The American Society of Cinematographers

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Da Vinci Code
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The Da Vinci Code, shot by Salvatore Totinio, brings a worldwide best-seller to the big screen.

Unit photography by Simon Mein
Ever since Columbia Pictures and director Ron Howard announced in 2004 that they would bring Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to the big screen, fans and critics of the best-selling novel have kept close watch. Catholic groups rallied against it, aghast at its fictional proposition that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene, who bore him a child; that he bequeathed his ministry to her; and that the Catholic “powerbase” suppressed this information, recast Magdalene as a prostitute, and came up with an alternative history of Christ that still prevails. The pursuit of the Holy Grail is the engine that drives the story, but the Grail is not Christ’s chalice, as long believed, but rather a set of documents that confirm the true history of Christ.  

Joining Howard on the project was director of photography Salvatore Totino, who previously shot The Missing and Cinderella Man (see AC June ’05) for the director. Unlike those two dramas, Da Vinci Code is a fast-paced thriller that mixes riddles, historical flashbacks, and adrenaline-pumping chase scenes through Paris, London and Scotland. The story opens in the Louvre, where a curator is stalked and shot by an albino monk. Moments before dying, he manages to leave a trail of clues for his estranged granddaughter, Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a gifted cryptologist he knows will be called in by police on the case. Investigators also bring Harvard professor and symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) to the scene of the crime, ostensibly to help unravel the clues, but in fact because he is their prime suspect. Neveu helps Langdon escape and the two flee, racing to find the keystone that the killer sought, which has long been protected by the Priory of Sion, a secret society that counted Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton and Victor Hugo among its members.

As much as possible, Howard wanted to shoot on the actual locations described in the book, among them Saint-Sulpice in Paris, Westminster Abbey and Temple Church in London, Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, and Chateau de Villette in France. But at the top of the list was the Louvre, where the story begins and ends and the mood is set. Gaining access required intensive diplomacy, and the museum’s restrictions made it one of the most challenging locations of the shoot.

Da Vinci Code was not expected to be a compact production. Working in Super 35mm 2.35:1, Totino planned to use at least two cameras on every setup; his main package included two Arricam Studios, two Arricam Lites, and a lightweight Arri 235, all mounted with Cooke S4 lenses. “I really loved the S4s on The Missing, so I went out and bought my own set,” says Totino. The cameras would be constantly moving, affixed to sundry dollies, jib arms, Steadicam rigs, or Technocranes (50', 30' and 15') with Scorpio stabilizing heads.

Naturally, the Louvre wanted to safeguard its priceless art against accidental damage by man or machine. The administration also did not want filming to impinge on the flow of visitors, especially because the shoot took place at the height of the summer tourist season. Shooting was allowed only after hours, and the galleys had to be pristine by the time the crew cleared out at 6 a.m. Nothing could be pre-rigged or left behind, not even outside the museum. Lights could not be pointed directly at artwork. And, of course, no blood was allowed on the parquet floors.

By the third tech meeting, it was clear to the filmmakers that portions of the Louvre would have to be replicated onstage. For starters, there was the matter of the huge glass ceiling that stretches the length of the Grand Gallery and lets in light at daybreak. “The Louvre people weren’t interested in us getting up there and controlling the light,” says British gaffer Perry Evans. So the Grand Gallery was ultimately re-created on the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios (one of 12 stages used there and at Shepperton Studios). The Louvre murder was filmed there, as was all the action around the corpse and in the Grand Gallery.

Seven days were spent at the Louvre, each one in a different area. Because some setups were quite involved, Totino organized a comprehensive lighting rehearsal two weeks before production. “One massive night we had 400 electricians, 20 cherry-pickers and 20 generators,” says Evans. “They literally did what they were going to do in each area. Sal went through the building and we set everything in position. He told the French gaffer to bring the same crew back in two weeks to do exactly the same thing. It was like a military operation, so when we were allowed in the building at 7 p.m., everyone had rehearsed. They all drove into position and it went quickly.” Totino adds, “Once we started filming, everything went really smoothly. There were very good technicians.”

Setting the film’s mood in the Grand Gallery, Totino kept things dark and shadowy. “I thought it was better to keep the lights off,” he says. “It added a lot more mystery and depth. Your eye wants to see into the shadow.” Evans notes, “All the way through, Sal kept saying, ‘I’m going to be right on the edge.’ I’d say, ‘Sal, are we going to be okay here?’ and he’d say, ‘It’s okay, we’re on the edge.’ It became a running joke.”

Because half of Da Vinci Code takes place at night, Totino relied heavily on Kodak Vision2 Expression 500T 5229. He preferred this to Kodak’s Vision2 500T 5218 because “it has a little less contrast and a nice softness. I wanted to be able to work in low light and not worry about losing detail in the blacks. I wanted the latitude and gave myself more range to play with. Later, I built some of the contrast up in the digital intermediate [DI].” He used Vision2 100T 5212, Vision2 200T 5217 and Vision 250D 5246 for daytime scenes.

Totino, who operates on all his films, was often shooting wide open. “The poor focus pullers, John Conroy and Simon Hume!” he marvels. “What a fantastic crew they were. I tried to approach this film with longer lenses because I wanted to draw the viewer’s eye into the frame in a different way. It was an intuitive thing. I wanted to compress the backgrounds and have them a bit more out of focus.” He also used Mitchell A and B diffusion filters throughout the film. “I wanted to take the edge off, just ever so slightly. The Mitchell softens the image without lightening the blacks or taking away from shadows.”

To create the mysterious, low-light look in the Grand Gallery, Totino pushed a hint of moonlight through four windows using 18K HMI Fresnels. The gallery’s deep perspective was then emphasized with small, white security lights positioned along the baseboards. (The team tested and decided against the crimson lights so vividly described in Brown’s book — they are not actually used in the Louvre.) Designed by the art department, these white security lights were 40-watt tungsten “golf balls” connected to a single control panel. Because pre-rigging wasn’t allowed, “we had to go in one night, stand them on floor, wire them up, and run them back to the control panel,” says Evans. “To do that one night was going to be difficult, and to do it every night was going to be an absolute nightmare” — another reason the stage work became necessary.

On the 007 Stage, production designer Allan Cameron re-created the Grand Gallery in precise detail. TransLite photos were affixed to windows and greenscreen was positioned to accommodate plates showing the gallery’s 1,500' depth. Because dialogue was more critical in these studio shots, lights were altered from the practical location, with quieter 20K tungstens gelled with 1/2 CTB swapped for the 18K HMIs gelled with 1/2 CTO. Any light not in frame was turned off. “We were really keeping it moody all the time,” says Evans. “We didn’t want any ambience leaking from anywhere.”


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