The American Society of Cinematographers

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Lady in the Water
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Snakes on a Plane
DVD Playback
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ASC Close-Up
Christopher Doyle, HKSC joins M. Night Shyamalan for the fairytale drama Lady in the Water.

Unit photography by Frank Masi, SMPSP
Lighting and framing are an international language, and today’s cinematographer, perhaps more than any other member of the filmmaking team, can travel the world to work on films in different countries and cultures. Christopher Doyle, HKSC exemplifies this trend, and truly lives in the global village. AC first spoke to Doyle about his new film, Lady in the Water, at this year’s Bangkok Film Festival. While the article was in progress, we reached him by telephone and E-mail in Hong Kong, Cannes, Vancouver, Los Angeles, New York and Barcelona — all in the space of three weeks. 

Doyle, a native Australian who has lived in Hong Kong for many years, sometimes playfully introduces himself as “an Asian with a skin disease.” His work on eight pictures with Hong Kong filmmaker Kar-wai Wong, including Fallen Angels, Chungking Express (see AC Dec. ’95), Happy Together and In the Mood for Love (AC Feb. ’01), has played an important part in the renaissance in Asian cinema. He has also worked on Chinese, South Korean, Japanese, Thai, Australian and American films; these credits include Invisible Waves, The White Countess (AC Feb. ’06), Hero (AC Sept. ’03), The Quiet American and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.

Doyle has said he aspires to be “the Keith Richards of cinema,” and much of his work is infused by a musical, improvisational approach, as well as a rebellious streak. Asked about his innovative work with Wong, Doyle says an important part of their approach is asking, “What if …?” He elaborates, “The response to ‘What if …?’ is where you are when you shoot, but we have collaborated so many times there is a solid base, so the result is coherent. Our ideas can be as simple as, ‘We didn’t have red in the other films, let’s put red in this one.’ The other way to say, ‘What if … ?’ is: ‘What if we start tomorrow?” Doyle laughs and recalls that with Wong, “we sometimes began shooting without a script.”

American filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan is worlds apart from such an improvisational style. Since achieving universal acclaim for The Sixth Sense (AC June ’00), Shyamalan has continued to mine the vein of the fantastic in Unbreakable (AC Dec. ’00), Signs (AC Aug. ’02) and The Village (AC Aug. ’04). The director is known for his extremely methodical approach to filmmaking, one that involves extensive preparation and storyboarding. Many were therefore surprised when Shyamalan invited Doyle to work with him. “I imagine,” jokes Doyle, “that Night had been warned I tended to throw a spanner in the works. It’s my anarchist side. I felt he embraced that in his way.” Bill O’Leary, the gaffer on Lady in the Water as well as The Village, recalls, “I asked Night why he hired Chris, and he told me that their divergent styles would bring something different to the film. Night’s films have a certain consistency, and he felt bringing Chris in would mix things up a little bit, add a dash of the unknown.”

Their different approaches were evident from the start of the six-week prep period. “I came in very early and worked with Night on the storyboarding, and it was actually pretty torturous for me — I just wanted to go film something!” says Doyle. “But we sat there and went through the film image by image. It was quite a thorough and painstaking procedure; for example, the angle of a head would be storyboarded and discussed. I don’t know how Night does it. From a very simple drawing, he’ll say, ‘No, it’s too tight.’ It’s a talent he has. To be honest, I couldn’t really tell much from the storyboard. There are nuances in the image that I was a bit obtuse to. He’d say, ‘What do you think of that angle?’ and I’d say, ‘It’s great.’ And then he’d say, ‘Chris, put on your glasses and look at it again.’”

Lady in the Water was Doyle’s first big-budget American movie, and he says the production “changed my attitude towards Hollywood, because there’s nowhere else in the world where you could have a lighting idea realized on such a huge scale. I was also impressed by the integrity of the work ethic, the ‘can do’ attitude that is basic to American culture.”

Shyamalan is known for his loyalty to his hometown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and has shot all his features in the area. “Night should be the mayor of Philadelphia,” deadpans Doyle. “Whenever he shoots, the unemployment level drops.” For Lady, the production took over a vacant lot and built a five-story apartment complex from the ground up, adding a swimming pool and a separate cottage; the latter structure is where the apartment superintendent and main character (Paul Giamatti) lives. The main building contained eight apartments that were used as sets, while the others were empty spaces behind window dressing. Although concrete was poured and steel I-beams used, the structure had no plumbing and was to be torn down after the production wrapped. Several other sets, including a water tank, were built in a nearby warehouse for additional shooting.

Lady in the Water is a suspenseful movie, and Doyle is mindful that we avoid spoiling the mystery. What can be said is that the superintendent meets a woman (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) who is a fairytale creature living under the swimming pool. It soon becomes apparent that there are other, more dangerous beings that threaten her survival. The apartment complex is full of very different characters, among them a retired couple, some stoners, an Asian family, a film critic, and a pair of siblings. This culturally diverse group has to unite to fight the powerful, dark creatures who stalk “the lady in the water,” and the battle climaxes during a violent storm at the end of the movie. The apartment complex, says Doyle, “is a honeycomb. It’s a metaphor for society. Each [tenant] has his or her private experience, and it’s a major step for him or her to engage in the outside world.”

Doyle started by addressing the traditional cinematography challenge of evoking nighttime. Says the cinematographer of his director, “He’s not called Night for nothing. Most of his films, and a great deal of this one, take place at night. My experience is that two things happen on night shoots. First, after 3 a.m., everyone loses momentum and energy, and it’s very difficult to keep the pace up for any length of time. Secondly, the actors get tired, and therefore our job of making them look good becomes twice as difficult.” Doyle suggested shooting the predominantly nocturnal film mostly during the day. “I wanted to avoid the contrasty night look that any film shot at night has by necessity. So I thought, why not do it day for night? Actually, I started out calling it ‘day for night,’ but every time I used that expression, everyone freaked out, so I stopped saying it. For many people, ‘day for night’ is a bad omen; it never works. So we started calling it ‘twilight,’ or simply ‘our light.’”

Doyle filmed wide shots featuring a real twilight sky and closer shots “day for twilight.” He explains, “The idea in the wide shots was to use crepuscule, that magic moment when the sky has this deep, rich blue yet there’s still enough ambient light to register an image. We wanted to use twilight selectively, and for those scenes where we needed to have a sense of the space.” The cinematographer then matched these real twilight shots with “day for twilight” when going for “the meat of a scene, the stuff that was more controllable. That way we could shoot almost any time of day. So our working period was often mid-morning to mid-evening — a reasonable working day. Sometimes we started at 8 in the morning, sometimes at 11, depending on how much of that twilight moment we needed to get.


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