The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents November 2015 Return to Table of Contents
PresidentsDesk
Steve Jobs
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Steadicam Sidebar
Meadowland
ASC Close-Up

An Immersive Experience: Q&A with Steadicam operator Geoff Haley


by Noah Kadner



With as much as 80 percent of Steve Jobs shot on Steadicam, operator Geoff Haley had to work very closely with director Danny Boyle and cinematographer Alwin Küchler, BSC. Here, Haley relates his experiences.

American Cinematographer: How did you come to work on this project?

Geoff Haley: Alwin interviewed a number of high-quality operators. I didn’t think I had much chance of landing the gig, given the competition, but Alwin and I got on quite well, and to my shock, he offered me the job, pending additional approval from Danny Boyle. I had a Skype interview with Danny before even reading the script, as it was being kept under wraps. He doesn’t normally use a lot of Steadicam, but it was his tool of choice for this movie. The average scene length was around 10 pages of rapid-fire dialogue, and we had some that were as many as 20 pages. Danny referenced Birdman [shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC], in which they would do maybe 10 takes of a carefully choreographed, long, uninterrupted oner. We were also going to do a lot of uninterrupted takes with the camera traveling long distances, but unlike Birdman, Danny’s intention was to shoot plenty of coverage to be able to manipulate the pacing and performances in post. So we would also shoot reverse masters, followed by two-shots, over the shoulders, close-ups and so on. We might end up shooting some 80 takes of a 10-minute-long scene. It was incredibly exhausting, and there were times I thought I’d run out of steam, but the actors’ incredible performances and Danny’s rare mix of empathy, passion and artistry fueled my adrenaline.

What is one particular challenge you faced?

Haley: Even though I was improvising the coverage based on the movement of the actors, all the different passes needed to be cuttable and fit together like a jigsaw puzzle in the editing room. Remembering which pieces you already have and which you still need during a 10-minute-long moving scene with four actors is not easy, especially when you are shooting a 180-page Aaron Sorkin script!

How did you manage focus?

Haley: My focus puller, Greg Irwin, had challenges just traveling through those tight, practical backstage spaces. We also didn’t use marks very much because the scenes were so long and so involved. Additionally, the lenses were often very long, and the depth of field shallow. I have no idea how Greg managed it.

How do the different camera bodies affect the Steadicam?

Haley: Traditionally, the heavier the rig, the more stable the Steadicam behaves, because it’s basically a weight balancing on a giant spring. The 16mm camera was nice and light and I was able to do longer takes, but [it was] also a little more skittish. This dovetailed nicely with the 1984 sequence because I think Jobs was a little bit immature, skittish and rough around the edges, personally and with Apple. In the second act, he’s more mature — post Apple with Next — and the heavier 35mm camera feels more grounded, with more weight. Finally, the last sequence is the digital Alexa with no moving parts. On a Steadicam, any moving part introduces a tiny piece of motion that’s impossible to completely counteract, so those Alexa shots are laser-precise and symmetrical. None of this was a conscious or intentional choice; it was one of those happy accidents I began to notice unfolding in the story during dailies. 

How did you know when a take was good?

Haley: Danny said to me in the interview, ‘I may be asking you to try some nearly impossible shots at high speeds in very confined spaces. Your success ratio might only be 50 to 60 percent, but that’ll be okay, and we’ll push through technical mistakes and missed lines.’ We all had to become comfortable with failing, and to keep right on going and maintain the energy, knowing the editor would find the best pieces. However, I would let Danny know when I thought we didn’t get a specific moment, especially after a few tries at it.

How did this show compare with your other operating experiences?

Haley: Steve Jobs was shot primarily on Steadicam, but we also did scenes where I operated on dollies or handheld. I’d operate A camera, and Alwin might operate B camera. Alwin was always finding those striking moments, many of which ended up in the trailer, while I was getting the meat and potatoes of a given scene. We developed a shorthand during my luxuriously long prep. I’m accustomed to starting a day or two before production begins, but this production had the foresight to bring me in three weeks early. It was really helpful for me to be part of the location scouting, prelighting and rehearsals. I got to spend time in the spaces and start imagining the best angles to tell the story. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have that level of involvement during prep, and I found it an invaluable tool in doing my job effectively.

What was your favorite scene to shoot?

Haley: The scene where we first meet Chrisann Brennan [Katherine Waterston], the mother of Steve’s daughter Lisa. It starts in a hallway and continues into a dressing room. That was an extremely emotional scene, with Michael [Fassbender] and Katherine really pouring their hearts out. At a certain point, I started to feel more like a privileged observer than a technician shooting a scene; I was so drawn into the narrative that I was able to forget I was part of making it. I moved through every inch of the dressing room with the camera — following, spinning around them and passing between them. I’ve never had an experience so completely disassociated from the technical work, one in which I could delight simply in the emotional power of the moment.

 

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