The Island is a stylized chase through a dystopian future where humans farm clones in order to harvest their organs. Two clones, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), make a break for freedom after they discover that the world they live in is actually a prison and the beautiful future they are promised is a lie.
The Island begins in the "containment facility," a bland, antiseptic environment where the clones, known as products or agnates, live in blissful ignorance. This world was assembled by Director Michael Bay and Production Designer Nigel Phelps in Downey, Calif., inside immense structures originally constructed as aircraft hangars.
The environment consisted mostly of faux concrete and huge sheets of glass, with views of artificial exteriors added later by Industrial Light + Magic. These CG images are of The Island, where clones are promised they will travel someday. Other sets in Downey included interiors of the home of Six Echo's real-world counterpart, Tom Lincoln.
"We started slowly, breaking things apart and trying things out," explains Cinematographer Mauro Fiore. "The sets were definitely huge, but I had to concentrate on what was going to come through the lens. When you think about it that way, it's not so overwhelming. In a way, that's what we do for a living. Once we're shooting, I don't ever feel the size of the production. I feel like my friends and I are making a film. Whatever the size and budget of a project, it always feels like an intimate experience for me."
Fiore notes that the film's large scale didn't preclude creativity or spontaneity. In fact, the short preproduction time and ambitious shooting schedule almost required it.
Fiore previously handled second unit on "Armageddon" and "The Rock," which were helmed by Bay. He says that the director's working style is immediate and instinctual. "There are some storyboards and shot lists, but the way he works is much more in the moment," observes Fiore. "I like working that way because it's more exciting. He has good visual sensibilities, and he knows exactly where to place the cameras.
"Of course, there are sequences that required careful planning and detailed storyboards, but we made a point of following our instincts and diverting from the plan if an opportunity presented itself," says Fiore. "We might be in downtown Detroit, ready to shoot in one direction, when we see some interesting neon in another direction. We were light enough on our feet to adjust the shot and include it. It's important on a project like this to remember that all the technical aspects are there to serve the artistic side."
Fiore photographed the containment facility clinically, using mostly bright white and gray and a few unearthly colors. When Six Echo escapes that world, he discovers color and sunlight, and the images become correspondingly bold and heavily saturated. As the film progresses and Six Echo is on the run, the images become grittier. Lighting is less tailored and the camera is handheld more often.
Bay and Fiore opted to produce The Island in anamorphic format, which uses more negative area and results in a widescreen 2.4:1 aspect ratio.
"It's fun and interesting to compose images for widescreen," says Fiore. "It provides lots of different possibilities for enhancing the storytelling. This was more of a horizontal film than a vertical one, partly because some of the environments were laid out more horizontally. Another great thing about the anamorphic frame is the ability to include elements in the background. You can be in a close-up on a face and there is space on the sides of the frame to play with compositionally and dramatically."
They shot at locations in Detroit for 10 days. At times, four entire city blocks were closed off for the filmmakers. Some Detroit exteriors were enhanced with a monorail transit system that was added digitally.
"The urban landscapes supported an important story point by providing an interesting contrast to the containment facility, which was more futuristic," says Fiore. "There are some fantastic old buildings that we were able to completely take over and control. Much of the architecture we saw in Detroit was amazing, because it was such a grand period for the city. The train station is kind of a leftover building, with beautiful arched windows. All the windows were broken out. We had the space totally to ourselves. The big car chase that comes near the end of the film ends up there."
Fiore generally filmed exterior scenes on Kodak VISION 250D 5246 film. "What I like about that stock is the contrast," he says. "I used it as much as I could. The speed allows me to use a polarizing filter outside and not have a problem with the stop. It also means I can go through the whole day with one film stock, rather than having to switch at the end of the day as the light fades. That helps with consistency."
For interior scenes, Fiore choose Kodak VISION2 500T 5218 film. "The 5218 has very fine grain. I've used it on a lot of commercials. The exposure range that it's able to carry is unbelievable. When shooting anamorphic, the stop has to be in a certain place for the lenses to work their best. Stop T2.8 to T4 is probably the lowest you could go. If you have the lenses wide open, it's more difficult to differentiate depth and highlights. The 5218 stock worked extremely well with the anamorphic format."
Stunts were usually filmed with multiple cameras capturing action from different angles. Eyemo crash cameras designed to withstand a beating were a standard tool. Bay owns one of the new compact ARRI 235 cameras, which was also used extensively on the film.
"You have to be ready for any situation that might come up," says Fiore. "Michael likes to create stunts physically whenever possible. He wants to use CG to enhance physical stunts rather than create them. Shooting stunts in the actual environment, as opposed to against a greenscreen on a stage, lends them a sense of reality. It can be a little nerve-wracking when you're shooting it because parts of one stunt might be captured at five different places and you're trying to maintain continuity in lighting with unpredictable weather, but the story is more convincing as a result."
Many scenes required the use of a Steadicam rig, which was operated by A-Camera Operator David Emmerichs. "I think it was an advantage having our A-Camera operator also available for Steadicam work," says Fiore. "He's involved with every shot along the way, so when it's time for the Steadicam, he's ahead of the game. The actors are familiar and comfortable with him, and he knows the rhythm of the story."
Bay asked Fiore to work with his regular team, which included Emmerichs, operator Phil Carr-Forster and key grip Les Tomita. "I was initially a little reluctant to work without my regular crew," says Fiore, "but as time went on, it became clear that having people who knew Michael's tendencies was a big help."
Fiore fine-tuned the images using a digital intermediate process at Company 3 in Santa Monica with owner/colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld. While Fiore has gone through similar processes countless times on commercials and other projects, The Island is his first opportunity to use the DI process on a feature film.
Asked if the prospect of a digital intermediate process changed his thinking on the set, Fiore responds, "I don't think it's a good idea for me to rely too heavily on the DI while we're shooting the film. It leaves out a certain healthy discipline, from my standpoint. Manipulating the light is what I do. Why would I want to give that up? That being said, there are times when I definitely rely on the DI, knowing that I can perfect something later, but generally I don't think that method would help me."
Fiore appreciates the professionalism of his collaborators in the post suite and on the set. "One of the best things about a film of this scale is the type of crew that you're able to get," Fiore says. "The heads of every department have just as much responsibility as I do. After all, this is Hollywood, even if we're not actually in Los Angeles. Everybody knows what it takes. They have so much experience. I can concentrate on my own ideas rather than having to manage people. It's really great when it gets to the level where I'm only thinking about the photography, about the colors and the light hitting the film. It is a technical medium, but I'd rather have the shoot be a more artistic experience. That's when you know everything is working as it should.
"My relationships with my gaffer [Michael Bauman] and crew are very important," he says. "When you're preparing a film with a director, you often don't have the chance to discuss everything that you're going to do technically with the crew, so it's important to have people who are familiar with what you like. It's very important to show respect for everyone, because this is a collaborative process and you need everyone's best efforts."