The American Society of Cinematographers

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Blood Feud

Dariusz Wolski, ASC, creates a 3-D canvas for Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Unit photography by Kerry Brown. Photos and frame grabs courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

In the pantheon of epic stories, the tale of Moses and Pharaoh Ramses just might set the bar. Two brothers, once as close as any siblings could be, are separated by a divine call from the heavens and battle over the fate of 400,000 Egyptian slaves. Bringing a saga of such epic grandeur to modern screens requires a filmmaker who revels in big setups, so it was no surprise to find Ridley Scott’s name imprinted on the director’s chair during production of Exodus: Gods and Kings. Scott was joined on the adventure by his own battle-tested brother-in-arms, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, ASC.

Early in his career, Wolski had worked with Ridley’s brother Tony on Crimson Tide and The Fan. After knowing Ridley socially for years, Wolski first partnered with him when the director began work on his Alien prequel, Prometheus, which he’d decided to shoot in native 3-D (AC July ’12). Impressed by Wolski’s success with the stereoscopic process on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (AC June ’11), Ridley suggested they join forces.

“Converting is just as good as shooting native 3-D these days,” Wolski opines, “but Ridley wants to see things in 3-D immediately. He wants to feel the shot and see what it’s going to look like in the final. It’s really a matter of individual process, a matter of thinking. If you just shoot a 2-D movie and convert it later, it doesn’t look right. That’s not the fault of the technology; that’s a fault in the process of creating the movie. You have to keep in mind that the image is three-dimensional. You have to shoot deeper stops, you have to compose for depth, and you have to be careful when using longer lenses. We did all of that on Exodus, and we could see immediate results by shooting native 3-D, which gave Ridley the opportunity to refine every composition.”

Shooting with two cameras in a single rig is complicated enough, but adding three or four additional 3-D rigs for every scene quickly raises the stakes. “We had quite a few rigs,” Wolski notes. “Normal dialogue scenes would be shot with three to four 3-D rigs, and when we shot the big battle, we had up to 12 cameras; six were 3-D camera rigs and the rest shot 2-D. It’s always a challenge working with multiple cameras. It’s like a puzzle, but because you capture the whole event as it plays out, it’s amazing what you can get if you put the cameras in the right place. The actors love it because they can go all the way through the scene and really live it. We always kept one rig on a Technocrane, which was usually our master, and then worked in the other cameras for coverage. It was a challenge at first, but now I think I’d cut my wrists if I had to shoot with just one camera!”

Wolski's camera of choice for this arsenal was the Red Epic MX, which records internally to RedMag SSD cards. The Dragon was in limited supply as shooting began, though the team did use one “for helicopter plates and things like that — big 2-D wide shots,” says Wolski. He adds that he was perfectly content with the 5K resolution of the MX. “You don’t need more Ks!”

Wolski turned to 3ality Technica for his 3-D rigs, and to stereographer James Goldman, with whom he had worked previously. “I am absolutely aware of I/O and convergence, but I have a really trustworthy stereographer, so I let him make those decisions,” Wolski says of Goldman. “From Pirates to Prometheus we pushed 3-D further and further while we were getting more comfortable with it. In the beginning, it was really scary, but now we’re getting the hang of it. Exodus will have the biggest volume of any of the 3-D movies I’ve shot — but you have to be careful how big!”

For Exodus, the decision was made not to converge on set, but to save that step for post to give Scott control over the film’s 3-D effects on a shot-by-shot basis. Gareth Daley, who was on the crew as a 3-D systems engineer, worked in London and L.A. with the visual-effects team and Company 3. “Gareth oversaw the post stereo process, making sure the convergence decisions worked once shots were finalized,” notes Wolski.

“We weren't converging so that elements would pop out of the screen — it was all about depth,” he continues. “Ridley isn’t into [3-D] gimmicks. He wants big vistas and deep dimensions.”

On set, Wolski preferred to look at a 2-D image. “Ridley had his 3-D monitor, one for each of the cameras, but I only use one monitor. It has a sophisticated switcher so I can look at each camera and each rig so that I can see each setup and eye. That one is only for me and my DIT. I like looking at lighting on only one monitor. Also, it’s really important that each lens is focused exactly the same. If one is slightly off, it really ruins the effect of the 3-D, and it’s easier to determine individual focus if you look at separate images. I look at the monitor to rough in my lighting, and then look at Ridley’s with him to discuss composition and depth. When we watch dailies, we watch them in 3-D. Next to our tent was the 3ality truck, where James and his team monitored everything that was going on and kept track of our 3-D elements.”

Wolski chose Angenieux Optimo zoom lenses for nearly all of the Exodus shoot, primarily employing a 15-40mm and 28-76mm (both T2.6), with some use of a 45-120mm (T2.8). “The zooms are small, and they fit well in the rig,” he observes. “The beauty of zooms is that you don’t have to change out lenses. A good assistant can change out a prime in a 3-D rig in five to 10 minutes, but we save that time by using zooms. If we’re switching out lenses, the whole process stops, which can destroy the fluidity of the production. I’m not one of these cinematographers who likes to boast about what amazing, special lenses I used. At the end of the day, people go to the movies to watch the [story], and they don't have a clue what lens it was shot with. We’re in the 21st century, with amazing technology to make the process simpler. Kids will shoot great movies on iPhones while cinematographers will discuss whether it’s Zeiss, Cooke or Leica lenses. You go with what you have and what works best for the project. For me, the flow of work is the most important thing.”

Working with zoom lenses in 3-D rigs can be tricky because not all zooms are created equal, and some focal lengths may not be exact. A match between the lenses is of paramount importance. “If you prep the lenses properly, you’ll be fine,” Wolski submits. “It takes a bit of time to go through lenses and make sure they match, but it’s well worth the investment. 3-D technology has come a long way in recent years. We can now zoom in-shot without issues. That's pretty amazing.”

Exodus shot primarily in the U.K. at Pinewood Studios, with location work in Almeria, Spain, and Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands (for the Red Sea sequences). “Fuerteventura has amazing deserts and three completely different-looking coasts,” Wolski enthuses. “One coast has incredible beaches, one has beautiful mountains, and one has lots of rocks and tidal pools. In the mountains, there’s an amazing, tiny, winding road where we shot Ramses and his army in chariots, racing after the Hebrews. We shot the wide shots there for real. We combined all the coasts into one to make the Red Sea sequence, which was quite a puzzle to figure out. We had to trace the sun direction from one side of the island to the other to make sure the different areas fit together as one cohesive sequence.


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