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"One of the problems we had was that we shot in the desert for three weeks at the beginning of the shoot, but then had to go back during the last week of production, when the desert had a completely different look!" he notes. "It had rained in the interim, so everything was lush and green. The most time-consuming thing we faced in the timing was 'evening out' all of our exteriors."
During that second tour of the desert, Pecorini also faced another, more "hair-raising" dilemma. As fans of Fear and Loathing will recall, Duke and Dr. Gonzo extend some roadside hospitality by picking up a hapless hitchhiker, only to end up terrorizing the poor fool with their drug-crazed antics. "The hitchhiker was played by Tobey Maguire, but we had to shoot his scenes at both the beginning and the end of the schedule," the cinematographer reveals. "His character is supposed to be almost bald with a few strands of long hair, but Tobey got another job during the ensuing weeks, and grew his hair back. The morning he showed up for his final scenes, we were like, 'Oh God, how are we going to do this?' He had to wear a bald headpiece, but you could still see that there was hair underneath. Fortunately, the fact that we had overexposed the earlier scenes helped us a lot, because I could just burn him out a bit. Terry had this idea that the hitchhiker was like the Angel of Life and Death, so he was always a bit brighter than the other two characters. We just lit him a bit more or took light away from the others; since Johnny and Benicio were in the front seat and Tobey was in the back, we could just put a piece of Duvateen on the windshield and it was done."
The cinematographer reveals that he took an extremely naturalistic approach to the road-trip footage in order to avoid the "equipment overload" that plagues most productions faced with insert-car work. "I never use lights on insert cars," he maintains. "One of the most common mistakes I've seen over the years is when people try to fight the sun. That's why I don't like HMIs; using them to try to create the sun is a bit like playing God, and I find that to be a bit pretentious. Every time I've seen an insert car lit, it's never looked real to me. For example, if you're driving and a truck passes by, the light [outside the car] changes, but your light doesn't! And if you drive too close to a sign on the road, the bounce off the sign will read inside the car. I try to use the sun alone; if there's no sun, I use the bounce off the sky. In my opinion, the light source in those situations has to respect a dependence on the real elements, so I always use just mirrors or bounce cards. I might use a piece of beadboard cut into a certain shape just out of frame next to the driver's door, or position four little 1' by 1' mirrors on the car to produce little kicks and fill. I like to use the imperfections that are common to real light, such as certain reflections you get from the chrome of the car or the rearview mirror."
Pecorini notes that all of the trailer-mounted car scenes were shot either handheld or with a bungee-cam [a Pee Wee dolly with an offset head]. More complicated master shots of the Red Shark in motion were achieved with a Shotmaker arm equipped with a remote head.
For scenes which required period Vegas landscapes behind the characters as they drove, the filmmakers found a creative and appropriately retro solution. "We scouted a lot in Vegas, but there's not much architecture left from the 1970s," Pecorini notes. "Another restriction was that with our budget [approximately $18.5 million] we couldn't afford many visual effects. We decided to do a lot of things in-camera, so one of our strategies with the car footage was to use rear-projection."
Fortunately, the film's Los Angeles base was Warner-Hollywood Studios, which turned out to be a treasure trove of rearscreen resources. "Spelling Television has an archive there with an unbelievable amount of stuff from the old TV show Vegas including rear-projection plates that had been shot with three cameras from various angles. You could build an entire scene by putting together these different viewpoints! We spent about two weeks selecting various plates from those archives sunset and dusk scenes, as well as shots of Fremont Street the way it used to be." The vintage plate shots proved to be an inspired choice, heightening the story's already otherworldly tone an extra notch.
Some of the film's more expansive Vegas vistas were created with modern methods by the visual effects company Illusion Arts. A good example is a sequence in which Duke and Gonzo arrive at the registration tent for the "Fabulous Mint 400," an offroad race which Duke has been assigned to cover for a major sports magazine. The shot begins with a shot of the period Vegas skyline, and then pans down to the bustle of activity on the street below. Notes Pecorini, "We shot the lower part of the scene, and Illusion Arts added the rest digitally."
Later in the film, Gilliam and company blended traditional and computerized effects techniques to achieve the tale's most outrageous tableau: a nautically-themed cocktail bar populated by genuinely reptilian "lounge lizards." The vision of these peculiar patrons is, of course, produced by the abundance of recreational chemicals that Duke has ingested; the lizards themselves were animatronic replicas built by creature creator Rob Bottin (The Thing, Deep Rising). "That scene was quite difficult, because we didn't have enough of the animatronic lizards," says Pecorini. "We were supposed to get about 25 of them, but we wound up with just seven or eight. As a result, we had to use motion-control techniques to make it look as if we had a whole room full of them. That sequence took two full days to film. We had to do all of these different passes with different costumes on the various lizards to get it right. To make things worse, the set consisted almost entirely of mirrored surfaces, which was a nightmare for me. Hiding the camera therefore became a question of using the right shooting angle.
"I didn't have that much room to move lights around, so I didn't use the Jumbos to light that sequence; we used either practicals or little sources aimed at the things we wanted to see. I used these flashlights called Stream Lights they're like big Maglites, but they're rechargable. They would last a good hour without recharging. I adapted pepper snoots for them so we could contain them and gel them. That way, we could hide everything without running any cable. We shot it all on Kodak's 5293 stock, because the footage needed to be manipulated so much that we wanted the most perfect grain we could get."
Pecorini's love of the EXR 5293 led him to use it on all of the film's interiors. "I just love that film stock: the blacks are amazing. I had originally thought about using the ENR process on this film, but I ultimately decided that it wasn't necessary. Before I shot the movie, I called Vittorio Storaro down in Argentina, where he was shooting Flamenco for Carlos Saura. I asked him very honestly whether he thought ENR was really needed in this day and age; I felt that with the latest stocks, it was possible to achieve those kinds of blacks and densities without such a process. He said, 'I agree with you, and I don't think I'm going to be using ENR anymore myself.'
"The latitude [of the 93] really helped us on this show when we were filming scenes in the Mint Hotel suite, because those sequences were extremely dark. I was using minimal lighting and heavy-duty colored gels on the lights three full Italian blues. A single Italian blue takes away two stops, so we were taking away six; the light that was coming through was nothing. I was exposing at T2.5, and it would read as an error on my meter! The highlights were almost one stop underexposed, so the lowlights were about three stops underexposed. But we still had the actors' eyes.
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