An unusual combination of lighting and matte methods is developed for Alien Resurrection.
Though visual effects cinema tographer Rick Fichter is an industry veteran of nearly 20 years, his name is not instantly recognizable, even to diehard effects aficionados. That's because he often uses pseudonyms the names of friends and family to avoid "the egoism of Hollywood." Fichter first assisted on The Empire Strikes Back's breakthrough miniature photography, shot effects for The Right Stuff and RoboCop, and became a director of visual effects photography on Top Gun. And despite having won an Emmy for his work on Ewoks 2 and a British Academy Award for Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, the effects cameraman continues to shoot semi-anonymously. On Alien Resurrection, Fichter credits himself under the names of his parents "Big Harry" and "Little Mary Fichter." The double billing is ironically apropos: the enormous workload entailed by this futuristic film had the cinematographer wishing that he could clone himself.
Having photographed models and puppets for Alien3, Fichter nearly turned down Alien Resurrection due to misgivings about the possibility of creative repetition. "When they called me about the job, I thought, 'Do I want to do another one?' But I really wanted to work with the people who were involved, such as producer Bill Badalato [Top Gun], and visual effects producer Susan Zwerman. And when [director of photography] Darius Khondji told me what they were looking for, I got rather excited. I've worked with a lot of top-notch cameramen, but Darius is probably the best."
Khondji encouraged Fichter to take a lighting approach that the effects cinematographer had long wanted to try: "Darius described deep space as this absence of light, and yet, there's also this absolute 'God-like' light a directionless and non-existent light. Years ago, I was working on another picture and the filmmakers had described that, but when we started to go in that direction, they got very frightened and backed off. But Darius kept talking about this God-light look. We both knew what we were talking about, although it was difficult to describe."
Despite a theoretical understanding, Fichter didn't know how to achieve this ethereal illumination, especially considering the unique characteristics of Alien Resurrection's miniature spacecraft. Both the Betty (a small, light-colored, mosquito-like ship)and the Auriga (a dark, brooding, cigar-shaped space station) had highly detailed surfaces which kicked light right back to its source. Fichter concedes that "from the standpoint of physics, those complicated, shiny surfaces made it almost impossible to create the very diffused lighting we wanted. [To solve the problem], we built these very large fluorescent banks which we felt would be a very soft, omnidirectional lighting source. But while they came in very handy with much of the miniature work, these banks weren't the answer.
"I then tried a trick I learned years ago in my commercial work. When lighting jewelry, we would build a black fabric tent out from the lens and then bathe the jewelry with this omnidirectional lighting, which made it look very full-bodied. But when we experimented with that approach on our Alien models, the directionality made the surfaces kick and gave them this very high-key look, which was exactly the opposite of what we were looking for.
"I did a test early on to show Darius and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet that the model surfaces were not conducive to our lighting approach. Meanwhile, everyone was saying, 'We need to get shots in the can.' But Darius was very supportive and kept pushing them to give me some time to figure out how we were going to light this."
Fichter's solution to the lighting problem occurred purely by accident. He recalls, "A grip carrying a piece of black foamcore walked in front of this very powerful light and I saw the light we were talking about. Negative sources are nothing new and have been used to take light away and cancel out certain types of light, but this was different.There is light in deep space, but it's negative light and everything out there is black. Here we had a very powerful light bouncing off a black surface, which had the quality of being there without 'being' there. We tried throwing black silks in front of our lights, but found that the effect only worked when white light was bounced into a reflective black surface."
But Fichter's negative-lighting approach also produced a unique and paradoxical challenge: how to bounce sufficient illumination off a black surface that was also absorbing a large amount of light. The simple answer was to use very large fixtures. The cameraman explains, "In miniature photography, we normally use small lights to work with the scale of the miniatures. But here we were using 20Ks and Maxi-Brutes in order to get enough bounce, and we had a lot of problems with the heat created by all of these huge lamps inside the black tent that covered the shooting stage."
A secondary dilemma was finding a bounce material that could create the proper effect yet withstand the intense heat. After considering several bounce materials, one of which involved anodized pieces of aluminum, Fichter finally hit upon a novel and cost-effective solution: "We eventually made 20' x 12' x 6' surfaces covered with Black Wrap, then pounded our lights into that."
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