DP Robert Elswit Talks About Shooting Strategies
Cinematographer Robert Elswit has had quite a year. With two high-profile projects playing on theater screens during Oscar season, he's become the go-to guy for socially conscious drama — on both Syriana and the monochromatic Good Night, and Good Luck, he balances you-are-there realism with crisp, rich imagery. But Elswit's not just an issue-oriented kind of guy — he's done time with P. T. Anderson (Punch Drunk Love), James Bond (Tomorrow Never Dies), and even a Jedi or two (as a VFX photographer for The Empire Strikes Back). We asked him a little bit about all of them.
Telling four interlocking stories with more than 70 speaking parts and on over 200 locations on four continents – including shoots in Casablanca and Dubai – Syriana qualifies as one of the most complex movies of the year. It was only the second directorial project for Stephen Gaghan, and Elswit calls it the most complicated film he's ever worked on. He tackled it with a quasi-documentary strategy that relied on two handheld cameras and a complete absence of fancy visuals. "In terms of lighting and design, it's a naturalistic style," he says. "But in terms of blocking, staging and camera placement, we tried to tell it in a very subjective way."
Steven Soderbergh had organized the Gaghan-scripted Traffic around a variety of dramatic color schemes, but it was important to Gaghan that the various threads of Syriana felt like they all took place in the same world. So Elswit tried to convey what the various locations would look like in natural light, rather than stylizing them. Additionally, Gaghan wanted the whole film to be shot with two handheld cameras, which made the camera crew's decision-making process a little more complicated. "We approached things on an ad hoc basis," Elswit explains. "We approached each scene in a specific way, completely from the individual character's point of view – where would you want to be to understand or think about what George [Clooney] was going through at this particular moment in the movie?"
If Syriana took visual cues from any other film, Elswit said, it's The Insider. "It's what Michael Mann is so good at," he says. "In The Insider specifically, he's contrasting Al Pacino's world and Russell Crowe's world, and he had very different, complicated camera styles that grew out of it. In the middle of the movie, they come together. But he really is the master of that stuff, and of all the movies we looked at, that was the one that made us think the most."
Elswit decided to shoot Super 35 using Panavision XL Millennium camera bodies and Primo lenses, in part because Panavision has service centers worldwide that could back the production up if anything went horribly wrong on a given continent. Following Gaghan's mandate to give the film a consistent look, he selected a single stock, Kodak Vision2 500T 5218, for the whole project. "5218 is a great medium-speed stock. It's fast enough that, if you wanted to, you could use zooms indoors. So I used it for everything, inside and outside, every location and every story." Elswit knew the film would eventually go through a DI – he didn't want to manipulate the film's look in the DI, but it would result in a better anamorphic blow-up for the release prints.
Production moved fast and furious from one location to the next, rarely staying in one spot for more than a day. (If you can believe it, the production was still location-scouting on weekends, even after photography began.) That meant speed was always a virtue. "We had to go in and do a certain amount of prep and pre-rigging, because we weren't going to be anywhere very long," Elswit explains. "We'd turn the lights on and do the rehearsal, and if we hated the way it looked or if we changed the blocking because of something the actors did in rehearsal, we still had a fighting chance at getting something done. But we couldn't rehearse and then start lighting- the movie couldn't be made that way."
The biggest headache on Syriana, Elswit says, was the lag time in getting digital dailies. "If you're shooting two cameras, it's not that difficult to all of a sudden end up printing 8000 or 10,000 feet on a complicated sequence in a day," he says. "There's no way they can do that in one day and give you your dailies back. Unlike film, where they do high-speed printing and someone else syncs it up later, [with digital dailies] this poor guy has to sit there and look at every shot and make sure it's in sync, then lay it down at speed. So you find yourself getting farther and farther behind- I finished shooting in Geneva and moved on to Morocco, and had never seen dailies of anything in Geneva, except for one or two days."
A month after production wrapped on Syriana, Elswit tackled Good Night, and Good Luck, which George Clooney directed and acted in. Elswit got the job after Newton Thomas Sigel, who had been testing ideas for shooting the black-and-white film, had to head to Australia to shoot Superman Returns with Bryan Singer. "When I read the script, it struck me that it really didn't have a conventional three-act story structure. I thought, 'Where's the movie?'" he says. "I wasn't quite sure, honestly, that it really was a movie. But I loved George and the way he talked about it."
When Elswit and Clooney got down to business, they decided not to shoot actual black-and-white stocks, which are a relic of old-school technology. The fastest one has an exposure index of 200, and Elswit thought it would cause problems in the DI process. The filmmakers really liked the look of Kodak PLUS-X 5231, but it has an exposure index of just 64- too slow to be practical on a 30-day schedule. "We were going to do a DI anyway, and if I shot color it would be very easy to turn the saturation knob all the way to zero," Elswit decided. To accommodate the decision to shoot in color, Elswit says, production designer Jim Bissell ended up painting the set in monochrome, essentially using a gray-scale palette with five or six different values between black and white. "It's a different approach to lighting and design, but it just seemed the best way to go. I could use zoom lenses, and 5218 is fast enough that I wouldn't struggle with low light levels, which I knew I was going to run into. There was a little more shadow detail, maybe, in the 5231, but it held the highlights, and during the DI process I could see it was going to work really well."
Again, the film required a careful approach to set-ups, allowing Clooney to rehearse scenes and quickly begin shooting them. Some sequences were improvised, with Clooney stage-managing the actors from within the frame. It was a methodology that encouraged forward momentum, even at the expense of technical perfection- one shot, set in the room where the CBS journalists screen newsreel footage, is noticeably out of focus. "Clooney looked at it, and he just didn't want to do it again," Elswit recalls. "We filmed it out and printed it and looked at it, and he went, 'Eh, that's fine.' He felt it helped the feeling of randomness, that the arbitrary framing and haphazard look would make it more authentic. So we're sitting there going, 'Yes, but it's out of focus! Waaah!' But that whole style of shooting was trying to make it feel like we went in there and sort of captured the moments."
"From a lighting and design standpoint, the film I looked at the most was John Cassavetes' Faces. Al Ruban, who shot that movie, was really a bartender. It's all Double-X 16mm, and some Plus-X. It's marvelous because he uses people's bodies and faces, and the shapes of people's faces. The whole movie is designed around completely non-traditional, non-cinematic gourmet ideas about what photography is. And it just feels so honest and real- it's almost impossible to achieve that if you think about it too much."
On being a VFX photographer in his early career:
I was at Apogee for a while and then at ILM for the second and third Star Wars movies, and for E.T., Poltergeist, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I worked for the most talented and brilliant creative people that I've ever worked with- John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston, Richard Edlund. What I really got from doing it was watching people who would pursue a line of inquiry and beat away at something for an hour or a week, and finally it didn't work- and in one second they could suddenly turn around and go in a different direction and come up with a better idea. I just watched people free-associate their way into inventing modern visual effects. It was humbling, because I wasn't very good at it. I was the dumbest guy in physics in my high-school class, and that's how I felt at ILM. I would just go there and try not to break anything. I think Muren kept me around because I made him laugh. But it was a great way for me to learn that part of the business. I did things that nobody does any more: glass plates and rear-projected images. It was sort of the high-water mark of the lost art of three-dimensional motion-picture filmmaking.
On colors in Punch Drunk Love:
It was purely an instinctive move. Both [production designer] Bill Arnold and myself were saying, "I think we should have some color somewhere. Don't we want to do a color theme for this?" And Paul [Thomas Anderson] kept slowly going, "No." The color design for the movie became a white background for all the costumes of the principal characters — for Adam Sandler's electric-blue suits and for Emily Watson's beautiful off-color gowns in ochres, yellow and pale greens. We painted every single wall in that movie white. Every single space, every interior and exterior. And there are no saturated colors except the clothes the characters wear. That's an art-school decision, but he didn't make it with the idea that he was imitating Contempt or something. He wasn't thinking about Joseph Alberts. It didn't grow out of his study of the Bauhaus. [Anderson] just knew it was right.
On shooting James Bond:
I had done another film in England, Waterland, so I knew the English experience was different. But the Bond films are done by a production company that just does this one thing. They make Bond movies. Our script [ Tomorrow Never Dies] was pretty silly, but it was fun to be part of that giant British thing with ridiculously huge sets and absurd schedules. I remember shooting a pre-production sequence with the wonderful second-unit director Vic Armstrong and three cameras. We're shooting the opening sequence of the movie, which is supposedly on the ice in Afghanistan, but we're actually in the Pyrenees in Southern France. It's a very complicated sequence with things blowing up, and I turn around one day and there's a bunch of British guys in their 60s standing there with this 8×10 camera. And I'm like, "Publicity stills in 8×10?" And they're "Oh, no no no. We're shooting background plates, so you'll have them when you get back to the studio." They were doing something I had only heard about- you'd go on location for something like this, and you'd take 8×10 shots so you could make transparencies. They weren't for compositing. They were for making giant photo blow-ups or giant translights for God knows what. They did it everywhere we went- it's built into the budget. It's the kind of thing that probably hasn't been done in the States since the 1960s. We never used any of them. And I'm sure they still do it that way.
On digital cameras:
We haven't used them, and I'm hoping I don't have to. I'm trying to stay away from them as long as I can. But I'm sure it's what's going to happen, sooner or later. I'm sure film's days are numbered, and at some point we'll stop doing it. When they can figure out digital projection in theaters, in a way I think it'll be a bigger loss. Unlike shining a light through a transparency onto a screen, you're projecting this thing up there. Even the best versions I've seen have no texture, no grain. It's a very strange-looking image. But the next generation of directors are going to feel at home with it. The old people will probably stick with film for a while, and then it will all change. As it always does.
On shooting anamorphic:
On Boogie Nights, we were going to go Super 35 until two weeks before we started, and Paul just went, "I can't do it. I can't do it." We looked at tests, and he said, "I just hate it. It looks like we cropped 1.85." Which is exactly what it is. He just said, "I like the way the [anamorphic] lenses work." And I do, too, but it's hard to get people to commit to that. But if you want to design for it, it's a wonderful way to work. A wonderful anamorphic movie that's out right now is Bee Season. It's designed wonderfully, it's all interiors, and it's the best use of anamorphic for a character film, which nobody thinks about. It's a wonderful way to deal with character for some movies — that's certainly true of Punch Drunk, almost more than any other film. Whereas if George had his way with Good Night, and Good Luck, he [probably] would have shot Academy ratio. And nobody would project it!