Filmmakers on Visual Story Points

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At its simplest level, the art of filmmaking revolves entirely around thecreation of what many filmmakers call "visual language": a system ofspecifically designed images that express thematic or story points,irrespective of what other plot or character development is going onverbally. The creation of this language often involves manipulating filmstock, lighting, camera angles, and production design, among othertechniques. But while it draws from these familiar wells, it is a creativejourney that often lacks rules or precedent and differs from filmmaker tofilmmaker and project to project. However it is realized, visual languageis a piece of the filmmaking equation that brings out deep passions in manyhigh-profile filmmakers and often results in breathtaking imagery.

"Film language has been evolving since movies began over 100 years ago,"says veteran DP Tom Sigel. Collaborating with director David O. Russell,Sigel manipulated film stocks and colors on Three Kings, an effort thatdrew attention last year. "It's no different than poetry in the sense thatonce a poet learns to speak the basic language, he immediately tries toturn it on its side or twist it upside down," Sigel continues. "Similarlywith filmmaking, there is a certain science involved in learning the craft,but once you've learned the basics and have some experience, most directorsand DPs immediately begin trying to enhance the visual experience."

Millimeter recently spoke to the directors and DPs of three recent filmswho employed distinctive visual languages. The three films are David O.Russell's Three Kings; Mike Nichols' new comedy, What Planet are you From?;and Julie Taymor's Titus.

Three KingsAt the outset, Russell plotted a specific visual style for the film, whichtells the story of three U.S. soldiers who search for gold stolen by theIraqis during the Gulf War. "The whole point was to create a differentplace and a different war environment from other war films," Russellexplains. "The goal was to make the viewer uncomfortable, feeling like hewas in a foreign place." Therefore, Russell decided to split the movie intothree visual parts: One for the film's opening where we first meet "naiveyoung soldiers out in the desert," another for when they go off on theirtreasure quest, and a third for when they are in their protective militaryenvironment.

Russell charged DP Sigel with figuring out how to approach these visual"separations." Throughout the testing process during the film'sdevelopmental stage, Russell was very clear on what he didn't want: no HDor video of any kind, despite the fact that most viewers would be mostfamiliar with the Gulf War from news footage. "I felt that using videowould be a visual cliche," Russell explains. "That's what the viewer hasalready seen. I wanted to show them the Gulf War in a way they hadn'talready seen it. Therefore, a bigger influence than news footage wasphotojournalism. Tom and I poured over newspaper and magazine still photosfrom the war. We noticed that type of photography had more saturated colorsand lots of crazy contrasts, and because they were printed photos, theylooked a little grainy. That's the effect I wanted."

Sigel shot the film's opening on traditional Super 35mm, Kodak Daylightstock (Kodak 5246) and then performed a bleach bypass on that footage inthe lab in order to retain unexposed silver on the final image. The processcreated what Russell calls a "sense of dislocation." Sigel elaborates:"That process filled in the shadow areas, took away the normal colorsaturation, and gave kind of a grainy, textured feel to the images. Thatleft more grain in than I would normally want for a standard shot, but inthis case, it created a graphic quality that was right for this portion ofthe film."

For the middle portion of the piece, when the soldiers go on their quest,Sigel chose a technique that he and Russell had to "work hard" to sell toWarner Brothers: the use of Kodak Professional Plus Ektachrome film, astock normally reserved for still photography. Because some film labswouldn't insure the Ektachrome portion of the film's negative since theyare not used to working with it, the director says the studio was"understandably nervous" about the approach. "We finally settled on CrestNational [Hollywood], which had a color timer who really understood theEktachrome, and the studio let us proceed," says Russell.

Sigel says the approach was difficult for all involved, but necessary forthe film. "I had used (Ektachrome) before, though never to this degree," hesays. "I had to ask Kodak to manufacture some at motion-picture length,with motion-picture coding and perforations. To be honest, Kodak frowns onthat because they have spent all this money developing film stocks formotion pictures that are chemically perfect and consistent for creating acinematic look. Here, however, wedidn't want that kind of look. By shootingon stock normally used for still photography, we were able to exaggeratecolors, contrasts, and shadows. David and I felt it heightened the'foreignness' of the environment these characters were in. It was verydifficult shooting with it, and there were several lighting issues we hadto deal with. You couldn't see eyes and detail clearly, so I had tocompensate with more light than I normally would use, often using lightreflectors. But the overall result made the trouble worth it."

For scenes in which the soldiers return to a friendly environment, thefilmmakers returned to standard Super 35mm stock but used filtration andlighting techniques to add more color saturation to the images, making them"friendlier," according to Sigel. He says that the movie has the mostfilm-negative manipulation to create visual separations that he has everdone for a feature. "Probably the most I've seen since Natural BornKillers," he adds.

Russell also cited Oliver Stone's work as influencing his method fordesigning the visual style for Three Kings. "Stone was the realtrailblazer, in my view, for this sort of stuff," Russell notes. "He andmany others have done it, but Oliver was probably the first director I sawuse these types of techniques with the proper amount of balance andmoderation, which I think is crucial. Another influence were two old filmsby a Russian director [Mikhail Kalatozov]: The Cranes are Flying [1957] andI Am Cuba [1964]." (Both works were Soviet propaganda pieces promoting thevirtues of Communism but have been widely praised by critics for theirstriking cinematography.)

What Planet are You From?What Planet tells the story of an alien (played by Gary Shandling) whoattempts to launch a takeover of Earth by mating with a human woman.Filmmakers had to invent, on a limited budget, a visual structure thatsignificantly contrasts the 10 percent of the film taking place on thealien's home world, Planet 10, with scenes taking place on Earth.

"Planet 10 is meant to be a sterile place," says director Mike Nichols."There are no women there, no pleasure, and all the men are the same-theydon't even have penises. It's a colorless, drab, mechanical place, and itwas important to contrast that with what the alien will experience when hegoes to Earth. In meeting with our production designer [veteran Nicholscollaborator Bo Welch], we decided to go for a B-picture influence. Wewanted a B-film style because we felt it could achieve the dry, sterilelook of Planet 10. There is some digital work, but it's minor stuff, for ahandful of effects. The overall look of the planet is done almost entirelyin-camera."

Nichols had Welch design a massive meeting hall and a long, windinghallway, where most of the Planet 10 action takes place-sets featuringlittle color, spherical architecture, and sparse furniture consisting ofsmall cubes. Because filmmakers removed most color from the scenesin-camera, lighting and angles were central to achieving the B-movieeffect. "Removing the color in telecine would have been very expensive, forone thing, and for another, Mike really wanted that B-movie feel, so wetried real hard to do it all practically and keep it simple," explains DPMichael Ballhaus. "I overexposed most of the shots, making the lights lookbright, but colorless. The end result was that everything is sort ofantiseptic, and that's exactly what we were going for creatively. Doing itdigitally would not have achieved the same emotional result."

"The only color on Planet 10 is skin tones on the people," Ballhauscontinues. "[Bo Welch] designed wonderful sets made out of huge, plasticsheets called 'thermo-clear' plastic. It's translucent stuff, but notopaque, and all floors and walls were made of that material. That allowedus to light everything in such a way as to emphasize the dull, drab qualityof the place and to remove all shadows. We lit the floor from underneathwith tons of Kinoflos and simply backlit the walls. For most of the Planet10 scenes, we didn't use any direct light at all. That, combined with dullcostumes, took most color out. By using indirect light, we were able toavoid any shadows, further emphasizing the idea that this is a sterileplace."

In scenes taking place in the winding hallway, filmmakers took the concepteven further. "It's a long, curved hallway, and we wanted to maintain thelack of color, but make it a bit more energetic than the grand hall," saysBallhaus. "We eventually decided to shine a 7K Xenon light into a largepiece of reflective Mylar, a bit like a mirror. That light reflected ontothe plastic walls, which were made from those plastic sheets, creating aspecific look implying electricity or energy. The idea is that Planet 10seems totally mechanical, run by invisible energy."

To illustrate the planet's vast, impersonal qualities, Ballhaus shot mostPlanet 10 scenes wide. "That's a commercial technique," he says. "I usedlots of 18mm, wide lenses, and very little camera movement. The purpose ofthat was to make Planet 10 look large-a huge metropolis. The grand hall,for instance, is meant to appear as though it goes on forever, intoinfinity. The lack of camera movement also makes the Planet 10 visualsappear robotic or mechanical. Even when we did move the camera, it wassimple stuff. In fact, I only did one pan shot for the entire Planet 10portion of the movie."

Ironically, digital technology almost became central to the Planet 10effect. Originally, Nichols and Ballhaus debated shooting the alien sceneshigh-def, but eventually backed away from that approach. "High def was myfirst idea," says the DP. "That certainly would have created the electronicfeel we were discussing. But we did a test, and we weren't satisfied withit. It was almost too clear, too colorful for what we wanted. Besides, atthe time we were shooting last year, high-def technology wasn't quite rightfor this effect. If we had a current version of Sony's 24p camera backthen, it might have worked. Instead, we decided to shoot film and paint thevisual portrait with in-camera techniques."

TitusTime magazine critic Richard Corliss called Julie Taymor's Titus "an earlyclue to where film might go in its second century." Taymor originallydirected Shakespeare's bloody first play about a Roman general hell-bent onrevenge on stage five years ago. For the feature film, she faced thedaunting task of making the movie "theatrical in a cinematic way." As aresult, its visual language comes from a combination of stageconstructs-such as stylized lighting, choreography, and productiondesign-and film techniques, including the use of exotic locations,close-ups, CG, and time-slice photography.

"This movie uses over 100 locations and has CG work, so we could add asense of reality and a sense of fantasy that we couldn't accomplish onstage," Taymor says. "Where I relied on black curtains, blown-up photos,and actors freezing on stage, here I had a whole new palette to work with.But the task was to evoke the same basic responses."

The film does utilize certain stage techniques, most notably, highlystylized choreography for marching Roman soldiers, which Taymor's teamfirst developed for the stage production. It also relies heavily on rich,theatrical production and costume-design elements. Still, Taymor had a lotof production-technique choices to consider in moving Titus to film. Inparticular, she completely reworked scenes that she calls "Penny ArcadeNightmares" for the screen version. Taymor placed the nightmares, bizarremixes of "haiku-like images," at particular points in the film to symbolizecharacters' inner turmoil.

"On stage, we used cutouts and puppets of tigers behind plastic, thingslike that," says Taymor. "In the film, we shot real tigers, and we alsoused a lot of CG and layered imagery. Initially, when we shot the movie, Itried to keep some of the theatrical elements, like framing the scene withred curtains. But the more we shot, I realized the images were mostpowerful if I cut out those frills and just let them play out."

Taymor and designer Dante Ferretti worked hard to pay visual homage toShakespeare's words throughout the film, even as Taymor blended timeelements and took other occasional liberties with the text. Taymor saysthat for the cinematic construction of the tragic swamp scene, where thecharacter Lavinia is discovered with her hands cut off and replaced bytwigs, she merely followed Shakespeare's ancient instructions. "We pickedbranches for her hands and then lit it a certain way to make her thistragic figure, but it all comes from Shakespeare," she says. "His wordsrefer to Lavinia resembling a tree that has been 'lopped and hew'd of itstwo branches.' The surreal shot we created from that was something morepowerful on film than anything on stage."

The film's climactic scene, in which Titus enacts his bloody revenge,involves the popular technique time-slice photography, in which the actionfreezes at a crucial moment. "The equivalent of that technique in livetheater simply has all the actors stopping cold in their tracks," she says."But on stage, you can't freeze pouring wine, spurting blood, or the fire,like you can on film. The point of the scene is to heighten the madness andthe shock of the moment and to stay with it a while. Modern film techniquesare far better suited to accomplish that goal than on stage. Time-slicereally heightened the moment."

Lighting throughout the film was also central to Taymor's attempts tocreate a particular visual sensibility. There, her theatrical experiencecertainly played a role. "When you work in theater, you learn to makelighting very natural, detailed, and specific," she says. "I think somefilmmakers forget how light can alter emotions in a scene. Personally,that's why I have no interest in shooting video. Some people like itbecause they think there is less work involved in lighting a scene. But tome, lighting is the whole point of most scenes: It creates the whole mood,impacts form and angles, and directly affects emotional responses from theaudience."