Sunlight Strength

Interesting article from ICG magazine on Terrence Malick’s The New World. The release date for this picture is 25th december for LA and NY & 13th january 2006 for the rest of the world. Also check the full production notes here or various links here.

Once Upon A Time In America
Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC and Team Recreate the Early 17th Century for The New World
By Pauline Rogers

The New World is an epic adventure set amid the encounter of European and Native American cultures during the founding of the Jamestown settlement in 1607. To bring this sweeping historical drama to the screen, director Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) brought together a group of innovative and daring creative talents.

It was cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s (two time Academy Award nominee for Sleepy Hollow and A Little Princess, whose credits also include Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Y Tu Mamá También, Ali, Like Water For Chocolate) artistic and technical skills, as well as his limitless imagination that Malick wanted to develop the visuals of this story.

And, it was production designer Jack Fisk (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The Straight Story, Mulholland Drive), a Virginia resident, who was the catalyst in keeping production in the United States, by introducing the team to the original site of James Fort and the Jamestown Settlement.

Costume designer Jacqueline West’s skills in creating the clothing in Quills provided Malick with the confidence that she could do justice to The New World characters.

And, the collective talents of editors Richard Chew (Academy Award winner for Star Wars and nominee for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Hank Corwin (Natural Born Killers, Nixon) and Saar Klein (two time Academy Award nominee for The Thin Red Line and Almost Famous) would piece together the unusual images created by the team in Malick’s unique style.

And, to document the story, Malick chose Merie Weismiller-Wallace (Million Dollar Baby, Sideways, Titanic, Bloodwork) who had shot The Thin Red Line for him.

The melding of these incredible talents brings together a dynamic, sweeping, story told with as natural an approach as possible—from the historically accurate settings and costume design to the beauty of the elements lit mostly with natural light.

CINEMATOGRAPHY

“When Terry Malick and I talked about shooting the life of Che Guevara last year, we wrote down a set of rules—our dogma—to follow,” says cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, ASC. “The idea was to capture the reality of this man’s life with natural light, no cranes, no big rigs. It would be subjective—from the man’s point-of-view.

“A little while later, Terry called to say ‘we’re not doing Che but doing a story based on the foundation of this country,’” Lubezki adds. “The code of belief, the dogma, would be the same.

“Terry is one of my favorite film directors. I’m a big fan of his work. So, I was naturally interested in this new project. No light. Handheld. And, one of the most important tools, the Steadicam (manned by Jeorg Widmer and James McConkey). We, in the camera department, would think of ourselves as the 5 o’clock news team, capturing the reality in front of us. It would just happen to be the reality of a different century.”

Their dogma, natural back light, pervaded all departments. Lubezki worked carefully with production designer Jack Fisk and costume designer Jacqueline West to have visuals that would not only “play” for the story but also “play” well on the screen. It was also important for each department to provide Malick and Lubezki with a complete palette, so that they would be able to document the story from any angle and position.

“We chose back light, not because it is pretty but because it helps the evenness of the light,” Lubezki explains. “Terry shoots out of sequence. A close-up in October might be used on a scene later in December somewhere else. By shooting back light, keeping softer light on the faces of the actors, and keeping the sky white (Terry doesn’t like blue skies), we were able to serve the story and keep the continuity.”

The team was always looking for locations that would be versatile, not only to serve the story but also to serve Malick’s need for moving story elements from place to place. “We would shoot inside the forest and trees when the light was toppy and use the canopy of trees as a big silk,” Lubezki explains. “When the light disappeared, we would go to the fields, using the direction of light that would serve us best. Sometimes, Terry would shoot a scene in the forest and then re-shoot it in the fields, deciding later which played best.”

To capture the earthy look as naturally as possible, Lubezki chose Kodak 5218 for most of the picture. It gave him the flexibility to work at a deeper stop. “We shot everything anamorphic with a depth-of-field between f/16 and f/11,” he says. “By shooting at that depth-of-field, we could really make the audience feel as if they were in this world with these characters.

“Sometimes, lack of depth-of-field becomes a barrier and we wanted to take that barrier away. To help the lenses as much as possible, Panavision’s Phil Raden and Dan Sasaki created a new lens for us to use on the XL cameras. They combined the E-series lens that is heavy with the C-series lens. This allowed us to have close focus, keeping with our ‘dogma’ of being in the action and solve the anamorphic contradiction between resolution (which it gives us) and depth-of-field (which is not always possible).

“I wanted to use only the 35mm and 40mm most of the time,” he adds. “We added the 50mm for telephoto, when we needed to get close to the actors, but still give them some room to move.”

Following the philosophy and ideas of photojournalists, Lubezki and team were constantly thinking of themselves as still photographers, moving fast with a camera hanging around their necks, creating images of life and reality in the places where they landed. “Terry allows—actually encourages—the camera to find better ways to find reality and truth in a scene,” Lubezki explains.

“He always wanted to use what was happening at the moment,” says Steadicam operator Jeorg Widmer. “He would say, ‘You have the quail at the wing when it’s about to fly.’ That’s what he wanted from every shot. He pushed us to go for the unexpected. Go with the actors and capture things that we wouldn’t ‘normally’ capture. Terry keeps telling you to ‘go for it’ and trusts that ‘you’ll feel it.’ And it works. Thanks to Terry’s trust, and Chivo’s enthusiasm and confidence, we were able to get more out of ourselves and out of the story.”

“Terry plans everything in his head,” says Lubezki, “but he is always looking for those moments that are unplanned—those happy accidents that breathe reality into a story. For him, the behavior of people, nature, even where the wind blows are all moments to capture. These are ‘happy accidents’ that can’t happen on the stage because you are always restricted to walls or props. And, to artificial light.

“Artificial light is simple. It is a specific color temperature and feel. But, natural light is complex and sometimes chaotic. A bounce from the floor or a reflection from the sky can do so much.

“Terry’s desire to free the actor also freed us from the artificial. The many elements and feelings that the natural environment and light evoked contributed to our desire to capture this story in a different way. When you stop using artificial light, it’s hard to say let’s just ‘turn something on’ and match the feeling.”

PRODUCTION DESIGN

“To create James Fort, I studied all of the writings of the colonists, primarily the Jamestown Narratives, what remains of their eyewitness accounts,” Jack Fisk explains. Factor in the studies made by archaeologists, Fisk and art director David Crank were able to create the fort and environs every male child dreams of building. Not of Popsicle sticks, but of three-dimensional real elements.

“Terry doesn’t look at drawings,” Fisk explains. “He just says, ‘Whatever you build, we’ll come in like a documentary crew and shoot it.’ Terry likes to film almost on a found object, so the more complete the set is, the more he can use it. He doesn’t really like the idea of just shooting a bit of a set or a wall in one direction. And, since Terry doesn’t like to light his scenes, he changes his direction according to the sun, so we needed to create an environment where he could move around accordingly.”

Authenticity was important to Fisk. “I wanted to build out of local materials so that the clay and the wattle and daub (common building materials), looked right,” he says. “But unlike the colonists, we had the wood delivered on trucks, used chainsaws for cutting it and had hydraulic forklifts for lifting the board.”

Although the James Fort seen in The New World is 25 percent smaller than the original structure, the rough-hewn fort and rustic structures within had the patina of age and an air and atmosphere of absolute reality. Same went for every piece of location in the picture. “Helped along a little by mother nature,” Fisk laughs. “We survived several tropical storms and two hurricanes during the shoot. The storms aged the sets and created mud, but more importantly, they kept us in the mind frame of the colonists, just trying to survive.”

Lubezki’s dogma of backlight affected the locations and where the sets were constructed. “And, what time of day was used for a specific location,” Fisk adds. “The ‘French reverse’ was used often, putting two opposing actors in the same backlight.

“The anamorphic lenses reflected a lot of light and we constantly fought flares,” he adds. “One time, explaining to Chivo about pieces of a set we shouldn’t see for continuity concerns, I explained that they were my ‘flares’ and he understood instantly.”

Because Malick and Lubezki decided not to use lights, Fisk took a few licenses with the sets, making windows a bit larger and creating more of an opening that would let in natural light. Grips helped “rearrange” the thatched roofs to let in more light.

“The colors for the settings were all from nature,” Fisk explains. “Everything we built was made from natural materials and the paint we used matched the surroundings or was color the Indians could have achieved from the world around them. This carried through in the makeup and costumes and was a natural compliment to Chivo’s natural light.”

It was important for everyone concerned that they immerse themselves in the reality of the 1600s. Fisk’s faithfulness to the time was extended by keeping everything that was “modern” away from the set, hidden whenever necessary. “So, when Terry, Chivo and I were moving through the fort or Indian village or swamp looking for the light that could last for the length of a particular scene, we just saw our story’s environment. We’d trim tree branches to help keep the light a bit longer and, at times, call in a standby painter to darken the walls of the fort or the ground or the mud walls, the costumes and even the Indians to help him balance the light with the overhead sun. We used water or mineral oil to darken the mud. Chivo liked it dark!

“Often in minutes, dressing or parts of sets would be moved to take advantage of the light. Several times we could only be ready for take two or three because Terry couldn’t slow down, and we would be running around putting dressing in place nanoseconds before the pan caught it.

“Working with Terry, you never get bored,” Fisk exclaims. “And you have an interesting time. His enthusiasm and support, and Chivo’s, allowed us to really push ourselves to create the sense of authenticity and history that is so important to this story.”

COSTUMES

“Terry doesn’t get involved in the costuming. He is not hands on with the designs but he knows exactly the mood and the feeling and how he wants each character to look,” says Jacqueline West. “There was a mutual trust between Terry, Chivo and Jack that filtered down to all departments. That feeling went a long way in encouraging the creativity of everyone involved.”

That trust allowed West to stretch her creativity, surprising herself and Malick with the looks she designed for this historic picture. “Terry had an exact color palette that he knew would be right,” she explains. “I did a lot of research and worked with Jack Fisk to come up with a look that would work.

“Working with Jack was like working in Caravaggio’s studio in the 17th Century,” she says. “He was immersed in the period. It was amazing, our references were the same. Terry’s idea was to create costumes that would be camouflaged against the backgrounds. Everything had to be muddy, organic and earthy. For Terry, and especially for Chivo, bright was the special enemy. So, no primary colors.”

When designing the costumes for the Indians, West paid special attention to the nature of the materials used in the era. “Of course, everything they used came from the natural world, and we felt that it would have been both unrealistic and spiritually insulting to use mass-produced, artificial materials,” she explains. “We started ordering skins and furs, but only of what already existed. Of course, no animals were killed for our purposes. I also relied on the generosity of strangers, such as Chief Robert Two Eagles Green of the Patwomeck Indians of Virginia.”

West and her department found other natural materials, including shells and freshwater pearls, which were used as adornments by the people who lived by the waters that surrounded them. “The pieces had to be perfect and precise and made like the Indians would make,” she says. “There was no duplication of jewelry, headdress, or breechcloth. Terry didn’t want cookie cutter images. He wanted everyone to look real, so that if he saw someone in the background that caught his eye, he could pull that person into the foreground and the camera could get as close as possible.”

As each character went through emotional and physical changes, so did their costumes. “For Pocahontas, Terry wanted the costume to be quite simple at first,” she explains. “He wanted a free spirit unencumbered by possessions. After she meets John Smith, Pocahontas’ character evolves as she becomes more self-conscious, so very gradually she gives up her breechcloth and then her buckskin dress. When the Puritanism of the English is imposed on her, we see her in Western wardrobe with a very constrictive bodice, sleeves, and a lot of padding, crinolines and petticoats. She almost seems to be imprisoned by her clothing. And that gradually transforms in her wardrobe to almost middleclass English later in the story.”

That level of development played out throughout the movie. Even with the British. “They survived hardships as they tried to ‘colonize’ the country,” West explains. “We had to create tatters, changes in the color palette. And, we developed a kind of crossover, the British would acquire Indian items and the Indians tatters of the British items.

“Then, of course, when the British become more ‘upscale’ as the country grew, we moved from cotton to canvas to homespun and then velvet and brocade, still working with our sources to compliment Jack’s sets, and help Chivo’s ‘natural’ lighting.

“Costuming The New World was a wonderful experience,” says West. “We created over 500 costumes, each one individual and distinct, each as close to the real world that was the story of John Smith and Pocahontas—and of The New World.”

EDITING

Richard Chew, Saar Klein and Hank Corwin had to approach the editing of The New World with a completely different set of mental tools.

For one, they had to forget that Malick would be talking to the actors throughout the take. “He’s like the captain of a river boat—he guides the actors around obstacles and pushes them in directions they haven’t really experienced,” says Richard Chew. “Sometimes, it is to get them to go beyond the preconceptions they have for the characters. Other times, it is trying to catch a spontaneity and freshness.

“One of his favorite things was to throw an actor off by having him or her do dialogue from a different place in a new place. This constant change and his constant comments encouraged most of the actors to new heights—although, in a few cases, veterans tended to want to work in a different way.”

“It was strange,” admits Chew. “It created more technical problems, in that we would pick a piece that looked like what he wanted and have to ignore the overlap of Terry’s dialogue and the actors’. Looping dialogue was just part of what we knew we had to do.”

It wasn’t just Malick’s dialogue that the team had to ignore. They also had to separate themselves from the dialogue. For them, one of the most fascinating things was to listen to the wonderful period English mixed with Algonquin that Malick had written—and know that he was going to throw almost all of it out—for a bit that was much more emotional visually.

“Terry ‘green dots’ on the avid,” adds Klein. “It is a button that allows you to put a marker on things that you like. Terry chose green. Why green? Good question.” Whatever the answer, it was in Terry Malick’s head. And, on the film. A mark that all three editors would look for, then scratch their heads and try to understand “how” to make the shot work.

Another of Malick’s ‘dogma’ was “being very selective in the type of shots that he likes and those that he doesn’t,” adds Saar Klein. “If a shot didn’t have visual strength, it wasn’t in the film. “We needed to understand what he deemed to be a ‘strong shot’—or we’d be in for a lot of guess work.”

“He has a strong philosophical approach to shot selection, emotional content and the music of nature,” Hand Corwin agrees. “For Terry, having the sound of the right bird is as true as any shot. Our playing field had many dimensions.”

“We also had to understand that Terry likes the eccentric frame,” adds Chew. “Nothing can be right on. In editing, he was always telling us not to use too perfectly framed shots. He wanted to be on a shoulder or see part of the face or cut the face in half. Or he’d like being behind the person. One of his favorite angles is over the shoulder to relate distance and relationship between two characters.”

All three editors also had the words “deep focus” burned into their brains. Malick insisted on that style. They knew that “stuff” had to be going on in the foreground, middle ground and background. They were constantly looking for footage that showed life going on around the characters. That was what they would emphasize in the editing.

“We had incredibly beautiful images helped by the accuracy of the location, production design, costuming and the freedom the actors had because the film was shot without lights getting in the way,” says Chew. “Editing everything together was an exercise in learning what minute pieces in the massive amount of footage expressed Terry’s ideas. And, not feeling that we missed the mark, if we were batting 200, when it came to guessing what he had in mind.

“Yes, The New World was totally different from anything I’ve ever edited. And one of the most amazing projects I’ve ever worked on!”

STILL PHOTOGRAPHY

“On set of The New World, every effort towards authenticity was made and we really felt as if we were transported to the early 1600s, with the natural beauty and amazing hardships,” says Merie Weismiller-Wallace. “When I looked through the camera, I was looking for the emotional core of the shot and the unique circumstances it was taking place in,” she adds. “Crew and cast would be standing in the river then rushing up to shore to look back at where we’d been. We’d be wet, chigger bitten, physically exhausted, sweating profusely, carrying everything, wandering with Indians heading to the settlement, or John Smith trying to find the Indian Village or skipping away to meet Pocahontas.

“I was proudest of shots that caught the emotional tone of the actors, in their faces and body language, intensified or mirrored in the environment and light. The love stories, cold winter, fear and anger and sorrow connected to the battle and the serenity of peace times as well as the unusual world of that time and place in history had to be clear in every image.”

Merie Weismiller Wallace shot 100 percent digital on The New World. “I shoot with two Canon EOS 1D Mark II cameras because of the combination of eight mega pixels, fast motor drive and large buffer,” she explains. “I have mostly fixed lenses, although I do have a telephoto zoom with image stabilization.

“Switching from film to digital requires another set of references,” Wallace explains. “I shoot pretty much the same as I always do, but now when I feel I’ve gotten what I’ve been aiming for, I’ll check. Sometimes the perfect shot has closed eyes! Then, I’ll be able to shoot again, if possible, until I know I have what I’m after.

“I trash images that have false expressions or if someone crossed my frame accidentally. The other thing is that I often bracket f-stops and check the images then compare those to my stop or incident meter, and choose my stop.

“It sounds laborious but I do it so quickly, and know my camera better than ever,” she adds. “Half the time I ignore that it is digital and just enjoy the technology of tracking focus, fast auto focus, and speedy drive. Digital does require additional time during the day or at wrap as I download into my computer and transfer to CD or DVD or drive to send to the lab, but it’s so educating and gratifying to view the body of work each day that it is rarely felt like a burden.”

Of course, everything had to blend with the elements Wallace had to deal with everyday. “The worst problem I’ve had digitally on this picture was the piercing reflections off the James River,” she says. “Trying to polarize the water and still expose properly for the subject without losing the background entirely was a little tricky.

“That’s where the lab is invaluable. They will do a lot of that digital color and contrast adjusting for you if you ask for their help. After a while, they know what you want and don’t want, which is a relationship I greatly value.

“Digitally, low light is not the problem it was with film,” she adds. “If I need to shoot at 800 ASA, I know I have the mega pixels to back me up. If I have to slow down my shutter speed, I can check the images to make sure I’m not getting motion blur to my detriment.

“I used Super Color Lab on this picture, and was in close touch with Greg George and David Schneider there,” she adds. “I relied on them with great results and they supported my insistence on the natural look and technical beauty I was aiming for.

“I truly valued working with Chivo on this film,” Wallace concludes. “It is one of the most stunning films I’ve worked on. He has such a strong, artistic, technical base. Yet, he was learning a new side of his abilities because of the circumstances Terry and Chivo chose. Chivo was very funny, brilliant, irreverent, passionate and sometimes very tough. We all put one foot in front of the other to get through the hard times on this film. The thing that made me different is that I got to go home and croon over the astonishing images I’d collected earlier that day!”

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