Cinematographer Chris Duddy on the All Green-Screen Remake of Caligari

Released on DVD this week, the latest take on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the 1919 Robert Wiene film that helped define German expressionism, is hardly your average horror remake. Director and VFX whiz David Lee Fisher scanned in frames of the film’s phantasmagoric sets with a plan to use them as background plates for a new, live-action green screen shoot – thus placing contemporary actors inside the silent film’s art direction. It may sound like a terrible idea, but the results are oddly compelling. To pull it off, Fisher turned to Christopher Duddy, a cinematographer with an extensive background in visual effects photography (and co-founder of Beverly Hills production company Open Sky Entertainment), including work on Thirteen Days, True Lies, and Titanic. Armed only with a Panasonic DVX100 and a nine-day shooting schedule, Duddy had his work cut out for him. Watch the clip below, with or without Duddy’s commentary on the challenges of lighting a green-screen shoot, and read the Q&A for more details.

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And then listen to the audio commentary.

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F&V: How did you get involved with this?

CHRISTOPHER DUDDY: I had met David Lee Fisher through a friend of mine who was supposed to be up for a part in the movie. Usually a meeting like that takes five or 10 minutes, but I ended up spending three hours with David, talking about movies and whatnot. I hadn’t seen the original movie. But when he told me he wanted to shoot the actors on green screen and put them into the original movie ‘ which is something that had never been done before ‘ that really piqued my interest. I love challenges as a cinematographer. And, obviously, doing something that had never been done before was very appealing to me.

How did you approach the shoot?

We kind of winged it. He had done an extensive amount of background work and R&D prior to making the movie, and we thought we knew what we were going to do. But when we stared compositing the footage, on set, we realized what we were really doing. We had no data from the original movie, like lens length or camera angles, that you would normally have. So we had to conform it by eye, which initially seemed like a huge task. David had an on-set compositing station, so we would put the camera up and try to line the actors up with the original set. That sounds possible and easy – until the actors have to interact with the set. On the first day, of course, we had scheduled one of the hardest shots – an actor sitting on a stool, leaning on a podium, writing. But the stool and the podium were taken from the original film. So we had the actor sit on, like, a green applebox and we built this little green stanchion for him to lean on. It doesn’t sound difficult, but it took us three or four hours to just line that set up.

Were there any moments where you decided, “Forget it, we’ve got to cheat to get this shot”? Or you just broke with the original and did something different?

Instinctively, I constantly wanted to do that. As a cinematographer, you’re trained to do coverage and go in and do close-ups. But back in 1919, they didn’t make movies that way. Caligari was mostly wide shots and very static. I’ve worked on studio movies where the camera’s always moving. You’re on Steadicam, you’re on a crane, and you’re doing this and that. It was difficult for me not to do that. But if I had put the camera on a crane or a Steadicam, it wouldn’t have fit. Actually, by the second day, I realized that by not moving the camera we could shoot the movie much quicker. We were on an ultra-low budget, and we shot the movie in nine days. By the second day, I realized that instead of turning around to do coverage, I didn’t have to move the camera. All I had to do was turn the actors around and change the lighting a little bit to match. But we didn’t have to move the camera. Because it was on a virtual set, we just flipped the actors for their coverage. And that was kind of unique.

It was a “Eureka!” moment.

And the shooting went really quickly after that. “We don’t have to turn around!”

Where did you shoot it?

We shot it on a stage in Burbank. It was this little cyc stage that we painted green. We shot in the middle of July, which was unfortunate for us because every time we rolled we had to turn the air conditioning off, and it was about 100 degrees outside. It would instantly become incredibly hot on the stage every time we started rolling. And the actors would start sweating. It was challenging.

Were you closely involved in the post process?

I would come in every couple of weeks and David would show me what he was thinking. It took him three or four months to get the actual look he wanted for the compositing. I would come in maybe once a week to look through footage. He’d show me what he was doing and I would say, maybe, “Add a little more grain.” We had one pass where we were going to put a little color into it. It’s a black-and-white movie, but we were going to put a little color into the actors’ cheeks and skin to contemporize it a little more, but ultimately he decided not to do that. We probably went through a dozen different looks before we decided on the final thing.

Was there any effort to modernize the style?

I think he initially wanted to. We actually shot some stuff with a mechanical monkey and some other things, but ultimately it didn’t fit. So it really is true to the original.

What was the biggest challenge?

My background is visual effects. I grew up doing huge green-screen shoots on big movies, and the biggest challenge from that background was to try and shoot this movie in nine days on $150,000. Are you kidding me? Nine days? I’ve been on Jim Cameron movies with an over-100-day shooting schedule. On the first day, when we had to line up that incredibly difficult shot, I was like, “I don’t think we’re going to be able to do this.” But once we got into the flow of it, we did it. But it was quite the challenge. The first day, the financier actually cleared the stage, and I thought he was going to fire me because it appeared that none of us knew what we were doing! “What’s going on?” And I was like, well, we have to line this stuff up, and we’re doing it by eye. “It doesn’t look right!” It was the first time in my career I thought I was actually going to get fired.

It didn’t help to say, “Nobody’s ever done this before!”

At least give us until the end of the day, you know? See if we can make it through the first day.

What do you think about when you see big movies built around the same technique, like 300 and Sin City?

It’s a completely different beast, and [Caligari] proves that you can do something like that without ILM or a team of CG artists. It wasn’t just that nobody had never done that before, but that nobody had done it on a slim budget. 300 was a $60 million movie. What David’s trying to prove is that this can be done by a smart person using today’s technology.

In the years since you shot this, your options in terms of cameras have multiplied.

Yeah. There’s a high-def version of the camera we used, and if it had been available then we would have used it.

On an unrelated note, I looked up your IMDb resume and noticed that you recently shot a remake of [the 1970 Herschell Gordon Lewis exploitation film] The Wizard of Gore with Crispin Glover? And Jeffrey Combs?


That sounds like quite a project.

It’s really incredible. We just finished the movie and we’re in the process of finding distribution. My company, Open Sky Entertainment, produced the movie. We’re really proud of it. Have you seen the original movie?

Yeah, but it’s been a while.

We really contemporized it. I had shot a movie [All Souls Day] with Jeremy Kasten, the director, prior to this. I read the script and thought it was incredible. It’s a little bit like Memento meets Jacob’s Ladder. It’s not the jump-out-of-your-chair scary horror movie. It’s more of a psychological thriller. It’s premiering at the L.A. Film Festival at the end of June, and it’s in FantAsia in Montreal in July. We’ve had a few offers so far, but we’re kind of holding off to see how it does at the festivals. It just screened at the Cannes Film Market, so we’re selling international but we haven’t had a domestic deal yet.

Did you shoot in high-def?

It was my first feature film in high-def as a cinematographer. We did an incredible amount of research prior to shooting. My partner in Open Sky, Glenn Garland, and I wanted to embrace the new technology because that’s the future. We talked to all these technicians and gurus of high-def, and everybody had an opinion about what you should do and what you shouldn’t do. Basically, most of the “experts” come from a studio television high-def background. And I wanted to approach it as a feature film. So I took everybody’s notes and threw them out the window. All the high-def experts were saying, “You can’t put smoke on the set. You can’t shoot white.” And Crispin Glover showed up the first day on set in a white suit. I just said, “You know what? I’m going to just shoot this like a movie. I’m not going to worry about high-def.” The great thing is we had a 24-inch HD monitor on set, and you see what you’re getting. It’s instant gratification. With film, you’re looking at a little monitor from a video tap off the film camera and you don’t see the footage until the next day to check your exposure. Even if you did everything right, you don’t necessarily know until the next day.

So you didn’t have to go up to Crispin Glover and tell him to change his clothes.

(Laughs.) He wouldn’t change anyway. The first day, we spent two hours in his trailer trying to talk him out of his wardrobe, and he would not do it. We almost shut production down. But he talked us into it, and we let him do it.