The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents January 2008 Return to Table of Contents
There Will Be Blood
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There Will Be Blood
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Elswit captured some of the shots in the shaft while dangling from a harness, including a startling overhead view of Day-Lewis falling backwards into the mine, a stunt the actor performed himself. Gaffer Robby Baumgartner details the lighting for this location: “Over the mouth of the shaft, we built a truss rig that supported a combination of 18/12K Arrimax Pars and 6K Pars, maybe two of each. We couldn’t point them straight down for safety reasons because Daniel was directly below at quite a distance.” 

A second mine setup, a night sequence in which a worker is killed by a falling drill, was filmed in several pieces. The exterior of the mine was shot on location in Texas, but the action inside the mine was captured within a 40'-tall set built by Fisk and his crew at Mystery Mesa. Baumgartner recalls, “The mine set wasn’t quite as long and narrow as the real mine we’d used earlier; it was a bit wider and a little easier to deal with. It was tented in at the bottom, and we lit it with tungsten units.” 

The hazards of oil drilling are spectacularly illustrated when an explosion on Plainview’s derrick creates a flaming geyser that engulfs the wood structure and burns with a malevolent glow. (See sidebar) According to Elswit, the staging of this sequence was “a nightmare,” and Anderson characterizes that day’s shoot as “insane.” Multiple cameras were deployed to capture the action around the 80'-tall pine derrick built by Fisk’s crew. Four of these were controlled by operators; one was placed in a firebox at the base of the derrick; another was set in a crash box to capture the derrick’s collapse; and others were positioned in spots near the derrick that were too hot for the operators. Elswit explains, “The fire was real, and it involved the effects team igniting a mixture of diesel fuel and gasoline that was controlled with a huge pump. The only digital effect, which was handled by ILM, involved the initial explosion at the top of the derrick. Otherwise, it was all pyro.” 

The filmmakers’ original plan was to shoot the burn over two days; the special-effects crew, led by Steve Cremin, would start the fire, extinguish it and then restage the burn on the following night with at least two more camera operators on hand. “For the first night, we had designed several long shots that would take Plainview from his tented outdoor office to the derrick, where he would cut the ropes that would allow it to fall over,” says Elswit. “We were also planning to shoot another angle of Plainview from the top [of the derrick] that would carry him to another camera. That was as far as we were supposed to go on night one before putting out the flames. Then, on the second night, we were going to shoot a number of other angles to suggest different points of view, including a more controlled view of the fire from over the actors’ shoulders. 

“Steve warned us they might not be able to completely extinguish the fire once it got started,” he continues. “The derrick had been treated, but it had been sitting in the hot sun for months, so it was as dry as tinder. Once Steve and his guys started the fire, they couldn’t completely extinguish the top part of the derrick, which was still smoldering. They were afraid it might collapse on its own, so we had to keep going and stage the collapse on the same night. As a result, we ended up not shooting a lot of angles we’d planned to get. It was frustrating, and I was very angry at the time, but Paul is happy with the sequence. The matching became an issue, though — is it magic hour or is it night? Is the sky blue or black? How do we make all of these shots fit together? We didn’t have a lot of time to finish that sequence, so we couldn’t be as careful about what we did and when.” 

Shaking his head at the memory, Elswit adds, “The next night, we had to shoot the reverses of the actors reacting to the big fire, and Paul didn’t want to use any artificial light.” In fact, these reverses were lit with real fire generated by either the powerful flame jet operated by Cremin and his crew or, for certain shots, flamethrower-like devices. Crewmembers were protected from the heat by flame-resistant suits, but the grimaces on the actors’ faces are genuine. “The flames got very, very hot, but that’s how we did it,” says Elswit. “I could have lit those reverses completely artificially, but Paul often doesn’t trust that kind of approach. He said, ‘Oh, no, it will be a lot better if we just set something on fire.’ So when you look at that scene, the color on the actors’ faces is the color of burning gasoline!” 

For smaller exterior setups involving campfires, Elswit aug-mented the look of the real flames with two special flicker units Baumgartner fashioned from aluminum, one measuring roughly 1'x8", and a larger one measuring 2'x4'. These homemade units ran on six circuits to create a varied, organic flicker. Baumgartner explains, “Instead of having just six bulbs flickering, we had 80 bulbs flickering on the smaller unit and 200 on the bigger unit. For the smaller unit, I used clear 15-watt peanut bulbs spaced about an eighth of an inch apart. That created a solid little bank of light flickering on six circuits. It simulated the hardness of a real campfire, but the quantity and proximity of the bulbs created a softer source. We ran the flicker boxes at 100 percent, dimming down each channel 5 or 10 percent to create the flicker. In order to get the right colors, I used a combination of party gels — red, amber and yellow with a touch of green and blue — and cut them in shapes so the light wouldn’t come out in one solid color.” 

The movie’s period dictated the use of oil lamps, candles and minimal electricity for interior sequences. “The early scenes in Texas, which were all supposed to be lit with oil lamps, were kept a bit warmer than the later scenes in Signal Hill, where they had electricity,” says Elswit. Baumgartner recalls, “During prep, Bob and I talked about how reading actual candlelight was just too warm, so for those scenes, we couldn’t match all the way down to candlelight. We tried to find a happy medium that simulated the color of candles or lanterns without being too low on the Kelvin scale. We ran some tests where we matched the candlelight at 1800°K, and that was much too warm. So we worked our way up to a level that was warm enough to be realistic, but not so warm that we were too far into the red spectrum. In those situations, we generally wound up at around 2300°K or 2400°K.” 

For a number of interior scenes, Elswit used a combination of Lowel Rifa-lites and muslin balls to create floor-light setups. He also used small fixtures inside China balls to create toplight for certain situations, such as the dinner sequences in the Sundays’ house. Baumgartner notes, “Bob is a big fan of the Rifa-lites, which are easy and quick to use. We also used a lot of practicals and hard light generated by Tweenies, Inkies and Babies. In some of the China balls, we used three halogen bulbs on a slight flicker to create a bit of movement that would emulate the look of candlelight.”

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