My 5 Favourite Cinematographer Commentaries

I won my first DVD player in a trailer competition on a sort of YouTube forerunner site in December 2000. Over the next decade I was entertained and educated by many extras-packed Digital Versatile Discs. Now, of course, physical media is a thing of the past, but many of the anecdotes I heard in DVD commentaries have stuck in my mind. Some have even helped me on set when facing a new situation.

So, if you’ve got these discs on your shelf and never given the commentary a listen, or if you’re passing a CEX or Cash Convertor with a shiny new pound coin burning a hole in your pocket, you could do worse than seek out these classic chat tracks.

 

5. Moulin Rouge

DP Don McAlpine is actually quite quiet on this track, leaving director Baz Luhrmann and production designer Catherine Martin to do much of the work. This latter pair explain how sets, miniatures and CGI were blended to create the world of Moulin Rouge. At one point Luhrmann notes that he resisted the temptation to digitally stabilise the crane shots in the Elephant Love Medley, preferring to recall the look of classic 20th century musicals which did not have access to such postproduction trickery. A few nuggets we get from McAlpine include his use of blue light on Satine (Nicole Kidman) to make the most of her pale skin, the anachronistic use of follow spots for the stage shows, and how he was briefed by Luhrmann in one scene to light Jim Broadbent like the devil – which he did with flickering orange firelight from a low angle.

Highlight: Performing in what proves to be her final show, Satine wears a diamond necklace which reflects dazzling light onto Richard Roxburgh’s lustful duke. McAlpine reveals that he created the shimmering reflections by shaking some canvas with pieces of broken mirror on it.

 

4. X-Men 2

Although the DVD menu lists it as a director’s commentary, Bryan Singer in fact pairs up with his DP Newton Thomas Sigel for this track. Sigel discusses the importance of building practicals into the sets to enhance realism and flexibility of shooting. He explains how he colour-coded certain scenes so that the audience would more readily understand where they were during the fast-paced action sequences; for example, the corridors of the Alkali Lake bunker were lit with a moss green.

Highlight: The brutal claw-fight between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike features dynamic and unusual camerawork. Sigel and Singer reveal that they used a cable rig to swoop the camera towards the duelling mutants, knowing that the camera would bounce back when it reached the end of its cable, but embracing this for the extra energy it added to the sequence.

 

3. Garden State

DP Lawrence Sher shares (no pun intended) a commentary track with director Zach Braff and production designer Judy Becker. The trio give an insight into the way that the moods and emotions of the film were enhanced by the colours, design, framing and camera movement. Braff and Sher chose a static look with strong compositions, punctuated by occasional Technocrane moves and at least one quasi-crane move that was actually captured on a Steadicam. Various happy (and unhappy) accidents helped shape the look too, like the constant rain throughout the exterior shoots, the mist and flaring practicals in the pool party scene, and the square of light on the airport wall behind Braff and Natalie Portman in the final shot.

Highlight: Sher explains the use of different film stocks to delineate threads of the story. Scenes with Large’s father (Ian Holm) were rendered cold and clinical by shooting on a sharper, harder Kodak film, while Portman’s sequences were imbued with organic warmth by Fuji stock. The feel was further enhanced by lighting and the colour choices in the respective sets.

 

2. Alien 3

The departure of director David Fincher from Alien 3 – under a cloud of studio interference and re-edits – is an infamous part of movie lore. Less well known is that the director of photography changed a week into shooting, after original DP Jordan Cronenworth (of Blade Runner fame) fell ill. Alex Thompson stepped in, and his humble, soft-spoken observations are spliced with other crew and cast members to form the commentary track on the Alien Quadrilogy boxset version of this film. Throughout the track he explains how he created the cool, toppy look of the prison’s communal areas, the dark, shadowy environs of the basements, and the hot, hellish feel of the lead-works. There are some interesting remarks about practicals too, such as the deliberate use of mismatched, low-CRI fluorescent tubes to give the canteen a run-down look, and tips for creating convincing firelight flicker.

Highlight: To create the illusion of glowing molten metal in the colony’s lead-works set, Thompson placed a veritable arsenal of lamps – almost 1,000 amps’ worth – underneath sheets of trace. Despite their brilliance, the individual units were still visible on camera, rather than a continuous white glow. According to Thompson, it was Fincher who came to the rescue, wiping grease from the side of his nose onto the lens to diffuse the offending lamps. I hope he let the AC put an optical flat on first!

 

1. Armageddon

Whatever you think of this slice of outer-space Bayhem, there’s no denying that DP John Schwartzman’s commentary on the Criterion Collection edition (spliced in with two of the film’s scientific advisors) is a fascinating insight into photographing the biggest of big-budget blockbusters. Schwartzman reveals that seven miles of cable were laid by his electrical department in preparation for extreme wide shots of the Armadillo vehicle travelling across the asteroid – in reality the South Dakota Badlands at night. Elsewhere he discusses lighting through coloured windows, shooting under UV lights (pictured above), dealing with spacesuit helmet reflections, and how Spielberg’s lens-meister Janusz Kaminski stepped in to shoot pick-ups of meteorites wiping out Shanghai.

Highlight: Schwartzman and his team photographed two real shuttle launches for the movie. Nasa decreed that the 35mm cameras had to sit in position on the launchpad, threaded with film and ready to go, for two days before take-off. The camera dept undertook extensive testing to making this possible, dealing with such problems as the condensation that would form as the temperature changed over the 48 hours. When they returned to the cameras after the launch and examined the one which had been the closest to the shuttle’s rocket motors, they discovered that the lens was in pieces, the vibrations having undone every single screw!

My 5 Favourite Cinematographer Commentaries

A Window on Oblivion

Last month the lastest Eric Bana movie, Deadfall, was released in US cinemas. The unusual thing is that it had already been out for a month on demand. This is one of the first examples of yet another massive shift that’s occurring in the film industry.

For the first few decades of its life, cinema was unique. Then television came along. The film industry responded by introducing colour and widescreen aspect ratios to the cinema. TV eventually caught up with both of these developments. As we approached and entered the new millennium our home entertainment options were expanding exponentially. TVs are now huge, 5.1 surround sound systems are highly affordable; you can even watch 3D at home if you want.

So why go to the cinema?

Until recently, the answer was “because you have to if you don’t want to wait months for the DVD release”. This is known as the theatrical window, the time within which a film must be exclusive to cinemas, before it becomes available in other media. Many claim this system fosters piracy. After all, if you could buy or watch a film on demand for a reasonable price as soon as it’s first released, why would you pirate it?

Many others claim that without this system, cinemas would go bust. I suspect this may be true.

I will be interested to see what happens as more and films follow Deadfall’s example. Clearly the aim is to create word of mouth with the on-demand release, building the film up to the point where people will be desperate to see it on the big screen. Sorry, I mean the slightly-bigger-than-the-screen-you-have-at-home screen.

35mm projectors - a thing of the past.
35mm projectors – a thing of the past.

Ask yourself this: what happened to phone boxes when the infinitely convenient and flexible mobile phone became affordable? The same fate, I fear, awaits cinemas.

Because we can all have cinemas in our homes now. If we want to ban popcorn from our living rooms and pause the film whenever some weak-bladdered buffoon has to get up, we can. Or (and I’ll never, ever understand this behaviour) if we want to make phone calls and chat to our mates all through the movie, we can do that too without spoiling anyone else’s enjoyment.

The only possible reason to go to the cinema is to watch a movie on 35mm film….. Oh no, hang on… You can’t do that any more either.

Right, I’m off out to see Les Miserables. At the cinema. While I still can. If I could watch it on demand, would I? Given that it’s f**king cold outside and Hereford Odeon only seems to project digitally now, yes, I’d probably stay home and watch it on demand. A sobering thought.

A Window on Oblivion

2012: The Year that Film Died

Dark Side camera negative lab rolls
Dark Side camera negative lab rolls

A couple of weeks ago I screened the 35mm print of The Dark Side of the Earth‘s pilot at the last FilmWorks session in Bristol. It had been about 18 months since I last ran the print, and I was shocked how much attitudes towards celluloid had changed in that time. People were acting like they hadn’t seen a roll of film in 20 years, like I was some kind of whacked-out nostalgia hippy for wanting to shoot on 35mm. (But it still looked fucking awesome on the big screen.)

Digital cinema is one of those things that’s been lurking on the horizon for ages, then suddenly, silently… it’s here, like it’s always been here. Projection of moving images from celluloid is very, very quickly becoming extinct, as is acquisition of moving images on celluloid. Suddenly the likes of Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, staunch defenders of shooting films on film, are starting to look a bit loony, although I agree with them completely.

In September Fuji announced it would cease manufacturing of film stock, leaving only Kodak in the “market”, if such a word can be applied to an unwitting monopoly.

Dark Side mute print
Dark Side mute print

So we’re quickly heading towards a world in which “film” is a word completely divorced from its original meaning. Plastic strips coated in light sensitive emulsion will no longer play any part in the production or consumption of “films”.

The other day I went to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Although I chose to see a 2D 24fps screening, Peter Jackon’s sedate trilogy has been made in 3D at 48fps. The higher frame rate produces smoother motion which most people will associate with news broadcasts and documentaries. Overall the aim seems to be to make watching a film more like experiencing real life – sharper, smoother, three-dimensional. But is that what we really go to the cinema for?

It’s not what I go for. I want the scratches and the weave and the flicker because without them there is no magic, there is no suspension of disbelief. I want escapism. I want film. It seems I’m to be disappointed for the rest of my life.

2012: The Year that Film Died

The Dark Side Guide to Shooting on Film

Aimed at filmmakers used to working on video who want to move up to shooting on film, this guide covers all the major decisions you’ll have to make, including gauge, aspect ratio, stock, lens and crew. The costs of 35mm are also revealed. I shares everything I learnt about shooting on film while making the demo sequence for my fantasy-adventure feature The Dark Side of the Earth, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), Kate Burdette (The Duchess) and Mark Heap (Spaced, Green Wing).

The Dark Side Guide to Shooting on Film