[ continued from page 1 — Chris Menges ]

Photo by Mark Tillie
Courtesy of Miramax Films
Portrait by Merritt Smith
Courtesy of Eastman Kodak Company
The Wings of the Dove

Eduardo Serra exploited the scenic waterways of Venice, as well as various London locations, to achieve a lush look for the period drama. The director of photography used coral filters to lend the Venice scenes a warm and earthy ambience, and opted for natural light sources as often as possible.

In The Wings of the Dove, cinematographer Eduardo Serra presents a vision of life in 1910, contrasting staid London with glowing, sensuous Venice. The movie tells the story of a manipulative young woman (Helena Bonham Carter) who tries to pair her own lover (Linus Roache) with a dying American heiress (Alison Elliott), so that they can inherit her fortune.

Serra, along with director Iain Softley, production designer John Beard and costume designer Sandy Powell, settled on very different color palates for the picture's two locations: London was characterized by blue, and Venice by warm golds. "We had a very complete discussion before we started shooting about these kinds of ideas, about what London would represent, what Venice would represent," says Serra, who has also served as cinematographer on such films as Jude (1996), Funny Bones (1995), Map of the Human Heart (1992) and the upcoming What Dreams May Come. "We would discuss pictorial references, and then I submitted color and lighting representations. Once the director approved all of this construction, we had an agreement on what to do, which I absolutely respected."

Serra estimates that filming took 10 or 11 weeks. The crew spent a little more than half the shoot in London, where roughly 20 percent of the work was done on stage.

The production's major set was the subway train and station that appear at the beginning of the movie. "There was no way of getting a practical, very old station in London," says Serra. For the sequence, he worked out the lighting with the production designer and art director. "We were assuming [that the period] was just after we had the electrical lamp," he says. As a result, the art department was able to incorporate most of the illumination into the set as practicals. "We really built it together," says Serra.

To augment the built-in lights during close-ups in the station scene, he kept extra lights on hand. "I always have some Kino Flos when we get close," he says. "I've been a fan of fluorescent light for 10 years, even before there were Kino Flos."

Serra first used fluorescents in 1983, for The Hairdresser's Husband. At the time, he remembers, he had to import his lights from the United States, because he couldn't find satisfactory fluorescent tubes in France. Over the last 15 years, though, fluorescent lights have improved dramatically, according to Serra. Starting about a decade ago, he says, good fluorescent tubes have been able to give a color rendition better than that of an HMI.

In keeping with the agreed-upon color scheme, the art direction and production design in London leaned toward blue hues, which Serra enhanced with his filtration, usually using an 81 EF filter, or sometimes no filtration at all.

In Venice, by contrast, he shot everything with coral filters to create an earthier feel and a Third World look. "[Those scenes were] warm, soft, almost African," says Serra. He opted as much as possible for natural and period light sources, such as flames and torches, supplemented with Kino Flos.

At one point in the story, the characters go to an evening carnival in Venice. The sequence was one of the most elaborate in the movie, lasting over 15 minutes and involving hundreds of extras. "I didn't really want to use artificial lights in that situation," says Serra. "Apart from the torches and sources in shot, I used fire bars gas bars as a fill light. On very wide shots, I had to put some soft light Kino Flos in the background. On anything that is tight, my key light was a fire bar, and my fill light was another fire bar."

Working successfully with a fire bar, he says, is a matter of getting the proper-size pipe. Distance also has an effect on controlling the light. "If you are not very far away [10 to 20'], it's controllable. Further away it becomes more difficult."

Some delicate locations in Venice demanded special care. "You have to absolutely protect the surroundings," says Serra, who turned to 5' helium balloons with HK tungsten lights for some interiors. "Of course they are useful outdoors," he says. "But using helium balloons inside is really wonderful they're like big Chinese lanterns." In one scene late in the movie, Elliott and Roache visit a church in Venice, where they climb a scaffolding until they are high up in the building. "I just had one balloon from the ground," explains Serra. "When we changed the angle, we would just change the rope holding the balloon."

He often chose to go very tight with his lenses, because of the nature of the script. "The main thing was the drama," he says. "Of course we were more on the longish side, to favor the dramatic relations between people. We had to be close to the characters, because it's an actors' film."

Serra's dim, period lighting prompted him to use an Arriflex 535 so that he could avail himself of fast Zeiss lenses. "I really needed the extra speed," he says, especially for the night sequences in Venice.

Although he has shot both anamorphic and Super 35 widescreen movies, Serra chose to photograph The Wings of the Dove in Super 35, again because of the low-light situations that he created. "Some situations require Super 35," he says. "When you have night carnival scenes lit only with torches, standard lenses perform better. Less glass also means fewer problems with flares."

Speed was also a factor in his choice of film. "The stock was Fuji 500 [Super F-500 8571], my favorite stock," he says. "For the kind of work I usually do, Fuji is better. Women look prettier on Fuji." He chose the 500 ASA emulsion because he finds it a bit softer. Also, he says, modern film stocks have become so refined that grain is hardly noticeable, even with stocks fast enough to use in very low-light situations.

In postproduction, Serra took steps to further enhance the differences between the two cities, such as treating sequences involving Venice with a bleach-bypass process. "There are many kinds of [silver-rentention processes] with many different names," he says, explaining that he used the technique for two main reasons. First, when shooting wide open, as in the carnival sequences, he wanted to ensure that he would have very good blacks. But he also wanted to maintain the warmth of the scenes. "I used the bleach-bypass process to keep it a little more close to earth," he adds.

A beach-bypass process is one of the most personalized services a lab can provide, with as many variations as there are cinematographers. Like many Europeans, Serra prefers to do the process on an interpositive. "I don't like to do it on the prints, as Technicolor does," he says. When the bleach-bypass process is done on the print, it means the whole movie has to be processed that way. Doing the process on the interpositive, on the other hand, allows the cinematographer to use it just on selected sequences. "It's very common, very easy, and allows you to choose which scenes you want to have," Serra says.

He says that not only is the process not appropriate for every scene, but the expense of doing it on an entire film makes it so costly that producers are often unwilling to pay the price for each print. Serra believes that it's better for the process to appear in only a few selected scenes, rather than to have it in every scene but on only a few release prints.

Though The Wings of the Dove seems like the antithesis of an effects film, extensive postproduction work was done to correct a problem that occurred during filming. "Every time we needed rain, we had bright sunshine," explains Serra. "There is a lot of digital postproduction, changing skies and making them stormy. But we went for a kind of stormy look where you have some sunlight. It has an unusual look."

Overall, Serra says, the cooperation among the department heads on The Wings of the Dove built a sense of cohesion that made the project succeed aesthetically. The cinematographer reserves special praise for costume designer Powell (who was also nominated for an Oscar) and production designer Beard for providing him with beautiful material to photograph. "I think I was very lucky with the visuals," he says. "They did such wonderful work that it helped me a lot."

[ continued on page 3 — Russell Carpenter ]