[FILM] Interview: CinematographerTak Fujimoto, ASC
- A Beloved Peace
Tak Fujimoto, ASC, Brings Jonathan Demme's Beloved Out of the Shadows
By Pauline Rogers
When Oprah Winfrey received Toni Morrison's book Beloved, she
devoured it in one sitting. She immersed herself completely in this
world of slavery, and of what slavery did to a human's soul. There
was no questionshe had to option the book for her Harpo
Productions, and she had to play the part of Sethe, the woman who
not only survives the horror of slavery, but learns to love when she
has had little opportunity to understand what real love is.
It took almost ten years to bring the massive story to the screen.
The final chemistry for the project came with the paring of Winfrey
and director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs,
Philadelphia). For the visuals, Demme turned to his longtime friend
and collaborator, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, ASC (A Thousand
Acres, That Thing You Do!, Devil in a Blue Dress, Philadelphia, The
Silence of the Lambs).
"Many people thought this book was not filmable," Fujimoto
comments. "It takes two, even three, readings to understand the
complexity of this novel. For me, one of the first questions was,
how do you film a story about a slave woman who has escaped her
bonds and lives in a house that is haunted by the ghost of one of
her children? I found the story to be wonderfully rich, but the idea
of telling it through flashbacks was a challenge."
But Fujimoto trusted director Jonathan Demme (the two have
collaborated on eight pictures). One meeting with Oprah Winfrey, and
he was sold. While production design, costume design, and others on
the film's crew grappled with creating an authentic 1870s look for
the story, Fujimoto took on the challenge of finding a way to create
the powerful and often horrific images of Sethe's past. "One of
Jonathan's friends read the script and commented that it felt like
the house was haunted and alive with memories," says Fujimoto. That
set the cinematographer off on a series of image tests. "At first,
Jonathan thought of using 16mm film projected on the walls of the
house," he says.
Another approach discussed was to project these images on the house
walls with slides. "That, too, meant we would have to be pretty
certain of exactly what images we would project," he explains. "We
could do nothing in post. Once we had the images on film, there
would be no going back."
Even though director Jonathan Demme was reluctant to use techniques
of which the results are only visible in post, Fujimoto realized
that because of the nature of the story, he needed to leave his
options open. There were things that would be better left to post.
Fujimoto and effects supervisor Steve Rundell of D-Rez (whom
Fujimoto had collaborated with on Devil in a Blue Dress and That
Thing You Do!) explored various other options.
"Tak is a master of the proper use of blending in-camera and visual
effects techniques," says Rundell. "Although he (and Demme) knew
they wanted to give the actors as much to play off of on the set, he
also knew we could extend his creativity in post. It was important
to Tak to find a way to light the film as naturally as possible, and
not `show the effects.' After all, this might be a `horrific' story,
but there are no heads being blown. We needed subtle elegance that
was still dramatic and shocking."
Fujimoto and Rundell then tested desaturation, saturation,
colorization, and several different raw film stocks. They even
tested 16mm blown up to 35mm. Nothing they did took the images far
enough or could create a look that hadn't been seen before.
"Two people suggested we experiment with reversal stock, " says
Fujimoto. "Robert Richardson used it very effectively on U-Turn, and
it might work for what we needed." Fujimoto sent second unit
cinematographer Kyle Rudolph off to do tests. Since most of these
flashbacks would be exteriors, Fujimoto suggested he use the
reversal, exposing for the shadow areas. This way, the film would be
so over-exposed the color would wash out and they would have an
"Kyle came back with one shot of a woman shot with back light by a
stream," says Fujimoto. "There was a huge glare off the water in the
background, giving her a halo effect. He had over-exposed it three
and a half stops, so you could barely make out the features.
Jonathan loved the look."
Fujimoto now had the method of capturing the flashback images. "We
knew there would be a few challenges in post, if we used the
reversal stock," says Fujimoto. "The stock can deteriorate quickly.
We could have problems matching from shot to shot, especially if
some were in front light and others in back light. However, Jonathan
didn't care. He loved the way the reversal looked. The grain
structure looked old. And if we printed with a yellow cast, it would
have the quality he wanted."
"The stock would naturally make the images look different from the
rest of the film," adds Rundell. "We could do a lot, without having
to do opticals or digital enhancement. When Tak would blow out the
whites, we would be left with vibrant colors of greens, yellows, and
sometimes a vibrant red, depending on the filtration. We could then
enhance those colors we wanted, retaining the integrity of all the
information on the negative."
"Also," Fujimoto adds, "this technique would mean we could save time
and energy. It would not be necessary to lug huge lights into the
hills and woods. We would not need the large reflectors either."
By using this technique, Fujimoto and Rundell could choose what
images would be done entirely by the first unit, and what images
would be done with the CGI blend. "Our next challenge was to find a
way to project the images against the walls," says Rundell. "Even
with this stock, straight on camera angles would not be interesting.
We knew we would need more severe dutch angles and even forced
As for the method of blending the images together, Demme had a
particular look in mind. "He wanted a `nice little shimmering light'
within the context of the present lighting of the actors," says
A fan of the less-is-more school of filmmaking, Fujimoto decided on
a very traditional tool: a pan of water and shards of mirrors to
reflect the light. This way, he could bridge the sequences simply,
adding various colors (blue, red, orange), depending on the memory
The various elements come together to bring the horrific memories of
these characters to the audience. "Working with these various
elements, we could manipulate the images the way Jonathan wanted,
and I could add the additional elements in post," says Rundell.
There is a scene where Sethe and Paul D. (Danny Glover), asleep in
the same bed, have individual dreams/nightmares of their slave past.
Both of them worked as the slave plantation Sweet Home. Paul D. has
become Sethe's lover. "Tak was able to take the light level down to
preserve the correct period lighting and to see their faces, and
still give us enough illumination on the walls to separate the
actors for the post process," says Rundell.
"He placed the images in the lower part of the frame, tracking with
the camera to get enough movement to sell the drama, and give me
enough room to lay the `dream' images into the wall behind them."
"We used low key indeterminate lighting for the bedroom sequence,"
says Fujimoto. "This allowed us to initiate the dream sequences,
which Steve would lay in."
In this particular sequence, Fujimoto shot two different memory
images. Sethe and Paul D. are each dreaming of their days at Sweet
Home. Sethe's dream was a sweet image of her and her husband, as she
kisses their baby girl. Paul D.'s dream is of the last time he saw
her husband, shackled and chained, as he was loaded onto the back of
"The shot starts over Sethe's head," Rundell explains. "It then
moves around and comes into him. At first, we see her single image,
leading into four images on the wall. This wakes Paul D."
He explains, "Tak gave us a skewed angle for each look, giving us an
interesting perspective. The closest image to the camera would
appear larger, and the other images diminish in perspective. I then
placed the images he had shot on the reversal stock, in the
appropriate moments," Rundell adds. "The digital environment allows
us to create the images on the wall, at the same perspective angles
of the wall, while tracking along with the camera."
In editing, this sequence was expanded. The lead-in to the dream
begins on a day exterior of the location house built specifically
for the production. The audience sees a young girl (Sethe's daughter
Denver) come out of the house, and stand on the porch. Operator
Scott Sakamoto, on Steadicam, slowly pulls back to reveal more and
more of the location. "Because of Steve's CG capabilities, we were
able to shoot this day for night," says Fujimoto. "Knowing we were
going to manipulate the picture in post also meant we didn't have to
wait for the right light of day."
Fujimoto's task was to get great images on the film. At a certain
point in the pull back, Sakamoto held his position, giving Rundell
enough material to work with. "In the final shot, we see the entire
house," says Fujimoto. "We see the front yard and the dog limping
under the porch, chickens in the foreground. Suddenly, Denver
disappears off the porch, the chickens disappear, and the blue sky
empties to dark night with time-lapse clouds. Soon Sethe's image
appears in the sky, and this leads into an image of her in bed. It
is a magical moment, as the moon comes over the house. And, it was
also an economical shot transition to the bedroom sequence and their
The possibilities of blending his shots with CGI on this picture
really excited Tak Fujimoto. "We had other night shots of the house
and other locations," he explains. "Because we could shoot day for
night, we didn't have to take whole crews out to light the house or
the hills, or the other locations that would have taken at least
half a night to shoot."
"Tak has become a master of the CGI blend," adds Rundell. "Even
though he did not need to light the locations that were shot day for
night, he knew exactly how they should look on the screen. When we
went into post, to do these shots, Tak came to D-Rez and sat with
us, as we painted in the various elements needed to make the
"CGI really opens up a whole new world," Fujimoto says,
enthusiastically. "We were able to put in a cornfield that wasn't
there. We could make our characters walk through walls. We could put
elements in that we had no time or place to shoot and take elements
out that were not necessary. And, it didn't matter what time of year
we were shooting, we could make winter or summer or whatever we
needed, in post."
One of Fujimoto's (and Rundell's) favorite shots, blending both
worlds, takes place outside 124 Bluestone Road and in the Cold
House, where people kept perishable items in the 1870s. "We see Paul
D. leave the (main) house, for the Cold House. Then a moment later,
Beloved (the fragile human incarnation of Sethe's dead ghost baby,
played by Thandie Newton) leaves the main house and joins him in the
"Because there was no dialogue, and no cuts, we needed very little
crew. And since we were shooting day for night, it didn't matter
where the highlights were. In fact," Fujimoto adds, "the scene was
shot in overcast. In post, we painted the sky black, put bright
highlights into areas of the house, added frost to the windows, and
made the shot colder, even frosting the grass."
For Tak Fujimoto, these sequences are a perfect example of how the
old (i.e. reversal stock) and the new (CGI) can be brought together
to make magical moments on screen.
For this picture, Fujimoto was also bringing director Jonathan Demme
into the world of CGI, by choosing specific sequences for
effects. "We still tried to give him as much as we could in the
dailies," Fujimoto adds. "He wanted to give himself, and the actors,
the ability to see what they were working with on the set.
"One of our most difficult sequences was when Paul D. first comes to
her house on Bluestone Road and sees Sethe," he says. "In the book,
the scene is described as scary. There is a red undulating light in
the hallway that terrifies Paul D. He knows there is a mean spirit
in the house. Jonathan wanted to see the results of the shot, as
Paul D. walks down the hallway.
"The problem was that the set had a narrow hallway with barely seven
feet of space. There was no place to put the regular lights. So to
put a red undulating light was difficult, almost impossible."
In pre-production, Fujimoto suggested they do the shot in CGI, with
Paul D. walking to a blue screen. They would then shoot the hallway
component. Rundell would composite the shot and add the red in
post. "Jonathan didn't like the idea. There was no thrill to the
moment," says Fujimoto. "There would be nothing for the actors to
react to. Jonathan has never done a blue screen, and it was really
out of his vocabulary. So, we had to think of a way to do this for
The film's art director Tim Galvin, and Rundell, came up with an
ingenious solution. "They asked me where I wanted the light to come
from, top or bottom. I chose one directionbottom. We would more
than likely want to point the camera slightly up. So, he suggested
we make the floor out of Plexiglas. And, since the set was built
over a stage pit, there would be room for water trays, shards of
mirror, and the red pulsating light from 2Ks with red gels. We ended
up with three long, three by six-foot pans, with six inches of
water. Each had six to eight lights on it, and small shards of
mirrors. It worked perfectly, and Jonathan had his effect on the
stage for the actors to react to and for him to see."
Another element that provided the team behind Beloved with more than
a few moments of exploration and discussion, was the method to be
used to give the character Beloved a ghost-like, other-worldly
quality. "At this point in the story, Paul D. has battled the ghost,
which is now gone from the house," says Fujimoto. "Of course, that
ghost comes back as Beloved."
"Tak and Jonathan decided that the character should be `of nature,'"
says Rundell. "How do we show that? Do we do it in post? And, if so,
what elements do we use?"
The team came up with the idea of a metaphor. They would combine the
fantastic acting talent of Beloved, with a metamorphosis theme. When
the audience first sees her, she appears out of a body of water and
rests by a tree.
Fujimoto and Demme picked the right time of day for the shadows, and
then released hundreds of butterflies. They floated around her,
several landing on her body.
When day turned into night, they continued the theme, with a shot of
Beloved and thousands of ladybugs crawling over her. For Demme and
Fujimoto, this worked beautifully, and set up the ethereal element
which they then carried through the picture.
But not every element in this complex story worked out as
smoothly. "Sometimes, we had to cut and paste elements together in
post, to make the magic work," Fujimoto admits.
There is a simple sequence where Sethe, Paul D., and Denver (Sethe's
daughter) leave a carnival. It is the beginning of a bonding between
the three of them, and hope for a "normal" life. "The idea was to
see the three of them walking off into this new life together, then
pull back and over, to see their shadows holding hands," says
"We shot what we thought would happen, but it didn't work out just
right. We were a little late getting to the sequence, and the
shadows weren't in the middle of the road. Also, the action wasn't
as good as we would have liked.
"Steve tried a version of it," Fujimoto explains, "and that didn't
work exactly the way we wanted. We weren't sure what to do, until we
found another sequence, where we saw the shadows meet in the middle
of the road."
"We did a cut and paste between two plates, and then animated the
shadow hands holding each other," Rundell adds. "It was a very
interesting way of using CGI to tell a story.
"The beauty of working with a cinematographer like Tak Fujimoto is
that he really understands the use of CGI. He will always ask me
what I need, then confirm everything with me before he does it,"
For the crew of Beloved, such a difficult subject can be a hard sell
especially when translating a book to film. Fujimoto's take on the
use of CGI is that it "can really open up the world of
cinematography. There is so much you can do, when you work closely
with the CGI artists. Being able to make the best use of this new
technique as well as using the older techniques, like the reversal,
was a big part of what made this such an exciting project," he
says. "It is amazing how the tools we have can help you fudge
reality, especially when you have a story like this complex human
drama called Beloved."