Claudio discusses the techniques behind his well-known movies Life of Pi and Top Gun, and the experiences that lead him to find the success he has today.
A cinematographer, also known as a Director of Photography, is in charge of the camera and the lighting crew. They’re the person responsible for creating the look, colour, lighting and framing of every single shot in a film.
I have a very close relationship with Joe. We are always trying to do something new. Trying to bounce in a different direction than before. We have a short hand now. The look of the film is done in prep, so shooting of the film is more of an execution. Some directors require different approaches. Most have an understanding of cameras, but many do not understand lighting, colour, depth of field or movement to create a mood or story point.
My first 3D movie was Tron, so I did have some idea of 3D and what to expect. What Ang (Lee) wanted to do was use 3D to tell a story. He really wanted to explore 3D. So I worked with him to test different ways to shoot, we played with staging, and wide and narrow interocular. Water was a challenge because if water got on the lens the audience would be very uncomfortable. We worked very hard to make sure water did not get on the lens by the use of Air Knives. We had two air compressors custom built, each was 15’ tall.
We also decided to shoot the film in order, this was challenging because that meant the first time we were in the tank would be the “Storm of God”. The first day in the tank was not successful – not one usable shot that day. [We had] problems with fogging, cameras, wave machines, actors, the spider cam rig – it would have been nice to ease into the tank. I did however have my biggest reward, we had this huge area of water that we wanted lit with candles. We wanted candles everywhere at a certain frequency. My lighting order for the night was 120,000 candles. What a magical night.
Depth of Field (DOF) could be one. I was told that you should have a large DOF always. Maybe when you are exploring the space in a wide shot it would be important to have a large DOF. Things out of focus are much more uncomfortable, but if you are in a close up and the actor/actress is giving an immersive performance, shallow DOF can be used.
Strobing is more apparent in a normal movie FPS [frames per second] (24 FPS). This problem is compounded in HDR. Some people try to solve the problem by shooting at higher frame rates and playing back at the higher frame rate. It can be 120 FPS, at 120 FPS playback or 60 at 60. For me this gives what has been called the “Soap Opera Effect”. While this solves the strobing issue, I feel the soul of the movie is robbed. Back when we shot film, 24 FPS sounded like a purr from a cat and 120 FPS sounded like a blender. For me 30 FPS is too soapy. Most iPhones default to that, in 4K you can achieve 24 or 23.98. 23.98 is the frame rate for commercials and 24 FPS is more geared towards theatrical.
I was part of the design team that designed the Venice. My contributions are:
I am really good at solving complicated issues. Every job has its own challenges and sometimes new technology can help. I try to stay away from blue screen and get it in camera. Blue screen is used if I have exhausted all other possibilities. Top Gun is very much in camera and that took a tonne of work. One of my biggest challenges was on Oblivion … Joe and I spoke about creating a large LED volume to shoot in. When I drew it up, the screen needed to be 500’x45’ tall. Obviously LED was not going to be cost effective, so I decided to use projection instead. I did a ton of testing with different projectors and settled on 26 massive projectors. Nobody has ever strung this many projectors together before. Producers wanted me to use green or blue screens and were always questioning me and doubting me, but I stood firm (on the outside), inside I also started having doubts. There was so much chrome, polished surfaces and glass that a blue or green screen would have made the set disappear in those sections.
I had a crew shoot a three camera array on top of a mountain that created 15K content that played on the screens. To put it together required ten projectionists working for just under three weeks. A seamless muslin screen was brought in from Germany. During the build I would come in after work looking at the progress. So much was riding on this, my gut was churning. Day one shooting was beautiful, the actors loved shooting in the volume. Victory!!! I stay very current with tech. Which is why I help the design teams at companies like Sony, Apple, Blackmagic, Fuji and some others.
Oh boy. I loved working with him and this project. I wanted to work with the director (Robert Rodriguez) and he wanted to work with me. I was going to shoot Battle Angel with him, but I had some personal issues that prevented me from doing it.
I worked as a gaffer for two really amazing cinematographers, Darius Wolski and Harris Savides. I learned so much from them, they were both so supportive.
If Claudio’s industry insights have inspired you to pick up a camera, we asked for his top tactics to propel your cinematography career forward, from right now, to the next 12 months. Read it and take the leap!
People don’t like to hear too much about my path, I was not in a hurry and I did not have an agenda. I was just happy to be in the business in any form. I started in the business in 1984 and I did not start shooting till 2000, 16 years. If you are looking for a faster approach, I would find any work that gets you close. Camera department, camera house, work in any department.
These are harder questions, but if you are going to shoot some spec spots, have a point of view. Question everything, look at everything. How can colour or absence of colour create a mood? Look at your frame. What catches your eye? What distracts? What do you want the audience to look at? How much light can I remove? Many over-light the scene. [Consider the] direction of light. Light quality. Many wiggle the camera too much. Take the attention away from the camera and put it in the scene. It takes more work, dolly track, and stabilised heads. Understand the emotional effects of shutter angle, and camera speed. My movies are mainly shot 24 FPS at 180 shutter. I do not get bogged down with LUTs on set, I am super basic. I will be at the DI or telecine where I will do my colour pass. Test, test, test, I test everything. Wardrobe, set colours, cameras, lights, fire, anything to do with the job you are about to shoot. Some books tell you about three point lighting. Backlight, key and fill… Ekkk!!! Do not make this your go to.