The American Society of Cinematographers

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Public Enemies
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
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ASC Close-Up
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, shot by Tobias Schliessler, ASC, places a hostage drama in the bowels of New York’s subway system.

Unit photography by Rico Torres and Stephen Vaughan, SMPSP
More than 30 years have passed since the Pelham 1 2 3 subway train out of the Bronx was hijacked on the big screen. United Artists’ underrated 1974 adaptation of John Godney’s novel The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, directed by Joseph Sargent, had Walter Matthau matching wits with a steely Robert Shaw, who demanded money in exchange for his hostages. A third character of sorts was just as important: New York City. Charged with capturing that gritty “New York-ness” on film was Brooklyn native Owen Roizman, ASC, who had notched Oscar nominations for The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973).   

With The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, which opened in theaters last month, director Tony Scott has modernized Godney’s story, starting with the title — no more spelled-out numerals. John Travolta portrays Ryder, the leader of a four-man crew of ex-cons who commandeer the Pelham train, radio the Metropolitan Transit Authority and demand that $10 million be delivered in one hour. Taking Ryder’s call is disgraced police officer Garber (Denzel Washington), who has been demoted to a dispatch desk while he’s under investigation for accepting a bribe. Garber must unravel Ryder’s seemingly foolish plot.   

Director of photography Tobias Schliessler, ASC hopped aboard Pelham when Scott was well into prep. “By the time I arrived, Tony had already laid out hundreds of reference pictures — he does a lot of research — and we had long discussions about the visual style,” says Schliessler, whose recent credits include Hancock (AC July ’08), Dreamgirls (AC Dec. ’06) and Friday Night Lights (2004). Though Pelham was Schliessler’s first film with Scott, the two had worked on several commercials together at RSA, the commercial-production company owned by Scott’s brother, Ridley. “I’m quite familiar with Tony’s style, which is very specific,” says Schliessler.   

Schliessler had shot many commercials in New York, but filming there on a feature scale was a different animal. He was working with many crew members for the first time, including camera operators Craig Haagensen, Duane Manwiller and Mark Schmidt; gaffer Bill O’Leary; and key grip Tom Prate (a veteran of the original Pelham). “The only crew I’d worked with before were [camera operator] Johnny Skotchdopole, on The Rundown [2003], and my first assistant, Tony Nagy,” says Schliessler. “But most of them had worked with Tony before, and that helped a lot. They were a great crew, and it would have been hard to bring in people who were new to working in New York.”   

“New York has its own set of challenges, and knowing the ropes makes it easier,” acknowledges O’Leary, who is based in the city. “In a way, it’s about compromises and playing the hand the city deals you. This job took that to a new level, though. The thick bureaucracy of the MTA and working in ‘The Hole,’ as they call the subway tunnels, were especially tough. Naturally, the MTA has strict rules regarding safety and tries to avoid inconveniencing its customers.”   

Scott wanted the look and feel of the city to factor heavily into the story. “Tony came in not to remake the movie, but to retell the story, and he definitely wanted to put his stamp on it visually,” says Schliessler. “I love the look Owen Roizman gave the original film, but we didn’t necessarily reference it. Tony wanted to show the energy of the city, and gritty or not, it feels on film like New York.”   

Schliessler opted to achieve the feeling of urban grit through lighting, camerawork and the intangibles that the city presents. “The logistics of how you do things in New York are so different,” he notes. “There aren’t big streets, so you can’t park your 50-footer anywhere you want. You have to go much smaller, and in a way, that helped [the look] become grittier. I didn’t have big cranes to control the sun and big Bebees [Night Lights] to put the light back in.” Overall, he adds, “I tried to make it feel not lit and as real as possible — no beauty lights over the camera to get that ping in the eyes! I tried to shoot as much available light as possible. Tony likes that gritty feel.”   

The kinetic camerawork Scott favors would seem to be an odd fit for Pelham, which takes place primarily in two static locations, the MTA control room and the subway tunnel. The filmmakers’ solution was to run four Panavision cameras, two Panaflex Platinums and two Millennium XLs, at all times. “That was the biggest thing: how do we get that energy through the camerawork?” says Schliessler. “We did one camera on a 360-degree circle track, constantly moving, searching and pushing in with the zooms. The more interesting the shot, the more compromise there had to be with the lighting. We decided the lighting didn’t have to always be perfect if the shot was interesting.   

“All four cameras were usually on dollies so they could move and adjust the frame during the shot,” continues the cinematographer. “We used only [Primo] zoom lenses, two 3:1 [135-420mm T2.8] and two 11:1 [24-275mm T2.8], and while we were shooting, Tony talked to the operators via a headset and had them adjust their framing. He begins by telling each operator what he wants, and he can really play a scene out and cover the entire scene by reframing. That enables the actors to run through the whole scene. Then, on the next take, Tony’s on the headset telling the C camera to get a little closer on a hand or some other detail. He does coverage while he’s getting the wide shots. It takes a fair amount of time to set things up, but once that’s done, we go continuously.” For a new set or scene, two to three hours were required to set things up and start shooting the scene, both master and coverage, in one take. With this method, production shot two to three pages per day on a 72-day schedule.   

Pelham was shot in Super 35mm, and about 90 percent of it was shot on Kodak Vision3 500T 5219. Preferring a thicker negative and higher printing lights, Schliessler often rates his film stock slower and/or lights to a healthy stop; he rated the 5219 at 400 ASA. (He used Kodak Vision3 250D 5205, rated at 200 ASA, for day-exterior close-ups to match stunt work filmed by 2nd-unit director/cinematographer Alexander Witt.) “Because we used available light and practicals in the MTA control room, I lit it to about a T4 because Tony sometimes likes to use an extender or double extender on zooms, and that makes you lose a stop,” notes Schliessler. “We didn’t use extenders that much in the control room, but we did use them in the tunnel. Tony loves to be on the long end of the lens, and I lit so we were ready for that.”   

The control room was built onstage and designed to largely match the specs of the real MTA headquarters, including 9' ceilings. With four cameras, most of them moving all the time, lighting had to be practical and built into the set. “We had to come up with a lighting scheme that would facilitate four-camera setups, and that’s the main reason we went with underlight or toplight directly overhead,” says Schliessler. “With that, we could maintain continuity in the look.”   

The control room features numerous desks and a wall of video screens that display the status of the various subway routes. (The images were rear-projected onto the screens.) Recessed fixtures in the ceiling held 3200°K fluorescent tubes. Dropdown fixtures at the rear of the room and background wall-mounted sconces were 4100°K Osram tubes with three or four points of green to provide color separation. “I wanted to keep the fluorescents in line with that greenish tinge government buildings have, so I used Daylight Green fluorescents,” says Schliessler. “We added Half CTB to the sconces to separate the walls a little more.”  

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