The American Society of Cinematographers

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Steve Jobs
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Steve Jobs

Danny Boyle and Alwin Küchler, BSC, reveal their strategy for Steve Jobs.

Unit photography by François Duhamel, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs was released just three weeks after the mercurial, visionary founder of Apple passed away at age 56 in 2011. Soon after, Universal Pictures became determined to produce the definitive portrait of the man behind the Macintosh computer, iPod, iPhone and iPad. Development proceeded swiftly with the hiring of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. The project changed players a few times along the way, but in late 2014, Danny Boyle took the helm and went on to choose Michael Fassbender for the title role in Steve Jobs.

Though aspects of Jobs’ life have been presented before in such projects as the 1999 telefilm Pirates of Silicon Valley (shot by Ousama Rawi, BSC, CSC) and the 2013 feature Jobs (shot by Russell Carpenter, ASC) — as well as in numerous documentaries — Boyle and his team were aiming for something different. Unlike traditional biopics, Sorkin’s script was essentially divided into just three scenes, each covering the run-up to a key product launch. Act one, set in 1984, concerns the debut of the first Macintosh computer. Act two, in 1988, sees Jobs launching the Next computer, his first creation after being forcibly ousted from the company he founded. The final act, set in 1998, depicts a resurgent Jobs returning as Apple’s CEO and igniting the company’s renaissance with the iMac.

To add authenticity, Boyle insisted on filming in the actual Bay Area locations used for each presentation. The settings included the Flint Center for the Performing Arts in Cupertino, and Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. Flashbacks to Apple’s genesis — which made use of the actual Los Altos garage where Jobs and Steve Wozniak first set up shop in the ’70s — and to other key moments in Jobs’ life are featured as well. The stage and house at Davies Symphony Hall were shot at the actual venue, while the backstage area was re-created in an old warehouse in Alameda.

Cinematographer Alwin Küchler, BSC, received the call very close to the start of production. “I’d worked with Alwin on Sunshine, and he did a magnificent job of prelighting those sets in a really interesting way,” says Boyle. “On Steve Jobs I wanted to liberate the actors, and that called for a really strong conceptual approach to the lighting and the artistry to execute it.”

“We had very little prep time,” Küchler says. “It was also going to be a challenge shooting in those locations. Danny is bold when he gets a specific idea and he wants that ‘real’ texture, so we had to work around the schedules of the real places. That meant working the graveyard shift — 10 p.m. to 11 a.m. We also weren’t allowed to leave our lights on the working stages, so we’d rehearse prelighting for a week before shooting each part. Danny likened it to a theater performance in that we’d shoot one act, then production would stop and he’d rehearse the next act with the actors while I prepped for the next location.”

As the shooting plan firmed up, Boyle and Küchler reviewed other films in the genre. “The Social Network was both an inspiration and, because it’s so good, a [source of] anxiety,” says Boyle. “That film and this one are both written by Sorkin and delve into the brave new world of Internet pioneers. It feels like they are the first two parts of a trilogy about the digital revolution. We wanted our film to have a distinct identity of its own, though. When we looked at The Social Network, we realized that almost the whole movie takes place [with characters] sitting down. So we decided to make Steve Jobs the standing-up movie. If something really important happens, Steve might sit down, but otherwise he’s always on his feet, always moving forward.”

To help differentiate the eras, Küchler suggested shooting each with a different camera format. The filmmakers captured 1984 with an Arri 416 Super 16mm camera, using Kodak Vision3 500T 7219, and 1988 with Arricam LT and ST cameras in 3-perf Super 35mm, using Vision3 500T 5219. The footage set in 1998 was captured digitally on an Arri Alexa XT recording in ArriRaw. “One of the wonderful side effects of the 16mm is that it looks aesthetically raw and poetically beautiful,” notes Küchler, “which mirrors the story of Jobs [in his early years] perfectly — the original ideas are there, but not fully developed.”

Boyle and Küchler also determined that Steadicam would be the best way to enhance the visual dynamics of the dialogue-intensive screenplay. Operator Geoff Haley ended up shooting as much as 80 percent of the finished film on a Tiffen Steadicam Ultra2. (See sidebar.) “The progressive approach to formats and lighting that Alwin imagined and executed enabled us to apply an incremental upgrade in visual quality as the story developed,” observes Boyle. “It’s a conceit that is beautifully tailored to the story we are telling, and it was a lot of fun to do. Great credit should also go to Geoff as the sculptor of scenes.”

Küchler’s other key collaborators included 1st AC Gregory Irwin and chief lighting technician Len Levine. The filmmakers chose to frame for the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Dailies were processed by FotoKem and distributed digitally to the filmmakers using the Pix dailies-delivery system. FotoKem scanned 16mm and 35mm negatives on a Spirit 2K scanner, and Küchler was able to communicate desired dailies corrections via FotoKem’s Frames iPad app.

The different camera bodies necessitated different lenses. According to Irwin, “We used 16mm and 35mm Zeiss Super Speed [T1.3] primes on the Arri 416, and [Arri/Zeiss] Master Primes for the Arricam 35mm and Alexa cameras, using pretty much the entire focal range. For zooms, we used the shorter Angenieux Optimos on the 16mm camera, including the 15-40mm [T2.6] and the 28-76mm [T2.6].”

The production sourced its camera package from Keslow Camera in Los Angeles. “Brad Wilson at Keslow was instrumental in prepping eight cameras in three formats over just five days and shipping it all to San Francisco,” says Irwin.

“I operated a lot on B camera to get additional coverage where possible,” notes Küchler. “We also ran up to six cameras on the big crowd scenes. Jobs was such a rock star that the call for volunteer audience extras attracted thousands of people. Greg, Geoff and I would bring the cameras and lenses to the set the day before we shot to decide what we wanted to cover.”

Because the camera was constantly covering large distances, monitoring also became a significant challenge. “We used [Navtech Systems] Rover transmitters for the film cameras because they were powerful enough to punch through all that dense metal, concrete and RF interference in the locations,” Irwin says. “Initially, the Comtek audio monitoring wasn’t in sync with the Rovers due to their different methods of transmission. Sound mixer Lisa Pinero built in a digital delay that counteracted the audio lag brilliantly. For the Alexas, we switched to Teradek Bolt uncompressed wireless HD transmitters. With the Preston Cinema Systems remote lens control and [Cinema Electronics] CineTape distance-measuring device, we were able to make each camera rig completely wireless.”


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