The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents October 2008 Return to Table of Contents
Body of Lies
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Production Slate
Post Focus
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Alexander Witt serves as director of photography on Body of Lies, a CIA thriller directed by Ridley Scott.

Unit photography by François Duhamel, SMPSP
Two flashlights, some smoke and a stone fortress on the Moroccan coast. That’s a short list of ingredients, but it’s all director Ridley Scott needed to whip up an interrogation and torture scene loaded with suspense and visual style. This climactic moment in Body of Lies not only offers a white-knuckle scene with the protagonist, CIA agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), but it also exemplifies the film’s basic building blocks: practical locations, naturalistic lighting and the use of multiple cameras.  

Based on the novel by journalist David Ignatius, Body of Lies imagines a near future when European cities are regular targets of terrorist car bombs. The story focuses on Ferris, a field agent stationed in Jordan, who has uncovered a new faction of Al Qaeda led by an elusive leader, Suleiman. After several unsuccessful attempts to infiltrate the network, Ferris and his colleagues concoct a poison pill: a corpse dressed as a CIA agent that carries a message to Suleiman, asking for his help in dealing with a dangerous new threat. Ferris’ boss at the CIA, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), plans to create the threat — a car bomb at a U.S. air base — and fill the faux agent’s briefcase with documents implicating a false lead. The hope is that Suleiman will surface to deal with the problem and the CIA will finally be able to hunt him down. Things don’t go quite as planned, however, and as layers of deceit pile up, Ferris becomes less and less sure about who is pulling whose strings. 

Body of Lies reunited Scott with many previous collaborators, including Crowe, production designer Arthur Max and cinematographer Alexander Witt, who is notching his first credit as 1st-unit director of photography on the film. A native of Chile, Witt first worked with Scott in 1989 as the 2nd-unit camera operator on Black Rain. In the 19 years since, he and Scott have collaborated on five other features: Witt was the 2nd-unit cinematographer on Thelma & Louise and doubled as the 2nd-unit cinematographer and director on Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, Hannibal and American Gangster. “It was something we were trying to work out for a while,” says Witt of his recent promotion, which happened when his and Scott’s schedules finally meshed. 

Meanwhile, Witt had been racking up credits on many Hollywood action pictures, working as 2nd-unit director and/or cinematographer on The Italian Job, Twister, Speed 2, The Bourne Identity, Pirates of the Caribbean and Casino Royale. He thus came to Body of Lies well prepared for both its action sequences and Scott’s working methods. Although there was nothing about their collaboration that surprised him, Witt acknowledges that being the 1st-unit director of photography “was a big change. It’s a different job because you’re more involved with everything in almost every department. Second unit is a challenge; it’s always a learning process to light and direct for different cinematographers and directors because everyone has a different style. It was a great challenge, and I enjoyed every minute of it.” 

Body of Lies was shot in Super 35mm 2.40:1. “Ridley likes ’Scope and the way it frames things, and using spherical lenses gives you more flexibility on interiors and nights [than anamorphic lenses],” notes Witt. “It also makes it easier for the focus puller because there’s a little more depth of field.” 

Although Scott has made extensive use of grad filters in the past, no filtration was used on the lens apart from 85 and neutral-density filters. “Ridley used to like to have a lot of grads,” says Witt, who adds that on at least one occasion in the past, the team lost the light because of the time spent choosing the right filter. On Body of Lies, the filmmakers decided to save that kind of finessing for the digital intermediate (DI).  “I think lens filtration is a thing of the past,” observes Witt. “You can work faster on set without it, and you can do it better in the DI.” 

Most of the picture was shot on Kodak Vision2 500T 5218, which Witt rated normally. During prep, he tested Technicolor’s OZ process, which Scott and Harris Savides, ASC used on American Gangster (AC Nov. ’07), but the team ultimately decided against it. “It worked on American Gangster because there were so many African-Americans in the cast — OZ works really well on dark-skinned actors,” says Witt. “But on our tests in the Morocco desert, it just didn’t look right, so we decided to do the processing conventionally.” Technicolor in Rome handled the production’s front-end lab work. 

The film’s visual effects were also straightforward. Most explosions were executed by the special-effects department with minimal CG enhancement. Digital effects were most often used to tweak some locations — dropping a Dubai skyline into a Morocco location, for instance — and for composites in a scene involving drone surveillance monitors. 

Scott carried out the digital color-correction at Company 3 with colorist Stephen Nakamura, and although Witt was unable to participate because of a prior commitment, “the negative was so even they did very little work on it,” says the cinematographer. Nakamura confirms, “Ridley didn’t stray too far from the negative. He just said, ‘I want it to look gnarly.’ He didn’t want pretty-looking images; he wanted something gritty and dirty-looking.” (The filmout was handled at Technicolor Digital Intermediates.) 

Throughout the production, the filmmakers strove for authenticity in depicting the story’s two worlds: the cool, high-tech world of Washington, and the warm desert world of the Arab countries. “We wanted there to be a clear distinction when we cut back and forth between Washington and the Arab countries,” says Witt. Naturally, many of those distinctions were inherent to the locations. “CIA headquarters is a world of bureaucracy, and it’s full of blues and grays, black and white,” notes Max. “By contrast, the desert cities and towns feature burnt tones and a warmer palette.” 

Practical locations were a constant, but in order to facilitate a 65-day shoot, the filmmakers used “two countries to represent about 10 countries,” says Max. “That was the Rubik’s Cube of this movie: how to make the United States and Morocco look like Manchester, Berlin, Amman, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Baghdad, Samara, Istanbul, the Syrian border and Qatar!” During prep, Max traveled to as many relevant places as he could, delved into photographic material, and took notes as former U.S. intelligence officers described secret-operations rooms. “Once we had all that detail, it was a matter of figuring out how to make it work mostly in Washington, Baltimore and several cities in Morocco, which we know very well from previous projects,” says Max. “We were intimate with Rabat because we’d made Black Hawk Down there, and with Ouarzazate because we’d made Kingdom of Heaven and the first part of Gladiator there — we knew almost every stone in the desert!” 

Over the years, Scott also had befriended King Mohamed VI of Morocco, a bond that helped the production gain unparalleled access to government properties. Morocco’s Ministry of Finance, for instance, was redressed as Jordan’s secret-service headquarters, and the Casablanca airport and a military airfield were also at the filmmakers’ disposal.

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