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[FILM] Interview: CinematographerTak Fujimoto, ASC

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  • madchinaman
    A Beloved Peace Tak Fujimoto, ASC, Brings Jonathan Demme s Beloved Out of the Shadows By Pauline Rogers http://www.cameraguild.com/index.html?
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 13, 2005
      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 question—she 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
      other-worldly look.

      "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
      being triggered.

      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
      a buckboard.

      "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
      sequence magical."

      "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
      Cold House.

      "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 direction—bottom. 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,"
      says Rundell.

      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."
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