The American Society of Cinematographers

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Inside Man
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Sundance 2006
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Matthew Libatique, ASC creates distinct visual environmments for Inside Man, which pits a hardened cop against a resourceful bank robber.

Unit photography by David Lee
Additional photos by John Velez
Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures

The studio synopsis for Spike Lee’s latest film, Inside Man, informs us that it is the story of a “tough cop, Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), who matches wits with a clever bank robber, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), in a tense hostage drama.” Director of photography Matthew Libatique, ASC, confirms that this is an accurate description of the film, which also stars Jodie Foster as a “power broker with a hidden agenda.” The cinematographer adds that he was “attracted to this test of wills between two very strong characters, and the depth each character held.” 

Libatique goes on to explain that the motive behind the robbery is not what it initially seems, and turns out to involve a significant moral issue. Inside Man is one of the few features Lee has directed that he did not also write, but Libatique notes that the director certainly has a way of a making any movie his own. “Spike is a camera-savvy, composition-savvy director,” says the cinematographer, who previously collaborated with Lee on the feature She Hate Me (2004) and a number of commercials. “He has a distinct working style; he likes to have the scene play out and get all of his coverage pretty much at the same time. He’s not a single-camera-setup director who gets nine shots per scene and spends all day doing it. He prefers to get the actors blocked and find out where he can place all the cameras so he can get the scene and the performance. Because of this, the actors have to perform in every shot. 

“I don’t think our collaboration on would have been nearly as successful if I hadn’t shot a feature for him before,” he adds. largely involved two and three cameras, and I knew that was going to be the formula on this film as well.” 

In fact, during several sequences on many more cameras were used. “We had some seven-camera days when we shot the police approaching the bank after the call comes in that it’s being robbed,” explains Libatique. “Spike likes to set up a grand scene with a bunch of cameras and then go into the chaos — he treats it as live theater. He’d use seven cameras in one scene but then a single camera in another. I think that’s his way of letting [the movie] breathe. For example, in the scene when the hostages are finally released, we covered the action with seven cameras, but the aftermath of that moment, as the hostages are put on buses, was covered mainly in a single crane shot that moved from one place to another, revealing things as the shot progressed.” Similarly, other scenes were covered with a single Steadicam shot. “For those, I’d create a lighting setup that would accommodate several cameras but then use a single camera to move from character to character and take you from place to place within the scene.” 

Most intriguing for Libatique is Lee’s tendency “to create visual metaphors for different characters or story points.” In a major goal was “to create a visual distinction between Frazier and Russell.” Russell, who masterminds the heist on the downtown Manhattan bank and takes dozens of people hostage, was generally photographed “with a Steadicam and a centered frame, an approach that suggested a person in control,” says the cinematographer. “Lighting-wise, we tried to keep the color temperature as unified as possible in his scenes.” By contrast, Frazier, who is under investigation and is assigned to the case only because the regular hostage negotiator is unavailable, spends much of the film outside the bank, in a state of confusion about the situation at hand. “When we shot scenes with Denzel, we used multiple handheld cameras and our approach was more about the cuts,” says Libatique. “We also used a lot of different lighting sources for the exteriors, including fluorescents, tungsten, metal halides, sodium vapors and police flashers — anything that would create a mix.” 

These split strategies for were developed during preproduction. “Spike sort of riffs with me, gives me an idea, and then I go away and come up with a visual arc,” says Libatique. “At a certain point he’ll look at me and say, ‘So, what have you got?’ That’s when I’ll pitch my idea. He’ll want to know how I’m going to do it — whether it will be cross processing or a disparity in color temperatures, whether it’s the use of Steadicam or use of different lenses. He gives me a lot of freedom to come up with a language, but he wants to know what the approach is before he shoots anything.” 

The decision to film in Super 35mm 2.35:1 had a lot to do with the framing strategies the filmmakers had in mind for the two leads. “One of our earliest ideas was to have a centered frame for Clive’s character and a weighted frame for Denzel’s, so I wanted to work in 2.35,” says Libatique. “I thought it would create distinct negative space for each character. With Denzel’s character, framing left and framing right with a lot of negative space creates a sense of the chaos around him. You get the impression he’s a man under a microscope being watched by many.” Because the filmmakers intended to finish with a digital intermediate (DI) at EFilm in Hollywood, choosing Super 35mm over anamorphic was easy. “The greater flexibility in terms of lenses and mobility led me to use spherical,” says the cinematographer. “I didn’t want to have that anamorphic angst.” 

Arricam Studios and Lites were the production’s primary cameras, and they were augmented with Arri 435s and Arri 235s during more frenetic action sequences. Libatique used a range of Cooke S4 prime lenses. “When you use many cameras, especially with Spike, you’re inevitably using long lenses because you’re putting cameras in places that have to be farther away from the action,” he explains. “We were wider with Clive because we had the opportunity to be closer in on a single-camera Steadicam shot. There’s an inherent language created by the logistics.” 

Multiple cameras meant multiple operators, and there were three on “At the beginning of the show, I met with them to explain the visual concept so it would be ingrained in their minds,” says Libatique. “I said, ‘We want to create a sense of control and largely centered frames with Clive’s character, and we want to have movement with Denzel’s.’ Having three operators on the same character, I’d watch all three. In a handheld shot, a long lens has a little bit of movement and a wider lens is inherently smoother. I would actually talk to the operator and tell him not to be so steady. It was the first time I’d worked with so many operators where I wasn’t one myself.” 

A-camera/Steadicam operator Stephen Consentino estimates that 80 percent of was shot either handheld or on Steadicam. “The original plan was that I was going to be the B-camera operator and Matty was going to operate the A camera,” says Consentino, “but after about a day and a half of shooting, we started doing a crane shot and Matty was really busy lighting. I said, ‘Do you want me to just set it up for you and operate a rehearsal?’ I did that, and he came to me at the end of the day and said, ‘From now on, just do all the operating.’ Spike moves so fast and wants to do a lot of coverage with a lot of cameras, so it’s hard if you’re a director of photography and also operating a camera — all you see is what’s happening with your camera.” Libatique adds, “Watching everybody operating at the same time, I was able to see how everything was working together. I felt like I was operating all three!” 

Consentino’s work also helped Libatique embrace the Steadicam for the first time. “After the shoot, Matty told me he’d never worked with an operator who shared his framing sensibilities and was really good at Steadicam,” recalls Consentino, who has 15 years of experience with the device. “I’d never worked with a director who wanted to move the camera that way,” says Libatique, whose feature credits include (see AC Oct. ’00) and (AC Nov. ’02). “But I thought, ‘If I’m going to light for a multi-camera situation, why not take advantage of it with the Steadicam?’ It gave me the opportunity to move the camera from one place to another in an interesting way.”

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