The American Society of Cinematographers

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Swiss Army Man - Directing
ASC Close-Up

      For the bulk of the predominantly single-camera shoot, Seiple served as operator on dolly, slider, jib and handheld work, with Dana Morris traveling in to operate Steadicam when required. The production’s preferred dolly was the J.L. Fisher Model 11, as it was small enough to fit into narrow ravines and riverbeds.

      What might be the movie’s signature image — Hank riding Manny across the ocean — was shot with the XT on open water in a fishing bay just south of Los Angeles. For the close-ups, “the actors were on a wide knee-board,” Seiple describes. “Our key grip, Nick Kristen, rigged truss off of the front of a flat, bottomed-out picture boat, and then dragged the line and connected them to it, [pulling] them parallel to the camera,” which was mounted to a stabilized Filmotechnic Flight Head 5 on a J.L. Fisher Model 23 Sectional Jib. “We shot most of [the close-ups] 3⁄4 frontal and 3⁄4 back,” he says. “We could swing the jib in front and from behind to get those angles. Bill Boatman was the operator on the wheels for the crane shot as I worked the zoom.”

      Indeed, as time constraints and logistics would not allow for lens changes during this so-called “Jet Ski” sequence, the filmmakers opted to use an Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm (T2.8) 12x zoom — an unusual choice for a production shot nearly entirely on primes. The lens worked particularly well during the sequence’s wide shots, which were again captured from a boat with a jib-mounted camera, but this time tracking a stunt double; the double was dragged by a motorboat that was later removed in post, along with its wake. “We were about 50 yards away,” Seiple says, “doing crash-zooms in and out, trying to get the shot. There’s a really fun zoom shot [that made it to the final cut] that was actually us doing a zoom-in to reframe — but we did it slow enough that the Daniels said, ‘That was amazing!’ There’s a zoom-out that they kept in the movie as well. The directors had never talked about using zooms in the movie, but they ended up being wonderful.”

      The slow-motion footage for the Jet Ski sequence was generally shot at 48 and 60 fps, though frame rates as high as 96 fps were employed.

      A day-exterior LUT was designed for the production to boost contrast and bring out “richer colors in the shadows,” Seiple says, while not clipping the highlights. “Because of the green ambience from the deep-woods foliage, our day-exterior LUT also helped suppress high-level green saturation, which can cause the image to feel overly digital.”

      A slightly lower-contrast LUT was employed for night shoots for better visibility. “We had a wonderful [on-set] DIT named Matt Conrad, whom I’ve worked with for a long time and have brought onto every project I can,” the cinematographer enthuses. “We baked the look into the dailies so that everyone had a reference, and when we went to work with Sofie, she re-graded it to her look. The biggest thing that we changed was the green. We wanted the forest to have more of an emerald vibe, so we had to do a specific key just for that. Now the forest feels really lush and idyllic.”

      Borup adds, “We made sure things didn’t go too neon, and that all the greens and yellows in the trees didn’t get too saturated. That made a big difference in making it more filmic. [In that regard, adjusting] grain also helped.” The production used a Company 3-created grain image, which was derived from actual 35mm 500T stock.

      “I think it’s really important for the cinematographer to be involved [in the grade],” she continues. “It’s Larkin’s vision of how the movie is supposed to be. If he couldn’t capture certain things on set, we would try to solve those problems together and possibly save what he couldn’t get on [camera]. It’s a collaboration.” Borup performed the grade in 2288x1716 resolution with Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve — first with version 11, then migrating to 12 toward the end of the sessions when the facility upgraded — for a 2K DCP final deliverable.

      The directors and Seiple agree that the Swiss Army Man shoot saw few easy days. “Most of our locations were remote, so every 12-hour day ended up being 10 hours due to travel,” the cinematographer notes. “We had wire work, water work, a child, pyro, stunts every day, night exteriors, live animals, a bear. [Seemingly simple] scenes in the woods were complicated, with body gags and water shooting out of people’s mouths. Every day was a unique challenge.”

      Manny’s ability to dispense drinking water from his mouth was a live-actor gag devised by special-effects artist Jason Hamer, who was also responsible for the construction of several different Manny bodies for widely varying purposes throughout the production. The water-fountain effect is first demonstrated in a cave, in which the only interior light was a “LitePanels 1x1 Bi-Color as an eye light,” Seiple says. (The scene was shot in Hollywood’s Bronson Canyon, at the same rock tunnel from which the Batmobile emerged on the 1960s Batman show.) The cinematographer explains that he obscured the discordantly arid Southern California exterior that appeared through the cave’s entrance by utilizing a “blown-out look” for day interiors, and supplemented bounced sunlight with an Arri M90 and two 800-watt Jo-Lekos.

      Realizing that Manny’s powers are enhanced when he experiences hope for a romantic relationship of his own, Hank sets out to help him visualize what it might be like to court the woman of his dreams. To set the scene, Hank gathers up tree branches, vegetation and assorted garbage from the surrounding woods to build a mock-up of a commuter bus — a contrivance crafted by Daniels’ longtime production designer, Jason Kisvarday, and his team, primarily from items found on location in a private forest outside of San Francisco.

      “We tried to keep consistent light for the bus sequence,” Seiple says, “so we shot the majority of it in the morning, with sun coming in from the left, and supplementing that with an M90. Our gaffer, Matt Ardine, built his own 2-by-4-foot light units — we called them ‘Matty Pads’ — which are small light boxes with LiteGear Hybrid VHO LED LiteRibbon inside that can do tungsten or daylight, with a layer of 1⁄4 Grid Cloth and an Image 80 egg crate. They used a Kino backing [plate], and we could fly them around and instantly dim them up or down without color change.”

      For the “magical moments” on the bus, as Seiple describes, “we switched to these really funky old JDC [Cooke] Xtal Express 35mm, 85mm and 100mm lenses.” Kwan relates, “The bokeh was all [distorted] on the edges; it felt a lot more alive and organic. I think that was something we wanted to really push forward with this film — to make a lot of the imagery and sound design evoke very primal and human physical feelings, almost evoking sense memory.”


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