Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is the director’s long-awaited return to the genre he helped to define and it is undoubtedly one of the biggest films of the year.
Despite a cool critical reception the film’s look is one of the highlights and we had the chance to sit down with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski to talk about the journey from concept art and early discussions of the 3D to the finished film.
Our man Ben Mortimer was at the roundtable, here’s the transcript.
It’s a bigger, more open film than Alien with huge landscapes – was it always the plan to open the film out?
With Alien…it’s a smaller drama. This film is an homage to many films, and it’s a comeback for the sci-fi film, something that Ridley [Scott] was responsible for creating. Alien and Blade Runner set a certain standard, but before that it was 2001, and before that it was Lawrence of Arabia and Ridley was aware of that. You see the references to Lawrence, for example when you see the ship come towards the planet, the valley it is in is Wadi Rum, the place where David Lean shot Lawrence. So we sent helicopters there, took the mountains from Iceland and there were CG additions, so it was a combination of all of these extreme places.
When you’re planning a shot with bits from around the world, and lots of CG enhancements – how do you start to draw it up?
It’s Ridley. He takes his little piece of paper… “This is the mountain, this is the ship…” And he’s done these drawings so many times.
And the technical elements, the lighting…
Yeah, you have to be aware of that, you have to pick the direction of the sun and know the ship will enter from a certain point, work out when the light will be. That’s the key thing for me. In Iceland it was great as it was cloudy so it was shadowless and you could blend it with everything.
Is it true that you convinced Ridley Scott to use 3D in Prometheus?
No, I was thrown into 3D by circumstance. My first 3D movie was Alice in Wonderland and they wanted 3D, so I was testing with physical 3D, and then that changed so we did it digitally in post. At that early stage the only film which had been shot in 3D was Avatar and it took James [Cameron] four years to shoot it and the technology was still in the research phase, and 70% of the film was in animation. Then I did the fourth Pirates and though it was a lot of money it was the first movie I shot in 3D. While I was doing that Ridley called me and we talking about the pros and cons, what you should do, and what you shouldn’t do and also not to be afraid of it. When you have all these people who haven’t shot a movie but who have all of the knowledge, I had to absorb the information and get rid of what wasn’t necessary.
Do you find that you know as much now as the stereograpers that you bring on set?
You have to have a stereographer, because they watch your back. I brough in James Goldman who did the last two months on Pirates and he did a tremendous job. He expanded his knowledge greatly and he called everybody, he called the guys who did Pina, the Wim Wenders film. Progressively we got braver and braver. We got more confident and we could start pushing it. It enhances the experience and Ridley had a great line when we shot the first test – he’s a visual director of course. We shot the test and showed it on the big screen at Fox and then showed the same in 2D and he stood up and said ‘Guys, we’ve been shooting in 3D our whole lives”. All great visual art is like that, maybe not hieroglyphs but since the renaissance we’ve had three dimensions and in film it’s how you deal with light and composition and the 3D enhances that effect.
3D was getting panned a lot while you were shooting, did you want to prove anything?
No, you just try and make it right. Everything in the early stages was such a trial and error and the biggest problem was that the brightness of the normal projector is less than 50% compared to 2D so you’re dealing in having to make an image much brighter and at the same time you want to overlight it just in case some guy has a bad screening room. It’s a balance and you want to shoot it as normally as possible. So, there are two versions of Prometheus – one is at six foot-candles and the other is at four depending on the theatres.
Was there any discussion of shooting it at 48 fps?
No, that’s Peter Jackson’s idea. I have not seen it but I’ve heard that it becomes so crisp and so sharp that it becomes bothersome. And really, few theatres are set up for it.
Is it true there was very little green screen used in this film?
What’s great is that Ridley is a film maker and the more you get into visual effect work the more people rely on it but it ends with people relying on it in a very negative way – so they put up a green screen and say they’ll make their minds up later. Anytime something requires more thinking, or a set to be built and they throw up a green screen just because you can. WIth Ridley it’s whatever he can see – that’s what we photograph. That’s inspiring, because so matter how good the CG is the creative process is castrated because half of the work is being done later. If it’s in a real set, in a real place it helps the actors, there’s a certain logic to it, you can put a light in a certain place, that’s what beautiful about it. There was a lot of visual effect in space for example, there are extensions of course but you have to start thinking originally with the real objects and then it’s an extension of your vision, not your actual vision.
Was there any overriding ideas about the colour schemes?
When you go on the ship you have to build in the lighting – so that’s done. It made the days very quick.
In the design of Duncan Jones’ Moon there was a lot of pre-lighting – was this something you were aware of?
I haven’t seen it, but it was me, it was Ridley. It gives you a freedom of setting up three or four cameras at the same time. You still have to be clever.
What was your first meeting with Ridley like?
When I was shooting Pirates we came back from Hawaii to Los Angeles and I got the call to go and meet him. He had a team of conecptual artists ready and I walked into this world of photograph and references, it was incredible. Early concepts of the Engineers and sets. He told me about the film and then he was drilling me about the 3D and I know that he likes to use long lenses so I told him that the problem is that if you use long lenses the 3D doesn’t work and it’s hard to use cameras side by side if they are so far away from each other. So I set up all these problems and then he looks at me and shows me a photo from the set of the first Alien film and says ‘See that? One camera…’ So, he’s gone through all his epics movies with fifteen cameras, restraining himself and there’s only a couple of shots using a long lens here.
Spectacle is all well and good but how do you think the 3D has affected the emotional and storytelling elements of the film?
If you do a big action film like this then it just enhances it. When you get into the intimate scenes you bring it down, you make it soft, you make it a little bit easier.
When you came onto the film did you want to reference Alien, or did you want to go your own way?
It was a constant dialogue. For me, those films were a tremendous influence when I was young so I’ve been shooting Alien and Blade Runner my whole life subconsciously, trying to imitate it. But here the whole thing evolved, and Ridley has evolved. There’s a fine line, but we were constantly referencing it. Ridley was doing it to himself, I was doing it to myself and back and forth.
Tomorrow we’ll have an extended interview with Damon Lindelof, one of the screenwriters of Promestheus.
You can read our review of Prometheus here.