The American Society of Cinematographers

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In addition to the bitter cold, the conditions were incredibly fatiguing. The snow ran as deep as mid-thigh, and the Italian crew worked in their traditional style of 10 hours straight with no lunch break. “That can be great for really bearing down and getting work done, but it’s incredibly tiring to not take a real break when you walk 20 feet and you’re out of breath,” notes Totino. “The Italian crew was fantastic, but some days I just wanted to break for lunch so I could change my socks!”

The production also made extensive use of a natural preserve outside the ski area at the resort. In addition, a second unit filmed at Everest for a short period of time, but after several Sherpa guides assisting the production were killed in an avalanche between photography sessions, the unit was shut down and sent home.

Seeking a camera package for these extreme conditions, Totino turned to the Arri Alexa XT, which he has grown to sincerely appreciate. “The Alexa handles contrast beautifully,” he says. “I don’t like the crisp feel of video, and the Alexa doesn’t have that at all. To me, it’s the closest thing to film of all the digital cameras. Although I have tested a number of cameras in the past, I knew right away that this project would be shot on the Alexa.

“I mostly shot at 800 ISO to leave the dynamic range right in the middle,” Totino continues. “Especially working in snow, I wanted as much latitude as I could get — nice and even on both sides of the curve.” The Alexa recorded ArriRaw to internal Codex drives, and the filmmakers framed for a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Totino adds that the camera was “a workhorse — truly amazing. All that time in sub-zero temperatures, and we never had any issues with the camera at all.”

Totino shot night scenes predominantly wide open on a combination of Cooke S4 primes and Angenieux Optimo 17-80mm (T2.2) and 24-290mm (T2.8) zooms, but for daylight sequences he shot between T4 and T5.6. “I wanted to have the depth during the day to keep the mountain and the location always present.”

Lighting on the mountain was anything but easy. Equipment was procured through Panalight in Rome, and several snowcats were required to move lights and generators, which were mounted on sleds. For the most part, Totino opted for larger HMI fixtures like 18K Arrimax and Arri M90 and M40 fixtures. He explains, “There were many times we couldn’t light the location at all, and others when the fixtures were 400 feet away because that was the closest we could get them. It was very tricky.”

Inside the ballroom at the ski resort, production designer Gary Freeman built a re-creation of a Kathmandu café where the climbers meet on their way to Everest. “Gary used some of the structure of the ballroom and integrated the set into that,” says Totino. “It wasn’t easy, considering we were on the Austrian border in the middle of nowhere. It was also the middle of a blizzard, and I had to create the light of a very warm, sunny day.”

As with his exteriors, Totino turned to Arrimax M90s and M40s, this time pushing through Full CTS to get a warm daylight feel. “The production design and set decoration were really amazing,” Totino praises. “They got the details of the actual Kathmandu location right down to the salt-and-pepper shakers on the tables. Lighting that kind of environment with that kind of detail makes it feel real. It transports you in a way that doesn’t often happen on a set.”

The original plan was to also shoot the Everest base camp at Val Senales, but inclement weather led the production to move the location to Cinecittà Studios in Rome. “Cinecittà is an old and derelict studio that's falling apart,” Totino notes. “You can see the sets from Gangs of New York just falling down. It’s kind of like a cinematic Roman Empire — so much history, so much amazing architecture, and it’s just crumbling. It was really fantastic to be there, though, because the movies that have been shot there had a huge influence on me as a kid.”

The studio, founded by Benito Mussolini in 1937, housed sets from classic productions that included Ben-Hur, Fellini’s Casanova and Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. “It’s really something to go there,” Totino fondly notes. “It’s a big, beautiful ruin that you know will be gone in the not-too-far future. I’m really happy that I got to experience working there.”

For base camp, Totino once again turned to his trusty Arrimax 18s, M90s and M40s to light through the tents for day interiors, and for the most part opted for practical fixtures fitted with standard household 40-watt bulbs for the night-interior work. Although the production would eventually move to England’s Pinewood Studios, Cinecittà was a better match for the exterior set of base camp, as the natural light more closely resembled the light at Everest. “Exteriors in London are too unpredictable and mostly overcast and raining, which just wouldn’t have worked for us,” Totino explains. 

At Pinewood, working on the famous 007 Stage, the production built Camp IV, the Khumbu Ice Falls, the Hillary Step (a vertical 39' climb just before the summit, named for the first climber to reach it, Edmund Hillary), and the summit of the mountain.

Among the many challenges onstage was re-creating Everest snow. “It’s not like the snow most people have experienced — it's very dry and extremely fine," says Totino. “If you pick it up, it falls through your hands like sand. The special-effects department turned to a highly dehydrated salt as the closest facsimile, and that caused more problems than shooting at 10,000 feet in sub-zero temperatures on actual mountains!”

Although the fine salt re-created the look and feel of the Everest snow, blowing it around stage was a serious irritant to the actors and crew — and to the equipment as well. “In all the time shooting in the mountains and in sub-zero temperatures, we had no problems with the equipment whatsoever,” Totino notes. “We had one small accident where an actor slipped, slid and fell into the camera and broke the filter, and that was it. Then we moved onstage, and the salt being blown around by big wind machines killed six Alexa cameras. It killed a Hybrid dolly, it nearly killed the Technocrane, and we had to bring in a North Sea oil-cleanup crew to disassemble all the lighting fixtures and clean the salt out of them before we returned them to the rental house. It looked amazing on the screen, but it was a real nightmare to work in. We had cameras covered in plastic, and then plastic over the plastic, but the salt was so fine it got inside anyway.”

Lighting the stage to re-create Everest was no easy feat, either. For ambient skylight the cinematographer turned to 500 Cinelight FloLight fluorescent fixtures in the stage perms, pushed through Half Grid Cloth. For direct sunlight, Totino and British gaffer Paul McGeachan employed Altitude Specialty Lighting’s 100K SoftSun fixtures on Condors that could be moved around the set. “I tried to be very diligent about the lighting onstage,” says Totino. “Since we were re-creating a historical event and covering different parts of the day, I went through the script and noted the time of day each sequence occurred, checked historical records in SunPath for those dates, and used that to plot where the direct sunlight would be placed. If a scene took place at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, then my SoftSun would [be placed] at the heading and degree of the sun for that time of day.


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