The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents October 2007 Return to Table of Contents
Q&A With Deakins
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When you’re dealing with that kind of period situation, the first thing you think of is the technical challenge of lighting everything. The train robbery had to look as if it were really lit just with lanterns. Of course, if you look closely at the shots, they’re totally unrealistic because there’s much too much light! Nevertheless, our approach worked pretty well. Andrew kept pushing for darkness, and, of course, if you haven’t worked with a director before, you wonder what he means by ‘dark.’ In this wooded area where the James gang was waiting to ambush the train, I’d positioned some lights on Condors to rake through the trees so you’d get some sense of the trees before the train came. But about an hour before we started shooting, I decided to turn them off, and instead we just pumped some atmosphere into the area. Luckily there wasn’t much of a wind, so we could maintain a low level of smoke hanging in the air and just let the light on the front of the train provide the general ambience. We shot the arrival of the train without any rehearsal, but it worked out just great. The only light in the whole scene is coming from either the train or the lanterns the outlaws are holding. The lanterns were dummied with 300- or 500-watt bulbs. Sometimes I’d keep the flame and put the bulbs behind the flame, dimmed way down. We positioned little pieces of foil between the bulb and the flame so all the camera would see was the little flame. At other times during the robbery, we just had bulbs in the lanterns — two bulbs side by side, dimmed down and sometimes flickering very gently. To augment the lanterns for close-up shots, I occasionally used a warmed-up Tweenie bounced off a gold stippled reflector.

The light on the front of the train stretched credibility, really. They did have lights on the front of trains back then, but they wouldn’t have been as strong as the 5K Par we used! We also had some gag lights underneath the train — little bare bulbs dimmed down — to light the steam and create the effect of this fiery red glow beneath the train. We had a special-effects rig on the train that would create sparks as it started braking. There’s one shot where the train is coming toward you and seems to hit the camera and carry it down the tracks; on the tracks, we set up a camera-platform rig with a big, soft buffer, and the train actually hit the platform and started pushing it along. In that particular shot, you can really see the warm glow of the bulbs underneath the engine. We also positioned a little silver reflector that caught some of the bounce from the 5K on the train, just to create some reflected light that would reveal the front of the train — otherwise, there was nothing else to illuminate it. We had a steam generator on the train so that when it stopped, we got this big cloud of steam that Jesse disappears into.

The rest of the sequence, including the interior scenes, was basically lit with dummied lanterns with bare bulbs inside. Inside the train, all the oil lamps had little tin hats on top of them; inside those were pieces of silver foil and a ring of five 300-watt bulbs dimmed down with flicker generators. Those read really well onscreen, but if you looked closely at the actual lamp it wouldn’t make sense, because the light was coming from the tin hat and not from the lamp itself. I chose those in collaboration with the art department because I knew Andrew wanted to do a constant move through the train with Frank James [played by Sam Shepard].

The only time we used conventional film lights in that sequence was when we were running with the outlaws down the hill toward the train. The robbers are supposed to look as if they’re being lit by the light at the front of the train, and I think we used a 10K bounced off a white card to create that sort of effect amid the steam. When we finally show the train carriage, you can see the passengers amid this golden light coming through the windows. That light was provided by 175-watt mushroom bulbs mounted on 10-foot strips positioned all the way down the interior ceiling of the train carriage. We could rely on our dummy lanterns when we were inside the train, but when we shot that exterior we had to really project the light out into the atmosphere.

That shot of the passengers was inspired by one of Andrew’s photographic references, and I think it’s one of the most successful shots in the film. When we were doing it, though, it filled me with dread, because I was concerned that the light would just burn out the passengers and it would end up looking silly.

The opening scenes of No Country provide an interesting contrast, because you were dealing with a large desert basin that was lit partially by the lights of modern pickup trucks.

Deakins: That was kind of frustrating, because that whole sequence — when Moss [Josh Brolin] goes back to a crime scene at night and is pursued by drug dealers — had to go from night through dawn and then into full daylight. I wracked my brain about how to do that, because the area we were filming in was a half-mile square in this big, dusty basin. I couldn’t see any way around it other than to use a big wash of light on top of the escarpment above the location, so I put three Musco lights up there to create a moonlight effect. I didn’t want to do it, but I didn’t see any other possibility. After we set up the Muscos, I knew we needed more of them, but I was lucky to get the three.

To try to make the transition to dawn, we picked out a rise where Moss parks his truck; when the drug dealers come back, they park their truck in the same spot with their headlights on. We tried to make the transition to dawn by lighting behind the trucks, as though the sun was starting to come up beyond the rise. We got about eight 18Ks and literally just shot them up into the air to light the sky while flagging them off everything else. Those basically lit the dust in the air and created a very faint glow behind the trucks.

Where I came unstuck was that the actual spot where the sun rose each day was just to the left of the rise, and when we later did the main shot of Moss running away, it was a cloudy morning. That was so disappointing, because if it had been a clear morning I think the lighting I’d done and the actual dawn would have meshed pretty well. As it is, you see the dawn coming up for real and then my fake dawn in front of some clouds! That really upsets me, but we only had two days to shoot the whole sequence, so we couldn’t just go back there and do it over the next day.

A number of shots in Jesse James have a sort of dreamlike vignetting at the edges of the frame. How did you achieve that effect?

Deakins: That was done entirely in camera with lenses that are now called ‘Deakinizers.’ I used to use this gag where I put a small lens element in front of a 50mm to get a similar effect. I went to Otto Nemenz and asked how we could create that effect in a better way, with more flexibility and lens length. The lens technician suggested taking the front element off a 9.8 Kinoptic, and also mounting the glass from old wide-angle lenses to the front of a couple of Arri Macros. Otto now rents out three Deakinizers. Removing the front element makes the lens faster, and it also gives you this wonderful vignetting and slight color diffraction around the edges. We used different lenses, so some were more extreme or slightly longer than others. Sometimes we used [Kardan] Shift & Tilt lenses to get a similar effect.

Most of those shots were used for transitional moments, and the idea was to create the feeling of an old-time camera. We weren’t trying to be nostalgic, but we wanted those shots to be evocative. The idea sprang from an old photograph Andrew liked, and we did a lot of tests to mimic the look of the photo. Andrew had a whole lot of photographic references for the look of the movie, mainly the work of still photographers, but also images clipped from magazines, stills from Days of Heaven, and even Polaroids taken on location that looked interesting or unusual. He hung all of them up in the long corridor of the production office. That was a wonderful idea, because every day we’d all pass by [images] that immediately conveyed the tone of the movie he wanted to make.


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