The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents January 2009 Return to Table of Contents
Revolutionary Road
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Revolutionary Road
Benjamin Button
Jack Green, ASC
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Though shooting in continuity had its benefits, in the Wheelers’ house “it was kind of a nightmare logistically,” says Deakins. “We’d do a scene in the downstairs front room, then we’d go upstairs to do a scene, then we’d come back down again for another. If it’s a lovely day and [the rest of the crew] can go outside while you’re shooting, it’s fine, but when it’s raining and everyone has to squeeze inside, it can be really difficult to move around.” (The shoot, which took place in Connecticut and New York City in the summer of 2007, experienced a fair share of rain.)  

“I didn’t really feel shooting in the house was confining in terms of what we could do with the camera, but it was sometimes frustrating in terms of how I could light it,” continues Deakins. “Locations like that only look good for about a half-hour or an hour at a certain time of day on a good day, but you can’t allow for that. It takes an enormous amount of light to maintain a naturalistic, consistent daytime feel inside, and the house was backed up against a hill, so getting light into the upper rooms and into the kitchen around back was tricky.” To accomplish this, his electrical crew, led by gaffer Bill O’Leary, bounced 12K Arri Compact HMIs off 20'x20', 12'x20' and 12'x12' sheets of muslin or Ultrabounce set outside the windows. “For the ground-floor scenes, we worked off the grade, and on the second floor, we worked off a scaffold,” says O’Leary. “The rigs danced about a bit to accommodate the shots, and the beauty of a single-camera show is that this is possible; the closer one can work to the edge of the frame, the better.”  

Because every shot in the house depended on the scene and the blocking, pre-lighting was out of the question. “We had the house stripped apart and rewired so we could use the sockets in the walls, and we also put power points in the ceilings so we didn’t have to run cables in the room,” says Deakins. “We used no big lights inside, mainly 200-watt or 400-watt Jokers. A huge amount of the film was lit by practicals in the shot.” These practical table lamps and floor lamps held standard household bulbs ranging from 60 to 200 watts, according to O’Leary. “We used no tricks or special gags — it was all standard fare but properly applied, so it worked,” notes the gaffer. “For fill, we usually bounced Tweenies off 4-by-4 muslins, and the lamps and bounce material were often hung from the ceiling to leave the floor clear for the actors and the camera.”  

Deakins and O’Leary used a similar strategy at another location that called for a consistent daylight feel, Frank’s office, a large, open space subdivided by a sea of cubicles. The location was the fifth floor of a municipal building in Lower Manhattan. “I initially thought we could position cranes to send light through the windows, but the city refused to shut any portion of the street below,” recalls Deakins. “The sound department had to put ¾-inch Plexiglas on all the windows to create a sound baffle, and we had to add on to a scaffold that was in place on the first floor for a construction project. We ended up with a platform outside the windows that ran the length of the building.” On the platform, O’Leary’s crew rigged about a dozen 12K Arri Compacts bounced off 12'x12' muslins to send even daylight into the office. “It was the only way we could work,” notes Deakins. “There wasn’t enough natural daylight in the morning, and there was too much of it in the afternoon.”  

A location that posed a different sort of lighting conundrum was a stretch of highway in Connecticut that served as the setting for one of the film’s earliest scenes, an argument between Frank and April that starts in the car and continues on the side of the road after Frank pulls over and follows his wife out of the car. The scene takes place at night and, given that highways were not well lit in 1955, potential sources were limited. “The most important choice was how you saw the scene,” says Deakins. “I decided we could do it with three practicals, a little tungsten bounce off a sheet of polystyrene, and car headlights passing by in the background.”  

The three practicals were period streetlights manufactured by the art department that each held four 2K 3200°K bulbs (standing in for the 8'-long fluorescent tubes that would normally be used in the fixtures); the lights were positioned along a gravel turnoff that had also been created by the art department. “In some shots, you can see about a mile and a half down the road, and there’s no way we were going to light that, so we just let the passing cars’ headlights be the background,” says Deakins. “Of course, because they’re period cars, we had to replace the headlights with stronger bulbs, tungsten Par 36s, run off batteries and inverters.” O’Leary adds, “We outfitted about two dozen period cars [that way]. It’s probably the iffiest situation a film electrician can get into — batteries and inverters are notoriously unreliable — but it all worked.”  

The filmmakers considered shooting the driving portion of the scene practically, but Deakins suggested using poor man’s process instead. “What we needed to create in the car was the feeling of Frank’s headlights bouncing back from the road onto their faces, and I knew I could do that in a barn,” says the cinematographer. “We found one that gave us about 40 feet of space, and we did the shot very quickly in a couple of takes. We’d scheduled two days for the same scene when we planned to shoot it on the open road; at that time of year, darkness lasts little more than five hours.” To create the feel of headlights approaching and taillights retreating behind the Wheelers’ car, the crew put four Tweenies (two for headlights and two gelled red for taillights) on dollies that were pushed back and forth behind the car as the lights were dimmed up and down. A little dust was added to the rear window to slightly blow out the lights. “For the front,” says Deakins, “I did exactly what I’d have done if we’d shot on the road: I put a fluorescent tube on the [hood] and had it moved up and down very slightly to give the light on their faces a bit of life.”  

Another scene Deakins and Mendes discussed at length ahead of time depicts April’s liaison with a neighbor, Shep Campbell (David Harbour), in a car outside Vito’s Log Cabin, a popular local bar. Deakins recalls, “We were struggling with how to cover it. Should we do a number of cuts looking toward the car? Should we see it in a wide shot of the car? Should we see the glass misting up? When we got there, Sam started working out the blocking with Kate and David, and I was watching them from the back seat of the car. There was a slightly observational quality about that angle, a matter-of-factness, that made the whole thing feel really sad. I pointed it out to Sam, and we ended up shooting the whole thing from the back seat in one shot. Sometimes, on the day, I find I see something that’s much simpler than what I’d imagined and, I hope, much, much better.”  

The filmmakers had access to 35mm dailies throughout the shoot, but Deakins was unable to watch them every night — he spent many evenings digitally grading two other pictures, Jesse James and In the Valley of Elah, on a portable system EFilm had set up for him nearby, in Stamford, Conn. “Doing that at night and on weekends during the shoot was really tiring, but it was actually better than working at EFilm itself because we had a dedicated system to ourselves and didn’t have to wait as long as we normally would for stuff to render!” he says with a laugh. To make his intentions clear to Revolutionary Road’s dailies timer at DuArt, Steve Blakely, Deakins used his Leica M8 to take digital stills of his lighting setups with the stand-ins in place, “did a bit of work on them in Photoshop and then e-mailed them to Steve,” he says. “I’ve worked with him so many times he didn’t really need them, but it was quite a good reference.” 

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