Magazine article American Cinematographer

High Tech Look for Project X

Magazine article American Cinematographer

High Tech Look for Project X

Article excerpt

Old traditions die hard. When they do, sometimes it's for the best.

There is, for example, that long-standing feud between production designers and cinematographers. Traditionally, the designer started early in pre-production while the director of photography was brought in after the sets were ready - and was stuck with them. That's why Gil Warrenton, ASC, knocked holes in the walls of a big set so he could light the faces of the actors properly, and why Lee Garnies, ASC, once had all the sets torn down and rebuilt.

Today there is a growing tendency to bring cinematographers in during the planning of a production, with the result that they and designers become collaborators rather than adversaries. A current example is Project X, according to its production designer, Lawrence G. Paull.

"I had meetings with Dean Cundey early in preparation," Paull said when interviewed on one of his spectacular sets at Twentieth Century-Fox. "We went through all the sets and all the possible lighting conditions, and we made changes to accommodate his needs either before the sets had been finished or were only part-way under construction. It was a great help to us both. We had time to work out all the problems and get the sets done the way we all wanted them, time to think through how to light them and how they were to be shot. All the action was totally story-boarded - it was a luxury, but it's nice to have that luxury."

Paull studied architecture at the University of Illinois and practiced architecture in Los Angeles before becoming a set designer at Columbia Studio. His magnum opus to date is that visual stunner, Blade Runner, which earned him an Academy nomination and won him Britain's equivalent of an Oscar. Other projects include Back to the Future, Romancing the Stone (both photographed by Cundey) and Friendly Fire.

Paull was on Project X for nearly one year. "It's the second longest picture I've ever been involved with, the longest being Blade Runner for 14 months," he recalled."We don't usually work on a film for this long, but because of the technical requirements and the scope of the sets it took a long time to develop it all, design it and get it built. The vivarium - the big room where the apes were housed - required three months to build. This was after it was designed and all the drawings were done! We had all the stairs and other details fabricated out of real metal. I like to use real building materials when it's applicable. On things like this it really pays off in helping us get a particular industrial, high-tech type of look.

"I always try very hard to make the sets look unlike sets but like environments where the actors can do their business," Paull continued. "The walls are 'wild' - they do come out - but aside from that they're practical sets. Basically, most of the show was lit with all practical lighting. Everything needed to have a well lived-in look."

There are a few location sequences and several small, more conventional sets, but most of the action occurs in two large sound stages at the studio. One set, known as the vivarium, is a vaulted room in which a large number of chimpanzees live in separate cages. Adjacent are an entranceway and security room as well as a long passageway leading, presumably, to the flight simulator set on a neighboring stage.

"There was five weeks of work just in this room," Paull said of the vivarium. "I talked to the producers and the director and I knew how many chimps we were going to have. I came to think of it almost as a museum, and I started doing research and looking at places like the Guggenheim and a few others. The design evolved into this big room, two-and-a-half stories high. We actually shot up through the skylight at night for some scenes. All these cages are real steel" - there are several tiers of cages set into the walls, each designed to house one chimp - "and at one time we talked about making them out of aluminum. …

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