So far I’ve been posting lighting diagrams from the sets of some of the master cinematographers I was lucky to work for as a young assistant cameraman. Today I’m forging a new frontier by delivering something of my own. It’s a bit of a gimmicky shot but is a great example of how far simplicity will get you – and what you can achieve for next to nothing.
In 1999 I was hired to shoot Down To Earth, a Paramount feature starring Chris Rock, Regina King, Eugene Levy and Chazz Palminteri. Directed by Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz – the amazingly talented brothers for whom I shot American Pie – it’s not so much a remake as an updating of the popular Warren Beatty comedy, Heaven Can Wait (1978; William A. Fraker, ASC). That film had an impressive pedigree as well: it represented a second pass at Alexander Hall’s 1941 effort, Here Comes Mr. Jordan (photographed by Joe Walker, ASC). Down To Earth is a very funny movie, but don’t for a moment assume that its light-weight fare didn’t present its share of obstacles.
The set-up: Chris Rock’s character of Lance Barton is a struggling, untalented comedian whose life is ended prematurely through the mistakes of a fumbling emissary from heaven (Eugene Levy, ‘Keyes’). Eager to make things right, Barton and Keyes set off in search of a new body, the form of which Barton will assume. The problems begin as Barton sizes up the inappropriateness of each candidate.
In this case, Barton has already taken on the form of an old, fat, rich, white guy. Seeing as Barton is eager to jump start his stand-up career, he manages to book an appearance at a Manhattan comedy club – attended by a predominately black audience. Now here’s the challenge. How would we make clear to the movie audience that the Chris Rock they were seeing perform his act on screen was being seen at the same time as an old, fat, rich white guy by the people in the club?
Many discussions among the creative team prefaced our attack. Digital effects were in the mix for most of them, but at the time were prohibitively expensive for the single-take, unbroken shot we wanted to do. Finally, I came up with the simplest of solutions. We would use an extended flare – ostensibly from one of the stage lights – to blow out the image. Then, at the height of the white-out, Chris Rock would step away and the other actor would step into his place. When the flare cleared, you’d be left with the new actor. The shot would begin from a point looking at the stage and finish behind the performer, with the camera facing the audience.
Simple – and actually quite easy.
I lit the club for a normal feeling as I imagined it from personal experience; the stage is bright and the audience and bar area somewhat subdued. The interesting part was in how to create the flare. As the camera moves, most flares are fleeting – they’re there for a second and then they’re gone. Here, I needed something I could control…not just when it kicks in but for how long it lasts.
The solution came in a rig built by the handy Canadian grips. Five 420W Peppers were fastened to a metal frame which in turn was secured to the dolly. This insured that the flare-source would move with the camera. Each Pepper was then oriented toward the lens for the greatest flare effect. Connected to a dimmer, I could then bring them up and down on cue. It was important to see one of the house sources at the end of the shot in order to fully sell the effect. A 1K PAR can was mounted from the ceiling and appears in frame to the left of the actor at the stop mark.
As I recall, it took quite a few takes to get the timing right but when we finally did we all felt giddy. Today, something like this would instantly be relegated to post-production effects. But twenty years ago that wasn’t automatic. And you know what? The result is better. There’s an undeniable element of humanity to this shot. You don’t have to look hard to feel the handprints on what we were doing, and I think that helped the story. It felt like a throwback to the earliest days of cinema, like we were getting something over on somebody. It didn’t cost a dime, either!
I dunno… Have a look and judge for yourself.