Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Bunraku Experience

Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Bunraku Experience

Article excerpt

When director Guy Moshe contacted me a few years ago and invited me to serve as cinematographer on the feature Bunraku, I was surprised and pleased to discover he had great knowledge of the movies I'd previously photographed. He was also glad that I'd already worked with one of his lead actors, Josh Hartnett, but most importantly, he was complimentary about my lighting skills, since lighting would be a major element of Bunraku. I was intrigued and eager to work on the project, a very ambitious and experimental movie that aimed to combine real-world photography, sets and actors with an ornately stylized virtual world and a color palette that was about as far from routine as you can get.

Bunraku is an action-fantasy based on an ancient form of Japanese puppet theater known as Bunraku, in which puppets, manipulated by onstage puppeteers who sometimes narrate or comment on the action, act out a morality tale. Guy spent yearç building a story around the concept - a stylized plot about a mysterious stranger engaged in a blood feud with a crime lord. The resulting tale blends themes, characters, colors and designs from Japanese Samurai legends, the Old West, classic movies, cartoons, theater, classical art and the circus, among other references. It's an independently made film that, logistically and creatively, could only be made as a hybrid of live action and CGI.

Building this world entirely on stages would have been far too expensive, so visual effects played an important part in creating the illusion, Guy therefore assembled a creative team that also included visual-effects supervisor Oliver Hotz; co-producer Alex McDowell, an acclaimed production designer who designed the movie's settings with fellow production designer Chris Farmer; and other talented people with visual-effects experience. Alex introduced us to innovative previsualization techniques that Guy used extensively to design Bunraku's surreal worìd - a radical, mystical universe that can fold and unfold itself, much like the structure of paper, and go on endlessly. The martial-arts sequences would be filmed like dance performances on stages, and the omniscient camera would roam freely through 360 degrees most of the time, with transitions created in-frame rather than through a more standard series of cuts. We added a unique palette of colors to this world, as well as different skies that constantly change and evolve.

It was a tall order on a modest budget, and I found myself at the center of the whole enterprise, since camera movement and color were so crucial to the direction of the story. We ended up shooting with two units, seemingly around the clock, on more than 30 sets at MediaPro Studios in Buftea, Romania. During the postproduction phase, we collaborated with Oliver Hotz and his team at Origami Digital, in Los Angeles, to create the environments and make sure they matched up with the imagery we'd captured on stage.

Despite the movie's virtual nature, we decided to shoot the live-action components on film, in Super 35mm, using Kodak Vision2 500T 5218, utilizing Cooke S4 lenses and Angenieux Optimo zooms with our Arriflex cameras. After tests, we selected the Vision2 stock because, for our purposes, we felt it demonstrated a superior ability to reproduce shadows compared to Vision3. However, during some post filming we did in California, we incorporated Vision3 500T 521 9 because of its superior grain structure for visual-effects work. Bear in mind that we launched into production three years ago, and we did not want to risk latitude problems with the lower ASA capabilities of the digital cameras available at the time. If we were making this movie today, we might well have considered using a digital camera system, but at that time, the best available solution was to shoot film.

Lighting was a massive job, given the amount of greenscreen and visualeffects work we had to do. But the tools that most helped me achieve the look we sought were a wide range of gels, representing the many colors we chose during our extensive research phase - colors that change and evolve from the beginning of the movie to the end. …

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