The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents December 2006 Return to Table of Contents
Casino Royale
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Casino Royale, shot by Phil Méheux, BSC, attempts to refashion the James Bond franchise for a new generation of viewers.

Unit photography by Jay Maidment
It was a different world in 1953, when Ian Fleming introduced James Bond in the short novel Casino Royale, and the secret agent who graced those pages was quite different from the suave, assured sophisticate portrayed onscreen by Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan. The owners of the film franchise decided the new Casino Royale, directed by Martin Campbell and shot by Phil Méheux, BSC, should not only introduce a new lead actor (Daniel Craig), but also reintroduce Bond to the world. The picture was therefore designed with the first Bond novel, rather than any of the preceding Bond movies, in mind. 

Casino Royale is the book where Bond becomes a double-0,” notes Campbell, referring to the agent’s elite status. The Bond of Fleming’s book is in his early 30s and, especially in the opening chapters, coarse and impulsive. “He was prone to making rash judgments and thinking more with his heart than his head,” says Campbell. “He drank too much, smoked 70 cigarettes a day and was very misogynistic. In the course of the story, he has a serious romance, and by the end he becomes the Bond we all know and love. His evolution is really what the book’s about, and that’s what this movie is about, too.” 

Méheux, who has collaborated with Campbell on eight features, including Goldeneye (see AC Dec. ’95), observes that Fleming wrote Casino Royale “as a straightforward thriller. The book has some very ugly scenes in it. The producers [Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson] and Martin all felt some of the more recent Bond films had gotten slightly off track and too wound up in visual effects. The man is a government-hired assassin, but the series was becoming unreal.” 

Casino Royale has no Q Branch and no super gadgets, and the villain, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), is not as bizarre as many of Bond’s other nemeses. Also, there are no superhuman stunts, because the filmmakers wanted the action scenes to look like they obey the laws of physics. This is not to say that the movie is totally unrecognizable as a Bond film. “The whole thing is still very up-market, of course,” says Campbell. “We’ve given it a very glossy look, as all the Bond films have. But none of the action is impossible or spacey. We never take things to a ludicrous extent. 

“Phil’s a great cameraman,” the director continues. “He and I work very well together, and he’s very good at handling movies like this. You have to be tremendously organized and able to work under extreme pressure for a long time on movies like this. It can be tough and grueling. Phil always knows what I want and photographs it beautifully.” 

The filmmakers decided to confound Bond fans’ expectations from the very start by opening with a black-and-white sequence, which shows Bond committing his first two government-sanctioned murders. “If you want to do something quite different and turn everyone around, do something in black-and-white!” says Méheux. “People are so used to seeing all these stunts and everything in color, and we go right into a scene of black-and-white with very little stunt work.” The sequence was designed to feel more like spy films from the Cold War era, such as The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, than a big action film of 2006. Shot in part at Barandov Studios in Prague and in a nearby Cold War-era steel factory, the scenes deal more with character and psychology than action. 

Méheux welcomed the chance to recall some of his early training in black-and-white at the BBC, and he shot the scenes on a monochrome negative. “Some people shoot color and get rid of it in the digital intermediate [DI], but I didn’t like the look of that. I also tried force-processing some color stocks, but I think if you really want the look of black-and-white, you have to shoot black-and-white film. I used Eastman Double-X [5222]. They don’t make it in large quantities, but we only shot about 6,000 feet. 

“I love the way there aren’t many midtones,” he says of the stock. “The shadow area drops off quickly, so if you have something that’s jet black, you have to lose it entirely or put a hell of a lot of light on it. In color, the stocks seem to resolve forever and ever. You get to the DI and say, ‘Can I see what’s in that dark corner?’ and [the colorist] cranks the whole thing up and it’s like sunlight in there. In black-and-white, there’s nothing there. It’s a discipline.” 

Méheux approached the two murders depicted in the opening sequence differently. For one, he used a lot of hard sources, and for the other (set in a bathroom), he transformed the entire ceiling into one big softbox and let the white walls reflect the light. 

In his efforts to pay homage to classic spy films, some of which were shot in the 2-perf Techniscope process, Méheux took advantage of the Super 35mm 2.35:1 format. The greater depth of field facilitated by spherical lenses recalled one of Techniscope’s characteristics. “With Techniscope, the increased depth of field meant they were able to put things like lampshades and telephone boxes in the foreground, and they didn’t appear amoebic — you could actually see detail in them,” notes Méheux. “In The Ipcress File, there’s a shot where a table lamp is huge in the frame and a man’s face is in the top right-hand corner. I really like that look. Part of the dialogue in our opening sequence was done with very carefully controlled shots that have huge things in the foreground and faces pushed to the corners of the frame. Little things like that echo the Cold War period of spy films.” 

The filmmakers’ decision to use Super 35 was prompted by the fact that a DI was a given. “There’s a certain elegance to anamorphic,” Méheux says of the format used for most Bond films, “but some of that depends on the way directors work. Today, and I think this is because of television’s influence, directors seem to want the camera in closer than ever. I know Panavision has developed close-focus Primo anamorphic lenses, but you’re still using longer lenses, so the lack of depth of field can be an issue. I’ve done five films with Martin using anamorphic lenses, but he likes to work in a very kinetic way camera-wise, and I’m more comfortable doing that with Super 35.” 

The production, which had six camera units in all, carried Arricam Studio bodies and an Arricam Lite (for handheld and Steadicam work), as well as Arri 435s and 235s. Méheux chose sets of Cooke S4 primes and Angenieux Imagon zooms. For the color material, he used two Kodak Vision negatives, 500T 5279 and 200T 5274, and often overexposed them slightly to add density. “I don’t like to use a lot of stocks because it confuses me and everyone else,” he declares. “I usually confine myself to two stocks, one for indoors and one for outdoors.” 

Kodak’s newer 500-speed stock, Vision2 5218, was available, but Méheux says he preferred 5279 because he had been somewhat disappointed with the final colors rendered by 5218 in The Legend of Zorro. “It could have been the digital process,” he speculates. “I really don’t know. But I knew I wanted Casino Royale to be really punchy. I wanted deep blacks that still held some detail. I’m very comfortable with 5279; I’ve shot more films on it than any other.” 

The camerawork in Casino Royale presents another departure, in that it involves a lot of handheld operating. “Camerawork in movies is more fluid these days,” notes A-camera operator Roger Pearce. “I’ve done more handheld work on this picture than I’ve ever done. I’ve worked on four pictures with Martin Campbell, starting with Goldeneye, and even there we did a lot less handheld work. With handheld, the action is happening in front of you. It’s almost a newsreel situation. Martin does a lot of takes and there’s always something a little different from take to take. That keeps it very interesting.”

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