The flying scenes required a lot of greenscreen work. How did that affect your style of lighting?
Richardson: Greenscreen action is one of the most difficult things to light, and this was the first time I had to do so much of it entire sequences that lasted a reel. One’s lighting has to replicate what is going to [appear] in the future and leave a certain latitude for change while still creating a look that is realistic or appropriate for the sequence. I say ‘appropriate’ because a number of our flying sequences are romantic rather than strictly realistic. That aside, my central concern was how exactly does one forecast what will be done by the second unit with either models or CG?
In the sequence where Howard crashes the Hercules into a beet field, I tended to work most of the shots with an unusually strong backlight, a concert of Dinos, Maxis and 20Ks hung from the ceiling that would edge around into Leo’s face but never cross fully in front; I used very little fill, only what was naturally picked up from the surroundings. My belief is that this style is more accommodating to the actor’s face, and it approximates what I would attempt to do if the sequence were shot as an exterior. [Gaffer] Ian Kincaid and I elected to work with a hard single source a 20K or, if a certain type of motion-control move was designed, with Dinos and Maxis.
Of course, I had extremely experienced people guiding me, including Rob Legato; every shot of the flying sequences had been previsualized with Martin Scorsese. My prime responsibility was to create the lighting, and I would have preferred to go further in designing how the light traveled in each sequence. But because I lacked experience in that field, it was daunting at times daunting because I prefer to test the edge, not stay within the curve of what’s expected. I will admit that it wasn’t necessarily the most creatively satisfying of the challenges I had, nor was it my greatest challenge. But when it came to the greenscreen, I had no problem relying on others to get the job done. I always move toward those who have a higher level of knowledge.
So what was the most challenging part of the shoot?
Richardson: I don’t know. That’s like asking, ‘What’s the greatest film you’ve ever seen?’ or ‘What was your greatest emotional experience?’ It was a constant battle that never relinquished itself, not dissimilar to what I went through on JFK [AC Feb. ’92]. There wasn’t a day where I felt I had it easy. If I must narrow it down, the greatest challenge was creating the specialized color palette in a manner that made mental sense, and then physically accomplishing it. That challenge never let up simply because it impacted every department, and the pressure from those departments to have a solution never diminished. In fact, the challenge remains today, well into the DI.
How did the idea for The Aviator’s color palette come about?
Richardson: Prior to my involvement, Marty designed a color timeline that influenced every creative department. He wanted the progression from a two-color palette to a three-strip palette to approximate the technological advances of the film industry at that time, but more importantly, he felt it would mirror the characters’ emotional evolution. The first act, which covers Hughes’s early career in Hollywood, was supposed to have Technicolor’s two-color look. With the second act, which begins after Hughes sets a speed record flying across the continental United States [in 1937] and goes with Katharine Hepburn to Connecticut, we transition to that vibrant, three-strip look that most of us associate with the glorious Technicolor years. Then, when Hughes almost dies crashing the XF-11, we were going to cut into a more contemporary look without either Technicolor process applied.
Rob Legato: That seemed like the right moment to [switch out of three-color], because Hughes’s life changed dramatically after that crash he started to get very ill, and his looks changed. It’s definitely the darker side. But when we were going through the film with Marty in the digital suite and that transition happened, he said, ‘I kind of miss the color.’ So we turned [the three-strip look] back on to show him what it would look like, and he loved it. So now the rest of the movie has that look.
Richardson: Although three-strip was extended into the final moments of the picture, the costume and makeup [that accompanied that look] were not. The results are sequences that blend a contemporary feel with some of the rich skin tones we commonly associate with three-strip Technicolor.
Legato: I think it works well. One of the things I like about [Scorsese’s 1977 musical] New York, New York is that Marty re-created that romantic [post-war] period but peopled it with darker characters acting in a contemporary way. He seems to like that counterplay. The last part of The Aviator has a lush, 1940s Technicolor look, but we’re seeing a story that’s suddenly much less ‘storybook.’
How did you create these looks? Did you plan on using LUTs from the beginning, or did you try other methods?
Richardson: My first meeting with Marty didn’t foretell all of these complications. He knew there were going to be blocks of two-color and three-strip, but it wasn’t until later that we started to work out how we’d actually achieve them. In fact, neither of us knew whether what he wanted would actually be possible to put on film. When I started two months of preproduction in May 2003, Dante had already built palettes for the film as though it would be shot normally. As we started discovering how we would achieve these transitions, he had to go back and alter his color palette to allow for the enhancement of colors that would come out in the Technicolor look. It was complicated and retroactive, and to some extent it might have been more successful if we’d had more time for prep.