rentals he would need. Those rentals racked into the hundreds of thousands… Amazingly. Greg then came up with a brilliant solution. In the Harrah’s Casino in downtown New Orleans, they have a very large storage floor immediately above their large Casino. It so happens this floor is full of their hundreds of stored slot machines that were all locked and under government regulation. Greg proposed building a set where the machines were stored, arrange them as needed according to his set design, then build a locking fence around the set itself, thus continuing to keep the machines in their guarded and regulated placement according to state law. It was a brilliant solution since the machines were included with location fee and the savings of machine rentals paid for most of the actual set. Greg is a very good designer and was very helpful in collaborating with me on practical placements since much if the set was to be practically lit from those sources. The place looked so good that when we returned to Las Vegas to shoot our exteriors, we were reminded just how authentic Greg’s set was. I wish I could say the bar served real martinis… But then I suppose they would have had to lock me onto the set along with the slot machines… In compliance with state regulation.

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I think Jason may have used my reaction to the fact our film lab was closing (thus dictating our choice to shoot digital on this project) as inspiration for this shot. Our digital path lead is to a happy place and I’m happy we were able to crack that and give Simon a film he can be proud of. This small apartment set was also but on our Harrah’s Casino storage-floor “stage”. Our crew on this film consisted of a lot of familiar faces from many films I’ve done in the south. Gaffer Bob Bates, first AC Michael Charbonnet, key grip Danny Brazen and rigging keys Wells Smith and Vic Keatly. I also had a regular Steadicam/A Camera operator from LA, Greg Smith. I like Greg because he has a real eye for a frame. He understands composition and frequently impresses me with his offers of alternating frames he may discover.

 

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters – Chariot of Damnation

Based on the popular book series, the film stories follow Percy Jackson (played by Logan Lerman) on his various quests and his wanting to understand and reunite with his father. We really ran poor Logan through the paces on this one and he never once complained. We dragged him, hung him from wires, ran him through fire and here, stretched him between two halves of a speeding taxi driven by a maniacal threesome that share a single eyeball. Obviously, a fantasy based story which opened up the possibility for great visuals. In fact, I would have loved to have gone a bit further and more dramatic with this film, but the studio needed to consider the age of their young audience and wanted a look that more favored the fantasy component and less the dramatic themes. Totally understandable when making a film of this nature for a large studio. The movie was Directed by Thor Fruedenthal. I had a great Vancouver crew including Gaffer Drew Davidson, Key Grip John Westerlaken, operator Peter Wilke and First AC Taylor Matheson. These guys helped me to no end and really keyed-in to what we were doing and made my life extremely easy with regard to camera, lighting and grip. All very creative guys with great work ethics. Here is Logan Lerman on his way to the chiropractor.

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We separated two halves of a stationary taxi against green screen and married that with speeding back plates shot by Roger Vernon. The taxi sequence is involved, had a lot of dialogue and a sweeping sort of back-lashing camera movement. We also had fast moving lighting affects with a 360 array of mirrors that surrounded the car to add reference to the fact that the taxi was moving at a fictional hyper-speed. We used cabs cut-away in various forms to accommodate our fast sweeping cameras and gimbal that tended to toss the actors not unlike socks in a dryer.

Lumen – Night Forest

Another big pilot on Pilot Day. This was my 5th collaboration with Joe Johnston and I very much enjoy shooting movies for him. We had a high-pressure start on my first film with him and I remember the day vividly when I found his funny bone and made him laugh… Somewhere around the third week of Jurassic Park 3. It’s funny because on those films you’re faced with situations where your choice is to laugh or cry… And once we could laugh together (much at my expense, granted) we had access to see solutions. Now it seems no matter what we are faced with, we understand at least one of us will work up a good plan… If not both of us. Lumen was a large pilot for DreamWorks that was shot in New Zealand. It’s about a boy who figures a way to access the world of a famous fantasy novel series and helps his family in the process.

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Great New Zealand gaffer Tony Blackwood really worked hard on this project. This location was remote and he had maxi brutes dotting the hillside and his crew worked very hard to get the placements I requested and power to this location. It was a set up that we got a lot of mileage from. In fact, one shot that was cut from the script was a wide shot of our group entering the camp in a remote area. At lunch time (around midnight), Joe Johnston told me he’d love to get that wide shot, and asked if there was some area within Tony’s rig several acres of lit forest that we could cheat that shot into existence. We explored during the lunch break and Joe found this tree that was wonderfully side lit and asked if I could make that work. Tony panned around some backlight and we got this shot rather quickly. Joe is great at finding the graphic element in a location or piece of action. He is art trained and knows his way around a composition and any set design. His vast ILM experience gives him quite the pedigree and he’s very exciting to work with. Tony was able to shake up a few lights that we could see and hide them behind foreground trees. We were able to walk our kids through the shot before we lost them to the child labor laws and we were happy to get the shot so quickly. I owe Tony a beer for this one.

A Family Man

Directed by Mark Williams, this is an exceptionally well written script by Bill Dubuque. The story largely takes place in the competitive world the boiler-room office and a father who is detached from his family must find a way to connect with his son when he’s faced with illness. The son has an interest in Chicago architecture and teaches his father about appreciating the simple beautiful things that are right in front of him. Gerard Butler plays the lead roll and was very excited to star in this very delicately written piece. I always enjoy seeing an actor take a chance and work outside their safety zones. For me, I try to take the camera on a similar journey in these cases… Work outside my safety zone as well and create a united front between the director, actors and myself so that they can feel safe and supported and have some faith that the camera will be there for them when they need it. It must be tough for these actors to challenge themselves like this and I try to constantly monitor what they might be needing so that the crew can help them. In addition, first time director (but quite experienced producer) Mark Williams had an intimate understanding of the material and since the characters all go through massive changes in the telling of the story, was enormously helpful in establishing the faceted arc for the narrative. Personally, I’d swear he’s done 10 films. He’s a natural. Ultimately this film is about understanding people and how the right thing is often not the easiest thing, and I think this same idea is what we strived for in the spirit in the cinematography as well.

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Here’s a short frame for you. The great actor Alfred Molina eavesdrops on a telephone conversation and we wanted to really push his sense of despair, so we decided to push the anamorphic framing a bit. Interestingly, this shot was made on our first day of shooting. I think that when you push a frame like this early in the production process, you almost give the crew permission to think a bit outside the box and it fosters a spirit knowing their own suggestions can be a little more extreme. After we made this shot, I noticed Operator Michael Carella really click-in and search for opportunities where his framing would add layers to the storytelling. First AC Barrett Axford did similar things with his expressive focus-pulling that followed the meaning of the dialogue… And not necessarily the words. A film set is busy and distracting and it’s wonderful to have crew that thinks about story. In addition, our gaffer, Mike Hall and key grip Rico Emmerson were constantly finding creative solutions to technical challenges. Often when hiring a crew on location, I consider the personalities and group dynamic and try very hard to pair the right personalities with the specific project. So much of this is a gut call, since I’m often the stranger in these cases and know nothing of these people. I was very happy with how hard this crew worked on this project and helped Mark and Gerard through the process of making this film.

Category 5 – Night for Day

I like working with Directors that demand a lot from their DP’s. Rob Cohen is that type. Always looking for something innovative… be it a technical operation or artistic endeavor. He’ll usually challenge himself to shoot his films with techniques that have not been done before. On our first meetings, we discussed a few unusual ideas that fall into this category. One was the use of night-for-day photography (yes you read that right) for our moody storm scenes. Since our entire film takes place during daylight hours in the middle of a giant hurricane, we had discussed the idea of shooting the entire movie night-for-day… but discarded that plan as unreasonable given our indie “little-big-film” budget. There was one sequence where the storm turns to its fever pitch in a series of scenes on our small-town-America main street. Faced with cloudless summer days and no way to block the sun to that scale on a film this size, Rob made the aggressive call to shoot that sequence night-for-day. We only had 4 days to put the lighting together and our resourceful unit production managers worked around the clock to get us the balloons and cranes we needed to execute this effect over a vast space. Plus, all my lighting had to be rigged above Elia Popov’s Category 5 hell-raiser-set-buster 100mph fans and fat goose-rounder rain.

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It was a crowded sky but thankfully Elia and I got along well. The sequence involved actors moving from the street, along rooftops (Toby Kebbell pictured here) and up a 60-foot radio tower. This technique allowed moving water and atmosphere to create about 80% of our finished sky. VFX will have a much easier time finishing these skies than they would have trying to paint out blue skies and inevitable hard shadows. Plus, we got the mood we wanted and put the audience in the middle of a lethal storm, the likes of which few have lived to tell about.

TowerShot on our lighting pre-focus on the Sunday evening preceding our first days shoot on Monday. JemFX SFX cranes and stunt cranes will be added between my three came positions. Lesson learned the hard way: Get there early and claim your airspace!

Our hard-working camera and grip crews and excellent balloon electrics made this sequence what it is. It was wet and uncomfortable but we got footage that could not have been made by any other means.

Allen Daviau, ASC

Please meet one of my key teachers, Allen Daviau, ASC. I met Allen in the late 70’s and he has been a constant presence ever since. He taught me much about the craft of cinematography with his coaching. How to be passionate about cinematography with his persona… And how to strive for artistic excellence with his images. I think we should all take a moment to thank our teachers and think about how we can extend that connection with young cinematographers. He even took a cab to Pasadena to watch one of my student films projected on an apartment wall. In this photo, Allen is paying a visit to the Jurassic Park 3 set on Stage 12 at Universal. A large-scale set lit for both day and night exterior shooting that provided a controlled environment for Stan Winston’s dinosaurs. The film was directed by the great Joe Johnston. Allen helped me enormously after I got offered JP3 and showed me the film Congo, that he shot where he had many stage-bound jungle scenes. He was very candid and honest about pointing out what he thought he did well… And where he felt he needed improvement. One of the true giants of cinematography.

 

The Big Bang

The Big Bang was shot in Spokane, Washington with a largely local crew. Mike Vukas was the gaffer and he worked hard at embracing our unusual visual aspirations. Peter Green was the A Camera operator and Ronnie Dennis was the First AC. We all worked hard… including doing our own rigging during lunch, so that our Director, Tony Krantz, could come away with something he truly authored. On this shot, a red nightclub, I was told that the red gel I had ordered for the windows was too expensive. So, we sent some PA’s to the party supply store in downtown Spokane and they came back with a dozen or so plastic party table cloths that we could apply to the outside of the windows in lieu of the costly gel. It made the UPM happy and sometimes that’s what tips the scales of sanity on a film set. A pretty funny 99 cent solution.

 

The Great Bill Paxton

I’ve only worked once with Bill, and it was not long ago… the pilot for his last project Training Day. We were all excited to work with him as the stories of his professionalism and easy going sense of humor were legendary. He was as humble as can be… fun and treated my crew with such respect and humor… talking to the grips, electricians and camera people between takes. Just a sweet nice guy and magnificently talented. On one of our off-days, I decided to watch Apollo 13, in which Bill played astronaut Fred Haise. Upon Fred getting sick in space and vomiting over the cabin of the Apollo Spacecraft, the other astronauts in the scene radioed that Fred might be skipping his next meal. To which Fred replied (pardon the language); “I’m hungry. I could eat the ass out of a dead Rhinoceros.” I remember falling over laughing when I heard Bill say that line, so when I saw him on the following Monday, I made a point of telling him how great he was in that film and how much I loved that line delivery. Bill said; “I added that line. It wasn’t in the script. Gary Busey gave me that line and said he had been trying to work it into his dialogue for years but never could do it… so he sorta gave the line to me to use, and I was able to work it in there. The problem was, I called Gary that night and told him I used the rhinoceros line and he told me he had since used it himself in a film. That son of a bitch.” Haha. Bill’s story about the line was even funnier than the line. Later that same day, we got a little behind on our day and the Director of the project got a little impatient with the crew and with frustration that his day had gotten slightly away from him, shouted to the crew from the video monitors to hurry up so he could shoot. Because Bill stood with us all day long, he could see that the crew was working hard and that the demands of the day were quite ambitious. So, he elected to lighten the mood by shouting to the crew with a half grin; “Let’s go you sons of bitches! Godammit you guys are all useless… every last one of you! C’mon you bastards!” The crew couldn’t stop laughing and even the Director appreciated Bill’s levity. What a guy. Rest in peace Bill.

 

The Wolfman – Geraldine Chaplin

I’d be remiss if I did not include a frame of Geraldine Chaplin as part of the great experience of shooting this film. She plays a Gypsy wise-elder… or is it fortune telling charlatan? She had a complete and total reverence for the set and filmmaking process. It was hard not to think that her father had engrained this appreciation into her upbringing. She had long passages if dialogue and was serious about her work and as kind as can be to the crew and the camera. I loved her performance and I loved her eyes! They caught light from almost any angle and this was important for her character. A typical gypsy fortune teller might be perceived with the stereotype as a rip-off artist… But we wanted her words to ring with sincerity. It became clear upon meeting her that this truth was going to come from her eyes and I made every endeavor to make them expressive and pure. Not a difficult task, keeping in mind what I had to work with… But important to have that kind of intent based on the storytelling.

 

Jurassic Park 3 – Jungles

Shot from Jurassic Park 3… Stage 12 jungle set. Director Joe Johnston wanted to have the ability to look any direction at any time without waiting for time consuming re-lights. I spoke to Larry Parker at Mole Richardson and discovered they were about to come out with large MoleBeams with newly engineered Bausch & Lomb mirrors. Larry made me something in the range of 70 of these units to serve as sunlight for our stages. On stage 12, we had 44 units rigged on a motorized overhead rail system so that we could move our lights over the set and change our sun patterns in just a couple of minutes, thus freeing time for Joe to work with his amazing cast from that film. The gaffer was John Sprague, and he worked very hard throughout that project as much of the rigs were on a large scale. Key Grip, Bob Babin created fantastic and amazing rigs for our lights, cameras and sun control on a scale never attempted. A-Camera operator was longtime collaborator, Don Devine and focus puller Mike Martino. I’m thankful to have had such a gifted crew.

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Jurassic Park 3, Stage 12 jungle set. Sam Neil reprised his role as Dr. Alan Grant, and it wouldn’t be a Jurassic film without him. There’s one of our hardworking MoleBeams behind him. One tip that Allen Daviau, ASC gave me as a result of his experiences on the film Congo… “You need atmosphere to create depth but don’t use smoke. Use high pressure water mist so you can place your atmosphere in layers and avoid too much build up.” No truer words were ever spoken. The mist system was brilliant.

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Jungle Visual Reference Image. Director, Joe Johnston gave me this illustration by Paleo Artist Doug Henderson as the best example to create our visual layers on stage. We were able to construct a methodology where we had deepening degrees if light and shadow created into depth within the frame. Ed Verreaux, the incredible Production Designer also contributed by very cleverly designing a jungle consisting of plants with lessening degrees of foliage scale as we shot towards the outer edges of the set in order to mimic depth within our stage confines. Stage 12 at Universal is gargantuan… But seemed to become quite small as our sequences grew.