The American Society of Cinematographers

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Multiple units and an arsenal of visual effects help Robert Elswit, ASC realize Philip Noyce’s action thriller Salt.

Unit photography by Andrew Scwartz, SMPSP and David Griesbrecht, courtesy of Sony Pictures
In the new film Salt, American covert operative Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is accused of spying for the Russians and must draw upon all her skills to evade capture by her CIA colleagues. She is also determined to prove her innocence, something that becomes increasingly difficult to do as her flight continues. The movie features a variety of ambitious action sequences, but according to director of photography Robert Elswit, ASC, director Phillip Noyce “was not interested in spectacular scale, which runs counter to the way action films are usually done. Phil pushed [production designer] Scott Chambliss to design our sets to be small, claustrophobic and authentic-looking, and he asked me to provide a naturalistic lighting scheme.”

However, he continues, “Phil was also open to the world of Salt taking on a somewhat stylized theatricality — the story, which is essentially a character-driven drama with a somewhat unbelievable premise, seemed to demand a slightly theatrical approach. This allowed me to try to find a lighting style that, though somewhat realistic, could also be shamelessly flattering to the actors, allowing them to look as attractive as possible even when bruised, cut and covered in blood. What that meant in practical terms is that very often the character lighting would dictate the set lighting. Luckily for me, the actor playing Salt was Angelina Jolie.

“In modern films, trying to maintain flattering lighting throughout a realistic drama can be a tricky road to go down,” continues Elswit. “At best it can dictate the entire look of a film and compromise every lighting setup; at worst the actor can appear as if he or she is in a different movie from everyone else. For all the actors, we tried to find a way to blend a kind of movie-star lighting with a theatrical realism that I hoped would not contradict or call attention to itself.”

Over the course of the film, Elswit gradually altered the quality of light he used on Jolie to underscore her character’s predicament. “I started with a bright frontal or ¾-frontal light on her, and then, as the story progresses, we begin to see her in half-light or backlight, or she’s keyed by light bouncing off the floor, creating stronger shadows and more contrast,” he says. “We actually found that putting Angie in half-light with strong contrast made her look even more striking. We never had to compromise the way the scenes looked or felt when we were lighting her. As long as I stayed away from toplight, the harsher and more unusual the angle, the more expressive the results.” Elswit acknowledges that a stunt-heavy thriller such as Salt looks a bit anomalous among his recent credits, which include Duplicity, There Will Be Blood (AC Jan.’08) and Michael Clayton, and he defers much of the credit for Salt’s visual style to his collaborators, notably 2nd-unit director Simon Crane; 2nd-unit director of photography Igor Meglic, ZFS (Slovene Association of Cinematographers); and visual-effects supervisor/3rd-unit director of photography Robert Grasmere, who coordinated the work of 10 visual-effects facilities.

Crane, who also worked with Jolie on Mr. & Mrs. Smith (AC July ’05), and Meglic, whose second-unit credits include The Bourne Ultimatum (AC Sept. ’07), are well known in their respective fields. “Being a second-unit cameraman requires a special set of skills,” Meglic remarks. “You have to have an understanding of how mass moves through space, and you have to be able to feel what’s going to happen as it does.”

Meglic notes that Salt illustrates how the second unit’s responsibilities have evolved on films in which action is closely fused with character. He and Crane often found themselves shooting what might normally be considered main-unit material, and “that used to be unheard of,” says Meglic. “Usually the first unit handles the principals while the second unit is off shooting all the cars and other action. It takes the right kind of director to gain the actors’ trust, and Angelina trusts Simon to direct her.”

Grasmere’s unit was tasked with filming all of the background plates, some aerial shots and the Russia material. It was also up to Grasmere to determine what could be achieved practically without slowing down the production, and what could be achieved in post without compromising the integrity of the other departments’ work. “There were big fixes and small fixes [in post] — the work was evenly distributed,” says Grasmere. “We finaled around 800 shots, which is a lot when you consider the whole film has 2,500 shots.”

On the set pieces where the second or third unit simply had to match first-unit photography, Elswit, Meglic and Grasmere, along with gaffers Andy Day and Greg Addison, would walk the sets and discuss the best way to match or re-create the original lighting setup. At other times, the secondary units worked autonomously in other locations; if they shot a critical dramatic scene featuring principal actors, the dailies were sent to Noyce and Elswit for approval. “Any large production that involves multiple units working independently and shooting stunts, effects and aerials is as big a logistical challenge as it is a creative challenge,” Elswit observes. “Thank God I had [1st AC] Baz Idoine to take care of all the camera-equipment issues, and Andy [Day] and [key grip] Dennis Gamiello to sort out all the other stuff.”

In one sequence that features a complex combination of stunts and visual effects, Salt is cornered on a freeway overpass by two CIA colleagues (played by Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor) and throws herself over the guardrail, landing hard on a container truck below. For the location work, Jolie rolled off the overpass of a highway interchange in Washington, D.C. Then an amalgam of elements were photographed on location in Albany, N.Y., and on a greenscreen stage erected in the former Northrop Grumman buildings in Bethpage, Long Island. Onstage, Jolie was suspended from a 25' track on a stunt wire and filmed at high speed as she was flown laterally into a chroma-key crash pad; Meglic’s camera was on a scaffold on precision dolly track.

Visual-effects artists at Framestore in New York, led by visual-effects supervisor Ivan Moran and CG supervisor Theo Jones, used Shake and Nuke software to alter the truck plate from Albany to sync the timing of Jolie’s fall and to match the lighting between the elements. (The plate was scanned at 4K by Deluxe’s New York facility.) Jones’ team created a CG container for the truck, using geometric data from a 3-D LIDAR scan made in Albany, and then fine-tuned the lighting for the container and the rest of the plate. The final composite is a quick, overhead shot of Jolie spinning through the air toward the truck.

When Salt hits the container, it’s a stuntwoman standing on top of the moving truck who completes the fall, rolling over as Meglic’s camera (operated by Jason Ellson) pans with her. In the same shot, Salt regains her composure, so a transition between two handheld shots — one with the stuntwoman, and one with Jolie — was hidden in the camera moves done on location atop the moving semi. “The two actresses did their best to match each other’s movements, and after that it was just a matter of morphing the two shots together over a few frames,” Moran explains.

The rest of the scene sees Salt jumping from truck to truck before hijacking a motorcycle and speeding away. Crane and Meglic, along with stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood, used previs animations (by Proof Inc.) and detailed beat sheets to determine shots and the kinds of equipment they’d need. “The Arri 235 is a godsend for this kind of work,” says Meglic. “It’s small, lightweight and has a great viewing system.” His lenses included a 70-210mm (T2.8) zoom lens that Panavision’s Dan Sasaki custom-built for him, and a range of Panavision Primo zooms and primes. Six operators covered the action and worked handheld, employing a Libra-head-equipped Supertechno 50 crane and a Mercedes-mounted Russian Arm. To heighten the sense of excitement, Meglic employed an in-camera combination of shutter clipping and speed ramping. “Depending on the shot, we’d undercrank film by a couple of frames to speed up the action just a bit,” he comments. “If you do it any more than that, it becomes obvious.”


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