How 'Skyfall,' 'The Hobbit' and 'Life of Pi' Used Digital to Dazzle

Movies in contention show off, from far-flung locations to the Shire.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Director Sam Mendes’ First Outing with 007 has a visually dazzling palette with a range of looks created by cinematographer Roger Deakins, a nine-time Oscar nominee. 

“I wanted to create very separate identities, the MI6 bunker and the gray London exteriors and the slightly green look of some of the fluorescents in the tunnel, and contrast that with the exotic look of Shanghai and the casino’s warm,traditional Chinese look,” says Deakins, who lensed Skyfall with Arri’s Alexa digital camera.

Of shooting the fight in the Shanghai office tower, the cinematographer says, “We wanted to keep with very strong colors, predominantly blue. So I wanted the big LED screens on the set to be really blue. In contrast, the hotel room across the way I wanted to be a square of warm light.” The climax at Skyfall manor with its warm palette was among the most challenging set pieces. “There were so many different elements in it, such a mixture of location work and stage work and all the variations in it,” he says. “The house was a built set with a controlled burn so that we could do it more than once. The exteriors were done on location and the interiors were done on stage. We actually shot a lot of that sequence on stage first before we shot the exteriors, which was kind of tricky because I wasn’t quite sure what I was matching to — so I matched to what I wanted it to look like.”

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The Hobbit 
Andrew Lesnie — who photographed The Lord of the Rings trilogy and won an Oscar for The Fellowship of the Ring — returned to Middle-earth to shoot The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, this time using Red Epic cameras on 3Ality Technica 3D rigs and shooting at a high frame rate of 48 frames per second — a first for a Hollywood feature.

“We have a certain mandate to remain faithful to the look of Middle-earth while acknowledging that LOTR was shot on film and now we are in a fully digital environment,” he says. “We’ve been successful with softening the curve and giving the material a gentle, textural finish. Sometimes digital capture feels a bit thin or sharp, so we take great pains to give the material some softness and ‘body.’”

On the use of 3D, he says, “No matter how much preproduction work has been done, all the drama scenes were approached in the normal way, blocking and choreographing the scene with the cast and then deciding or confirming the coverage. We generally had an idea about what we wanted to do, which was reflected in previous discussions or how we decided the set was to be constructed. The lighting and the ability to achieve shots was already in place. Once the cast had blocked the scene to their satisfaction, we set up and fine-tuned the camera moves and lighting.” The bottom line, he says, was “to enhance the subtext without drawing attention to itself.”

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Life of Pi
For his first 3D movie, director Ang Lee “really wanted to play with the spatial qualities of 3D, like if someone is forward to the screen, is it more antagonistic?” explains cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who did bring some 3D experience, having lensed 2010’s Tron: Legacy. He shot Life of Pi with Alexa cameras on Cameron Pace 3D rigs. An example is a close-up of Pi, who, from his hospital bed, recounts his experience to insurance agents. “We wanted a strong presence, so we did push him a little bit forward [during the course of the monologue],”Miranda says. “This is a whole realization moment. We pushed it to when you still want to watch the scene without it being distracting. I liked the idea of blowing out the windows in the background. I think it helped to give a single kind of focus to the story of Pi.”

As for all those days Pi spends on a boat on the open sea, Miranda says that Lee “wanted it to be a journey; he wanted it to feel like every day was a little bit different.

“The lighting really goes through different styles,” the cinematographer says. “Ang would say, for instance, ‘High noon, hot.’ Then he would say, ‘I feel like this should be more moody,’ and he would call out a time of day. He liked calling out times.”