The American Society of Cinematographers

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The Wolfman
Page 2
Page 3
Chris Menges
Presidents Desk
Post Focus
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Shelly Johnson, ASC offers a firsthand account of his visual strategies for The Wolfman.

Photos by Frank Connor.
As I’m on my way to the airport to board a flight to London, my phone rings. It’s Donna Langley at Universal. “Shelly, I want you to know that this is a dark picture,” she says. “The images need to have atmosphere and texture, and we’re looking for a dark and moody look. I want to make sure you’re up for it.” This was the first time I recall a studio asking me to make a film dark — I’m usually the one trying to sell them on the idea. I assured Donna that I was indeed up to the task, and that I was excited about creating a uniquely dark world, a world in which the Wolfman could exist.  

The Wolfman is the story of an estranged man’s journey home. Sent away to America as a child after witnessing his mother’s murder, Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) returns to his family’s English estate decades later, following his brother’s violent death. There, he reconnects with his father (Anthony Hopkins) and learns the full breadth of the old man’s manipulations and about the family’s mysterious secret: the dark curse Lawrence will inherit through an attack by a mysterious creature. He also discovers, for the first time since his mother’s death, the true meaning of unconditional love, shown to him by Gwen (Emily Blunt), the fiancée of his departed brother.     

Upon reading the script, I was taken by the presence of conflicting elements sharing the same space in the storytelling: sanity and insanity, love and hate, selfishness and generosity, truth and lies. The story was constructed using these opposites to convey the characters’ complex emotions, their inner struggle to find balance between their true feelings and desires and those affected by the curse of the werewolf. I wanted my visual plan to evoke these same complexities. My initial instinct was to integrate opposing elements and have them share the same frame: light and dark, hard and soft, warm and cool, symmetry and asymmetry.      

The project had come to me only a few days prior to my arrival in London. Director Joe Johnston, with whom I had previously collaborated on Jurassic Park 3 and Hidalgo (AC April ’04), contacted me when he took over for the previous director, who had left the film. Joe was to have three weeks’ prep, and I was to have two — not a lot for a $100-million-plus undertaking of this scale.     

Joe is a true author of his movies. By that I mean he works in detail with the production designer, cinematographer, actors, editor, composer and sound editors to create a whole experience for the audience. I think his greatest gift is to keep the production team focused on story so that all of our large-scale technical decisions have a clear reason to be; they are incorporated into the movie in the same manner story beats are represented in the script.      

With so little prep time, I needed to find a way to connect with the production team, most of which had already been assembled, and also with the material. I began going through art books to cull ideas for my visual plan. I found my inspiration when I walked into the art department at Pinewood Studios on my first day: production designer Rick Heinrichs had developed an impressive amount of concept art that had a most haunting presence. Rick was also there to show me his plans and concepts, which were quite complex and meticulous. I appreciated his manner, as he was instrumental in getting me fully aligned with the vision he and Joe had been developing during their short time together.     

In the concept art, Rick envisioned telling the story within a world of shadows and evocative forms. He intended for many of his dark mansion sets to be lit by means of reflective light sources, such as large bounce flats, to give shape to the dark moldings as opposed to enormous amounts of incident light. This was something I was considering implementing, too, so I was inspired by Rick’s take on the material.     

A key decision production made early on was to shoot a large portion of the film on location, a different stylistic approach than the one taken on the earlier, stagebound Universal classic. The idea was to ground the story in reality and integrate our storytelling elements into that setting. I liked this idea, particularly for our night scenes, which we wanted to shoot at a much larger scale than is possible onstage.     

In thinking about the night photography, I knew the moon had to have a haunting, enigmatic presence. I chose to let the moonlight transform as the story progressed. I didn’t want to hang the same moon effect over each night scene; rather, I wanted to let the scene tell me what the moon should look like.      

At one point in the story, Lawrence travels to a large gypsy camp at the edge of the woods to meet Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin), who warns him about the curse of the werewolf. In the camp, moonlight appears in different ways — as a soft source overhead, a 20'x20' soft box loaded with 30 space lights; as a silhouette source seen through the distant trees, created with rows of 20Ks backlighting ground fog; and, finally, as a lit sky, achieved by positioning an array of Dinos low and backlighting a night skyscape created by towering clouds of smoke. All of these hard and soft sources were able to co-exist within our world and create a single overall texture for night, when belief surrenders to superstition.     

This type of idea extended to all of our large location shoots, many of which were planned for early in our production schedule. Our gaffer was John “Biggles” Higgins, who had come aboard with the prior team. He is a wonderful man, and he helped me enormously when it came to preparing efficiently. I talked to him a great deal about my desire to approach the lighting with a fearless mindset; I wanted to create an aggressive look that would emerge from darkness and focus on what the audience needed to see. It was my desire to have the sets and locations creep out of the shadows. I wanted to see into depth but wanted that depth to exist only in form, not detail, and I wanted to bring the scenes into light when it was appropriate.      

To this end, I made detailed lighting diagrams for Biggles and his rigging crew. He was familiar with working on this scale and always allowed ample time to place large cranes and pre-rig. This was invaluable because our night locations were immense. With Biggles’ help, we were able to focus 50 or 60 light placements in advance. When the production company arrived, we only needed to supplement the base lighting after Joe had had a chance to rehearse the scene.      

One of my favorite scenes takes place on a hilltop amid a primitive formation of standing stones. This is where Lawrence inherits the curse of the werewolf. It’s one of the few night scenes we shot onstage, and we did so because we needed to control fog effects — in the scene, the creature pursues Lawrence through a gray fog. A 360-degree set was constructed on H-Stage at Shepperton Studios; it featured a 360-degree painted backing and an exquisitely detailed foreground summit with Druid stones.     

In keeping with my desire to have opposing elements coexist, I created a moonlight source to project through a 16'-wide cutout in the top portion of the backing that was both hard and soft from the same direction. I formed a hard shadow using an open-face 18K gelled with 3⁄4 CTO and created a soft source from the same placement with an array of diffused Maxi-Brutes gelled with 1⁄4 CTB. The soft light gave us the wrap we needed for the fog to carry the light into some shadows, and the 18K gave us the glint we needed to bring the moonlight to the fever pitch required for the content of the scene.    

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