The American Society of Cinematographers

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Alwin Küchler, BSC uses three formats and creative visual effects to realize Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, which sends a team of astronauts on a mission to revive the dying sun.

Unit photography by Alex Bailey
The sci-fi drama Sunshine is set 50 years from now, and global warming is no longer a threat. In fact, the sun is dying and the world has started to freeze. In an attempt to reverse the sun’s slow fade, a team of scientists has been sent into space aboard the Icarus II with a large nuclear bomb that they hope will reignite the dying star. Capa (Cillian Murphy), the crew’s physicist and the film’s narrator, explains that another crew set out on an identical mission several years earlier and disappeared before reaching the sun.  

Sunshine marks the first feature collaboration between director Danny Boyle and Alwin Küchler, BSC, whose credits include The Claim (AC March ’01), Code 46 (AC Sept. ’04), The Mother and Proof. A native of Düsseldorf, Germany, who has lived in England since 1989, Küchler worked with Boyle briefly in 2002, when he shot some pickups on 28 Days Later (AC July ’03) for Anthony Dod Mantle, DFF, BSC.  

According to Boyle, the first of many challenges the team confronted on Sunshine was how to craft visuals that would differentiate the film from its well-known predecessors. “If you’re going to make a space movie, you’ve got to make something a bit different — you can’t just remake Alien,” says Boyle. “In other genres there’s a lot of terrain to work with, but in space movies you can’t escape tight corridors and little rooms surrounded by metal. And when you’re working in those tight corridors, you’re keenly aware of all the filmmakers who’ve done amazing work before you in the same kind of corridors; you can feel them right there with you, and that challenges you to make your own mark in that corridor for future filmmakers to bump into.”  

Although Alien was a reference for the filmmakers, the German film Das Boot was more influential, according to Küchler. “That movie really helped us lock onto the idea of a very claustrophobic world and the tension that can arise when a group of people have to share a tight space for a long period of time,” he says. Boyle adds, “Space is infinite but claustrophobic at the same time. There’s no real reprieve — you can’t step outside for a breath of fresh air.” To heighten the sense of claustrophobia aboard the Icarus II, production designer Mark Tildesley built hard ceilings into the sets, and Küchler slowly increased the focal length of the lenses as the story progressed to compress the space further. “Danny wanted to play around with scale,” recalls the cinematographer. “As they approach the sun, the sun takes up more space in each character’s psyche and the tension ratchets up.”  

Another challenge was “how to sustain a film about light, especially when that light has to become more powerful as the characters get closer to it,” says Boyle. “In a movie theater you can only get so bright, and you can only sustain that kind of white-out brightness for a second or so before the effect is totally lost. We had to very carefully parcel out when the audience was able to go into the light, yet we always had to keep light alive as a character in the film.”  

Part of the solution was the use of color. “We had the color police on set every day, making sure that no orange or yellow or red was anywhere in sight,” recalls Boyle. “The film’s gray-blue palette is a convention of space movies; it’s a diet the audience expects. We take it a step further and starve them of any warm colors until they see the sun itself.”  

Notes Küchler, “There are certain things you plan, like starving the audience of warm colors to make the visuals of the sun more powerful, but there are some things you just stumble across that almost end up being more important. For example, we started shooting macro close-ups of eyes now and then, and without even talking about it we started shooting more and more of them. We realized the pupil of the eye is like a negative image of the sun itself, and looking into someone’s eye like that is like looking into his soul. You find these abstract images that express a lot, and it’s a lot of fun to discover them.”  

To suggest the sun’s presence when it isn’t onscreen, the filmmakers decided to make lens flares a significant player in the visual scheme. “A flare is atoms of light coming into your eyes, a moment when the surface of the screen seems to be broken and things are out of control and the relationship between the audience and the screen is penetrated,” says Boyle. “I became very interested in not just washing the audience with light, but actually reaching out to them, through them, with light.” Küchler shot anamorphic and Super 35mm to create two different types of flares, using Hawk anamorphic lenses to film the ship’s artificially lit interiors and Zeiss Ultra and Master Primes to film any scenes featuring sunlight (including ship exteriors and interiors such as the observation room). “Mixing formats enabled us to get horizontal flares in interiors and circular flares for all the scenes involving the sun,” says Küchler. “This was my first anamorphic shoot, and I tortured myself for three weeks over which lenses to choose, but in the end the Hawks won, mainly because we wanted to look different than Alien and Event Horizon.”  

Küchler’s main cameras were an Arricam Studio, two Arri 435 Xtremes, and an Arri 235, and Arri Munich manufactured a special ground glass that marked a 2.40:1 anamorphic center extraction on the Super 35mm area so he wouldn’t need another camera for anamorphic work. “I tend to favor Arri cameras when I’m dealing with tight spaces because I find Panavision cameras aren’t as advanced in adaptability — you can’t move the viewfinder from one side of the camera to the other, for example, and in tight spaces that can be a lifesaver. We used the 235 in tight spaces and when we had to be very physical and fast, like in the fight scenes where we got into the action.”
The rule on the set was no protection for the lens — no matteboxes, no flags around the lens. Küchler chose lights specifically for their flaring potential, selecting mainly smaller bulbs with small filaments to hit the lens with hard, point sources. “We collected flares like people collect butterflies!” he says. “We collected anything that was interesting and used it when necessary for the right effect.”  

In one scene, Capa awakens from a nightmare in which he is falling to the surface of the sun. Fellow crewmember Cassie (Rose Byrne), the ship’s pilot, is there to commiserate with him. Both actors are shot in singles, and a prominent flare takes up a large portion of the frame in both shots, suggesting Capa’s unsettled mental condition. Küchler created the effect by holding a small, low-voltage Luxeon LED light with a spot lens at the end of a flexible wire and positioning it for the best flare. “At that point in the film, everybody’s consciousness is slightly warped because the presence of the sun has become overwhelming,” he explains. “The flares, the feeling of light out of control, really helped express that feeling.”  

Flares were also incorporated into the film’s digital effects, which were created at The Moving Picture Co. (MPC) in London under the direction of visual-effects supervisor Tom Wood. However, most of the flares utilized in the CG elements were real, taken from Küchler’s test footage and from additional flare footage he filmed specifically for Wood’s team. “CG lens flares often look too processed and clean, so I prefer using proper camera flares when possible,” says Wood. “We used almost every flare Alwin had shot in his tests, and when we started to run out of them, he spent a day shooting hundreds of feet of flares specifically for us. He shot all of the flare work on black, so they were incredibly easy to composite into our work.”

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