Beauty Treatment

Reprinted with permission from the May 2014 issue of British Cinematographer

Maleficent is the dark fantasy adventure directed by Robert Stromberg and produced by Walt Disney Pictures, from a screenplay by Linda Woolverton, co-written by John Lee Hancock. This live-action reimagining of Walt Disney’s classic 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty stars Angelina Jolie, as the eponymous villainess, and portrays the story from her perspective. Elle Fanning is cast as the Sleeping Beauty – Princess Aurora / Briar Rose. 

With a budget estimated of around $200 million, principal photography began in June 2012 in London, under the auspices of renowned Australian cinematographer Dean Semler ACS ASC – whose lengthy credit list includes Dead Calm (1989), Waterworld (1995), Bruce Almighty (2003) and Apocalypto (2006), and whose many awards include the 1991 Academy and ASC Awards for Best Cinematography for Dances With Wolves, and the ASC’s 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Production on Maleficent took place on locations around the Hertfordshire, West Sussex and Buckinghamshire countryside, with studio shoots based out of Pinewood Studios. British Cinematographer Magazine caught up Semler over a lovely cup of PG Tips to discover more about his cinematographic approach to the movie. 

Maleficent was directed by Robert Stromberg, a leading VFX artist and double Oscar-winning production designer (Alice In Wonderland, 2010 and Avatar 2009), but a first-time director. What was it like working with him? 

I’ve worked with several first time directors, but there was never anyone who had the visual genius of Rob. He knows how to accomplish extraordinary visuals very efficiently, with an incredible eye for shape, colour, light and movement. 

Working with Rob was different to working with other live-action directors, although he was still directing live-action, of course. He could see way beyond what was on the little video monitor on-set. He’d say, “Don’t worry about that cherry picker, or those three lights in shot. I’ll be taking them out later and you’ll see a beautiful waterfall with fairies skimming across the water.” 

His conceptual drawings always guided me into the lighting he was looking for. We both love shadows, and I had countless opportunities to provide them in the brilliant sets designed by Gary Freeman and Dillon Cole. 

Films like Waterworld were part of the early days of what we now know visual effects to be capable of. How do you think has cinematography evolved since then with a movie like Maleficent? 

Cinematography has not changed at all. The basic principals remain the same, in that the director’s vision has to be fulfilled, the screenplay has to be transofmred into moving images, the sets, and most importantly, the actors, have to be lit properly.

What has evolved is the new technology and the new tools used, both during filming and especially in post production. The early films I shot rarely had any VFX, and what I’d see through the lens what was would finish up on the screen, after a relatively straight forward colour timing in the film lab

Shooting Maleficent was completely the opposite. There were of course storyboards, brilliant conceptual renderings of every scene, and pre-viz of the whole movie, so every department knew exactly how their work would finish up rather than just having to imagine what magic the VFX maestros would use to complete the picture.

You shot Maleficent using the ARRI Alexa. What are your thoughts about shooting digitally?

I have certainly embraced the new technology, starting with Panavision’s Genesis, my favourite digital camera, which I used on Click (2006). It was the first Genesis movie in Hollywood, and I followed it up shortly after using Genesis again on Apocalypto under extreme conditions in jungle locations. 

I considered using Genesis for Maleficent. However, after some tests, that also included the Sony F65, I was overruled by the VFX chiefs, who asked me to shoot with the ARRI Alexa, because of the dynamic range in the image, which I did. I really loved working with the Alexa, and to have the ability to play with things like the colour temperature 100 or 200 degrees at a time incamera, rather than having to use glass filters.

As for which is the best digital camera, and whether any of them as good as film, the debate goes on. What I would say is that I recently had a root canal done in Los Angeles by a top endodontist. He took three X-rays and immediately studied the images on his high-definition monitor. “Mind if I take them again?” he asked me. I enquired as to why, and he said he could get more information from a film negative. I was about to jump up and high-five him, but he had a handful of sharp instruments. So I simply told him we both really shared something in common.

Tell us about your experience of shooting in the UK and your crew? 

Most of the movie was shot at the iconic Pinewood Studios, which was very busy at the time. Two stages down from us, Danny Cohen was shooting Les Misérables, while Roger Deakins was on the big stage with 007 Skyfall. Meanwhile two other Aussie DPs were shooting in town, Steve Windon ACS ASC was on Fast & Furious, and Dione Beebe ACS ASC was on the Tom Cruise picture Edge Of Tomorrow.

My British crew were fantastic, with a lot of experience on big films like the Bonds, Harry Potters and many more. I must say thanks and give full credit to Fraser Taggart for his input as second unit DP. He shot a huge amount of material, with Simon Crane directing sequences. These included the battle between the soldiers and Maleficent’s creatures on the moors, the burning of the wall at night, the flying soldiers under Maleficent’s spell, and almost all of the end-fight in the castle and on the parapet. Full marks for his great work and his ability to match in perfectly with the main unit. 

Gary Spratling was my A-camera operator and I’d take him anywhere. Johnny Ferguson, his focus puller, did a marvellous job of maintaining the three Alexas and the Panavision Primo lenses we carried, as well as keeping the picture in focus. Steve Evans was both my DIT and my lifesaver in a complex digital world. No-one makes a cuppa tea like my central loader Elliot Purvis, who also started with me in Budapest on the film that Angelina directed, In The Land Of Blood And Honey

John Flemming was my key grip. We had worked together in Africa on Power Of One many years before. Eddie Knight is a truly great gaffer, with a super-efficient team, but sadly he had to leave the picture early for family reasons. I then brought in my American gaffer Jim Gilson. I also ought to thank Panavision, from whom we hired the Alexas and the Cooke spherical lenses, and in particular Hugh “Mango” Whittaker, who was a great supporter and who always had what we wanted.

Large practical sets that were built at Pinewood. How did you light them?  

Before I answer that, I must say that the design, and particularly the finish, on all the sets was the best I have ever had to photograph. The Grand Castle interiors, the thatched roof cottage, the Fairie Forests, both on stage and in the back paddock lot, the tireless greens people who were constantly dressing and loving every blade of grass every tree and every flower – it was hugely impressive. 

Eddie Knight was always well ahead of the game in prep. The many stages we were in were ready to go and pre-lit by Eddie and his team, including his four hunky sons. The general lighting plan was to place big, big lights behind windows, usually Maxi Brutes or Dinos, and to have spacelights covering the set – half straight tungsten and the other half with half blue and green gel for night effect. On the catwalks above the stage we would surround the set with Maxi Brutes and a slight diffusion, with 20K and 5K pars, plus various hard-hitting lights for the beams in the mist. I remember the producers looking grimly at the numbers of spacelights hanging over the set, but the smiles would return when Eddie made the change from day to night in five minutes instead of an over night re-rig. 

I knew the large exterior paddock garden at Pinewood was going to be difficult to shoot in daylight whilst keeping the magical look I was able to produce on stage. Big old Bill Beenham, the rigger, managed to cover the entire set with a 200ft x 80ft sheet of black trampoline material. This enabled me to keep the set in shadow and pierce through the light smoke layer with 12K Parlight spots or 18K HMIs.

How involved in the Digital Intermediate were you?

I spent just over two weeks at EFilm in Hollywood, where I have completed the DI on over 20 movies. Yvan Lucas was the colourist, and I’ve done several films with him. He’s blessed with an extraordinary eye for colour and light, and, with all the bells and whistles in front of him, he manages to get the digital images as “film“ -looking as possible. EFilm have followed me all around the planet, when I’m not in Hollywood, to finish a film. Somehow they always enable me to work with the colourist, either in an office or a hotel conference room or a trailer with a portable digi-suite – Sydney, Texas, London, Winnipeg… anywhere! Now I come to think of it, it’s better than doing the DI in LA where so many people tend to drop in and give their input. I once had the financial controller offer a suggestion to change a door colour …yikes! It’s not like the good old days when you just had the DP and the film timer, and then you showed the director, then finis. You do have listen to the director was well as other key collaborators these days, so it’s more of a joint effort now.

Do you tend to be the type of cinematographer who references other works or uses inspirations from other artists for your own work?

Of course, I respect, admire and hold in awe many other cinematographers, as well as stills photographers and painters. But, you know, I get heaps of inspiration by the moments of life and the light around me. Like a hot green shaft of light reflected from a New York skyscraper that slices into a dark alley, or the light striking a face in a unique way, or the moving image of an giant airbus A380 hanging in the air as it passes over the stars in the Orion constellation at magic hour. The are all wonderful, magical moments, each different from the other, yet always there to inspire and remember.