The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Presidents Desk
The Water Diviner
The Thing
Page 2
ASC Close-Up

Another reason The Thing endures is that it’s scary even when nothing is happening. You use the frame to set up an atmosphere of dread in scenes where the camera is moving without a clear sense of whose perspective we’re seeing, and there’s a great use of negative space to give the impression that something or someone might be lurking just off camera.

Cundey: John and I were certainly very interested in that sort of technique, and we wanted the audience to experience the atmosphere as the characters were experiencing it. We wanted to create an unsettling mood even before anything bad happens. Part of that was accomplished with the help of the dog, who was very attached to his trainer and gave a very controlled performance. Every time you see the dog, he’s not just sitting there — there’s an odd sense of light and a slow camera move. The dog could move slowly and stare in a very piercing way, so we took advantage of that with our own slow camera moves to create a feeling that there was something ‘off’ right from the beginning.

In terms of the compositions, well, I was a big fan of the anamorphic aspect ratio and had tried to convince some of the directors I’d worked with previously to use it. There was always this resistance, with guys saying it was too wide and you couldn’t really get close-ups of the actors. John believed, as I did, that filmmaking wasn’t always about close-ups, and that you could use that wide aspect ratio to place the characters in an environment. Even when we weren’t using the frame to imply that something might be about to happen, as you say, we were using it to create a whole world. There are these big wide vistas at the beginning, but with the snow and the mountains and things in the foreground, we still made the frame claustrophobic and used it to confine the characters.

The wide frame also helps because it’s an ensemble movie, and several characters are often interacting in the frame. It’s such a strong actors’ film, yet there’s also a very precise visual design. Did you and Carpenter do a lot of storyboards, or did you respond more to the location and the actors on the day?

Cundey: The anamorphic aspect ratio was very consciously discussed as an effective way to capture so many characters and make them feel confined in the frame. John was a very big proponent of trying to get one shot to fulfill the needs of the scene. I would say our approach was somewhere in between having storyboards and just making it up as you go. We had some excellent storyboards by Mike Ploog, a well-known comic-book artist; he created great jumping-off points that served as inspiration for us.

Another key component of the visual design is the way you use light to convey temperature, specifically the icy chill that surrounds the characters.

Cundey: I tried to create a strong sense of the cold by creating some contrast — the interiors were often lit with a warmer light so the audience would notice the difference between that and the exteriors, which we kept in blue tones, particularly at night. I found these very intense blue lights used on airport runways; they were balls covered with this very blue glass envelope, and they threw off an otherworldly blue light. The snow would reflect any color we put on it, so that made the outside even bluer and cooler. For the interiors, I had the crew build and hang overhead lights with conical shades, with the idea that we could control the light and not have the rooms completely illuminated. China hats would direct the cone of light down and allow you to have areas of darkness while still seeing the characters, and that enabled us to shape the light to create the mood we wanted. There were a lot of decisions and discussions involved in trying to control the pools of light while keeping the colors warm inside and cool outside.

And then there’s fire as both a story element and a visual motif.

Cundey: We tried to use the flamethrowers and the flares the characters carry as sources of light, in some sense allowing the actors to do their own lighting. The flares had an amazing color, a very unique sort of magenta. We’d probably never do something like that now because there are concerns about the kind of smoke they give off.

Did the fact that this was your first big studio movie change your approach?

Cundey: I remember walking onto those huge sets and thinking, this is going to be very challenging. But I tried to break the big challenges into smaller, more manageable and understandable pieces so I wouldn’t get overwhelmed. It was different and bigger than anything I had ever worked on before, but my idea was to see how I could apply my experience to creating this new world over which we had total control. The big satisfaction was that we were all working on the same movie and had a lot invested in doing it properly. The studio and all of the departments I worked with were very supportive, eager to help out these relatively new guys with this very large project.



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