Magazine article American Cinematographer

Another Angle: From the Assistant's POV

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Another Angle: From the Assistant's POV

Article excerpt

When considering the ensemble of craftsman who make a motion picture, the most critical relationship without doubt is between director and cinematographer. Obviously the two have to be able to communicate efficiently in order to successfully complete a project, but [the relationship] goes much deeper than that. The way they work together can not only determine whether an idea makes a smooth transition from paper to celluloid, it can also set the working tone for the all the artists and technicians involved, and ultimately affect the quality of the finished product.

Being one of those technician types myself, I feel fortunate indeed that I recently had the opportunity to work for one of the most harmonious director/ cinematographer teams around. The film was The Pelican Brief, the director was Alan Pakula, and the director of photography was Stephen Goldblatt, ASC.

I was enlisted as camera loader or, as Stephen jokingly referred to me, "camera scum." Goldblatt (along with Pakula) possesses a sense of humor that beautifully compliments his visual talents. This project turned out to be one of the most interesting and educational I have worked on, and one of the most enjoyable. I attribute this to the people at the top, who created a comfortable working environment. It's what we all dream of: a terrific project and wonderful people to work.

Pakula's choice of a director of photography to help bring John Grisham's best-selling novel to the screen was as critical to his creative goals as his choice of Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington to play the lead roles. He had first worked with Stephen Goldblatt on Consenting Adults, after the two met at Sundance in Utah. Needless to say, they were quite pleased with the results of their first outing together. "Sometimes I feel like Stephen and I are attached at the hip," observed Pakula with a smile. "We think visually along very similar lines."

For The Pelican Brief, the decision was made to use the anamorphic aspect ratio, which offered some new creative possibilities. "Big story, big picture," mused Goldblatt. "It just seemed a natural for the anamorphic format. It gives such scope and flexibility to the compositions, which helped because we had to shoot so many rooms with people in them, and a lot of phone conversations with the actors in different places. So even though the characters often wouldn't be in the same locations, they would seem to be in the same conversation when you cut between them. A lot of people don't like close-ups in anamorphic, but I love them, because you can direct the eye to the face or the eye to the composition with the space that it gives you."

The start of principal photography found our eclectic crew (New Yorkers, Californians, Cajuns, retired pirates, and the odd Texan) in New Orleans. The city provided a colorful backdrop for Grisham's drama about a law student's paper chase to find the assassins of two Supreme Court Justices. The atmosphere and attitude of the city set the scene. Locations varied from brightly lit classroom interiors to the bustle of the Riverwalk on a hot summer day to dark, moody, bars (with attached laundromats) and the madness of Bourbon Street at night.

To handle these varying lighting situations, Goldblatt's choice of film stocks included Kodak 5245 for daylight exteriors, 5293 for day interiors and exteriors (where the 45 stock's 50 ASA rating proved insufficient), and 5296 for night exteriors and low-light interior conditions. As for color correction, the 85 filter stayed in the case for the entire show, and the Tiffen LLD was used when shooting tungsten with daylight illumination. For diffusion, we had a full compliment of Black ProMists and other filters, but they stayed in the case for the duration (nestled comfortably next to the 85s).

"My beef is about using filters," Goldblatt commented. "I don't like them. You have to have them as a standby sometimes, but you can do just about everything with light. …

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