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American Cinematographer Magazine
A Fantastic Fable
An infamous king confronts some determined assassins in the Chinese film Hero, photographed by Christopher Doyle, HKSC.

by Christopher Doyle, HKSC

Ed. Note: The following excerpts from Doyle's journal, written during the making of Hero (published under the title R34G38B25), appear with his permission. For his work on the picture, Doyle won his fifth Hong Kong Film Award for Best Cinematography. Hero also was a 2002 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.

The film Hero (Ying xiong) is an allegory of truth and perception; it's about unity through words. It's an epic scroll that reveals its story in colors. One ambitious king, Qin [Chen Dao Ming], intends to unite China's many warring states. Many enemies make many attempts on his life. A could-be assassin called No-Name [Jet Li] claims that the king's enemies, assassins Broken Sword [Tony Leung Chiu-wai] and Flying Snow [Maggie Cheung Man-yuk] are no longer a threat. The king hears his story. This, and conjecture, form the structure of the film.

The same story is told in a number of ways, a slightly different version each time that is as much a response to as a compounding of the story that came before. Each elaboration has a color system of its own - white, red, blue and green are the colors we have settled on. Some will give (and have given) complex explanations for what those colors do or mean, but for me the choices have come as much out of personal taste and convenience as any concept of color or theory of Art.

We chose white to suggest the truer sequence, and we chose red to suggest that passion has a different truth. Like the West from Aristotle until Newton, Chinese conceptual systems associate color with elements, objects, parts of the body and sounds. In the Chinese tradition, green is wood, anger and the eyes. Red is fire, the veins and joy. Yellow is earth and desire. White is metal, skin, hair and sorrow. Our basic color, black, is water and fear, not the negation of color some would assume. I guess someone deserves a PhD if he applies all of those concepts to Hero. As far as I'm concerned, these colors are nothing more or less than what they are.

They say a journey is its own destination. I guess this journey in color is an attempt at finding out just a touch more about why and how we made a film.


Black as silver. The king's palace is black: black wood, black tiles, black surfaces that shine like when light turns the silver in a film stock to what will print as black. No special effect in camera - more or less as normal as a chat between a warrior and king can be. Movement and composition as appropriate. Content over style.


Red is so Chinese, but we've got so much of it. How to make something so classic feel "new?" I am thinking too loud.

"You want to shoot black-and-white?" I'm asked.

No. That's a lazy way out. We should be less intrusive - fixed angles and more cutting than movement. The camera should move only when someone or some idea motivates it to!

"No mixed lighting?"

Been there, done it, and absolutely NO HANDHELD!

Saturated, bright exteriors. Dark, contrasty interiors. Love = passion = conflict of interests = bloody resolution (or so this story would have us believe). More violent than the other parts and, like its three main protagonists, awash with mood. Still, the risk of classicism is difficult to avoid.

Red is primary in the Chinese world. Red demands. Red takes all in. The red in Hero can't be Raise the Red Lantern red. It has to have a touch more blue so it will relate better to the blue part of the film. It also has to be softened but not polluted by our Hu Yang leaves, which are so yellow and light. Our red can't touch the green that is the past (and maybe dreamed) section. It has to be the red of a hero, a red of decisiveness in the face of moral quandary. It has to mean resolve.


Transparent. Lots of sky. Unreal. Make it beautiful, like a concept. As thin as watercolor. Lots of high-speed. Movement follows story - as little as possible at beginning of the section, then more evident movement.


We often find ourselves shooting white sequences late in the afternoon in a relatively warmer light, which give the costumes the same creamy color as Maggie [Cheung Man-Yuk] and [Zhang] Ziyi's skin. Longer lenses. Tight and then suddenly wider (very wide). Steady, compressed and classic. Often low angles. Fixed, no movement of camera; actors move within the frame. Use cut and angles for effect.

I like white with a touch of blue. It works best with most film stocks. Here we have yellow in white: the color of parchment or treated bamboo, the color of some flowers, the color of much of my skin (ugh!). Magenta makes white a sissy pink, so we try to light it somewhere between warm and blue - the white that gives resonance to Asian skin, the white that Japanese prints and Fujifilm are working for.


Derek Jarman: "Green is a color which exists in narratives - it always returns."

Color is a character in this film. We got close in most cases, but I sense we chose this particular green in haste, that I failed to fully understand the light we had to work with for this part of the film. Now it looks less evocative than the reds and blues and whites of the other sections. The only recourse was digital grading. Atlab in Australia corrected the color to a more solid green. They did it in house, which meant more control and less anguish on my part.


The yellow of gold is the most difficult color to reproduce on film. Because of the stock's structure, the light gets contaminated, usually by green. How to offer the audience the true experience of a Chinese temple? Even the yellow of many monks' robes is rarely pure when rendered on film. It is believed that yellow has the brightest chroma in the color spectrum, yet in our film it is always fighting with blue. In painting, skin looks violet in a yellow context. On film, yellow gives blue shadows. We try to fill the gaps in our forest to block out the blue. The blue of Emi Wada's costumes just jumps off the screen. Whereas red is solid, yellow seems ephemeral - or is that just the impression that flying leaves and empty branches give?

Van Gogh and other artists had medical conditions that made them see colors differently. All modern artists should get this illness. All art in yellow must aspire to his yellow chairs and flowers. So sad that most of the yellow we see in our daily lives is more about dangerous roads and holes in the ground and other policing, and so little about what an uplifting color it is to see.

How and Why

What I like about the story: the elegance of the Chinese text, the simplicity of the metaphors, organizing form through color, the way everyone drinks all the time, and [scenes] like: Candlelight hush. The king scrutinizes Silence.

"All under Heaven." No matter how you translate the king's ideal, it is still an ideal. In the context of this film, peace unifies a country. Words unify it best.


[Yimou] Zhang claims any and every director wants to make an action film, but in his case, not just any action film. He was looking for a film that transcends the content of the action to get to the essence, the Qi, of martial arts. One would have thought that in all the trying over the years to bring martial-arts literature to film, others had been there and done it. But what Zhang found was not what he or we thought. What you read in youth fills a space you might never find again; what we read gives us images most films can only disappoint. After much effort, he gave up trying to adapt others' works. Three years and several drafts of Hero later, he thinks he has what he wants, or maybe what sells, or maybe what he's comfortable with - and hopefully something to run with way out in the ends of the Chinese world.

In the films I have done with Wong Kar-wai, we find the film through the possible, not the known. This is a Yimou Zhang film, planned and written in the closest thing to rock you can find in this country at this time. So how does a film hold together? How can things as abstract as light and color create atmosphere? How does imagery express discord or continuity? How does the camera reveal ideas?

Special Effects

Zhang has never done a martial-arts film and it shows. But he wants the action to reflect the dialogue and sentiments of the moment, and not just be action for action's sake. All martial-arts directors want to get clear action on film. This means wide angles and relatively complete movement. All cinematographers search for visual continuity and mood. I wonder where and how the two can meet. Our colors are dominant enough. The other elements must be subtler. Zhang is looking for gesture, energy and feeling. That means tighter framing and concentrating on the poetry of a gesture and the actor's expression rather than the content of a move. He is worried about the integrity of the image being subverted by effects that are obviously unreal or at least distracting.

Places and Ways

Heng Dian [Studio] is an ambitious idea. It's a pity whoever had it didn't learn much from early Hollywood. Both have a similarly ambitious attitude and solid infrastructure. Both have huge backlots of "European" streets and full-size replicas of famous and classical buildings. But instead of the California sunshine that makes long working hours possible, the Heng Dian climate is damp and soggy. The sky is always overcast. Good city management and support just can't make up for the lack of good light.

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.