“Once we decided to film on stage, Jan built a great set at Shepperton. Ptolemy’s library opens out onto a balcony that supposedly overlooks the sea; we surrounded the balcony with bluescreen and shot VistaVision background plates in Malta. To create sunlight, we set up two 100K SoftSuns on scissorlifts just off the balcony, fairly close to the set; there was only about 25 feet between the edge of the balcony and the bluescreen. One SoftSun was gelled with Full CTO, and we used it for morning and early-afternoon sunlight; we gelled the other with Full CTO plus 3⁄4 CTO and used it for late-afternoon sun. Long Steadicam shots with 360-degree turnarounds track Ptolemy as he moves throughout the set, out onto the balcony and back, and we knew the exposure would change dramatically. What’s great about the SoftSun is its dimming capability; using the Light by Numbers system, we preset the units so that when Ptolemy was backlit, the sun was two stops over exposure, and when he was frontlit, it was a half-stop over key. As we shot the scene, [console operator] Chris Gilbertson dimmed the SoftSun on cue. I’m very pleased with how well it resembles real sunlight.

“Inside, we created ambient light inside with space lights positioned in gaps at the top of the set; they were five-bulb units that Biggles had wired on two circuits so we could turn on all five bulbs [4,000 watts], three [2,400 watts] or two [1,600 watts], and each bulb could be dimmed separately. For late-afternoon scenes, we dimmed the space lights a bit, keeping them slightly cooler than the [SoftSun]; to my eye, when fill light is skylight, it’s slightly blue, so I wanted the color temperature of the shadows to remain a bit cooler. The library interior featured murals of some of Alexander’s exploits, and we positioned a ring of Par 64s overhead and angled them to accentuate details in the drawings. The keylight inside came from five 5K Molebeams overhead that we moved around as the scene progressed.” (See lighting diagram.)

The first dramatic transition in Alexander’s look occurs with the Battle of Gaugamela, when the young king leads his troops to victory against the Persians. The battle was filmed on an open desert plain in Morocco, and it involved almost four weeks of principal photography and an additional three weeks of second-unit work. Prieto shot the sequence on Kodak Vision 250D 5246 and filtered all of the lenses with Tobacco #1. “We wanted a little more grain and contrast in the image, and we wanted the air to have color. The script described all the yellow dust kicked up during the battle, so we used tobacco filters and tried to keep the dust backlit as much as possible. The filters helped unify the look of the battle sequence, which was filmed during all possible weather with up to six cameras. Maintaining some semblance of continuity was a real challenge, and quite frankly, after a while I had to give up. Fortunately, the opening shots of the scene show heavy clouds in the sky, and when the battlefield is revealed in a crane shot, there are patches of sun and cloud in shot, establishing that cloud cover will vary during the battle. All of the dust helps blend the look together, and it also emphasizes the sense of difficulty and discomfort  — you can’t see much, which is scary in a combat situation.”

In collaboration with second-unit director Dale Dye and second-unit cinematographer Jonathan Taylor, Prieto devised a method for photographing the battle sequence that maintained lighting continuity and kept the opposing sides clearly identified. “In the desert, your only point of reference is the sun,” he explains. “When the armies faced each other, we wanted the Macedonians moving from frame left to frame right and the Persians moving from right to left, and I decided to keep the sun between them. I didn’t want the look to be backlit and beautiful, I wanted it be uncomfortable; I wanted the sunlight to be in their faces without being frontal. So our mantra became, ‘Macedonians left cheek, Persians right cheek.’

“We’d line up a Macedonian phalanx [a square-shaped unit of 256 men, 16 on each side], and I’d use Sunpath to calculate where the sun would be over the course of the day. We put ropes on the ground to note where the front line of the phalanx should be in order to keep the sun on their left cheeks, and we simply moved the rope for each shot. It worked out really well, and the second unit matched our work easily using this approach.”

Before the battle begins, Alexander addresses his troops and describes their adversary, the Persian King Darius (Raz Degan). “The script called for the camera to soar up in a sweeping move and assume an eagle’s point of view as it flies over the battlefield,” says Prieto. “This eagle accompanies Alexander throughout his travels, but this is the first time we see it. I originally intended to use the Cablecam to accomplish the shot, but it became a little impractical for our budget and schedule.”

The filmmakers ultimately created the move by combining a CG camera move, an Akela crane move and second-unit helicopter shots. “Alexander glances up and sees the eagle, and then there’s a digital camera move sweeping up to the eagle that becomes the eagle’s point of view, a helicopter shot of the entire Persian army. As the eagle approaches Darius, the shot cuts into an Akela crane shot of Darius and the army surrounding him, and the camera then swoops in to a close-up of Darius’ face.”

Following the Battle at Gaugamela, the victorious Macedonians ride into the foreign city of Babylon. Prieto continued using 5246 for day exteriors but switched to 81EF filters. “This is Alexander’s defining moment — by defeating the Persians, he has achieved what his father hoped to achieve but couldn’t — and we wanted it to feel glorious and heroic. Babylon is a spectacular place, new to the Macedonians, so we also wanted to keep the colors rich and saturated. For Babylon interiors on stage at Pinewood, I used 5274 for day scenes and [Vision2 500T] 5218 for night scenes.”

When the Macedonians depart Babylon to pursue King Darius, they head north through the rocky terrain of Baktria, where Alexander gets married. Filming in the Atlas Mountains close to Marrakesh, Prieto stayed with 5246 but switched to chocolate filters “to enhance the feeling of the earth and the red rock. The wardrobe in these scenes was full of rich red and yellow, and the chocolate filters made the red very present.”

Prieto’s desire to maintain that warm palette on a large night exterior in Baktria led Higgins and his crew to create an unusual rig using scores of 150-watt bulbs. “After the wedding, there’s a night celebration at Balkh Fort, which was a set built on the side of a cliff,” explains Prieto. “It was impractical to light the scene with units on cranes because the road was quite far away. I didn’t want any moonlight; I wanted only the feel of firelight. I also knew we needed the ability to shoot 360 degrees without big re-lights, so I thought of using our lightbulb method of creating fire effects, only on a massive scale.” Higgins’ crew subsequently strung 8mm steel wires across the entire set under tension and rigged 1,000 150-watt bulbs to hang from them. “Dimming the bulbs down cast a very soft, warm glow over the whole set,” says Prieto. “Many were skeptical that it would work, but Biggles proved them wrong. It was quite a feat of engineering, but it worked beautifully and allowed us the freedom to shoot in any direction.”

<< previous || next >>

© 2004 American Cinematographer.