The American Society of Cinematographers

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Crystal Skull
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Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski updates a classic franchise with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Unit photography by David James, SMPSP
The last time we saw dashing archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), he was riding off into the sunset at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (AC June ’89), the final film in a trilogy that director Steven Spielberg and executive producer George Lucas had begun with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Now, nearly 20 years later, Indy is back with a new adventure, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  

Reflecting the passage of time since the last picture was made, Crystal Skull is set in 1957, and the visual elements include ’50s Americana and sci-fi trappings. In the film, an aging Indy finds himself partnered with old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and a young man who is possibly their illegitimate son, Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf). It is the peak of the Cold War, and Russian spies, led by pitiless agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), are the villains at hand.  

According to Crystal Skull director of photography Janusz Kaminski, whose 11 collaborations with Spielberg include Saving Private Ryan (AC Aug. ’98), War of the Worlds (AC July ’05) and Munich (AC Feb. ’06), the new picture “was a very big undertaking, much more so than the other movies Steven and I have done together. When I read the script, I was concerned with the amount of action; a lot of dialogue is delivered while the characters are fighting, kicking, riding motorcycles and jumping from car to car, so I knew we’d be covering scenes for dialogue while actors were constantly on the move. There were very complex shots, and we were also shooting anamorphic, which complicated everything even more.”  

Kaminski also wanted to honor the work of cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, BSC, who shot the first three pictures. “There’s a legacy and a strong following with these movies that you have to respect, and Steven and I began our prep by watching the first three movies together,” says Kaminski. “An Indiana Jones film has to have that glossy, warm look with strong, high-key lighting. It’s suspenseful but not too dark — you always see things clearly. We also had to recognize that we couldn’t use some of the same tricks that worked 20 years ago because the audience has become more sophisticated; today, you can’t use a torch in a cave scene and have light coming from other directions. We were always asking, ‘How can we do this as well as Douglas Slocombe but make it a bit more contemporary?’  

“Ultimately, I decided to forget about reality and shoot an action-adventure movie,” he adds. “I worked to create light that supports the story but doesn’t necessarily feel realistic.”  

The production carried two Panaflex Millennium XLs, an Arri 435, an Arri 235, Panavision C- and E-series anamorphic prime lenses and a Primo 11:1 48-550mm anamorphic zoom. Shooting Kodak Vision2 250D 5205 and 500T 5218, Kaminski frequently softened the image with Schneider Classic Soft filters to create “an idyllic Americana look.”  

Kaminski brought many of his longtime crewmembers aboard Crystal Skull, including gaffer David Devlin, camera operator Mitch Dubin, key grip Jim Kwiatkowski and 1st AC Mark Spath. Crystal Skull was primarily designed as a single-camera shoot. “Normally, we do a lot of handheld work with Steven, but he didn’t want any on this movie,” says Dubin. “However, he wanted the camera to move more dynamically than it did in the previous Indiana Jones movies, so we spent about 80 percent of the shoot on a Technocrane with a Libra head.” To film the sequence that introduces the Russian villains, the team used the Ultimate Arm, a car-mounted robotic crane.  

Crystal Skull begins at a secret military base in the desert, where Jones is introduced with a shot that pays homage to the noirish photography of Raiders of the Lost Ark: the camera closes in on Jones’ shoes, then pulls back to reveal his shadow on a car as he dons his signature fedora, then finally dollies around to show his face in a close-up. “It was really beautiful to be able to reintroduce Indy 20 years later,” says Kaminski. Dubin recalls, “Steven made up his mind about that shot on the spur of the moment. It was our first day shooting with Harrison, and Steven was just playing around with the shadow of the fedora and realized what a great introduction that would be. It’s spectacular how Steven can bear the pressure of the whole film and still feel free to go off on a tangent and create a great shot out of nothing but his imagination. It ended up being a very complicated 270-degree camera move, but as usual, we were all up for the challenge.”  

A 4K Xenon lamp was used to create the hard shadow on the car in full daylight. “We were in New Mexico, and it was 108°, and all of our electronic lights kept shutting off because of the heat,” recalls Devlin. “So we came up with very elaborate air-conditioning and huts for all of the ballasts, and we made sure the heads and cables were out of the sun. We ended up giving a lot of star treatment to all the electronic lighting because it just hated being in that kind of temperature. Steven just smiled and said, ‘Well, that’s why we used arcs last time!’”  

Shortly after Jones is introduced, he is manhandled by some Russian goons and taken into the cavernous secret warehouse that audiences last saw at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The set featured endless rows of stacked wooden crates lit from overhead by scoop lights. “That sequence is full of action, and the set was so large you could actually drive a car across it at 25 miles an hour!” recalls Kaminski. “It also called for a lot of smoke, and when you have smoke, you can see light sources, and the whole thing can quickly start looking too theatrical. So our lighting style was a little more frontal rather than backlit. David worked with the art department to create a great, simple overhead lighting setup.”  

“We worked at a T5.6 stop, so the overhead lights needed to be super-bright, and we had to have them in the shot, so they had to read at a T16-22,” says Devlin. “We ended up using 4,000-watt practicals that were slightly oversized in relation to the bell housing, but because of the scale of the set, that’s not really noticeable. We had 120 housings made, and each contained four 1,000-watt Narrow Spot Par 64 bulbs. [Chief rigging technician] Mark Mele rigged it all up for us, and we did a lot of extra work so you wouldn’t see all those cables.”  

Following this sequence, the film moves to the college where Jones is a part-time professor of archaeology. These scenes were shot at Yale University, and for exteriors, the production altered storefronts and brought in hundreds of period cars and extras. Soon enough, Jones, accompanied by Mutt, gets involved in a high-speed motorcycle chase. At one point, the chase winds through the interior hallway of a library, which also served as one of the production’s standing cover sets in case of inclement weather. “It was a pretty big set, about 700 feet long by 200 feet across, and it had eight large windows,” recalls Devlin. “We brought in six 15-6K Bebee Night Lights for the hallway, and they were a real benefit to us because we could easily move them from location to location for the main unit.”  

Several 18Ks outside the windows helped create fill in the massive space. Kaminski recalls, “I was getting small shafts of light, but not as much as I wanted because the glass in the windows was very old and thick. We did our basic overall lighting and put some light in front of the lens to fill in the shadows and create some eyelight for the actors. We made it look a little more glamorous than I normally would.”

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