The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents March 2010 Return to Table of Contents
Shutter Island
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John C. Flinn III, ASC
Sol Negrin, ASC
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up

As complicated as it was, developing the strategy for rendering Teddy’s shifting mental state was not the filmmakers’ most daunting task. “Each film has its own set of complexities, and the biggest challenge on Shutter Island was maintaining the look of a severe storm over the period in which the film was shot,” says Richardson. A hurricane gathers force as Teddy’s investigation proceeds, and portions of the agents’ search for the missing patient takes place outside the compound. Principal photography commenced in Massachusetts in the winter of 2008 and wrapped in July, with the work spread over 85 days, and although the story called for fog, clouds and driving rains, the shoot was “plagued by sunlight,” says Richardson. Careful scheduling and extensive tenting were required throughout the shoot. “The tenting became an enormous task for the grips,” says gaffer Ian Kincaid. “I can’t imagine the yardage of materials [key grip] Chris Centrella and his capable band of grips put up in the air. Eventually, entire setups became compounded with greenscreens, so there were huge bounce lights, huge bounce muslins, huge black overheads and huge greenscreens. It was insanity.” Richardson notes, “I’ve never been involved with a shoot that utilized so many overhead blacks. Chris Centrella is a master, the finest in this business. He was able to provide vast areas of shade under extremely complex conditions that fluctuated from harsh sun to deep clouds and fierce rains. Without him, this film wouldn’t have the look it does.”

Most penitentiary exteriors and some interiors were shot at Medfield State Hospital, a former mental institution that the production converted to meet its needs. Centrella recalls, “Each building represented a different set that worked as exteriors and even some interiors, so it was like having our own backlot.” Other interior sets were built in a nearby vacant warehouse.

Describing the exterior of Ward C, a former Civil War fort that has been modified to house Ashecliffe’s most dangerous patients, Centrella says, “We employed four 60-by-40-foot rags in different configurations. The special-effects team would actually put the rain — the Ritter fans and wind machines — underneath the rags.” Centrella used The Rag Place’s Charcoal Vintage Grid Cloth, which let some light through and was relatively silent in the wind. “That would take out the sun, and then the altitude of the rag would determine how much ambience came in around it,” he says.

Creating the film’s atmospheric island location was another challenge. No existing island had all the requisite features, which included a lighthouse, caves and steep, rocky cliffs, so the location was created with a mix of practical work and CGI. (Legato
estimates that Shutter Island contains 650 visual-effects shots, the most of any Scorsese picture.) For wide shots, the visual-effects team reworked Peddocks Island near Boston, adding CG cliffs, digitally removing landmass, and creating vistas with composite shots. For a scene in which Teddy and Chuck stand on a cliff and look toward the lighthouse, DiCaprio and Ruffalo stood on a small dirt bluff, with bits of greenscreen below and tents overhead to keep out the sun; the finished shot combines bits of Acadia National Park (captured with a SpyderCam rig with a stabilized head that was flown from a 300' crane), Big Sur, fake rocks, a lighthouse miniature, and plate shots of rough seas and overcast skies.

Practical rain and wind were augmented by plate shots of flying debris. It was an uncomfortably wet shoot. Special-effects coordinator R. Bruce Steinheimer and special-effects supervisor Rick Thompson brought out the big guns, including four 100' rain bars that could cover a 140'x60' area and Spiders for 80'x80' areas. “We had an enormous special-effects crew that would blast gallons of water at the camera,” says Kincaid. “A large plastic bag was created to cover the camera and Bob. He prefers riding the crane, so we employed a GF-16 that he could ride to near 40 feet, and we wrapped him in plastic. It usually ended up directly in the line of fire of Steinheimer’s waterguns [Ritter fans with firehoses attached].”   

Richardson says economics are one reason why he favors riding a crane. “I can use it any time because the cost to rent it is so minimal — there isn’t the cost of a remote head or added hands,” he explains. “Also, as I operate, I’m looking through the lens, not at a monitor. I react with a greater degree of accuracy and have a finer edge in how I analyze a sequence not only in terms of lighting and composition, but also because I’m able to see the actors’ eyes. I feel when something’s not working. Furthermore, I attempt to calculate the position in order to allow the camera to find numerous positions from one setup, such as a moving master plus a single, or whatever the situation might allow.

“[Crane work] is a craft, and it takes a great deal of work to get to the level of proficiency I’m seeking,” he continues. “With a riding crane, I can respond very well to an actor’s movement, even if it’s improvisational, because I can sense the actor moving and can attempt to control [the crew] through my headset, asking them to dolly left or right, boom up or down, et cetera.” (Some crewmembers jokingly dub this one-way stream of communications “Radio KBOB.”)

Most of the moves in Shutter Island were actually accomplished with either a dolly or a Steadicam, depending on the move at hand, notes Richardson. “Marty asks for precision with the camera, so whether we were on a crane, a dolly or Steadicam, the result was the same,” he says. The shoot was largely single-camera, though three were always on hand, with one dedicated to a Steadicam rig operated by Larry McConkey, SOC.

Richardson’s interior lighting grows increasingly expressive as the storm intensifies and Teddy’s situation becomes direr. “As the storm hits its peak, lightning strikes violently cascade through a number of sequences, linking reality to Teddy’s dreams,” says Richardson. This is most evident in a scene set in Cawley’s office, where Teddy suffers an acute migraine and is tended to by the doctor and Chuck. “The light becomes brilliant in its intensity — the windows glow and the statues are pounded with blinding light,” says Richardson, who boosted the effect even more in Teddy’s POV shots. “Marty wanted the audience to ponder whether Teddy is imagining the lightning or whether it’s real.”

To create this effect, Richardson’s crew positioned several Nine-light Mini-Brutes in the room, fairly close to the actors. “Ben, Leo and Mark were all being hit directly by vast amounts of light that was put through a dimmer board,” says the cinematographer. “Ian Kincaid played the controls like they were keys on a piano, taking the lights to maximum power and then bringing them down again.” Richardson further intensified the look in the DI. “I sometimes enhanced three or four frames at the high point to extend it longer in terms of the white level. The image is so overexposed that it virtually disappears.”

Richardson’s psychologically inflected lighting continues when Teddy sneaks into the dark, monochromatic environs of Ward C in search of a specific inmate. He finds the person, and when the storm kills the facility’s electricity, Teddy lights matches, one at a time, as they converse. “How do you light a sequence set in near-total darkness with just a match?” muses Richardson. He embraced the darkness but didn’t feel bound by verisimilitude. “At times we took faces to the point where only the slimmest of outlines were visible, meaning that if our base stop was approximately T2.8½ with 5219, we might be near three [stops] down on exposure and, with the lighted match, raise that to half below key to special moments where the highlights would bloom over six stops.” Richardson allowed a base level of ambient light to enter through the ward’s skylights and brought additional light through low windows, which provided edges or backlight on the walls and gave the cells more shape. “I put enough light on the walls to create a basic exposure that could be enhanced or diminished in the DI, if necessary,” he says.

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