The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
Return to Table of Contents
Return to Table of Contents January 2008 Return to Table of Contents
There Will Be Blood
Page 2
Page 3
Page 4
Page 5
There Will Be Blood
ASC Close-Up
DVD Playback

“The 43mm from the Pathé camera was really interesting,” he continues. “Once we removed it from the camera, we added an old cylinder assembly from the 1960s. I have to say, Paul and Robert did some of the most extensive testing I’ve ever seen to nail in a look with the lenses. It was one of the most challenging shows I’ve ever done.” 

Elswit notes, “We did six or eight shots with the Pathé lens. One in particular that’s really nice is when Plainview is sitting in a train with baby H.W. You can see color shifts in the corners, where the colors don’t line up precisely. We also did a few wide shots with that lens. It was very low-contrast and tended to vignette optically, especially on a full negative. It wasn’t razor sharp and didn’t have the same micro-contrast modern lenses do, but it was certainly sharp enough if I stopped down. It’s a neat lens, and I’m glad we used it. 

“When I shot Good Night, and Good Luck, we had a short schedule that required us to work fast, and we never took the 11:1 zoom off the camera,” he adds. “This show was different because Paul really likes the discipline of the 40mm, the 50mm, the 75mm and the 100mm. He wants to make the movie play out in those sizes, and he understands how that affects staging and design.” 

There Will Be Blood is mainly a day-exterior film, which allowed Elswit to take advantage of the anamorphic format while capturing landscapes on location in Marfa, Texas, which doubled for Bakersfield, California. (A few sequences were shot in California at locations that included Mystery Mesa.) In Marfa, production designer Jack Fisk constructed the main sets: a tiny town consisting of simple wooden structures, including a church and the oil derrick that serves as the focal point of the action. “We looked at a lot of locations with Jack, but Marfa was the place,” says Elswit. “There aren’t many spots in America where you can stand on top of a hill and see absolutely nothing in all directions. We all loved the quality of the landscape, and the ranch we used had the little railroad the story required. Jack picked a part of the ranch that worked perfectly — from the church you could see the railroad, the oil well and the Sunday family’s little ranch house. They were all visually connected, but Paul is an enemy of the obvious, so he didn’t want to [show] that. But Jack laid the place out wonderfully, and the sets were perfectly integrated into the harsh landscape. The structures’ simple stylization and the way they were sighted in relation to the land and each other made the world of the movie seem very believable and real. The interior designs were always based on ideas about story and character, and Jack’s sensitivity to lighting and how it changes throughout the day was the major factor in the planning and placement of the sets. That, in turn, made it easy for us to find interesting and expressive ways to stage and photograph the movie. In my opinion, Jack’s production design was the great contribution to the film.” 

Anderson prefers to use the slowest film stocks possible, and Elswit shot There Will Be Blood on Kodak Vision2 50D 5201, which was used for day scenes, and Vision2 200T 5217, used for all night material. “We shot with Vision2 stocks because they’re less contrasty and easier to work with outdoors [than Vision stocks],” says Elswit. “We did nothing fancy — no flashing, no special filters. Paul actually thinks using an 85 filter is bad! I’ve often explained to him that the stocks are designed to work with an 85, but he thinks that’s somehow interfering with the alchemy of Kodak. This time, though, he let me use an 85 when it was appropriate. 

“We also print our dailies — with Paul, there’s no digital world,” continues Elswit, adding that Deluxe Laboratories prepared the dailies. “No DVD dailies are made, and there’s no digital intermediate [DI]; everything is photochemical. We’ve never done anything digitally except some visual effects. There are a few digital effects in this film, mostly involving the [creation of multiple] oil wells or the removal of modern elements from the landscape. If you know you’re doing a DI, you can cheat a bit [on set], but you can’t do that when you’re shooting for Paul.” 

“I’m either old-fashioned or quite stubborn, or maybe both,” Anderson admits. “But at the moment I don’t really like DIs, and I’m not sure what the advantage to the process is if you’re shooting anamorphic. I have a hard enough time making up my mind about things without going into a DI suite; I don’t think I’d ever get out of there. The process creates too many options, and at any rate, I don’t like the way it looks.” 

The authentic look and feel of Blood are a credit to the camera, production-design and costume departments, but the project also benefited from exhaustive research and carefully considered influences. Anderson based his screenplay on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, drawing mainly from the first 150 pages, which he lauds for “incredible descriptions of the oil work at the time, whether it was the details of the drilling or what it would be like to be in charge of a group of 20 or 40 men. The book is set in the 1920s, so we crossed a bit of our research and fudged some dates to put us at the beginning of the oil boom in California.” The story is also partly based on the life of American oil tycoon Edward Doheny, whose former home in Beverly Hills provided the setting for the film’s shocking climax. 

Additionally, Anderson and his collaborators visited museums, pored over period photographs and studied old, industrial, silent footage of actual oil crews at work. “An enormous amount of footage was shot back then,” Elswit notes. “We watched all these old-time guys working on wooden rigs, and we could see what early rotary or cable-tool rigs looked like.”  

A key cinematic influence was John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). “I have such love for that film it’s kind of hard to talk about it without gushing,” says Anderson, who chuckles after realizing his pun. “On this film, we were trying to keep things simple — the simplest kinds of frames, the simplest number of shots — and we tried to follow the influence of filmmakers like Huston. The movies of the ’40s are incredibly straightforward. They’re the ones I love the most, really.” 

The opening scenes in Blood establish the film’s austere style and tone. In a series of dialogue-free sequences that unspool for 20 minutes, the solitary Plainview is shown working amid harsh and dangerous conditions. The first shots show him pounding away with a pick in a mineshaft, where he discovers a promising cache of oil. “Those scenes were shot in Shafter, a silver-mine area south of Marfa near the Texas-Mexico border,” says Elswit. “The mines were all dug by hand at the turn of the century, and they aren’t being worked anymore. We found one shaft that was 60 or 70 feet deep, and it was connected at the bottom to a perpendicular tunnel that had been created mechanically in the 1920s or ’30s. We could access the vertical shaft via the horizontal tunnel at the bottom.”

<< previous || next >>