The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents November 2007 Return to Table of Contents
Im Not There
The Kite Runner
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ASC Close-Up
DVD Playback
Roberto Schaefer, ASC helps bring the best-selling novel The Kite Runner to the big screen.

Unit photography by Phil Bray, SMPSP
In 371 pages, the novel The Kite Runner does what reams of newspaper articles cannot: convey the dilemma of Afghanistan on an emotional level. Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 best seller shows the heavy hand that ethnicity plays in determining every Afghan’s fate — how one’s birth as a Pashtun or a Hazara (and thus as a Sunni or Shi’a) circumscribes one’s aspirations, friends and future. This ethnic divide is personified by two boys: Amir, the privileged narrator, an only child raised by his widower father, Baba; and his close friend, Hassan, the servant’s son and a minority Hazara. 

The novel recounts their adolescence in 1970s Kabul, its first part climaxing in a kite-flying competition followed by an act of betrayal that forever alters their relationship. The story then skips ahead to San Francisco, where an adult Amir and his father have relocated after the Soviet invasion. There, Amir marries and launches a successful career as a novelist. Then one day, he receives a call from his father’s best friend, Rahim Khan, who is dying in Pakistan. He tells Amir to come, and Amir, haunted by guilt, obeys. But he soon discovers Khan has a hidden agenda: Hassan and his wife have been murdered, and Amir must find their son, who is in an orphanage, and bring him to safety in Pakistan. Amir makes a perilous journey into his homeland, now completely altered by war and the Taliban, as he attempts this act of redemption. 

“I think of the film as an intimate epic,” says director Marc Forster, who recruited his longtime cinematographer, Roberto Schaefer, ASC, to bring Kite Runner to the big screen. Schaefer has shot all eight of Forster’s features, starting with Loungers (1995) and continuing through the upcoming James Bond film, now in production. Their collaborations include the Oscar winners Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, and the cinematographer notes that genre-jumping has been the pattern. “Marc likes to try different things,” says Schaefer. “Before Kite Runner, he kept saying he wanted to do a science-fiction movie, and we both wanted to do a Western.” So Westerns were on their mind when The Kite Runner came up, and when they began discussing the project, Schaefer suggested viewing Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West to determine a visual strategy. “That meant widescreen, big close-ups with deep imagery, and camera moves and scene blocking based on the feeling of a big Western,” says Schaefer. 

The filmmakers originally intended to shoot anamorphic 2.40:1 — “I even stopped in Germany to test Hawk lenses, which I loved,” says Schaefer — but then they saw the locations, most of which were in a remote corner of China and comprised small rooms. “In light of the travel and the very tight spaces … I eventually decided anamorphic would be a bit restrictive,” says Schaefer. “But I thought we could split it up and shoot anamorphic for the wide exteriors and spherical when we got in tighter; we knew we were finishing with a digital intermediate [DI], which would facilitate that. But when we decided to go spherical, production immediately said we should shoot 3-perf to save money on film stock and get longer runs on the camera, and that meant we would need separate [cameras and lenses] for anamorphic. And we just didn’t have the budget — or room on the trucks — to carry both packages. So we shot the whole thing Super 35mm, but we tried to keep the idea of a grand epic.” 

Format was just one of the elements affected by the production’s setting. In keeping with his previous work, Forster wanted to shoot on practical locations as much as possible, and most of the 70-day shoot took place in China’s high desert. “It was very important to me to tell the story in the most authentic way possible,” says the director. “Knowing where these characters come from and how they live is the only way you can understand them and their culture deep, deep down.” (For reasons of security, shooting in Afghanistan was out of the question.) 

Kashgar, China’s westernmost major city, doubled for 1970s Kabul. Located on the old Silk Road, the city has a well-preserved historic center and also offered access to Tashkurgan, a town in the Karakorum Mountains whose stone fortress appears in the film behind Amir and Hassan’s beloved pomegranate tree. Only 60 miles from the Afghan border, the Karakorum Mountains and Khunjerab Pass leading to Pakistan could substitute for the escape route over the Khyber Pass taken by Amir and Baba when they flee the Soviet invasion. The area offered another bonus: the Uighur, an ethnic Islamic minority, “bear a fair resemblance to the Afghani,” says Schaefer, and could play minor parts.  

Filming in the area created a number of headaches. After getting permits from the central government in Beijing, the filmmakers had to deal with two different bureaucracies in Kashgar: Chinese and Uighur. Forster recalls, “These were always group decisions, so an individual would not say no, and at the end no one said yes. So we were often stuck in waiting mode.” Then there were the living conditions. “Except in Beijing, we were in very basic, often unhygenic living situations,” recalls Schaefer. “At the hotel in Kashgar, I was lucky because my toilet didn’t overflow or leak, and I didn’t get the sewage smell coming up through the floor until toward the end of our stay.” When filming in Tashkurgan, most of the crew slept in Yurts. “It’s not everybody’s thing to go to Kashgar for a few months,” says Forster with a laugh. “The conditions were very hard, and most of the [crew] who wanted to come were world travelers.” The international crew and cast included Chinese, Afghani, Americans, British, Iranians, Australians, South Africans, French, Italians and Japanese. 

Schaefer’s key crew came from the States. Key grip Herb Ault, gaffer Ian Kincaid and their assistants had all worked with Kite Runner producer Bennett Walsh on Kill Bill in Beijing. “They knew the [Chinese] system as much as anybody,” says Schaefer. The cinematographer also brought in A-camera /Steadicam operator Jim McConkey, a longtime collaborator. “The Chinese do amazing work — they’re dedicated and incredibly hard-working — but their style is mass attack,” says Schaefer. “They work in droves.” Forster adds, “If you’d use one person in America, you’d use three or four for the same thing in China. There are so many people there, and many of them are willing to work for $3 a day, so they’re not used to one person handling something.” That necessitated translators, “at least one for every department,” says Schaefer, “and usually two, because we had to translate English to Mandarin, English to Uighur, and Mandarin to Uighur. Then there were all the other languages that would sneak in — Farsi, Pashtun, Dari. Offhand I remember eight translators, and I’m sure there were some I never saw.” 

Schaefer had his own challenges, not least of which was getting gear to Kashgar. Grip and electric equipment mostly came from rental houses in Beijing, while the camera package came from Arri’s new office in Australia. “Everything we got was brand new,” says Schaefer. That included an Arricam Studio and Lite, an Arri 235, Arri Master Primes, an Arri 15.5-45mm zoom, and Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm and 18-70mm zooms, “which cut really beautifully with the Master Primes,” he notes. 

Last-minute one-day rentals were out of the question, so careful planning was critical during Schaefer’s 12 weeks of prep. The production also had to contend with a long turnaround for dailies, seven days to 21⁄2 weeks. During the first two weeks of production, 35mm dailies came from Beijing Film & Video Laboratory, a new, Kodak-supervised facility. “We were really their first customer, and they did excellent work, really clean,” notes Schaefer. For the rest of the shoot, the filmmakers screened video dailies generated by LaserPacific in Los Angeles, which had to be flown to Beijing, then to Urumqi, then to Kashgar. “You can’t fly directly into Kashgar — the government won’t allow it,” says Schaefer. “I eventually worked out a system with the telecine colorist at LaserPacific, Bruce Goodman. As he was doing the grading, he’d post stills on an FTP site, so I could see them as he was doing them. Then I could post digital stills showing my corrections using Gamma & Density’s 3cP. Bruce would look at those and then post his corrected stills. The system worked well. Fortunately, we had Internet access most of the time, although power went out occasionally at the hotel.”

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