The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents February 2008 Return to Table of Contents
I Am Legend
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In I Am Legend, shot by Andrew Lesnie, ASC, ACS, the survivor of a worldwide plague battles night-stalking mutants amid the ruins of Manhattan.

Unit photography by Barry Wetcher, SMPSP
Manhattan, the most densely populated borough of New York City, is empty. Weeds grow through cracks in Fifth Avenue, wild deer inhabit Times Square, and in “the city that never sleeps,” the silence is deafening. Within this deserted urban wasteland exist virologist Robert Neville (Will Smith), who is seemingly the only human survivor of a man-made biological disaster that occurred three years earlier, and his sole companion, a German shepherd. Neville’s days are filled with the routine of transmitting distress signals, tending his vegetable garden in Central Park, and practicing golf from the tail-fin of an SR71 spy plane. When night falls, he barricades himself inside a specially fortified brownstone on Washington Square Park. Clutching his gun, he and the dog fall into an uneasy sleep in an empty bathtub. Neville might be the last human alive, but he knows he’s not the only survivor.  

I Am Legend was originally a novel written by Richard Matheson and published in 1954. The author’s vision of a post-pandemic California inspired two earlier films, 1964’s The Last Man on Earth (shot by Franco Delli Colli) and 1971’s The Omega Man (shot by Russell Metty, ASC), but according to Andrew Lesnie, ASC, ACS, the director of photography on I Am Legend, the new film “is closer to Matheson’s book thematically than either of those films. Neville is initially presented as the last savior of humankind, his very existence promoting a previous way of life while he searches for a cure to the virus. Clinging to the semblance of a normal life, he has placed mannequins throughout a local video store so he has ‘people’ to talk to! He eventually realizes what’s happening is a form of evolution, and that he is the anachronism in a new world.”  

By relocating the story to New York City, I Am Legend director Francis Lawrence provides the perfect environment for themes of isolation and survival. The film features memorable wide shots of deserted city blocks, destroyed bridges, and major arterial roads clogged with abandoned vehicles. In an early scene that also demonstrates the scale of the biological disaster, Neville drives a Shelby Mustang
at breakneck speed through Manhattan, and the camera rises above the buildings to reveal a wider view of the devastation. Lesnie used the Go-Mobile, a Shotmaker camera car and the Russian Arm with a gyrostabilized head mounted on an SUV to film the earthbound parts of this sequence. “The second unit kicked off in preproduction to take advantage of the easier crowd and traffic control during the weekends,” he recalls. “Director/stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong and cinematographer Brian Pearson made great use of the Russian Arm system, while the main unit later used the Go-Mobile, driven by Kevin Scott, to do all of Will’s driving shots.”  

Shooting around major New York City landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Station and the Metropolitan Museum of Art was an elaborate logistical exercise. “Shooting this film was all about dealing with locations,” says Lesnie. “All the relevant departments, including the Mayor’s Office, the New York police and fire departments, the police Harbor Unit, the Transit Authority, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Federal Aviation Administration, were incredibly helpful. We needed two location managers, Paul Kramer and Rob Striem, to deal with the requirements of securing and locking down major locations.”  

A walk-and-talk sequence down Fifth Avenue that involves Neville and two other survivors, Anna (Alice Braga) and Ethan (Charlie Tahan), is a particularly pertinent example of the production’s location work. (Ed. Note: This scene was cut from the final film.) To shoot the sequence, the production shut down a 10-block stretch of Fifth Avenue. “We needed up to 200 production assistants, and they were positioned on each intersection, in the doorways of shops, at subway-station entrances and exits — anywhere people needed to be controlled,” recalls Lesnie. “When 1st AD J.P. Wetzel called for a lockdown, each intersection responded in sequence, and the whole process often took at least 15 minutes to complete.”  

Shot early on a Sunday morning, the two-minute walk-and-talk was covered by two Panaflex Millennium XLs on Steadicams that were Garfield-mounted to dollies. Lesnie describes shooting the sequence as eerily akin to Neville’s experience: “While I was walking backwards, watching the monitors on two Steadicams, there were only three people in front of me as far as the eye could see, and it was dead quiet. I was completely immersed in the scene. For a brief moment, I felt what it’s like to be in an empty city. When ‘cut’ was called, a massive cheer went up from the thousand people behind us who were watching Will Smith, and it took me totally by surprise!”  

Another scene shows Neville fishing for his dinner at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he breeds carp in a pool at the famous Temple of Dendur. The temple is located in the Sackler Wing of the museum with a reflecting pool representing the Nile River and a stippled glass wall that offers a view of Central Park. “The glass wall was deliberately built facing north, so there’s no direct sun — the space is lit with ambient light,” explains Lesnie. “The Met was very concerned about possible damage from film equipment. My gaffer, Mo Flam, used 16K helium balloons to light the main area and Kino Flos laid on the floor to light the Egyptian artwork. The balloons were the perfect supplement to the beautiful natural light.”  

One sequence that clearly demonstrates both the logistical and aesthetic concerns of location work took place on the Grand Central viaduct, which crosses over 42nd Street. Securing the two-way-traffic viaduct for the required five days of filming necessitated shutting down the sections of Park Avenue that circle Grand Central Station, as well as parts of 42nd Street. The location was also notable for the extreme changes in the direction of sunlight. “The sun comes down 42nd Street in the morning and then rapidly disappears and reappears as it travels behind the tall buildings,” notes Lesnie. “It also hits the windows of buildings on 42nd Street, creating sunlight coming in at a variety of angles. Around midday, the sun comes straight down Park Avenue, goes in and out between buildings again and finally comes down from the other end of 42nd Street at the end of the day, again reflecting off multiple glass surfaces. Some of the New York crew commented that they’d never seen so many directions of sunlight!”  

Matters were further complicated by the requirement that the sequence have two different times of day. Neville arrives at the viaduct in the middle of the day and is trapped there and knocked unconscious. Much later in the day, he wakes as the sun is going down and realizes he needs to get indoors. Lesnie explains, “For the first half of the sequence, I was happy to have slabs of sunlight because it helped us sell an early time of day, so some of that part was shot with the sun coming down 42nd Street. For the second half, however, we definitely didn’t want direct sunlight; shooting was therefore scheduled to enable us to swap the scenes to capitalize on changing light. The major machinery was kept off the viaduct itself because we were doing a lot of handheld work, and this enabled Will to have repeated runs of the whole sequence. We had only one scissor-lift up on the viaduct; the rest of the machines were parked down on 42nd Street, which is a really busy intersection. There were two Condors with 20-by frames that we could skin with either Duvatyn or diffuser for shading. Another Condor had two 18K Pars through a diffuser in case we needed to bolster Will’s ratio to help the shots cut in with the footage taken in direct sunlight.”  

The visual motifs of light and dark play a significant role in I Am Legend. The villainous “dark seekers” are fatally sensitive to ultraviolet light, and Neville is only safe in the full glare of daylight. A scene dubbed “The Haunted House” allows the audience to feel the constant sense of terror darkness holds for Neville; it was filmed in a disused bank building in the heart of Manhattan that was “perfect for us because it was a controlled environment that provided all the architecture we wanted,” says Lesnie. Neville enters the building in search of his dog, and the only source of light is the Surefire 6P LED lithium-powered flashlight mounted on his gun. “Francis’ philosophy for this sequence was, ‘The more we leave to the audience’s imagination, the scarier it will be,’” recalls Lesnie. “We shot the scene wide open, using [Kodak Vision2 500T] 5218 rated at 1,000 ASA, with a handheld PanArri 235. To complicate things, Will was using a military technique of cupping the light from the flashlight with his hand, releasing it only in short bursts. I asked him to keep his hand an inch away from the front of the flashlight so he’d be lighting his face with the bounce off his palm. When he took his hand away, I had a beadboard positioned right in front of the carbine to bounce light back onto him.”

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