The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents January 2009 Return to Table of Contents
Revolutionary Road
Benjamin Button
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Jack Green, ASC
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Cinematographer Claudio Miranda and post supervisor Peter Mavromates crack The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which presents a main character who ages in reverse.

Unit photography by Merrick Morton, SMPSP
The $150 million film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is only Claudio Miranda’s second feature as a director of photography, but its director, David Fincher, had the utmost confidence in him — they had actually been working together for years. Miranda worked his way up in the electrical department and had been a gaffer on Fincher’s Seven, The Game and Fight Club, and he had also shot additional photography on Zodiac and many of Fincher’s commercials. “It is a big step, and you can almost panic yourself about taking on such a big movie,” acknowledges Miranda. “But I had a reasonable amount of prep to work out the logistics, and I was surrounded by a great support system, a talented crew who had done huge jobs. I knew I could count on them, whether it was one space light or a hundred.” That crew included operator Kim Marks, gaffer Christopher Strong, key grip Michael Coo and 1st AC Jonas Steadman. 

Benjamin Button, which draws its inspiration from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, begins in New Orleans in 1918 with the birth of the titular character, who emerges from the womb as an infant with the physical appearance of an elderly, ailing man. Horrified by the sight, Button’s father dumps the baby at a home for senior citizens, and mysteriously, Button’s condition gradually improves as he ages — physically, he ages in reverse, getting younger with the passage of time. At the heart of the story is a romance with a childhood sweetheart, Daisy, who grows up with Button but cannot, because of his ailment, grow old with him.

Although Benjamin Button spans eight decades, the filmmakers decided against using a variety of technologies to create different period looks. “The intention was to be as naturalistic as possible,” says Miranda. “Our initial influence for textures and framing was [painter] Andrew Wyeth. I took my still camera to the locations, documented the natural light and figured out what I wanted to add or subtract. I didn’t want it to feel like we were beaming in light anywhere. When you bring in 40-footers and lights and cables, the original [look] sometimes gets muted.”

Most of the picture was captured with the Thomson GrassValley Viper FilmStream, which Fincher and Harris Savides, ASC had used on Zodiac (AC April ’07). Benjamin Button was shot in 4:4:4 FilmStream mode with the camera’s CinemaScope option, which yields a 2.37:1 aspect ratio at 1920x1080 resolution. Miranda’s lens of choice was a 6-24mm Zeiss DigiZoom, and he frequently used the 10mm, 12mm and 14mm focal lengths within the zoom range. He turned to faster Zeiss DigiPrimes when the situation called for extra speed.

For monitoring on set, Miranda had a look-up table, non-baked, that would add a light contrast to the images and take away some of the Viper’s green cast on the screen. “If I had left the image flat, it would have been hard to judge,” he says. “The LUT wasn’t great or perfect, but with it, we knew what we could get out of the imagery.

“Like all of David’s movies, this movie features very exact framing, and camera moves go from a definite Point A to a definite Point B,” continues Miranda. “The only handheld work is Tarsem’s, the travel-around-the-world sequence.” The shots to which Miranda refers were made on film by director Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall); when Fincher found out lead actor Brad Pitt was touring the Far East and Singh was in the same area, he asked Singh to shoot footage of the actor in exotic locations to enhance the appearance of Button experiencing the world. According to Miranda, film was chosen for those segments because using a Viper in those locales wasn’t feasible.

Miranda also shot some 35mm on the show, using Kodak Vision2 50D 5201 and Vision3 500T 5219 in Arri 435s to achieve some slow-motion effects. “I don’t know what film stock Tarsem used,” adds Miranda. “He was on his own mission.”

For scenes in which Button sails the high seas in an effort to become worldly wise, the boat actually never touched water — it was mounted on a motion-controlled gimbal inside a Sony Pictures soundstage. Nevertheless, Miranda singles these sequences out as the most challenging to shoot. “They were tricky mainly because of all the different looks we had to create to suggest he is traveling around the world — completely overcast, night, night with snow, night with full moon, night with fog, high noon, sunset, and sun coming from various angles.”

For a confrontation with a German U-boat, the movements of Button’s tugboat were programmed into a computer, and these movements would trigger certain lights. “Its motion would trigger Lightning Strikes units and other lights that would simulate gunfire during the encounter, for example,” says Miranda. “There were lights to simulate explosions, and though there was no pyro, it actually looks like there was!”

Faking moonlight can be tricky, particularly within the confines of a soundstage. “A lot of people do the soft moonlight with balloons, but David and I talked about a harder moonlight,” says the cinematographer. “The hardest lamp I could think of was a Shadowmaker, which is basically a 7K Xenon in a black box with no reflectors. I shot tests with it, and David loved it. It was a little unnerving to light a 90-foot boat with it — I was on the brink of underexposure — but it looks pretty cool.

“For sunlight, we used a couple of Arri T24s and T12s with some color on them,” he continues. “The overcast look was just space lights, about 160 up in a grid, that were gelled with 1/2 CTB. At one point, I used four Dinos for a look, and I also used a single 24K tungsten gelled with 1/4 CTB. I mixed it up. Everything was mounted on track overhead. We had blacks, blues and even some whites that could be brought around the boat.”

Atmosphere is a big part of the look during Button’s early years in New Orleans. Though there was electricity at the time, oil-based and gas-based flame fixtures were still common, creating a smoky haze outdoors and indoors. For one striking scene, Miranda kept the atmospheric haze but ditched firelight for electricity to great effect. Button, age 7 but looking 70 and riding in a wheelchair, ventures into a warmly lit church revival held in a large, white tent. Along the ceiling were crisscrossed strings of vintage clear 60-watt bulbs. “I barely got a T1.4 or even a T1 out of the whole tent being lit up,” recalls Miranda. “We had to crank the voltage up to 140 to get some sort of exposure out of them. The bulbs got very, very warm.” What makes this remarkable is that this was actually a visual-effects shot — sitting in the wheelchair was an age-appropriate child actor wearing a blue hood with tracking marks. Pitt’s head would come later. No additional movie lights were used for the scene, but for this and other blue-hood effects shots, the number of Vipers was increased from two to four; the additional two served as witness cameras recording in the 4:2:2 HDStream mode.

Throughout the shoot, Miranda would light the set first, often with only small practicals, and then let the actors play within that light. “We had all these Andrew Wyeth references, but when it came time to shoot, it was more a matter of figuring out the best way to light the room naturally,” he says. “That’s what I liked about the Viper — I could put a bulb in the shot and actually light someone with it, and the image wouldn’t be horrible.”

Miranda did provide a slight kick for the actors on many occasions. “I’d put a clear bulb kind of far away so it didn’t add any exposure but put a little glint in the eye,” he says. But overall, he notes, “we liked toplight a lot. Sometimes I used toplight because it looked good on Brad, [but] sometimes sidelight looked good on him. Sometimes it was just a bulb or a candle we helped out with the little-light-behind-the-candle trick.”


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