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What You Can’t See: Negative Space and Cinematography for “The Invisible Man”

“Leigh and I really loved how artificial and austere the motion control camera moves were,” says cinematographer Stefan Duscio

What did the casting breakdown for the title character in 2020’s update to THE INVISIBLE MAN look like? Gender: Does not matter. Age: Whatever. Height: Surprise us. 

Luckily for actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen, his character, Adrian Griffin, is visible for some of the movie. The trick is that for the rest of it, the filmmakers need to shoot a character, who may or may not be there, and make it compelling, thrilling and scary.

Read more: The Invisible Man and How to Make a Modern Monster Movie

The creative team of Leigh Whannell (Writer/Director) and Stefan Duscio (ACS) (Cinematographer) renewed their collaboration from 2018’s low-budget, sci-fi/thriller UPGRADE. While they did not have to make something out of nothing, with a budget of just $7 million, the team had to make something out of very little, which sometimes included shooting nothing.

“We were very interested in [Elisabeth Moss’ character, Cecilia Kass’] highly paranoid point of view and, therefore, suggestively filmed empty spaces,” Duscio explained in an interview with ARRI, “letting the camera linger hauntingly on the mundane corners of a room. We also framed characters in an unusual way that would suggest someone else could be inhabiting the negative space in the frame. Focus might push past a foreground character into an unlikely area of the frame.”

Speaking with Filmmaker Magazine, Duscio detailed how his director wanted to cover the negative space. “One of the big things Leigh wanted me to do on the film was unmotivated camera moves. He really wanted the camera to know more than Elisabeth and more than the audience all the time. So, in seemingly unmotivated ways, the camera would leave her in a scene and wander down a hallway, find something and sit there, then wander back to Elisabeth, which made for a very unsettling feeling… It felt so wrong as a camera operator… I’m like, ‘This could be really great or really bad.’”

The DP told Filmmaker why he and Whannell chose to shoot 2.39 widescreen, “In preproduction we did test both anamorphic and spherical and 1.85 versus 2.39. We found that by shooting in widescreen we had more negative space to play with in the frame… The more we looked at compositions like that—compositions that felt kind of off or not quite right—the more widescreen excited us as a canvas.”

Click to listen to the interview with Duscio

Listen: The Invisible Man Cinematography (with Stefan Duscio ACS)

Duscio shot with ARRI’s ALEXA LF, Mini LF, and ARRI Signature Primes, which he had previously used on commercial shoots. “I feel like the [large format] sensor has struck a real sweet spot in depth and clarity and I adore how the ARRI Signature Primes render faces,” gushed the DP. “…they transmit an incredibly faithful, natural portrayal of reality. I also believe ARRI has listened to the concerns of cinematographers and directors by creating new glass that is expressive and beautiful—but not too clinical.”

To achieve the effect of an invisible character interacting with an actual person, Duscio used an Argo motion control rig. Multiple passes with the same camera movement were shot for the scene where Cecilia is attacked by the Invisible Man, Duscio would start with one “clean” pass.  One pass would be Moss and a stuntwoman, in a green screen suit. 

Before she is thrown across the room, Moss is replaced by a stuntwoman, who is covered in another pass. The next pass, the green suit would step out and the stuntwoman would repeat the throw attached to a cable. Moss would step back in as we see Cecilia’s face at the end of the scene, which would be covered by yet another pass. Additional passes would include practical effects. All of the passes would be combined in post, the stuntman and cables would be erased, and additional visual effects would be added.

Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass in "The Invisible Man," written and directed by Leigh Whannell.
Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass in “The Invisible Man,” written and directed by Leigh Whannell.

ARRI in Australia provided the DP with a prototype of the Mini LF.  He told Filmmaker that the smaller, lighter camera was “essential for us to use on our motion control work on the film, because the motion control robot that we were using for the Invisible Man sequences could not take the weight of a full size Alexa LF.”

“When actor interactions and camera movements were complex,” Duscio told Arri, “we generally used an Argo motion control system to create repeatable camera moves. This was to ensure we achieved perfect plates of our cast, green suit performer, and backgrounds.”

Instead of having to overcome the mechanical feel of the MoCo rig, the filmmakers used it to their advantage. “Leigh and I really loved how artificial and austere the motion control camera moves were,” said Duscio. “We leaned into this and tried to replicate it in our traditional dolly work so the two camera styles would have a synergy.”

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