The American Society of Cinematographers

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Presidents Desk
ASC Close-Up

With Transcendence, Jess Hall, BSC, envisions a contemporary sci-fi tale for first-time director Wally Pfister, ASC.

Unit photography by Peter Mountain, courtesy of Alcon Entertainment and Warner Bros.


It’s late January in a sound designer’s dark room in Hollywood, and director and ASC member Wally Pfister is reacting to a series of provisional sound effects that were created for a scene in Transcendence that depicts the growth of “nanotechnology” — fibrous, plant-like tendrils that spread over the ground and up the support posts of solar panels. Pfister asks for less “insect-like” sound elements, and then approves of a low-frequency rumble derived from a rocket-engine roar. “You know I love the low frequencies,” he says with a smile, referring to his affinity for bass guitar. 

Transcendence, Pfister’s feature-directing debut, tells the tale of a terminally ill scientist, Will Caster (Johnny Depp), whose consciousness makes the leap from his dying body to a computer and, eventually, the Web. His partner, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and colleagues, including Joseph (Morgan Freeman) and Max (Paul Bettany), discover that with the transition, Caster gains terrifying omnipotence. The science-fiction tale unfolds not in a distant future, but rather in the present day.

Pfister tapped English cinematographer Jess Hall, BSC to shoot the picture. A graduate of Central Saint Martins College in London, Hall has shot such features as The Spectacular Now, Hot Fuzz and Brideshead Revisited (2008). Pfister says that in Hall, he saw a cinematographer with a similar aesthetic. “I saw that Jess could be a collaborator thematically and conceptually as well as visually. I knew we could make the images strong.”

In their earliest conversations, Pfister and Hall focused on the more intimate, less techy aspects of the script. Hall observes, “This isn’t an out-and-out technological sci-fi movie, and Wally and I talked a lot about how to create images that would feel tactile, not sterile. There’s a very strong, dramatic human element to this film, even though Will, the protagonist, ceases to exist in human form as we enter the second act.

“I also think it’s important that the story is rooted in technological development that is happening now,” continues Hall. “Elements of the story required a futuristic palette, but one grounded in reality. I’m a great admirer of photojournalism, particularly The Magnum Group, and Wally began his career as a news cameraman. I think we both connected with the idea of capturing a palpable, tangible realism.”

The dichotomy of organic vs. synthetic guided the entire production, which shot for about eight weeks in Albuquerque, N.M., and four weeks in Los Angeles. The main sets were built at I-25 Studios in New Mexico under the direction of production designer Chris Seagers. Although Pfister prepped for many months, his main prep with Hall was about six weeks.

From the beginning, Pfister intended to shoot 35mm anamorphic and finish with photochemical color timing. “As we’ve become more reliant on technology, I think we’ve lost sight of the fact that some technology can overcomplicate things and can cost a lot more, and that’s my analogy with digital vs. film,” says Pfister. “There’s nothing wrong with 35mm film; it didn’t need replacing. People simply thought that digital capture was a cheaper way of doing it. However, digital is more complicated and, in some cases, it requires a more expensive process. Certainly, it’s not as reliable as film.

“Also, film is higher resolution,” he adds. “To capture all the resolution of an anamorphic 35mm image, you need a scan somewhere between 8K and 12K. So while everyone brags about 4K cameras and scans, we’re shooting on, effectively, a 10K camera. Why replace that with an inferior technology?”

Hall chose two Kodak Vision3 negatives, 500T 5219 and 250D 5207, “which intercut really well,” he says. “Between them, they dealt with every extreme from harsh desert to a completely black set, which was Evelyn’s apartment.” He avoided special processing, noting, “The locations and the palette of the film are so diverse that I didn’t want to overcomplicate the processing.”

The production’s A and B cameras were Panaflex Millennium XL2s, and Hall and his team also used an Arri 235, an Arri 435 and a Vision Research Phantom Flex. (The latter two were for specific effects shots.) The Panavision lens package comprised C Series, E Series and High Speed anamorphic primes, as well as some Close Focus lenses, a T1.8 100mm and a T2.8 25mm. “The 25mm was used for POV shots of ‘the machine’ [Caster’s embodiment as artificial intelligence] as seen through its surveillance devices, and we also used it for some spectacular desert vistas, one of which was captured in a real storm,” Hall notes.

As for camerawork, he continues, “The general analogy for our approach was, ‘The camera should find its own place.’ By that I mean the camera should find a point of view from which to inhabit a scene, a perspective that served the narrative without imposing itself in a self-conscious display. In this respect, Wally and I responded to the actors, watching the rehearsal process intensely, often from opposing angles. During that process, I tried to feel the inherent rhythm of a scene, its heartbeat, and then to find a sequence of shots to best express that. That might involve any number of techniques from a slow tracking shot to vigorous handheld, but they all derived from a motivation to serve the narrative, to support and capture the performance.

“At the conceptual center of our visual approach was the conflict between the organic and the synthetic,” he adds. “We allowed the tension and potential incompatibility of these two forces to inhabit our images in many respects, from the choice of locations and materials to decisions about composition, color and contrast.”

At the heart of the story is Will’s subterranean research facility, the Brightwood Data Center, whose associated spaces include Evelyn’s apartment, an incubating room and a data-storage room. All of these sets were designed to facilitate the use of multiple projections on glass, Perspex and other materials that would add layers and depth. The projection concept also encompasses Caster’s virtual presence as a live feed. A separate booth was built for Depp so that he and the other actors could interact live during the shoot.

All but a few of the projections were captured in-camera. “That was incredibly beneficial for the actors, and it also meant that we were composing complete shots,” says Hall. “I’ve always been inspired by the work of [artist] Bill Viola, who projects imagery on various materials, and Wally let me run with that idea. In testing, we found a material called Clearview that allowed us to project onto glass whilst allowing the material to remain reflective and semitransparent. We also found a type of black Perspex that worked well. It was all about getting the right balance with the existing lighting. Finding ways to achieve these effects in camera was a great challenge, but the results were visually exciting, and the integration of projections into the initial photographic process gave the film a distinct quality.

“Because we were shooting film and not doing a DI, we really had to have a theory worked out, and that meant color balancing all the projectors and being really careful to maintain that balance,” Hall continues. “It was quite precise work. We mostly used Barco HDF-W26 DLP projectors and Barco HD20 FLM DLP projectors. All the graphic material running through them was controlled through a Dataton Watchout system that enabled us to manipulate multiple layers of projections quickly. It also gave us almost infinite flexibility with the layering, resolution and positioning of the various elements. However, ultimately, monitoring the color balance of the projectors and their material was done the old-fashioned way, using a color-temperature meter, and finally by eye, utilizing the knowledge of the process I had gained during testing.”


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