At Createasphere (formerly HD Expo) in Burbank, cinematographer Lance Acord, ASC gave a keynote address, in conversation with associate editor Jon D. Witmer of American Society of Cinematographers magazine.

Acord described that he met Spike Jonze at a club where a lot of skateboarders showed their films. “I’d just done B camera on a commercial and he had just got his first commercial,” Acord recalls.

Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

“We worked on a couple of spots together. We formed a friendship first that grew into a working collaboration. From those experiences, I learned less is more.”

Acord showed a reel of clips, beginning with the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are. He said that he and Jonze had previously spoken about working on another children’s property, Harold and the Purple Crayon, together.  “This was something Spike wanted to do for a while,” he said. “We were curious with where he was going to take the book.” Jonze spent a year and a half working on the script with Dave Eggers. “It was a long process with the support of Maurice [Sendak] about personalizing that story,” said Acord. “He had to find ways he connected emotionally with the book and bring that experience to the film.”

“Spike has a distinct way of seeing things that’s all his own,” Acord continued. “Part of it is with Spike he knows what he likes with the process of filmmaking and how his creative process works in the larger collaborative effort. Part of this was to be able to still work with actors in the way he’s always worked with actors. To have done this all green screen or CG, with a kid who had never acted before, was a process that didn’t appeal to Spike.”

Acord noted that Spike didn’t want to work with suit performers but with actors. The actors were not auditioned in the suits. “It was about getting in tune and finding people who could connect with the voice performances,” he said. “With Spike, they would figure out how that character would perform.” Acord notes how a lot of time was spent in pre-production getting the characters to look right in the drawings. “Going into it was an idea of using advanced technologies and prosthetics,” he said. “To a degree, some of that was realized, but it needed to be helped with photography to lend it a more dynamic feeling.”

“We tailored the shooting to make the creatures seem agile and unpredictable when in reality it was hard for the guys in the suits to walk,” he continued. Being on location complicated it. The production worked near crumbling cliffs and in and around water, where you’d ordinarily never go with suit performers.

For the look of Where the Wild Things Are, said Accord, Jonze and he shared films like Black Stallion and wildlife documentaries. “The idea was to capture a naturalism and view these creatures like they were feral,” he said. “So we used a documentary perspective to keep up with the creatures, shooting them through limbs of trees. That was our visual design going in. It helped create that dynamic.  Tracking dolly shots as a steady approach to framing revealed the flaws more.”

Witmer asked how important it is for him to look at other visual references with the director to try to formulate the project. “Every director is different,” said Acord. “The references have always been pulled from such a wide array of sources, it’s less literal than looking at other films. With Spike, his references are all over the place. Many of our references are shared from having worked together, or photographers we like. Ultimately, as a cinematographer working with a director, if you can form an image bank and share that in a clear way, moving forward, there’ll be an overall guiding sensibility.”

Acord revealed that he and Jonze have developed an approach with photo-boarding they started on some commercials and then on Being John Malkovich. “We’ll go with a still camera, lenses and with Spike’s producers and friends,” he recounted. “We’ll stand in for the actors and create photo storyboards. We did that on Adaptation also. For Wild Things, Spike spent almost a year storyboarding. For this film, he brought it to another level. Pretty much every sequence was boarded out and several storyboard artists worked on it.”

“At times, Spike and I would discuss where the boards were going,” he continued. “It’s interesting what storyboard artists can do. It’s very different than photographing it.  With the suit performers and suit designers, it was a good idea to storyboard, to give them an idea of what they should do. It was by far the most boarded film I ever did. Then we photo-boarded and switched a lot of things up.”

The film is book-ended by scenes of Max in the real world, but Acord reported that there wasn’t a pronounced difference in the visual approach. “Once Max gets in the boat and goes to where he wild things are, it’s so conceptually different, we don’t need to show it visually,” said Acord. “ Home life is often portrayed with a storybook quality that lacks realism. I wanted the home life to look as real as possible. We used a lot of practical lighting and kept the camera with Max as much as possible, so we’re seeing the world through his eyes.”

This was the first time Acord took a Jonze film through a DI; he said that 80 percent of the shots are touched in some way in post (especially since the faces of the creatures are created with 3D animation). “We knew all of this would be scanned and output,” Acord explained. “At that point, it made so much more sense to bake it together in DI. Given that I started in commercials/music videos where everything was finished in telecine, moving to finishing photochemically was a big deal for me, and I always looked forward to it. “This film is so grounded in reality—the only thing that isn’t realistic is the timeline,” he said. “One thing that appealed to Spike is doing a movie with a kid as the main character where most of the action takes place at night. A lot of the nighttime sequences were shot in the day. The pre-dawn and pre-sunset are long, long sequences. It was challenging to work that way. We also had four and five hour shooting periods with a child actor, and having the extra tool of the DI was huge in allowing us to do all that.”

Being quite familiar with telecine tools from his days as a commercial and music video cinematographer, Acord was pleasantly surprised to see how advanced the tools have become. “It gave us time to experiment, and we tried a few different things,” he said. “For the inside of KW’s stomach, we chose a slightly furry fabric, like the lining of a cow’s stomach. When we backlit it, it had a purplish color.”

The wild things jungle also went through experimentation. “The classic green jungle didn’t offer us the kind of depth we were looking for,” said Acord. “The undergrowth was so dense. It was similar to the book, but we agreed it just wasn’t that interesting. If you looked at the scouting photos, they were all green, green, green. We thought, what if this world is different?”

What piqued their interest were photos from an area in Australia that had been devastated by fire. “There was a canopy of brown leaves on the ground, with a canopy of small trees,” he said. “It gave so much depth. You could look 100 yards a head of you, but it still felt wild, with a sense of mystery. Green as a color, verdant green has a nurturing feel to it. These blackened forests with blackened trees embodied more adventure. At that point, we decided that as much as possible, we would eliminate green from the palette.”

One exception is the Beautiful Forest, he noted. “It’s a real beat of uplift and release from some of the other tensions,” he said. “That wasn’t done in DI. That was a scouting/art direction decision going in.”

As the reel continued, the audience saw clips of Acord’s other collaborations with Jonze, including Adaptation and Being John Malkovich. Acord described how in all the scenes in Adaptation where Nicholas Cage plays twins, he and Jonze photo-boarded each scene. “We were able to do that with Nicholas ahead of time, and then either used motion control, wipes or over-the-shoulder shots,” he said. “It was pretty simple how it was done.  We also pushed the amount we used a stand-in. If you look closely in a couple of scenes, you can see it’s not Nicholas.”

On Being John Malkovich, said Acord, he and Jonze “learned as we went along,” applying the process they’d done with skate films to their first feature together. “Oddly enough it worked,” he said. He also noted that there is a core group of people who have worked on all on Jonze’s movies. “We’ve all grown together,” he said. “There’s ten years of collaboration between us.”

“As a cinematographer you couldn’t ask for a better director to work with because he values collaboration with everyone,” said Acord. “Everyone is constantly commenting on everyone else’s work. It gets crazy some times, but out of that freedom to critique and share ideas, that hasn’t changed at all, and that existed on the first projects we did because the roles were so blurrily defined then. We were working on our skill sets and figuring our roles out.”