The Cinematography of “First Man”

A miniature Saturn V rocket is prepared for filming

If you’re a DP, you’re probably familiar with the “Guess the Format” game. Whenever you see a movie, you find yourself trying to guess what format it was shot on. Film or digital? Camera? Glass? Resolution?

As I sat in the cinema last autumn watching First Man, I was definitely playing the game. First Man tells the true story of Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) extraterrestrial career, including his test flights in the hypersonic  X-15, his execution of the first ever docking in space aboard Gemini 8, the tragic deaths of his colleagues in the launchpad fire of Apollo 1, and of course the historic Apollo 11.

The game was given away fairly early on when I noticed frames with dust on, a sure sign of celluloid acquisition. (Though most movies have so much digital clean-up now that a lack of dust doesn’t necessarily mean that film wasn’t involved.) I automatically assumed 35mm, though as the film went on I occasionally wondered if I could possibly be watching Super-16? There was something of the analogue home movie about certain scenes, the way the searing highlights of the sun blasting into the space capsules rolled off and bloomed.

When I got home I tracked down this Studio Daily podcast and my suspicions were confirmed, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

 

Cinéma Vérité

Let’s start at the beginning. First Man was directed by Damien Chazelle and photographed by Linus Sandgren, FSF, the same team who made La La Land, for which both men won Oscars. What I remember most about the cinematography of that earlier film is the palette of bright but slightly sickly colours, and the choreographed Steadicam moves.

First Man couldn’t be more different, adopting a cinéma vérité approach that often looks like it could be real and previously-unseen Nasa footage. Sandgren used zoom lenses and a documentary approach to achieve this feeling:

When you do a documentary about a person and you’re there in their house with them and they’re sad or they’re talking, maybe you don’t walk in there and stand in the perfect camera position. You can’t really get the perfect angles. That in itself creates some sort of humbleness to the characters; you are a little respectful and leave them a little alone to watch them from a distance or a little bit from behind.

Similarly, scenes in the spacecraft relied heavily on POVs through the small windows of the capsule, which is all that the astronauts or a hypothetical documentary camera operator would have been able to see. This blinkered view, combined with evocative and terrifying sound design – all metallic creaks, clanks and deafening booms, like the world itself is ending – makes the spaceflight sequences incredibly visceral.

 

Multiple gauges

Scale comparison of film formats. Note that Imax is originated on 65mm stock and printed on 70mm to allow room for the soundtrack.

Documentaries in the sixties would have been shot on Super-16, which is part of the reason that Sandgren and Chazelle chose it as one of their acquisition formats. The full breakdown of formats is as follows:

  • Super-16 was employed for intense or emotional material, specifically early sequences relating to the death of Armstrong’s young daughter, and scenes inside the various spacecraft. As well as the creative considerations, the smaller size of Super-16 equipment was presumably advantageous from a practical point of view inside the cramped sets.
  • 35mm was used for most of the non-space scenes. Sandgren differentiated the scenes at Nasa from those at Armstrong’s home by push-processing the former and pull-processing the latter. What this means is that Nasa scenes were underexposed by one stop and overdeveloped, resulting in a detailed, contrasty, grainy look, while the home scenes were overexposed and underdeveloped to produce a cleaner, softer, milkier look. 35mm was also used for wide shots in scenes that were primarily Super-16, to ensure sufficient definition.
  • Imax (horizontally-fed 65mm) was reserved for scenes on the moon.

 

In-camera effects

In keeping with the vintage aesthetic of celluloid capture, the visual effects were captured in-camera wherever possible. I’ve written in the past about the rise of LED screens as a replacement for green-screen and a source of interactive lighting. I guessed that First Man was using this technology from ECUs which showed the crescent of Earth reflected in Ryan Gosling’s eyes. Such things can be added in post, of course, but First Man‘s VFX have the unmistakeable ring of in-camera authenticity.

Imposing a “no green-screen” rule, Chazelle and his team used a huge LED screen to display the views out of the spacecraft windows. A 180° arc of 60′ diameter and 35′ in height, this screen was bright enough to provide all the interactive lighting that Sandgren required. His only addition was a 5K tungsten par or 18K HMI on a crane arm to represent the direct light of the sun.

The old-school approach extended to building and filming miniatures, of the Saturn V rocket and its launch tower for example. For a sequence of Armstrong in an elevator ascending the tower, the LED screen behind Gosling displayed footage of this miniature.

For external views of the capsules in space, the filmmakers tried to limit themselves to realistic shots which a camera mounted on the bodywork might have been able to capture. This put me in mind of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which used the same technique to sell the verisimilitude of its space vehicles. In an age when any conceivable camera move can be executed, it can very powerful to stick to simple angles which tap into decades of history – not just from cinema but from documentaries and motorsports coverage too.

 

Lunar Lighting

For scenes on earth, Landgren walked a line between naturalism and expression, influenced by legendary DPs like Gordon Willis, ASC. My favourite shot is a wide of Armstrong’s street at night, as he and his ill-fated friend Ed White (Jason Clarke) part company after a drinking session. The mundane suburban setting is bathed in blue moonbeams, as if the the moon’s fingers are reaching out to draw the characters in.

Scenes on the lunar surface were captured at night on an outdoor set the size of three football pitches. To achieve absolute authenticity, Sandgreen needed a single light source (representing the sun) fixed at 15° above the horizon. Covering an area that size was going to require one hell of a single source, so he went to Luminys, makers of the Softsun.

Softsuns

Softsuns are lamps of frankly ridiculous power. The 50KW model was used, amongst other things, to blast majestic streams of light through the windows of Buckingham Palace on The Crown, but Sandgren turned to the 100KW model. Even that proved insufficient, so he challenged Luminys to build a 200KW model, which they did.

The result is a completely stark and realistic depiction of a place where the sun is the only illumination, with no atmosphere to diffuse or redistribute it, no sky to glow and fill in the shadows. This ties in neatly with a prevailing theme in the film, that of associating black with death, when Armstrong symbolically casts his deceased daughter’s bracelet into an obsidian crater.

First Man may prove unsatisfying for some, with Armstrong’s taciturn and emotionally closed-off nature making his motivations unclear, but cinematically it is a tour de force. Taking a human perspective on extraordinary accomplishments, deftly blending utterly convincing VFX and immersive cinéma vérité photography, First Man recalls the similarly analogue and similarly gripping Dunkirk as well as the documentary-like approach of 1983’s The Right Stuff. The film is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD, and I highly recommend you check it out.

The Cinematography of “First Man”

Creating “Stasis”

Stasis is a personal photography project about time and light. You can view all the images here, and in this post I’ll take you through the technical and creative process of making them.

I got into cinematography directly through a love of movies and filmmaking, rather than from a fine art background. To plug this gap, over the past few of years I’ve been trying to give myself an education in art by going to galleries, and reading art and photography books. I’ve previously written about how JMW Turner’s work captured my imagination, but another artist whose work stood out to me was Gerrit (a.k.a. Gerard) Dou. Whereas most of the Dutch 17th century masters painted daylight scenes, Dou often portrayed people lit by only a single candle.

“A Girl Watering Plants” by Gerrit Dou

At around the same time as I discovered Dou, I researched and wrote a blog post about Barry Lyndon‘s groundbreaking candlelit scenes. This got me fascinated by the idea that you can correctly expose an image without once looking at a light meter or digital monitor, because tables exist giving the appropriate stop, shutter and ISO for any given light level… as measured in foot-candles. (One foot-candle is the amount of light received from a standard candle that is one foot away.)

So when I bought a 35mm SLR (a Pentax P30T) last autumn, my first thought was to recreate some of Dou’s scenes. It would be primarily an exercise in exposure discipline, training me to judge light levels and fall-off without recourse to false colours, histograms or any of the other tools available to a modern DP.

I conducted tests with Kate Madison, who had also agreed to furnish period props and costumes from the large collection which she had built up while making Born of Hope and Ren: The Girl with the Mark. Both the tests and the final images were captured on Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400. Ideally I would have tested multiple stocks, but I must confess that the costs of buying and processing several rolls were off-putting. I’d previously shot some basic latitude tests with Superia, so I had some confidence about what it could and couldn’t do. (It can be over-exposed at least five stops and still look good, but more than a stop under and it falls apart.) I therefore confined myself to experimenting with candle-to-subject distances, exposure times and filtration.

The tests showed that the concept was going to work, and also confirmed that I would need to use an 80B filter to cool the “white balance” of the film from its native daylight to tungsten (3400K). (As far as I can tell, tungsten-balanced stills film is no longer on the market.) Candlelight has a colour temperature of about 1800K, so it still reads as orange through an 80B, but without the filter it’s an ugly red.

Meanwhile, the concept had developed beyond simply recreating Gerrit Dou’s scenes. I decided to add a second character, contrasting the historical man lit only by his candle with a modern girl lit only by her phone. Flames have a hypnotic power, tapping into our ancient attraction to light, and today’s smartphones have a similarly powerful draw.

The candlelight was 1600K warmer than the filtered film, so I used an app called Colour Temp to set my iPhone to 5000K, making it 1600K cooler than the film; the phone would therefore look as blue as the candle looked orange. (Unfortunately my phone died quickly and I had trouble recharging it, so some of the last shots were done with Izzi’s non-white-balanced phone.) To match the respective colours of light, we dressed Ivan in earthy browns and Izzi in blues and greys.

Artemis recce image

We shot in St. John’s Church in Duxford, Cambridgeshire, which hasn’t been used as a place of worship since the mid-1800s. Unique markings, paintings and graffiti from the middle ages up to the present give it simultaneously a history and a timelessness, making it a perfect match to the clash of eras represented by my two characters. It resonated with the feelings I’d had when I started learning about art and realised the continuity of techniques and aims from me in my cinematography back through time via all the great artists of the past to the earliest cave paintings.

I knew from the tests that long exposures would be needed. Extrapolating from the exposure table, one foot-candle would require a 1/8th of a second shutter with my f1.4 lens wide open and the Fujifilm’s ISO of 400. The 80B has a filter factor of three, meaning you need three times more light, or, to put it another way, it cuts 1 and 2/3rds of a stop. Accounting for this, and the fact that the candle would often be more than a foot away, or that I’d want to see further into the shadows, the exposures were all at least a second long.

As time had become very much the theme of the project, I decided to make the most of these long exposures by playing with motion blur. Not only does this allow a static image – paradoxically – to show a passage of time, but it recalls 19th century photography, when faces would often blur during the long exposures required by early emulsions. Thus the history of photography itself now played a part in this time-fluid project.

I decided to shoot everything in portrait, to make it as different as possible from my cinematography work. Heavily inspired by all the classical art I’d been discovering, I used eye-level framing, often flat-on and framed architecturally with generous headroom, and a normal lens (an Asahi SMC Pentax-M 50mm/f1.4) to provide a natural field of view.

I ended up using my light meter quite a lot, though not necessarily exposing as it indicated. It was all educated guesswork, based on what the meter said and the tests I’d conducted.

I was tempted more than once to tell a definite story with the images, and had to remind myself that I was not making a movie. In the end I opted for a very vague story which can be interpreted many ways. Which of the two characters is the ghost? Or is it both of them? Are we all just ghosts, as transient as motion blur? Do we unwittingly leave an intangible imprint on the universe, like the trails of light my characters produce, or must we consciously carve our mark upon the world, as Ivan does on the wall?

Models: Izzi Godley & Ivan Moy. Stylist: Kate Madison. Assistant: Ash Maharaj. Location courtesy of the Churches Conservation Trust. Film processing and scanning by Aperture, London.

Creating “Stasis”

5 Facts About the Cinematography of “Dunkirk”

Some have hailed it as a masterpiece, others have complained it left them cold. Personally, seeing it on 70mm, I found Dunkirk a highly immersive and visceral film, cinematic in the truest sense of the word. The huge, sharp images free from any (apparent) CGI tampering, combined with the nerve-jangling gunshots and rumbling engines of the superlative soundtrack, gave me an experience unlike any other I can recall in recent movie-going history. I can imagine that it was less effective projected from a DCP onto a smaller screen, which may account for the underwhelmed reactions of some.

But however you feel about Dunkirk as a film, it’s hard not to admire its technical accomplishments. Here are five unique aspects of its cinematography.

 

1. It was shot on two huge formats.

Director Christopher Nolan has long been a champion of large-format celluloid capture, eschewing the digital imaging which has become the dominant medium in recent years. “I think IMAX is the best film format that was ever invented,” says Nolan in a DGA interview. “It’s the gold standard and what any other technology has to match up to, but none have, in my opinion.”

Imax is a process which uses 65mm film (printed on 70mm for exhibition, with the extra space used for the soundtrack) running horizontally through the gate, yielding an image over eight times larger than Academy 35mm. Following some test shots in The Prestige, Nolan captured whole sequences from The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar in Imax.

For Dunkirk, Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, ASC, FSF, NSC were determined to eliminate 35mm altogether, to maintain the highest possible resolution throughout the movie. Imax cameras are noisy, so they shot dialogue scenes on standard 65mm – running vertically through the gate – but Imax footage makes up over 70% of the finished film.

 

2. The movie was framed with three different aspect ratios in mind.

Those who watched Dunkirk in an Imax cinema got to see the native aspect ratio each sequence was captured in, i.e. 2:20:1 for the standard 65mm dialogue scenes but the much taller 1.43:1 for the Imax material, the bulk of the film. Those, like me, who attended a standard 70mm screening, saw it in 2:20:1 throughout. And those hapless individuals who watched it digitally apparently saw the standard Scope ratio of 2.39:1, at least in some cases.

This means that, when composing his shots, van Hoytema had to have two ratios in mind for the dialogue scenes and three for everything else. “Framing was primarily for the 2.40 [a.k.a. 2:39:1], then protecting what was outside of it,” 1st AC Bob Hall explains. This left close-ups, for example, with a large amount of headroom in 1.43:1, but the huge size of Imax screens made such framing desirable anyway.  “Imax is such an immersive experience that it’s not so much the composition that the cinematographer’s done as where your eyes are going on the screen that creates the composition.”

 

3. Parts of the camera rig were worn as a backpack.

Breaking with the accepted norms of large format cinematography, van Hoytema captured a significant proportion of the movie handheld. The 65mm camera package weighed over 40kg – about three times the weight of a typical Alexa rig – with the Imax camera only a little lighter. To avoid adding the weight of the batteries, video transmitter, Cinetape display and Preston (wireless follow focus) brain, these were placed in a special tethered backpack which was either worn by key grip Ryan Monro or, for water tank work, floated on a small raft.

Unfortunately, Hall quickly found that electromagnetic interference from the Imax camera rendered the Cinetape inoperable, so he ended up relying on his extensive experience to keep the images sharp. “I had to go back to the technology of the 1980s, where I basically guess how far famous people are from me,” he remarks drily in this enlightening podcast from Studio Daily.

 

4. A periscope lens was used to shoot spitfire cockpit interiors.

“I wanted to tell an intensively subjective version of this story,” says Nolan. To that end he requested over-the-shoulder views out of the windscreens of Spitfires in flight. Furthermore, he wanted to be able to pan and tilt to follow other aircraft passing by. Given the huge size of the Imax camera, there was no room to rotate it within the cockpit. Instead, custom periscope lenses were built which could snake over the pilot’s shoulder, and pan and tilt independently of the camera body, using prisms to maintain the correct image orientation to the film plane.

Other glass used on Dunkirk included an 80mm Imax lens belonging to Nolan himself, and converted stills lenses.

Note that the camera is mounted upside-down, to compensate for the flipped image generated by the prism in the periscope lens.

 

5. At one point the camera sunk to the bottom of the sea for an hour and a half.

A specific Spitfire POV required was from a damaged plane diving towards the sea and hitting the water. The practical effects department devised a catapult to launch an unmanned mock-up from a ship, the grips built a crash housing for the Imax camera which would be inside, and a plan was devised to recover it before the mock-up sank. But they weren’t quick enough, and the crew watched the plane and the camera disappear beneath the waves and plunge to the bottom of the English Channel, where it sat for 90 minutes until divers retrieved it. Incredibly, once dried out and developed, the film footage was found to be completely undamaged. “The shot was all there, in full colour and clarity,” says van Hoytema in the American Cinematographer article. “This material would have been lost if shot digitally.”

 

5 Facts About the Cinematography of “Dunkirk”

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