Caleb Deschanel Gets Oscar Nominee for Passion of the Christ
The film is a dramatic depiction of the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ. The story focuses on his trial by Pontius Pilate at the urging of the Pharisees and the high priest, Caiaphas. There are disturbing images of Jesus being flayed and beaten by Roman soldiers, which capture the essence of suffering and death by crucifixion.
Caleb Deschanel, ASC was born in Philadelphia and raised there and in Annapolis, Maryland. He intended to study medicine at Johns Hopkins University, but his interest shifted to film. After graduating, he enrolled at the USC film school, and later earned his master’s degree at AFI. This is his fifth Oscar nomination. The others were for The Right Stuff (1984), The Natural (1985), Fly Away Home (1997) and The Patriot (2001), which also earned the 2001 ASC Outstanding Achievement Award. Deschanel received a BAFTA Film Award in 1981 for The Black Stallion. His credits also include Being There, It Could Happen to You, Hope Floats, Message in a Bottle, Anna and the King, The Hunted, and National Treasure.
Caleb Deschanel Gets Oscar Nominee for The Patriot
This is Caleb Deschanel's fourth Oscar nomination. He was also nominated for The Right Stuff (1983), The Natural (1984) and Fly Away Home (1996). He received a BAFTA (the equivalent of a British Academy Award) in 1991 for The Black Stallion, his first narrative film credit. Dechanel won the coveted Amercian Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Outstanding Achievement Award for The Patriot. He was previously nominated for an ASC Award for Fly Away Home.
Deschanel was born in Philadelphia and raised there and in Annapolis, Maryland. His parents gave him a Brownie Hawkeye camera as a birthday present when he was 11. When Deschanel enrolled at Johns Hopkins University, he intended to study medicine but his interest shifted first to art history and then to film. After graduating, he enrolled in the University of Southern California film school where Haskell Wexler, ASC became an early mentor. Deschanel capped his formal studies at the American Film Institute with a six-week apprenticeship with Gordon Willis, ASC. Carroll Ballard, a neighbor in Venice, California, launched Deschanel's career when he hired him to shoot a documentary. Deschanel subsequently directed several award-winning documentaries. His other notable credits include Being There, The Slugger's Wife, It Could Happen to You, Hope Floats, Message in a Bottle and Anna and the King.
"So much of what we do is instinctual, but there are also ideas that are universal," says Deschanel. "Making this type of film is like putting together a mosaic one tile at a time until it tells a story. What you see in the frame is always motivated by what is important to telling the story. Every minute of each scene has a purpose which dictates how it is shot."
Stars and Stripes Forever
Caleb Deschanel, ASC captures the Spirit of '76 in The Patriot
by Bob Fisher • Photos by Andrew Cooper
These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country, but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny like hell is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its good; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.
- Thomas Paine from The American Crisis
Thomas Paine - the great and sometimes maligned political journalist/philosopher - issued that clarion call during a crucial stage of the American Revolution in one of his series of ideological pamphlets. Paine did summon genuine patriots to battle, but some of these men also loathed war and fought only to defend their families. That fact doesn't make them any less heroic. In The Patriot, Benjamin Martin (as played by Mel Gibson) is one such hero. In 1776, revolutionary fervor was at a boiling point. Haunted by gruesome memories of his skirmishes during the French and Indian War, Martin is determined to raise his seven children in peace on a sprawling South Carolina plantation. Nevertheless, war meets him at his doorstep, in the person of the demented British officer Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs). Adding fuel to the fire, Martin's oldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) joins a militia feuding with the British army. Reluctantly, the elder Martin decides that the only way to protect his family is to join his son in the battles to come.
A production of Mutual Film Company/Centropolis Entertainment and Sony Pictures, The Patriot is a Columbia TriStar release directed by Roland Emmerich (Universal Soldier, Independence Day) and photographed by Caleb Deschanel, ASC (The Natural, Fly Away Home, Hope Floats, Message in A Bottle). Screenwriter Robert Rodat and producers Mark Gordon and Gary Levinsohn (who developed Saving Private Ryan) based the fictitious character of Martin upon Francis Marion (known then as "the swamp fox") and several other real-life, Revolutionary War heroes. The British came to call Martin "the ghost" because of his uncanny ability to strike and slip away. "We tried to keep all of the events true to what happened," says co-producer Dean Devlin. "They may not have happened in the same way or place. But the spirit of everything in the film can be drawn from real events throughout the war."
The cinematographer read the script while completing principal photography for Anna and the King, and if truth be told, Deschanel was determined not to like this period drama. "I had just spent six months away from home," he explains, "but I fell in love with the script. The writer had an incredible grasp of history and the underlying issues that led to the war. I was still undecided when I flew from London to meet Roland. I had some questions about character issues, and discovered that Roland felt the same way. He had an infectious optimism about the possibilities for telling a wonderful story."
Deschanel reserves a lion's share of credit for the breadth of emotions evoked by Gibson's performance. In a seminal early scene, Martin participates in an assembly of elected officials at Charles Town (Charleston), where he gives an impassioned speech urging for a peaceful solution. His own son believes Martin to be a coward, and decides to defy his father by joining the militia on the spot. "It's not like many action movies where characters are black-and-white and one-dimensional," the cinematographer observes. "Benjamin Martin doesn't want to leave his family. He really feels there are better ways to deal with the problems and wants the assembly to negotiate with the King. He is one among many complex personalities."
While the scale is frequently epic, and the excitement often tactile, especially during the battles, The Patriot never feels affected. "We didn't glamorize the revolution," Deschanel says. "People do horrible things in war. The revolution and big battle scenes mainly provide background and atmosphere for a story that gets to the heart of how people make important decisions. We tried to explore what drives people, while making an entertaining and exciting film. We want audiences to feel and understand what it was like to be there in 1776, and making the decisions they had to make. Every minute of each scene has a purpose. Each scene had it's own dramatic structure that dictated how we shot it."
"So much of what we do is instinctual, but there are also ideas that are universal," the cinematographer continues. "[During preparation], we looked at Glory, Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, The Searchers and a number of other John Ford films, and definitely stole some ideas. There's a wonderful shot in The Searchers [shot by Winton Hoch, ASC], where you are looking through a doorway which frames John Wayne riding up on horseback. We used that idea in the beginning of The Patriot. Looking through that doorway, you feel that the house protects the family. Things happen, and later the house no longer feels as secure."
Rewrites were on going during production, but the basic narrative remained the same. Most revisions involved punching up the protagonists' motivations. Script changes also influenced Deschanel's camera angles, visual perspectives and how he composed and lit images. In one instance, when Martin moves stealthily through the woods in attack mode, the smooth moving camera and the reluctant soldier's POV speak a powerful silent language. "Roland wanted everyone to be three-dimensional," notes Deschanel. "He gave all of the main characters and supporting cast memorable moments, so the audience understands who they are. There's a difference between a scared kid in a battle and someone who was just in it for the money."
Shooting The Patriot was an epic effort that included 63 actors, 95 stuntmen, 400 extras and 400 re-enactors engaging in America's liberation on-screen. Filming took place in the northern part of South Carolina, in Charleston, and in and around the small community of Rock Hill. Besides drawing upon a deep pool of South Carolina talent, Deschanel brought along some of his own key crewmembers. Filling the duty of camera operator were Dustin Blauvelt, Gabor Kovar and P. Scott Sakamoto, who also wielded Steadicam. Camera assistants included Alan Disler, Clyde Bryan, Harry Zimmerman, Suzanne Trucks, Mike Repeta, Matt Haskins, Gary Camp, Bo Webb, Joe Sanchez and Jacqui Comptoon-Jensen. Dana Kroeger worked as film loader.
About half the film's scenes are interiors, though exteriors seem to dominate because of the intensity and scope of the battle scenes. Because The Patriot is an 18th century period piece, the crew had to keep out a wary eye for telephone poles and wires, airplanes and other telltale artifacts of modern times. One location was close to a skydiving range, so everyone had to keep a heads up for falling parachutes. But the region did have large, unspoiled spaces to stage its military action. Rock Hill provided a colonial home, a 720-acre living history village, an authentic battlefield, the interior and exteriors of Martin's plantation, and other practical locations. "Kirk [Petruccelli, production designer] also built farms and a nearby town, and when he designed the Martin house, we planned camera angles from the porch and windows. The layout of streets in the village was also carefully designed, but we were always moving things around, so it would look more realistic. We'd get up on a crane and look down, and alter the layout of a street."
"Roland was very much involved in setting the visual style of the film," notes Deschanel. "There was a wonderful give-and-take, which lead to discoveries right down to where we placed the camera to help tell the story. What you see in the frame was always motivated by what was important to telling the story." While camera movement entailed careful planning, he and Emmerich often made impromptu decisions at the moment of photography. "We'd be shooting, and I'd look at Roland, or I'd see him looking at me in a way I knew meant we should try something else. And we'd decide that a camera needed to move a certain way or to a certain place to pull the audience deeper into a scene, and we'd go for it."
On exteriors, usually one camera sat on a wider shot and the other ran tighter. Or both covered different angles, but always on the same side to keep the lighting consistent for intercutting. Interiors shot in tight spaces were more frequently covered by one camera. Most of these interiors were sets, and Deschanel had worked out where he needed wild walls and removable sections of ceiling to accommodate lamps motivated by fire, sun or moonlight.
He tried to have a video tap monitor close behind the cameras, so he could view what the camera sees and the live-action at the same time. "Roland is a high-energy person," Deschanel says, "so he'd be at the monitor, and then run out to talk to the actors, and then he'd be back watching the monitors as we shot."
Birth of a Nation
Deschanel compares the making of such a war-driven period drama to putting together a mosaic one tile at a time until it's complete. Colonial America is established mainly through costuming, production design and also quality of light, as provided by sunlight, moonlight, fire, candles and lanterns. Photographic tests applied to the different fabrics used by costume designer Deborah Lynn Scott (Legends of the Fall, Oscar-winning work on Titanic, Wild Wild West) to fabricate clothing and curtains. "Deborah Scott designed extraordinary costumes. The textures and colors of the fabrics are authentic. The townspeople tended to wear more subdued colors with warmer tones. The British army wore red and green and the American Continentals were dressed in blue. Most of the colors in the film come from nature."
"I don't think there is an archetypal structure to colors in people's minds," adds Deschanel. "Green doesn't always represent envy and red isn't always passion. Maybe that happens on a subconscious level, but I think that depends on each individual's personal experiences. The reality is that you have about five minutes, maybe ten, to transport an audience of people with vastly different experiences coming into a theater to a time and place where the story is happening, and establish the characters, so you can tell a story."
Testing also impacted the production design by Kirk Petruccelli (Murder in the First, Blade, Mystery Men). In terms of paints, shades of gray, green and brown used on interiors 200 years ago aren't typical today. They don't always photograph the way the naked eye sees them - some greens shift to blue and blues to green. "There are so many new [camera] films today, that you can't make assumptions they will all record colors exactly the same way. If you are shooting a sunset, you can get entirely different feelings with two different films."
Overall, the cinematographer manipulated the image quality to replicate reality. For example, he experimented with combinations of neutral density filters designed to bring down the light intensity to a level balanced for dusk - even when shooting in the middle of the day, which, in essence, became day-for-dusk interiors. He also shot tests for candlelit scenes with different colored gels. Mainly, he was striving for the right balance between warm light and dusk's cold blue quality. Deschanel also tried different means of creating flickering effects. Unless wind is blowing, candlelight doesn't move or flicker as much one would think. So he sometimes utilized a flickering, candlelight effect just to punctuate a dramatic moment.
He also applied modest filtration just to soften the edges of interior shots. Meanwhile, Emmerich frequently flooded smoke into battle scenes and also in some interior scenes as ambiance to "soften" dimly lit settings. "There was a certain amount of inconsistency because of the way smoke drifts," reveals Deschanel. "We'd be shooting a scene with smoke, and the troops would be shooting their guns. Pretty soon, there would be a cloud of black powder from the guns, and the scene would be two stops hotter than when you started. We used a device that Howard Preston makes. We call it Elvis, but it's a sort of remote focus f-stop device called FI&E. We had it rigged so my assistant could instantly change the T-stop with microwaves transmission."
After shooting his film tests, Deschanel settled on Eastman's EXR 100T (5248) and the Vision (5274) 200T negatives, with the color renderings and fine grain structure being the main determinants. Since the Super 35 format requires an optical blow-up in the lab, he chose finer grained negatives. Front-end processing was done at Technicolor, which provided film dailies. A projection trailer was set up on location. At first, Deschanel was skeptical because it had a relatively short throw, but the sharp lenses compensated. For him, that meant being able to see film dailies without driving to the nearest town with a movie theater or back projection room. "Usually Roland and [editor] David Brenner watched dailies," Deschanel says, "along with our camera operators and some of the assistants. It was a great opportunity for the crew to watch and listen and learn. The time we saved by setting up a dailies trailers allowed us to review and discuss shots and how they related to the story."
Deschanel photographed The Patriot in Super 35 because he and Emmerich had envisioned shooting big battle sequences with multiple cameras, and the cinematographer had some concerns about finding enough matching anamorphic lenses. He also wanted the flexibility of working with spherical lenses, which would enable him to shoot at lower f-stops. The camera package consisted of Panaflex Platinums and Golds, loaded mostly with prime lenses. In many combat sequences, Deschanel utilized zooms on some cameras, which allowed for quick size changes. "I'm a big believer in using the lowest technology possible."
Usually, two cameras subtly tracked with the characters without calling attention to the movement. There are no sweeping helicopter shots, and very limited use of a Steadicam. However, Deschanel did employ an Akela crane with a 72-foot long extension - mainly in attack sequences - because it enabled him to reach into scenes without having to place dolly tracks in the actors' way. "We tried to put the audience into battles on a visceral level by showing them what the characters see," he maintains. "We'd come up behind someone and show the audience what they see, and move with them for a while. Until you see it, you can't imagine how brutal the battles were. Hundreds of people would line up facing each other only 75 yards apart. They'd start shooting, and you can't help but think, 'There's no way I would stand there.' As soon as the one side runs away, the cavalry rides in and slaughters them. It seems horrific today."
Much of the campaign occurs in large, open fields while skirmishes and small militia attacks are often staged in the woods. In the fields, Deschanel tended to apply the Akela crane more as a dolly than a crane. "If we used it as a crane, it was usually at eye level or just over it," he explicates, "and then, we'd pan around and rise up maybe only eight to 10 feet. It was a way to move the camera along with the troops. We'd have people running right underneath it. We could move the camera up and down and design scenes with characters seeming to walk straight at us. Then we'd rise up and see masses of British troops in the background. It was an extremely valuable tool. There's a big battle sequence that takes place on a hillside by a river. We set the Akela up at the top of the hill and dropped it down one side to the waiting troops. Then we'd crane back up with the American troops who were attacking the British. You see the scene from their perspective with the camera moving with Mel [Gibson] and the troops as he runs up the hill and into some British troops."
Extras performing in battle scenes received training as diligent as that undertaken by actual 18th century troops, and stayed with The Patriot for the duration of its production. Practice skirmishes were videotaped and reviewed by Emmerich and Deschanel. Sometimes when stunts were involved, they would roll the tapes for the militiamen performers and their trainers.
When executing the bloody struggle between armies, Deschanel also worked closely with visual effects supervisor Stuart Robertson whose role included consultations on shooting blue and greenscreen elements; he also supervised the 65mm digital shots, noting all the moves and elevations. Battles were often shot with 600 or 800 extras or re-enactors, and Robertson would oversee digital replicating that made it seem as if 2,000 to 3,000 troops engaged in the fracas. "Stuart was always there and we had a great relationship," he says. "This is not what you would normally call a visual effects film, but there were scenes we couldn't do any other way. We didn't have time, resources or desire to shoot battle scenes with 2,000 or 3,000 extras. The first battle sequence was like a real eye opener, because they had spent a lot training extras. It was really important for them to look and feel precise, particularly the British troops. We were covering the scene with nine cameras and watching them on the video tap monitors. We got a lot of coverage that looked good until we saw dailies and realized that the some of the soldiers were looking around from side to side, unsure of themselves. It just didn't feel precise so that altered the training for future battles."
Not only were soldiers added in digital post, but also flying cannonballs and explosions. Many of the expansive shots were filmed in 65mm. "I was looking at the film while we were timing, and was amazed at the quality of the duplication. It's impossible to distinguish real people from explosions. I think that works because Stuart was there while we were shooting, and he understood what we were doing, so it doesn't alter the aesthetics."
Effects shots also involved miniatures of sailing ships. Robertson oversaw shooting the models, which were digitally composited with background plates. Joachim Gruninger filmed the miniatures, under Robertson's supervision. "There's a three-dimensional quality to models that we weren't going to get with today's CGI technology," Deschanel observes. "It looks and feels more realistic." The cinematographer cites a scene in a boat when Martin is rowing away from a vessel. "There weren't any ships in the river where Martin was rowing. Advances in digital post have allowed us to put characters into scenes that weren't possible or practical to shoot."
Deschanel's crew primarily shot the characters and dramatic elements of those shots in front of green background screens, although some of that work was also done by a second-unit crew led by cinematographer Ueli Steiger (The Hot Spot, Godzilla). "They'd shoot a miniature of a boat rocking on the water, and you could see little people on the deck," offers Deschanel. "We'd filmed actors doing chores against a greenscreen background, and they composited into backgrounds on the deck or rigging sails or they'd be used for cut-aways. There were also shots with a motion- control system, so the camera movement is natural and it matches the rest of the film. When they digitized the film to composite it with the backgrounds, sometimes they'd add other elements like smoke from an explosion, or a carriage riding down a street."
Sometimes Deschanel chose a low-tech solution because it provided a more practical and believable means of problem solving. On daylight interiors, he occasionally resorted to painted backdrops outside windows to ensure consistency when having to match shot elements filmed at different times of day. "I used that technique on The Right Stuff and a couple of other movies," he indicates. "When you're shooting an interior scene at a location, you need consistent quality lighting outside windows even though you are shooting at different times of day. The painted backdrops enabled us to keep the quality and angle of light consistent."
In the closing days of post, Deschanel immersed himself in evaluating lab tests, optically converting Super 35 scenes to a widescreen anamorphic internegative. He was determined to get the best intermediate for mastering release prints. Any time one makes an optical blow-up, grain quality is going to be amplified. He believes that the problem is not the same as it was years ago because of today's comparatively fine grain negatives. But a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into production of The Patriot, and he was determined to put the best possible images on the screen at release.
Gordon Willis, ASC once said that cinematography is an art one can only practice when the skills of its craft have been mastered. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, ASC took a painterly approach to rendering images that relay Roland Emmerich's vision of America in its wartorn morning glory. In order to execute that style, he had to master the tools of a complex and evolving craft. "There is so much talk today about technology, and much of it can be useful, but it always comes down to telling stories. The elements that make this film work are a terrific script, a great director, a great cast, great production design and costumes. I was fortunate that I was working with a visually oriented director who likes input. Roland is a very inclusive director. He listened to people's opinions, and encouraged everybody to be involved. He's not afraid to have people with ideas around him, and that spirit helped the film."
Adding Color to Content
Caleb Deschanel, ASC, puts his stamp on Message in a Bottle
by Bob Fisher
Preface: Following are some facts for you to consider while reading this article about how Caleb Deschanel, ASC, filmed Message in a Bottle. He was born in Philadelphia and raised there and in Annapolis, Maryland. His parents gave him a Brownie Hawkeye camera as a birthday present when he was eleven. He used it to take pictures of his dog. The composition was interesting. Deschanel enrolled at Johns Hopkins University intending to study medicine. His interest shifted first to art history and then to film. He graduated and went on to USC film school, where Haskell Wexler, ASC, became an early mentor. Wexler loaned him a black-and-white filter, which he used to shoot an early student film. Deschanel capped his formal studies at AFI with a six-week apprenticeship with Gordon Willis, ASC. Carroll Ballard, a neighbor in Venice, California, first hired him to shoot a documentary. Deschanel subsequently directed several award-winning documentaries early in his career. Another neighbor, Ron Dexter, guided his entry into the TV spot business. His narrative credits as a cinematographer include The Black Stallion, Being There, The Right Stuff, The Natural and Fly Away Home. Deschanel also directs and shoots commercials for Dark Light Pictures, and occasionally directs narrative films.
Caleb Deschanel, ASC, describes Message in a Bottle as an almost hopelessly romantic film. There are threads of tragedy, romance and hope woven into the fabric of a story that is based on a novel written by Nicholas Sparks, who is rapidly becoming a marketable icon in fiction writing. The film was green-lighted by Warner Bros. before the first book was sold by the studio’s sister company, which published the novel.
Kevin Costner portrays a lonely sailboat builder named Garrett Blake. He writes a love letter to his wife Catherine who died at a tragically early age. Blake puts the letter in a bottle that he tosses into the ocean. Fate delivers the bottle to a barren Cape Cod beach, where a journalist named Theresa Osborne, played by Robin Wright-Penn, finds it. Theresa is touched by the words. She discovers several more letters and identifies Blake as the author. She doggedly tracks him down to a fishing village in North Carolina. All of that happens about 20 minutes deep into the film. At first, it seems like they have little in common, but it soon becomes evident that Garrett Blake has touched her soul and she might fill a void in his heart.
It was Deschanel’s first collaboration with director Luis Mandoki, whose credits include White Palace, Born Yesterday and When a Man Loves a Woman. Deschanel and Mandoki spoke candidly at their initial meeting.
“I liked the story, but was terrified that it could become a sappy romance,” Deschanel recalls. “We talked about shooting it like a fairy tale or an allegory. There were some risks, but I found that appealing, because I like working on the edge.”
Mandoki and Deschanel were standing on common ground. There was a give and take of ideas. “That’s the best way to work,” Deschanel says. “You come up with an idea and someone else makes it better. It’s like playing leapfrog.”
Costner was already cast as the sailboat builder, and Paul Newman was almost set in a supporting role as his father. Robbie Coltrane, Viveka Davis, Illeana Douglas, Jesse James, Hayden Panettiere and John Savage came onboard later.
Costner is the more recognizable and bankable star, and Deschanel lauds his performance as the recalcitrant Garrett Blake, but he notes that much of the story revolves around Penn. “Theresa is totally built into the film almost from the beginning,” he says. “Her point-of-view is pervasive in the structure of the movie.”
Deschanel credits Mandoki with motivating the actors to find that area where reality converges with allegory. That praise carries extra weight coming from Deschanel, whose directing credits include The Escape Artist, Crusoe and episodes of Twin Peaks.
“Directing is sort of a mysterious process,” he says. “You watch a performance and wonder if it’s gone too far or not far enough. It’s the same with cinematography. Maybe you are planning a shot in sunlight and it rains, or you get a better idea. Or, maybe you see something in dailies that makes you wonder if you’re missing something important. It’s not always obvious. That’s what makes it exciting.”
The original location was slated for Tangier Island, in Maryland, which seemed ready-made for the romantic setting described in the script. At the last moment, the local government decided not to issue a permit because they didn’t approve of some of the sexual overtones and language. That led to a scramble for appropriate locations in New Harbor, Bath, Phippsburg and Portland, Maine, and some scenes were filmed in Chicago.
Deschanel explains that Blake’s hometown had to be an idyllic setting that looks and feels isolated and lonely. It is like a silent character who isn’t quite revealed. There is an overtone of mystery and intrigue.
Message in a Bottle was framed in anamorphic format (2.4:1 width to height aspect ratio), because it felt right to Deschanel and Mandoki. It wasn’t just the obvious horizontal composition of beaches and the ocean, and the shapes of the boats that suggested the wider film format. Deschanel also liked the idea of composing an intimate and romantic story about two people who fall in love in anamorphic format.
It enabled him and Mandoki to show the audience the characters in environments that helps to amplify the emotional content of the story. They composed two-shots without cut-aways, so the audience could see the body language and facial expressions of one character while the other one is talking or just looking at them.
“Part of it is the fact that you can use longer lenses,” he says. “You’re using 50mm lens in anamorphic format instead of a 25mm lens spherical, and that reduces depth of field, so the characters are more sharply in focus than the background. It was fun playing with composition in a more intimate frame.”
The script is rich with verbal and unspoken dialogue expressed with facial expressions, eye contact and body language.
“I’ve always felt that the simplicity of the images is the best way to get the audience to listen to dialogue,” he says. “During the 1920s, there was a machine used to project moving clouds in the background of stage plays. Smart actors wouldn’t allow it, and George Bernard Shaw banned its use when his plays were presented to live audiences. If the images are too strong, the audience doesn’t pay attention to the words.”
When asked what’s more important in a dialogue scene, enticing the audience to listen or drawing their attention to how another person is reacting, Deschanel responds, “It depends on the scene. If a character is telling someone something shocking, then the reaction is probably more important. If they’re explaining why they did something, maybe hearing the words is more important. I take my cues from the actors. It depends on what I see in rehearsals, and how they play the scene. That’s also what tells you if the camera angle should be slightly off-center, or if two or more characters should be in the frame. I believe in the power of an actor’s performance, and saw the anamorphic format as a way to give them more freedom.”
Deschanel says that his early experiences helped him sharpen his sensibilities. “When I was shooting The Black Stallion for Carroll Ballard, an actor told me, ‘I want you to know I act with my eyes. My eyes are the most important thing about what I do.’ Often, an actor’s movements are more expressive than their faces. Sometimes, it’s just the way they turn their heads or slump their shoulders. If you observe people you can anticipate what they are going to do. You’ve got to read the clues they telegraph. Sometimes an actor can speak louder just by how they listen to dialogue.”
Deschanel was generally shooting with a single Panaflex camera using a video tap as a tool for communicating with different departments. He occasionally used a B-camera for additional coverage, usually from a slightly off-angle perspective.
Deschanel used a mix of newer and older anamorphic lenses, after testing to determine their imaging characteristics. A crew member shot the tests with actors and with a flat, graphic design. In addition to edge-to-edge and top-to-bottom sharpness, he was looking for “a certain kind of roundness—a three dimensional feeling—and how different lenses rendered contrast and colors. Some lenses give you a better rendition of the human face and other three dimensional objects. The more contrasty, sharpest lenses aren’t necessarily the best ones in different situations.”
There was only one big set, the newspaper office where Theresa works. About half of the remainder of the film was shot on interior locations and exteriors.
Message in a Bottle is set in contemporary times, but nothing about the look says this is happening in 1999. It could have been anytime during the past decade.
“We were shooting for an other-world look, where the audience doesn’t see everything all the time,” Deschanel says. “We created shadows and let the audience wonder what was hidden in them. There’s always a feeling that something is missing. If the audience sees 80 percent of the scene that’s more interesting (than revealing everything). You can do it with light, choice of lenses and in other ways.”
He also made scenes warmer and colder, using gels, lighting and lenses, depending upon the scene and the mood or environment required by the story.
How much of the final footage was planned and storyboarded?
Deschanel answers, “You plan on 100 percent of the film, but it usually turns out to be about half. The rest of what you shoot is determined by the actors, locations and nature.” He cites a seminal scene where Theresa finds the bottle.
“We planned to shoot in bright sunlight, but it was an overcast, foggy day,” he says. “It was a totally different scene, and yet it worked on another level. Maybe you see the way an actor responds to the fog, and decide that a wide shot of someone on a lonely beach is more powerful than a close-up of someone’s eyes.”
Deschanel says he and Mandoki discussed ideas for designing and decorating sets, and the colors and other choices of costumes, such as whether they should be upscale or downscale, but he doesn’t believe you can intellectualize those types of decisions.
“I trust my instincts,” he says, “but I also trust the actors and their feelings. They understand their characters. They have to be comfortable wearing their clothes.”
Deschanel notes that colors, or the absence of color, can create mythologies or visual signatures for characters. “There are infinite shades of green, red and yellow, and each one probably has a different meaning for different people,” he says. “Different artists define what different colors mean all the time. Look at Van Gogh’s paintings, and you can almost feel the insanity shining through in the yellows and greens he uses. That may not be the truth in an abstract expressionist’s use of those same colors. Each artist defines the colors by how he uses them. I don’t believe there are archetypal colors, like green with envy!”
Deschanel and Mandoki tended towards using earth tones in Blake’s costumes and surroundings, which helped define the sparseness of his existence.
There was some camera movement in almost every shot. Deschanel opted to use a Steadicam only in situations where dolly moves weren’t possible or practical. For instance, if there were obstacles that were difficult to move around, he used the Steadicam.
Deschanel used a combination of hard and soft light. “I like the way the film reacts to hard light,” he says. “You can create contrast which draws attention to people and objects. One thing Gordon Willis taught me is that you need to light color film the same as black-and-white film in order to create contrast and brightness, which attracts the eye to certain parts of the frame. If you look at the paintings which inspire us, the classic artists we admire created contrast with highlights and shadows as well as colors.”
Deschanel observes that contemporary camera films allow cinematographers to work with relatively low key light without amplifying the ‘grittiness’ of grain, which audiences typically associate with period looks. He designed an essentially grainless look for Message in a Bottle, and used filtration to compensate for differences in sharpness when zoom and hard lenses are used in the same scene.
Deschanel matched different camera negatives in Kodak’s Vision family to the requirements of the scene. “I preferred using the slower films in order to minimize grain.
“The obvious advantage of faster films is that they allow you more freedom to work in lower key situations. I usually prefer a deeper stop, at least T- 4, when I’m shooting with anamorphic lenses. But sometimes I wanted the images to fall off, so we used the sharpest anamorphic lenses available at stop 2.8.”
In a crucial storm sequence on the sailboat, he used a more compact Aaton 35 camera, and the daylight-balanced, 200-speed Vision film, in part, because it eliminated the need for putting a color correction filter on lens.
There are several shots where he used the new Kodak SFX 200T film to record actors in front of a portable bluescreen, with other picture elements added to the image during digital compositing (see sidebar).
Deschanel did his own bluescreen photography, and his camera operator Scott Sakamoto, SOC, filmed some of the background elements.
As for what he expects from a film lab, Deschanel says, “Gordon Willis would shoot a test roll of 1,000 feet of the same subject, and break it down into 50-foot rolls, which he sent to the lab over a three-day period. He’d make a one-light print of the 50- foot rolls spliced together. Gordon expected consistency in colors, contrast and cleanliness from the lab. That was a great lesson. It taught me to expect consistency from a film lab.”
The Panavision camera package included a remote focus and T-stop control system that first assistant Jamie Barber used to seamlessly adjust the stop on dolly moves and during certain pan shots. “Say you’re dollying, and the camera goes through a door into a darker room,” he explains. “We can continue shooting while opening up the lenses.”
Deschanel recalls that he has been using that technique since he shot It Could Happen to You in 1994. It is one of many tools that he first used for TV commercials.
When asked how directing and shooting commercials influences his approach to narrative filmmaking, Deschanel explains, “If you are shooting and directing commercials, you can actually sit in an editing bay and play around with the images at video resolution,” he says. “It opens your eyes to a lot of possibilities. You can ask, ‘What if we made that person purple?’ and actually look at it. It’s comparable to the way Picasso must have painted. I don’t think he woke up one day with a fully formed idea for painting Guernica. He probably had an idea and started experimenting to see what worked. Something he saw inspired him to try something else. We can do that with film today.”