Cinematographer Eduardo Serra, AFC lends his eye to Unbreakable- the story of an average guy who discovers that he’s become indestructible.

Before serving as director of photography on M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, Eduardo Serra, AFC had never dealt with the paranormal. True, he had shot What Dreams May Come, "but I don’t really feel as if that film was about the paranormal," the cinematographer says. "It was more a film about the afterlife." Of course, Shyamalan’s breakthrough hit The Sixth Sense was definitely a paranormal tale, and his new project also deals with the uncanny. Serra recalls, "When Night first sent me the Unbreakable script, I was in Europe, and The Sixth Sense hadn’t been released there yet, so I really didn’t know anything about him. We had a very interesting conversation over the phone about Unbreakable and his ideas [for the picture]. The key thing he told me in that first conversation which was very surprising was that this was a story of a simple man and his family being confronted with some strange events. The family was not just a subplot, it was the key [to the film].

"When I did see The Sixth Sense, one of the things that I found so interesting was [Night’s] real care for the characters; he has a real love for people, a genuine kindness. And I think that’s also true of Unbreakable; whatever fantastic adventures happen, the film is first about people, and about the relationship between a man, a wife and a son. We always made the family scenes at home warmer in color tone than the exterior world; even if there are problems [in the home], it’s a warm and good place." The cinematographer adds that the extra sense of warmth was created with just a hint of CTO on soft light sources.

Serra, whose credits also include The Wings of the Dove (see AC June ’98), Jude, Funny Bones, The Color of Lies and Map of the Human Heart, says he has always been fascinated with the subtle ways in which color can affect an audience, and he worked closely with Shyamalan to design an appropriate color scheme for Unbreakable. "In our [initial] meetings, we determined how the color structure depended on the character," Serra says. "Each character would have a ’color arc,’ quite a subtle game with changes of colors things that are not supposed to be very obvious onscreen, but which still create a feeling [in the audience]."

The two most important "color arcs" belong to the main characters, David Dunne (Bruce Willis) and Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). Bizarre and mysterious events make David practically invulnerable to injury (hence the film’s title), but his friend, Elijah, is born terribly frail and becomes weaker as the story goes on. Their characters are complementary, and so are the color arcs Serra chose for them. "David goes from cold to warm light," Serra explains, "and Elijah goes from warm to cold. They are symmetrical reflections of each other, so their color arcs move in opposite directions." For the most part, Serra achieved this delicate shift with camera filters, but he sometimes used gels on the lights.

At the start of the film, there’s nothing particularly unusual about David’s look. But as his transformation proceeds, his lighting becomes more stylized, as Serra explains. "Sometimes, I used visual references to comic-book style. In fact, our main pictorial reference was comic books." In the story, Elijah is a huge comic-book fan, and he gains a strange sort of comfort from David’s increasing power. For Elijah, it is evidence of a rational, ordered universe, in which his friend’s invulnerability balances out his own physical decline. By the time the movie ends, David is lit rather harshly, almost like a superhero or "a piece of marble sculpture," Serra notes. "[His appearance is] more abstract, silhouetted; I was playing with shadows [to convey the impression of physical strength in some shots]." Serra used a single key light from the side to get this sculpted look, usually a Kino Flo or a tungsten Fresnel.

"[Unlike David,] there is no radical change in Elijah, so the [color shift] on Elijah is not as big," Serra notes. "We see Elijah three or four times before he appears as an adult: at birth, at age 6 and at age 10. I used coral filters on the camera for Elijah’s childhood, [and as he gets older] he becomes more normal [in color tone and then a bit] cooler. I pull-processed Elijah’s childhood scenes one stop to make them softer. Other than that, I did nothing unusual with the processing. We used two stocks, Kodak Vision 320T 5277 for family scenes and Elijah’s childhood, and Vision 500T 5279 for the exterior world."

In one long, handheld shot, Elijah’s mother gives birth to him at a 1950s department store. The scene was filmed at a converted convention center that hid an unexpected bonus in its ceiling: old track lights, just like the kind you’d find in any department store 40 years ago. Serra’s chief lighting technician, Steve Litecky, details, "We used those track lights practically unchanged from the way they were originally installed incandescent, tungsten practicals, 150-watt mushroom bulbs, pointing straight down at racks of clothing and merchandise. Off to one side, we had 5K Skypans diffused by 20-by-20 gridcloths; those units provided general background light for the store, and none of it spilled onto Elijah and his mother."

Elijah’s mother lies on a small couch with the camera at a low angle, looking across her to the doctor who delivers her son. A white paper Chinese lantern with a 500-watt Photoflood on a dimmer provided soft lighting for these closer shots. "I often use Chinese lanterns," Serra says, "as big as possible. They are very good for one-light shots. I put them as close as possible to the edge of the frame and sometimes follow the actors around with them." The mother’s face was lit by a pinpoint of light from high above a Mole-Richardson Tweenie, Litecky says, "with Lee 250 in front for a little diffusion. That was basically it for the delivery scene."

Serra prefers a soft texture and usually gets it without using lens filters. "A couple of times, I might have used a very light Tiffen [white] ProMist for some close-ups," Serra says, "but as a rule, there was no diffusion on the camera." According to Litecky, the soft light was often generated by Aurasoft lighting fixtures. "You don’t see those all that often, but Eduardo specifically asked for two and used them extensively, particularly on interior sets," he notes. "They’re great as very soft, one-source lights, and they take either HMI or tungsten halogen globes. The tungsten [about 2900°K] was used for interior soft light, and the HMI [around 5200°K] was used for exterior soft light and also for simulating daylight coming through windows."

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