To create the effect of a coming dawn, the crew hung 6-light space lights fitted with a combination of 1⁄4 and 1⁄2 blue gel, also on dimmers. “What was unique about that setup,” says Napoletano, “was that we put solids in the bottom of the lights.” Instead of sending light straight down on top of the subjects, the space-light arrangement “let the light out of the side and allowed an ambient fill of blue light into the stage.” The whole rig was then skirted with black drapes to protect the cyc from getting too much light.
Stage 12 “is quite big,” says Deakins, “but when you have a dozen guys in there all strung out in trenches, a horse coming through, and a dawn scene with Humvees driving off into the desert, it begins to feel very small.”
After moving to the deserts of Southern California and Mexico, the production had plenty of space, but needed to bolster the lighting many times over. “It got real big,” says Napoletano. Nonetheless, Deakins notes, “It was the same philosophy: use a large series of lamps to create a soft effect.”
Glamis Dunes, a dirt-biker paradise near Yuma, California, served as the location for scenes of Swoff and Troy wandering through the dunes at night, trying to return to base. Finding the right location was critical; the scouts had pinpointed a spot, but it was a mile from the road. “I thought, ‘That’s going to be really tough,’” Deakins recalls. “I wanted the flexibility to be able to light the dunes. When you light a sand dune and really mold it, it’s a wonderful look if you get the light in the right place.” Deakins located a better spot, where the road paralleled an interesting series of dunes. “It seemed very practical,” he continues. “The landscape rose up to the road, so the road was at the top of the dunes. The light would just skid along the top, highlighting all of those patterns in the sand that the wind leaves. It molded that really well.”
Napoletano and key grip Mitch Lillian came up with the idea of rigging the lights, gels, and generators on flatbed trailers. The gaffer details, “They were all made so we didn’t have to de-rig them, but could just unplug the cables” which allowed the crew to haul the trailers by tractor to the next location. At the dunes, four flatbeds were spaced 300' apart along the road, about 250' to 300' away from the dunes. Each was loaded with four sets of 12-light Maxi-Brutes, arranged with six lights on low stands and six above. These were gelled with a huge wall of Full + 1⁄2 CTO and set to flicker through a dimmer board, creating a soft, gold light that appeared to emanate from distant fires. Deakins found he could even shoot straight into the lights. “If I used big enough units, dimmed them down enough and set them to flicker, they didn’t flare the lens out,” he notes. Unexpected 40 mph winds, however, turned those 12'x30' gels into sails. “It felt like the trailer wanted to tip over,” says Napoletano. The shooting and rigging crew needed a full hour just to put up the gels, but Deakins began to have an epiphany: “I thought, ‘It’s fantastic, this wind.’ It was hard to shoot in the sand would hurt you but the way it was blowing across the ground, creating this diffused pattern, was gorgeous. So we were very lucky, really.”
For these scenes, Deakins says, “The biggest boon for me was being able to rely on CGI. We lit up this desert, and I could shoot in 360° even aiming directly into the light sources knowing that ILM was going to replace each of my lighting units with an oil fire.” ILM visual-effects supervisor Pablo Helman was on set every day, noting technical details but also absorbing Deakins’ thinking. “A lot of people can technically do the effects, but the aesthetics are important it’s critical to marry the CGI elements to the original photography,” Deakins stresses. “We had lots of discussion about the look and brightness of the oil fires. I felt it was particularly important to replicate the look of the scenes we had done on stage, where my film lights were blooming in the atmosphere we created. In creating the CG effect of an oil fire, some people might have a tendency to try to show every detail of the flame. Instead, I wanted the feeling that these oil fires were burning out, like they would be naturally if you were shooting by the light of 70- or 100-foot ball of flame and exposing for something else.”
Some scenes on practical locations involved real fire, as when the troops camp beneath the petrol rain. “We had to cut the sun off,” Deakins explains. “There was no way you could shoot that stuff in sunlight and then pretend it was under this big cloud of oil smoke. So the effects guys created actual gas fires to generate a lot of smoke and to give us cover and shade.” Napoletano recalls, “They came out there with a gasoline tanker truck and I thought, ‘Oh god, what are we getting into?’ But these guys were so good. They created a pipeline out to the fire, and when they’d open up that valve, you’d think you were right in an oil fire.” These mock-ups appear in the film, augmented rather than replaced by ILM. “Then at night,” Deakins reveals, “we shot the gas fires for the plates. ILM took the shots we did and added them into the other scenes in place of my lamps.”
The most complicated night scene involved all of these elements and more. This sequence, dubbed the Celebration Bowl, show Swofford and Troy cresting a dune and then discovering their platoon celebrating the war’s end. To create the distant firelight, two flatbed trailers, each carrying 14 Maxi-Brutes, were positioned on one side of the dune to backlight the actors and also illuminate the background desert; on the other side, the grips built a 190'-long platform about 700' back from the depression in the dune where the troops would be shown celebrating. This rig supported 72 gelled and flickering 12-light Maxi-Brutes, modulated so that the middle lights were brighter than the outside ones. Altogether, these units emanated a low, flickering sidelight.
Deakins was particularly pleased with a hillock at the sand bowl’s opening. This feature of the landscape served as a bottom “cutter” for the distant firelight. Because of the hillock’s positioning, the light from the 72 Maxis would hit the performers’ heads, but not their feet or the ground. “There’d be nothing worse than if all the sand was lit,” says Deakins. “It would just be flat and boring.”