Janusz Kaminski, ASC and his crack crew reteam with Steven Spielberg on Catch Me If You Can, a breezy caper about a master of disguise and deceit.

From 40 years’ remove, it can seem like almost "anything went" back in the 1960s. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll were many teenagers’ bread and butter back then, and many graying Boomers can now wax soporific about their long-gone wild years. But even in those heady days, Frank Abagnale Jr.’s exploits turned heads – the heads of FBI agents, to be precise.

Catch Me If You Can, an effervescent holiday thriller directed by Steven Spielberg and photographed by Janusz Kaminski, ASC, is based on Abagnale’s memoir of the same name. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale and Tom Hanks as the FBI agent hot on his trail, the film depicts Abagnale’s teen years, during which he flawlessly impersonates pilots, doctors and attorneys, lives a playboy lifestyle on forged checks, and outmaneuvers the FBI for years before finally getting caught.

The project marks a distinct departure for Kaminski and Spielberg, whose past collaborations have focused on grim historical events or sinister sci-fi dystopias. "Catch Me If You Can deals with serious stuff – Frank spends the whole movie stealing and breaking laws, but he does it with such charm and panache that you sort of forgive him," says Kaminski. "This movie is pure entertainment, and it’s supposed to make you feel better. We definitely need those kind of movies just as much as we need the serious kind."

One aspect of the project that was not a departure for Spielberg and Kaminski was the pace at which it was filmed: more than 180 scenes in 53 days, with locations in Los Angeles, New York and Montreal. "Our pace was standard Steven," Kaminski acknowledges.

What facilitated that pace was a quick-thinking crew whose key members had collaborated with Kaminski on many other projects. Among them were gaffer David Devlin and camera operator Mitch Dubin; Catch Me If You Can was Devlin’s eighth collaboration with Kaminski and Dubin’s tenth. AC recently interviewed Kaminski, Devlin and Dubin separately about their work on the film.

American Cinematographer: Janusz, this is your eighth film with Spielberg. Did it take you into any new territory?

Janusz Kaminski: Each movie we do has its own sets of demands and corresponding lighting styles. Steven is evolving from being a classical backlight/warm light director into someone who’s interested in things besides traditional beauty, and I think I play an important role in that. His work with other cinematographers was always sort of the same [because] they were servicing his very traditional aesthetic. I do that, too, but I’m also trying to imprint each movie with my own style, and I hope to slowly change Steven’s ideas about what’s beautiful.

This film is less ‘Spielberg’ than some of his other movies. Steven was very relaxed and interested in working with the actors, and because we were working so fast there was often not enough time to give him a traditional look. There are gorgeously lit scenes in the film, but there are also scenes that, well, just don’t look as good! Once we lit we just had to go with it. I love that method.

What kind of visual research did you do during preproduction?

Kaminski: I watched two documentaries: Frederick Wiseman’s High School and the Maysles brothers’ Salesman. I watched them not for lighting ideas, because both films are black-and-white, but for the story and characters. I wanted to see what the world was like when Abagnale was operating. High School was useful because it’s all about how awkward kids are, yet how mature they feel compared to the adults around them. And Abagnale’s father, Frank Sr. [played by Christopher Walken], was just like the salesman in Salesman; he lived in a world of pretending, of hoping that the next day would be the one where he’d strike gold.

What sort of testing did you do on this project?

Kaminski: Leo is 27, and he portrays a character that starts out at age 16, so most of our testing was concerned with how to photograph him to make him look younger. But the way Steven and I work, it’s hard to finesse lighting to accommodate the technical details of an actor’s characterization. To a certain degree, I lit Leo a little bit flatter when Frank was younger and created more textured light when he was older. But we were doing 22 setups every day, plus moves, so there were certain compromises.

How did you decide to render the Sixties and Seventies photographically?

Kaminski: This movie’s photography is very straightforward. There are no tricks, no major CG work. [Production designer] Jeannine Oppewall found such wonderful locations to dress for very little money, and the wardrobe department created such great costumes, that the period was pretty much set. I didn’t have to enhance anything with special filters.

Mitch Dubin: The dressing of the movie – the great sets, period automobiles and wardrobe, and the fantastic locations Jeannine found – posed unlimited possibilities for the camera. No matter where you pointed the camera, it was hard not to find a great shot.

Kaminski: I would compare the film’s look to a bottle of champagne: when you pour that first glass and hold it up to the light and enjoy that warm glow, you just want to drink it in and get happy. So the lighting style is very warm. When we enter the Seventies, I went for a slightly bluer and pastel-like look, purposefully trying to make the images flatter and uglier. I used low-contrast and fog filters to accomplish that. I also shot [Kodak Vision] 320T [5277] stock, which I’ve never used before because I consider it too flat. I wanted this movie to go in that direction.

David Devlin: ‘Flat’ means different things to different people, though. Janusz is very specific with his sources and their direction, and his idea of flatness doesn’t mean he’s filling in light from every angle. It just means that the source is placed closer to the camera. For example, on some of the close-up work we used the Seven-Minute Drill. [Developed on Amistad, this book-light unit consists of an enclosed source aimed at 12'x12' Ultrabounce, which directs the light through a 12'x12' sheet of 1/2 Soft Frost.] That’s a large source for a close-up light, so it’s rather flat in that regard. [Key grip] Jim Kwiatkowski and I call it ‘dead light’ because there really isn’t a source to it. To give it a more sparkly look, we sometimes put in a hard source along with the bounced source behind the half Soft Frost; the hard light could be a stop overexposed, and the soft light might be two stops under. When Janusz uses hard light in his sources like that, or one soft source with no fill on the other side, he calls it ‘flat,’ but it’s actually very rich because you feel the falloff of light on the faces.

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.