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SUNRISEpage 2Q & A
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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine

Student: Two kinds of backgrounds exist in this film, the process background you referred to, to simulate the illusion of walking in the street, and the real background that appeared while they were in the tram. Do you feel this to be an aesthetic contradiction?

Almendros: No, because whatever serves the story is good. What counts is not how you do it, but whether you make the audience believe. I don't think there is contradiction on the screen, but [rather] a great unity of style. It is the result that counts.

Which of the two scenes do you find more striking?

Almendros: One always admires what one can't do. I am, I should say, a realistic director of photography. So when I saw that dreamlike city scene, I had to back it up in the projector and play it again. That's how astonished I was. On the other hand, I admire the scene on the tramway because it was advanced for its time and similar to what we do today. I admire both scenes; I'm very eclectic.

What do you think of the amusement-park scene? It's not a real amusement park, but it works so well. Would you do that, make something fake to get your point across?

Almendros: You always stylize things, whether you do it by building sets or shooting in natural locations, though sets are expensive now, and with huge sets today you tend to go to the real thing - like we did with the amusement-park scene in Sophie's Choice, for instance. Now cameras have become very mobile again, and sound is portable, so in the past 20 years it's [been] easy to go back to the locations as Murnau did. It was in the '30s, '40s and '50s that it wasn't possible; they had to do everything in the studio. I think that scene in the amusement park makes Sunrise a true work of art, in the sense that this scene is constructed and imagined by the director entirely. He wanted total creative control, and he got it.

It seems that a tremendous amount of the action in this film is directed toward the camera on diagonals. It seems to be different than the omniscient view in Hollywood photography. Who was responsible for that positioning?

Almendros: I'm glad you noticed those diagonal compositions, because they give the frame dynamics. Knowing Murnau's other films, I'd say Murnau is responsible for it, though I'm sure the cinematographers helped and cooperated, as usually happens. Karl Struss was one of the disciples of Stieglitz - he had been a photographer before he became a cinematographer. That's probably why some of the scenes of the city streets look like Stieglitz. But if Rosher and Struss were influenced by any other photographers, they would certainly have been German. Murnau brought with him a partially German crew. He must have known that Rosher and Struss were the best cinematographers in Hollywood at the time, and that they would be capable of understanding what he wanted.

How was the moonlight effect achieved?

Almendros: I'm sure it was an entirely built and painted set. The reflection of the artificial moon was in real water on the set. There was a strong backlight above the actors off frame, but from the same direction as the moon.

How do you feel this film affected Hollywood?

Almendros: There was a great influence. Think of John Ford's The Informer. Street Scene, directed by King Vidor and photographed by Gregg Toland, also had this influence. The continuous shooting idea was certainly influential to Vidor. When you think of 1927 and then 1935, when films really started moving again, that's less than 10 years. The influence obviously had not vanished. It was only for a moment, with the first years of sound, that the cameras got to be so cumbersome and they weren't so mobile.

How did they do the night scenes, with fast film?

Almendros: They were all lit in the studio so they had control, and it was not a question of lack of light but of contrast. Also, sometimes they could have pushed the film; that was also done. The only defect I see in this film in relationship to films today is the night scene of the search for the drowned body in the river. The lanterns of the searchers hardly give any light, and you can see that they are just props. You can tell the scene has been lit artificially, and it looks false. Allow me to use my own example to illustrate this. In Days of Heaven, the lanterns were actually giving light. Also, because our film was in color, that allowed us to have warm color-temperature tones on the screen to give the impression that the lamps were burning kerosene.

Has the advent of sound made the viewer more aware of narrative and less aware of the visual aspect?

Almendros: Yes and no. At the beginning of sound, certainly, but not later. Music, for instance, enhances the image, and the use of sound might help the image as well. Dialogue, of course, makes the viewer less aware of the visual aspect of film, which is why I favor films with few words, such as Days of Heaven and Wild Child.N




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