The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
Return to Table of Contents
Return to Table of Contents November 2012 Return to Table of Contents
The Master
Page 2
Page 3
Page 4
The Master Sidebar
Presidents Desk
Short Takes
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Mihai Malaimare Jr. blends 65mm and 35mm for the existential period drama The Master.

Unit photography by Phil Bray, SMPSP; Albert Chi; and Chuck Zlotnick, courtesy of Western Film Company, LLC. Additional photos courtesy of Michael Bauman.
The opening shot of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master fills the frame with roiling ocean waves. As the water churns in the wake of some great nautical vessel, almost every bubble is visible in the white foam. Cut to a close-up of U.S. Navy Seaman Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). The camera is so close that only his eyes are in sharp focus; the background fades into a soft, impressionistic view of the battleship that carries him. He stares off-camera, focused on a point in the distance.    

It’s 1945, and World War II is over. Following his discharge, Quell spends five years meandering from job to job — portrait photographer and migrant worker among them — until he finally stows away aboard the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the founder and leader of a self-actualization movement called The Cause. Dodd sees Quell, an angry alcoholic with a miserable past, as an ideal subject for his experimental therapies.    

The Master was shot by Mihai Malaimare Jr., who was introduced to Anderson by Francis Ford Coppola after Coppola worked with the cinematographer on Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt. Malaimare recalls that from the outset, Anderson was intent on shooting some of The Master on a large format, primarily as a nod to the story’s period. “Most iconic stills from the World War I-World War II years were taken with the Speed Graphic 4x5 medium-format camera,” says Malaimare. “Photographers were also shooting with Crown Graphic.” Furthermore, Anderson wanted to use large format in an unconventional way: for portraiture rather than wide shots or landscapes.    

The filmmakers first tested 8-perf 35mm VistaVision with a non-sync Beaucam, which captures a native 1.5:1 image. “We discovered there wasn’t much of a difference in picture quality between 8-perf 35mm and [spherical] 4-perf 35mm,” says Malaimare. “At that point, we decided to jump into 65mm.”    

They decided to work with both of Panavision’s 5-perf 65mm cameras, the Panaflex System 65 Studio 65SPFX and the HR Spinning Mirror Reflex 65HSSM. The 65SPFX is a larger, silent camera, whereas the 65HSSM is a smaller and lighter MOS body more appropriate for handheld and remote-head operation. Both cameras can accommodate 400' and 1,000' loads.   

Anderson and Malaimare then enlisted 1st AC Erik Brown to help them test almost every lens available at Panavision’s Woodland Hills facility. They chose several Panavision System 65 prime lenses ranging from T1.9-T3.5. Panavision optical engineer Dan Sasaki also provided them with a T2.8 300mm medium-format lens built from a Hasselblad telephoto lens with Zeiss optics, which Malaimare calls “a great close-up lens.” The crew dubbed this “The Doris Lens,” naming it for Quell’s hometown sweetheart (played by Madisen Beaty), the subject of some of The Master’s most striking portraiture.   

Panavision also provided a Kowa 19mm lens for scenes shot in Hawaii, which stood in for the Pacific island beach where Quell and his fellow seamen take their R&R. This lens was used for one of the film’s opening shots, which finds Quell in the shade of a canopy on the beach. With the camera positioned low to the sand and close to Quell, the angle causes the canopy’s wooden support poles, as well as its roof and floor, to bow outward toward the edges of the frame, lending the image a noticeable distortion.   

Malaimare was especially fond of an Olympus 24mm rectilinear lens Panavision provided for 65mm photography on the show. “It’s an interesting lens because there is almost no distortion,” he notes. “If you were to shoot something with a 12mm in the 35mm format, you’d get much more distortion than you would with the System 65 24mm. The distortion can be distracting, but it can also work to your advantage; it makes you feel like you’re close to everything, even if your own perspective wouldn’t be as affected as the one produced by the lens.”   

In testing different aspect ratios, “we went back-and-forth between 2.35:1 and 1.85:1,” he continues. “Paul believed 1.66 or 1.85 felt right for the period, but 5-perf 65mm has a native ratio of 2.2. We finally decided to center-crop the 65mm neg to 1.85, which meant losing the left and right sides of the frame.”   

They also decided to shoot some of the movie on 35mm in spherical 1.85:1. The lenses they used for this work were inspired by one Malaimare owned. He explains, “I’m crazy about old still-photography cameras, and I had a 6x6 medium-format camera from the 1960s that had the sharpest lens I’ve ever seen: an 85mm Zeiss Jena. I brought that lens to Dan Sasaki, and he Panavised it. We used it to shoot some 35mm tests, and it cut really well with the 65mm material. The depth-of-field is different, but the sharpness is very close. Dan tracked down a whole set of 35mm Zeiss Jena lenses that Panavision had already rehoused.” These lenses, called “The T2 Set,” became part of the show’s package, which also included a Panaflex Millennium XL and a set of Zeiss Ultra Speed MK IIs.   

After testing all the available Kodak and Fujfilm negatives, the filmmakers decided to use mainly Kodak Vision3 200T 5213 for night work and Vision3 50D 5203 for day work. “Paul’s preference for tungsten was Kodak [Vision2 100T] 5212, but Kodak discontinued it,” notes Malaimare. “You can actually see the fine grain structures in the slower stocks, and the finer the grain is, the better, especially on 70mm prints.” With a laugh, he adds that lighting for 200-speed and 50-speed negatives was quite a departure from his recent work, which has been predominantly digital capture. “Imagine jumping from 500 or 800 ISO to 50! Everything I’m used to doing for lighting, like using real candles or Dedolights, went out the window.”   

“The [slower stock] has a voracious appetite for light, and that made The Master kind of a throwback because lighting at those levels just doesn’t happen anymore,” observes gaffer Michael Bauman. “It was a bit of a challenge to retrain our eyes to judge how much light we’d need.”   

Production began in Vallejo, Calif., whose World War II-era shipyards, medical facilities and Colonial Revival suburbs provided ideal stand-ins for various locations in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. The military hospital on Mare Island served as the site where Quell receives treatment for post-traumatic-stress disorder following his discharge. Malaimare says the compositions, lighting and mise-en-scène in John Huston’s controversial Signal Corps documentary, Let There Be Light (1946), was a key influence on the approach to these scenes. “Those scenes might be more stylized than the rest of The Master, but we decided to go for the reference anyway,” he says. “Paul wanted it to look like a 1950s documentary-film crew had come to the hospital with four light bulbs and lit the patients so you could see [their condition].”   

Outside the facility’s windows, the crew positioned 18K HMI ArriMaxes and 12K HMI Pars, and Bauman brought up the interior illumination by bouncing 400-watt and 800-watt Jokers into the ceiling. “Getting a natural look out of all that light was certainly a challenge, considering the amount of fill we needed and the heat those lamps generate,” says the gaffer. “It takes you 100 foot-candles just to get started!”   

The hospital scenes were filmed early in the schedule and were shot on 5203 with the Ultra Speed MK IIs. “At that point in the shoot, Paul intended to reserve 65mm for about one-quarter of the movie, for scenes when we really wanted to feel the depth-of-field as a strong point of the story,” says Malaimaire. “So, at first, we were using 65mm for close-ups and sometimes for extreme wide shots. But as we watched our film dailies, which were 35mm optical-reduction prints from the 65mm negative, we were amazed at how different the 65mm looked from anything else we were seeing, even at the reduced resolution. After that first week, we altered our approach and began shooting most of the picture on 65mm.”  

next >>