Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


Old-Fashioned Filmmaking

Related Links

Digital Content Producer‘s and Millimeter‘s coverage of past and present award nominees/winners


Delicate Effects Touches

Photo: Francois Duhamel. All photos: Copyright: © 2007 by PARAMOUNT VANTAGE, a Division of PARAMOUNT PICTURES, and MIRAMAX FILM CORP. All Rights Reserved.

As he releases his dark character study about the rise and fall of a turn-of-the-century oil baron, Director Paul Thomas Anderson proudly touts his strict adherence to traditional filmmaking techniques while making Paramount Vantage’s There Will Be Blood.

“We’re Luddites,” he recently told millimeter. “Dinosaurs a little bit. I’m always trying to stay away from the word ‘digital,” that’s for sure.”

After a pause, in the interest of full disclosure, Anderson says, “We certainly don’t cut on film, and there were some places where we needed visual effects, obviously.” Nonetheless, the old-fashioned theme rings true. The movie, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as narcissistic oil millionaire Daniel Plainview, was primarily shot on location in and around tiny Marfa, Texas, where the production built intricate sets designed by Production Designer Jack Fisk. It relied on the skill of Cinematographer Robert Elswit, ASC, to capture imagery in the anamorphic format — images that received very little post manipulation in most cases. At Anderson’s insistence, the production relied exclusively on film dailies and never seriously considered the digital-intermediate process.

Anderson, Elswit, and others associated with the production view the shoot as a throwback to the days when crews routinely spent weeks at remote sites, engaging in the hard labor of location filmmaking. (George Stevens’ Giant, a thematic ancestor to There Will Be Blood, for instance, spent several hard weeks in Marfa in the summer of 1955.)

“We shared a real sense of adventure [on location], and I think that translates into what you see on the screen,” says Anderson, who also wrote the screenplay. “Not having your usual comforts around, for a film crew, helps you commit to the one single thing you are doing — making this story happen. It’s good we didn’t have it too easy. That would have taken all the fun out of it.”

Elswit vociferously agrees. “[The whole team was] working in one small place — on one ranch, driving to the same place every day,” he says. “We could walk from one end to the other in a half hour. It was almost like we lived there. It’s probably the way films were made in the 1930s and ’40s, when truckloads of equipment went to the middle of nowhere and stayed there. It doesn’t happen anymore, but it did on this shoot. I hadn’t been on a location shoot like that in a long time.”

Paul Thomas Anderson (right) directs Daniel Day-Lewis. Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon.

Opening sequence

The movie begins, literally, in a hole — a long-abandoned silver mine near Marfa where Anderson’s team filmed the opening 15-minute-plus segment, which is quite remarkable because it contains only a single character — Plainview — chipping away at rock, with no other people or dialogue involved. The sequence was meant to illustrate Plainview’s literal career ascent, and it is later bookended by the disturbing closing scene, which illustrates his final fall from grace.

“Having [the character] all alone actually feels easier at times,” Anderson says. “You are not tied to that pesky business of what people are saying to express how they feel. You can just show it through the labor they are doing. Usually, it’s hard when you are being forced to kind of fake it, or hit some kind of plot point, or to make sure someone says something to reveal their past, or whatever. All we had to do was [set up a situation] where we could show [the character] doing his work, and then film it.”

The hardest part of filming that scene was lighting Daniel Day-Lewis properly at the bottom of the mine, Elswit says.

“We had to build a rig over the top of [the hole], so we could hang units down and work above safely,” the DP says. “But it really was a hole in the ground. If you fell into it, you would fall 100ft., and you would be dead. So we just built, essentially, a sort of floor support that we could hang lights over the top of it and also suspend people down into the hole on it. In the shot where Daniel falls [and breaks his leg], I was suspended [on that platform] above him, looking straight down.”

Dylan Tichenor, ACE, received editing help from Tatiana S. Riegel at the start of the project while he finished up work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Tichenor says the opening sequence was particularly challenging to cut together.

“In the beginning, there were arguments about where we could chop off part of [the sequence] in the silver mine — things we wouldn’t need,” Tichenor says. “But it’s definitely an epic part of the movie, and it shows the true drive, the inner monster in [Day-Lewis’] character as he starts going after what he is searching for. It’s a beautiful way to start a movie — a guy by himself, alone in a hole. For me, the challenge there is about the motion of ideas [when cutting]. You don’t want to be repetitive with behavior or action, especially without dialogue or characterization to distract the audience. Every shot should give you something new to add to your understanding of the character or the moment.”

Cinematographer Robert Elswit, ASC, shot There Will Be Blood using two Panavision XL 35mm cameras outfitted primarily with Panavision C series and high-speed anamorphic lenses, shooting onto Kodak Vision2 50D 5201 stock for all day work (interiors and exteriors) and Kodak Vision2 200T 5217 stock for night work. Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon.

Shooting film

Elswit shot the film using two Panavision XL 35mm cameras outfitted primarily with Panavision C series and high-speed anamorphic lenses, shooting onto Kodak Vision2 50D 5201 stock for all day work (interiors and exteriors) and Kodak Vision2 200T 5217 stock for night work. These choices were made to line up with the production’s traditional philosophy — particularly to suit Anderson’s strong preference to use slow film whenever possible.

“We always end up shooting just about the slowest film made,” Elswit says. “Paul just doesn’t like high speed. He prefers less grain and strong contrast, and we all like less grain and good contrast in a film [like this], where landscapes are such an important element. It’s not always easy [working with slow stocks]. It means a bigger lighting package at times. The faster stocks are easier to work with when trying to create a low-light look with oil lamps, fire, or candlelight. It’s easier to augment real sources with artificial lights and hide what you are doing. With the slower stocks, those things are more work. But Paul loves the look of 5201 and 5217, and he understands the challenge in using them.”

Among the retro maneuvers undertaken by Elswit was the periodic use of a vintage, uncoated 43mm lens manufactured in Germany around 1910, according to Elswit, originally for use with an ancient Pathé crank-style film camera.

Anderson purchased a Pathé camera and a package of lenses to go with it several years ago for Elswit to shoot the black-and-white portion of the opening sequence of Magnolia (1999). The DP pulled out one of those lenses for this project, but he had to figure out a way to get it onto a modern motion-picture camera.

“We had a couple of small lenses with that camera, but this [43mm lens] was the one we liked best,” Elswit says. “[For There Will Be Blood], we asked [veteran lens designer and expert] Dan Sasaki to make an anamorphic front element for our [XL camera] with a Panavision mount so we could shoot with it on this movie. I used it for a few exterior shots of the train station, the town, and a few oil derrick shots, but the shot we got with it that I like the best is the [iconic shot] of [Day-Lewis’] character sitting on a train with the young baby [who becomes his adopted son]. That’s the last shot of the [beginning sequence of the movie] without any dialogue, and [it] sort of launches the whole story. It’s not a lens we used a lot, because it can call attention to itself if you put it in a situation with strong backlight. It’s uncoated and really has to be protected from bright skies and light sources — or the image can really degrade. But in fine light, or areas where we could stop down a bit, we used it effectively.”

Throughout the shoot, Elswit repeatedly used high-speed lenses — particularly to shoot by firelight, such as the film’s memorable close-up of Day-Lewis’ oil-smeared face as he stares at a massive fire that consumes one of his oil wells.

“There was a mixture of burning petroleum being shot into the air over the camera crew, and that is all that lights [Day-Lewis] in that scene,” the DP says. “But remember, we kept it a fairly neutral print. The warmth you see is simply the warmth that comes from the flames illuminating the scenes. The [unique dark color] is just the way the film stock responds to it — no filters or anything.”

Each day throughout production, filmmakers gathered in a warehouse nicknamed “The Feather Factory” (supposedly because feather headdresses for Las Vegas showgirls used to be manufactured there) to watch film dailies on two projectors. Film was shipped to Deluxe Laboratories in Hollywood each day, and then returned a couple days later for viewing. Anderson and Elswit both insist that the use of film dailies was crucial to shaping the movie’s creative direction.

That decision, like avoiding DI, came straight from Anderson. “I’m not very good with my imagination,” Anderson says, despite being a feature film writer, director, and producer. “By that, I mean I like knowing what we’re getting and shooting it, and being able to see it in dailies and say that works, or doesn’t work, instead of saying, ‘We’ll work to make it better later.” So, yes, we shot anamorphic, and that made it kind of ridiculous to think about shrinking it down to take into a DI suite, and we did it all photochemically.”

Elswit elaborates on that point, suggesting that the use of digital dailies on a project shot and finished traditionally like There Will Be Blood would have been counterproductive for several reasons.

“We knew [this film] would finish photochemically, and so the last thing you want to do is try to imagine from digital transfers what a movie will look like a year later when it’s in a release print,” he says. “We wanted to come as close as we could during production to the final version of the film, so we worked closely with our dailies timer at Deluxe during shooting to try and get a work print we were happy with. We reprinted quite a bit at the beginning, until we found the right feel for each of the stocks. This is a superior way to work when using anamorphic lenses, but now, digital dailies are cheaper, and since so many films finish digitally, almost no one prints work picture anymore — no matter what format they shoot.

“But I think film dailies are [often] more efficient anyway for a production like ours. The ironic part of digital dailies is that some guy sits in a room with a telecine machine looking at every single foot you shot, making sure it is in sync, and then timing it, and he has to do that in realtime. If you shot six reels of film, that’s fine. But if you shot a lot more than that, or multiple cameras, you slowly fall further and further behind. That happened to me on Syriana and [other projects]. In photochemical land, on the other hand, the timer comes in, pulls the negative out, looks at the first few feet on a Hazeltine [color film analyzer], punches in some numbers, and rolls your whole negative. Eventually, he’s done in 4 or 5 hours, and then a modern high-speed printer prints everything quickly, and it’s out the door the next morning. Then it’s just a matter of somebody syncing it up. On certain films, like multicamera shows, that is a lot faster than digital dailies, in my opinion. Plus, the other great thing about seeing film dailies is that you can’t kid yourself about focus and all the other technical issues that can come back to bite you later when you go to do an IP. Or when you make a digital file into a negative, and you find out that those 10 shots you sort of saw sharply with your D5 or HD dailies really weren’t that sharp at all. And then, of course, the color space of motion picture film is completely different than digital color space.”

Rather than rely on digital approximations, according to Elswit, Anderson therefore prefers to visualize a “meticulously controlled work print that really resembles the final version of the film.” This same philosophy permeated into the finishing process, where filmmakers opted for a photochemical finish at Deluxe.

The director organized the production to rely on traditional filmmaking approaches, including an extensive location shoot in Marfa, Texas, where the entire cast and crew spent weeks on a small ranch, filming on elaborate sets created by Production Designer Jack Fisk. Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon.

DI denied

A digital intermediate was never an option for There Will be Blood because Anderson chose to shoot with anamorphic lenses. And besides, he’s not too keen on the process anyway. In fact, Elswit greatly doubts Anderson will ever go into a digital suite.

“None of us like the way prints from the DI look from a negative shot with anamorphic lenses,” Elswit says. “With 2K Dis, there is a slight degradation in the image when compared to a print off the original neg. Even the dupes look better. This isn’t true with Super 35 or Super 1:85. With those formats, I think the DI is an improvement over the optical blow-up process. But the bigger negative area in anamorphic still gives the photochemical process an edge for those kinds of shows — at least in 2K.

“But beyond that, Paul wants the most neutral conversion of the movie possible — of what is actually recorded on motion-picture film, especially in a location film like this one. He spends enough time in preproduction — and while we’re shooting the movie — figuring out what it will look like. And then we print dailies as well, so we actually see a version of it, which I reprint to get it to look like what we want the movie to look like, so that when it is done, we have a work print that ultimately looks very close to what the answer print will look like. Once we do that, finishing it all isn’t a laborious task. Paul’s movies are fairly simple to finish because that work print already exists and has already been timed fairly close to what the final version of the movie is going to look like.”

Anderson also says the DI process is too overwhelming for the kind of work he likes to do. “The DI suite just has too many options,” he says. “I would never get out of there. I think I’d still be working on this film. I need to have some limitations, and doing it the way we did it — a conformed work print — was the best way to do it. I know few people do it that way anymore, but I think that is kind of sad.”

Tichenor, who has cut for Anderson since Boogie Nights in 1997, says he and the rest of the team all agreed that the movie didn’t need the process.

“There are digital shots — like the sequence with the burning oil derrick and digital derricks periodically — but except for those, we did not go into anything on this film to manipulate the color,” Tichenor says. “It’s a very dark movie. There are several shots by firelight. Dark scenes, very contrasty, a single source kind of thing where the face is lit, and it just falls off into blackness. That’s all the work of Robert Elswit. There was no need to help that stuff.”

Elswit did talk Anderson into letting him attempt to digitally color time a 6-minute sequence near the end of the movie, but the effort was for naught. The DP says that’s because he and Anderson weren’t satisfied with close-ups of Daniel Day-Lewis compared to the original version.

“When we shot [the sequence], I felt we didn’t control the windows [behind the characters] that well,” Elswit says. “I asked Paul to let me do a DI on that 6 minutes, do some control on those windows, make them more like magic hour, and tune them up a bit. It was probably the sloppiest thing I did on the movie, so I thought it might help. We made the best version we could, given all the tools you have in the DI world — putting [Power Windows] in place and changing values and contrast. I didn’t screw with the foreground, just the background. But we looked at it side by side with a print off the original negative — a cut negative. The difference we both saw was in [Day-Lewis’] close-ups. Whatever the translation between 2K digital files to film space — it had a different feel and look, and we noticed it most in close-ups. … We took that [DI version of the sequence] out and went back to the original neg and made a print from there.” <

For the iconic shot of the Daniel Plainview’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) face smeared with oil, staring at an oil-well fire, DP Robert Elswit, ASC, relied exclusively on firelight. He shot several scenes by firelight, candlelight, or in modest light, despite the fact that he used slow film stock for the project.

Cutting approach

Tichenor cut the movie on an Avid Media Composer system, configured by Pivotal Post, Los Angeles, with about 1TB of storage, and with an Avid Unity system serving as editorial’s primary server. During the shoot, he was based in Hollywood, but periodically visited the set in Texas, cutting in Avid Xpress Pro on a MacBook Pro computer attached to a terabyte G-drive and an Avid Mojo DNA video acceleration box. Once the shoot wrapped, editorial was physically moved by airplane and truck to New York to allow Anderson to work closer to his girlfriend and young daughter.

Anderson gives great credit to Tichenor for the final product. “[We’re] a dysfunctional couple, but much of the credit goes to Dylan for telling me to stay on target,” Anderson says.

“It seems to me,” Anderson says, “that the only people who really even know what an editor does and how valuable the editor is to a movie are directors. A mass audience probably thinks that the editor is someone who physically splices two things together, which is crazy. In fact, he’s ultimately your strongest collaborator, and I would say, my most important collaborator. This film could have been a million different things without Dylan, and I don’t say that lightly. I really mean that. He keeps reminding me, ‘We need to tell the story, let’s not stray,” which can certainly be my instinct sometimes.”

The director says that there was some fat to be trimmed in There Will Be Blood. “[It was] extraneous stuff that was necessary for Paul to shoot in order to figure out what is really the crux [of a particular scene],” Tichenor says. “But it is better to have too much available, and cut out what you do not need, than to not have what you desperately need. Specifically, we shot material showing [characters] building oil derricks — whole sequences, things that might end up on the DVD. But they didn’t belong in the [final version]. As you see the skeleton of the movie start to solidify, it becomes important to become efficient and not be distracting.”

One key scene, in which Plainview’s nemesis, preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) forces Plainview to admit his sins before he can be baptized, exemplifies the kind of subtle cutting work that Anderson and Tichenor collaborated on during the project.

“They aren’t really tricks, but they are little moments that jump out at you,” Tichenor says. “Since Paul is so good at coverage, we had lots of angles to work with in that scene [in the church] that were so effective. Things like cutting in the middle of swings, or not even swings, but where you sort of fake it — Paul Dano says something in a close-up and turns in mid-sentence, and you pop back to the medium-wide shot to show him smacking [Day-Lewis’] character again. That helps get the audience excited — you feel the reaction of being right there.”

A typical lighting setup for interior work during production. Photo: Francois Duhamel.

Delicate Effects Touches

The traditional approach to making There Will be Blood didn’t change the project’s need for some digital effects work. The scope of the movie’s invisible effects — including the requirement to illustrate the growth of fictional New Boston, Texas, from a dusty backwater to a major oil-producing center, given a limited budget and tight shooting schedule — precluded the production’s ability to build multiple oil wells on location. Therefore, filmmakers built one oil derrick, which they later filmed burning down for a crucial scene in the movie, and they then relied on the team at Robert Stromberg’s company, Digital Backlot, to digitally construct the rest of the oil field, with help from Industrial Light & Magic on a couple of sequences.

Stromberg, the film’s visual effects designer, teamed with colleague Paul Graff, the film’s visual effects supervisor, to supervise execution of the oil field and to digitally enhance the fire at the original oil derrick, as well as the creation of various digital oil and blood effects throughout the movie.

Much of this digital work, however, was traditional in the sense that, whenever possible, filmmakers preferred to shoot elements on a stage and then combine them later to create digital oil, blood, and other things. Still, Stromberg emphasizes that the limited digital shots (about 60) were strategically used only to further Paul Thomas Anderson’s story.

“Paul wanted the effects to be invisible, which my company specializes in, so he could tell his story without interference, but they were nevertheless necessary for that exact reason,” Stromberg says. “They were used mainly in key story moments to propel the story forward — showing characters building oil wells, multiple derricks sprouting up, large pools of oil. Those things were too expensive to do on location.”

The oil well gusher/explosion, for instance, was central to the story, and it really was set on fire and filmed by Anderson’s crew until the wooden structure burned to the ground. But, the original pressurized oil gush and explosion had to be digital, and Digital Backlot and ILM joined forces to put that sequence together.

“Visual effects were important to that scene in the sense of creating the feeling of power, of the pressure just underneath the surface of the ground,” Stromberg says. “You had to see it build up and then go off. They got many of the elements on set, but we then needed to [digitally] scale up the sequence.”

The digital oil and blood required extensive fluid dynamics work using such tools as Maxon’s Real Flow in combination with Autodesk Maya, with Graff doing the compositing work in Adobe After Effects. But filmmakers also used a series of what Stromberg calls “old tricks” to capture elements for some of those shots.

“Fluid dynamics and water simulations were important, but what was more interesting was the things we did to get the texture of those fluids for wider shots of the gusher and some of the spray,” Stromberg says. “We actually shot baking soda against black for some of the oil, and mixed that together with fluid dynamics to come up with the right combination. That’s an old trick we used in the old days for distant waterfalls and things like that — sort of a nice mixture of high tech and low tech.

“Another example is the blood spatter in the final scene, where they do it traditionally on set and then, we supplement it as needed,” he says. “You don’t always get enough blood, and after the fact, you realize that. In this case, Paul wanted more splatter and more damage to the wounds on [Paul Dano character’s head], so it then becomes a post effect. The only hard part with the splatter was tracking it in order to lock it to the environment [on the background plate]. For blood drips, we shot white foam core, corn syrup, and food coloring slowly dripping on a stage, and then we used that as an element. We also shot some hair against the white film core, bloodied and pieced together, and combined that with the blood to create the final wound on the character’s head.”
— M.G.