Oscar-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe, ASC, ACS, has made five films with director Rob Marshall and is set to add a sixth: the live-action remake of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, slated for production this year. His collaboration with Marshall began with Chicago, which also marked the first time the Australian-born DP had shot a musical. We spoke with him about the choices he and Marshall made during previs and on set for their latest effort, Mary Poppins Returns, why he loves anamorphic lenses and his rig of choice during all those flying sequences.

StudioDaily: Much was made about matching the production details of the original film, including building a replica of the Cherry Tree Lane set. Did you and Rob Marshall ever discuss the possibility of shooting on film?

Dion Beebe: We did talk about film and also a lot about the original movie, but it really just came down to methodology. Rob is now so meticulous in how he works, and the attention to detail he has at every step, that going back to film was going to be a difficult transition. To work in film these days requires monitoring mostly in standard definition and when he is directing and choreographing, as this movie required, being able to playback and review images in a high-def format becomes quite critical. Giving up that control of the image on the set is a real problem for directors in general when transitioning back to film. But knowing how technically difficult and challenging the piece was going to be, from the choreography to the technical breakdown of what we were trying to achieve, the process, for me, always starts with testing. We tested different formats, including the Alexa, to see what we could do digitally and found that we could achieve a look that really was in the world of the original Poppins.

Mary Poppins, played by Emily Blunt, reemerges in vibrant, nostalgic color thanks in part to Beebe’s Panavision anamorphics.

And anamorphic lenses helped get you there?

Yeah, your choice of glass becomes a way to apply different optics to the image but also to apply a certain patina to the light, and the Panavision G-Series anamorphics we mostly used have a sort of in-built nostalgia to them. They have a very soft fall-off and they are mostly fairly warm. We were trying to find that median where we could evoke Depression-era London but also retain the vivid colors of the fantasy sequences. In our tests, these lenses really worked best. I also have worked with them a lot, and they just have a very beautiful quality to them. I think there’s that thing, when you’re shooting digital, of always trying to work against the way that digital works, which is to optimize the image via an electronic rendering. The lenses are a way to add that organic layer, or softness, back into the images.

How would you summarize your camera technique — and Marshall’s knack — for creating so many memorable and cinematic song and dance numbers?

When Rob and I first started working together on Chicago, which ended up being my first musical, I remember quite clearly that we talked at length about transitions and how in musicals, you have to move from scene work into a song. When people start to sing, you’ve got to earn that moment, and we really connected on that. He brought all these wonderful theatrical tools that helped us visually find new ways into songs. Within the musical numbers themselves, I certainly learned a lot from Rob’s understanding of dance and timing. He knows exactly where the emphasis needs to be during these scenes. And it was quite an easy fit for me, discussing the visual language of choreography on screen. Yet every time we do it, there’s a different challenge. Poppins was challenging due to the pure fantasy element in a lot of the songs. The one number that was almost familiar to both of us was “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” just because it’s a big theatrical number and it’s a road we’ve been down together before. But we had a lot of fun with the underwater sequence and, of course, with the big animation number in the music hall.

Lin-Manuel Miranda (right) as Jack joins Blunt under the footlights in the film’s live-action and animated showstopper.
Courtesy of Disney

Was that the most green-screen shooting you’ve done with Marshall to date?

I’ve done a lot of green-screen on other films but Rob, who worked at length with the cast finessing the dance elements, doesn’t love it. I don’t think anyone really loves being on a green-screen stage. But we certainly approached it as we would a regular musical number in terms of the rehearsal process. We lit it like a musical number as well, using many traditional theatrical lighting elements. We created a stage and all the lighting cues were set in the performance.

As in the original film, there’s a lot of flying, levitating and leaping going on. What rigs, custom or off-the-shelf, did you use for those sequences?

We used [A&C] Gizmo-Prime heads, which are fully stabilized remote heads that let us create that third axis, and sense of losing the horizon. It worked really well for the first big fantasy number that happens underwater. The actors were suspended on cables and then we used this rig to move with them and against them and then roll it on its axis to convey them turning through this imaginary space. In combination with the wire work and camera movement, those heads let us convey a real sense of floating and flying through the water.

That must have been fairly tricky at first for the operators.

Definitely. When the camera starts to roll too far off its axis, the rotation in the head changes and suddenly what was up becomes down and what was down. There was a fair amount of confusion when operating these sequences and the mechanisms of these heads. Any time you take on these kinds of green-screen sequences, it’s challenging first for the actors to understand the intention and the end goal of the world you are trying to create. Standing in this vivid digital green environment is not creatively conducive to anything. So it becomes mostly about keeping each other on track and knowing and articulating the end game. That’s where all the previs and reference material we create comes into play. For everyone else, it helps us understand where we’re going.

Beebe used the Alexa XT and Alexa Mini and Panavision G series lenses to capture the film’s warm, muted interiors, here featuring (from left) Colin Firth as Wilkins, Emily Mortimer as Jane Banks and Ben Whishaw as Michael Banks.

Starting with those camera tests, how long were you actively working on this film?

About six or seven months. With Rob, I tend to start very early with initial discussions, then come back as we get closer to shooting. No one wants to have the DP on board a full year in advance, but for projects like these that take a while to gestate, some key discussions need to take place a year in advance, especially the methodology and exactly how we’re going to achieve what’s scripted or what evolves.

Are you already doing previs for The Little Mermaid?

Yeah, we’re already having those discussions, and it is a bit of a new animal. The very first conversations are about the underwater world and how we’re going to approach it, knowing that Rob is not going to want to be actually under water for six or seven months. That’s just not going to happen. We’re working through the techniques and method, then we’re heading into some early testing.

Shooting digitally?

Yes. But it’s not that big effects-heavy films can’t be shot on film. The last one I did that way was Edge of Tomorrow [2014]. It really all comes down to whether or not the team can take on the requirements of shooting on film and if the director wants to work in that medium.

You are currently shooting a film, a biopic of singer Helen Reddy, with director Unjoo Moon, who also happens to be your wife. What has been the most rewarding thing about that experience?

We have a couple of days left of shooting and it’s been great. There was of course a lot of shorthand. Because this is a much smaller-budget movie and we had to shoot across three decades in a short amount of time, primarily in Australia, this put a lot of pressure on her. So that ability to think on our feet has been really valuable. This is our first feature collaboration, but we’ve done other projects together [The Zen of Bennett] and came through film school together. We met there, in fact. We often talk about this, and I think that the main advantage is this is the only life we’ve known, being in film all of our adult lives. We don’t know any alternative.