To this day, American Pie marks one of my most enjoyable shooting experiences.  First, there was the hilarious script.  Then I was blessed with a talented director in Paul Weitz (and his equally gifted producing brother, Chris).  The studio executives, young actors and crew were not only great at their jobs, they were fun to hang around with.  Throughout the entire effort we were sure that whatever we chose to do would turn out for the best.  If everything I’ve shot since then unfolded so blissfully, I’d have to sit on my hands so as not to wave at every person I see.

            This’s not to say there weren’t some challenges, especially during post.  None were particularly unusual; an element of resistance often reveals itself as you approach the final few yards before the goal.  But they once again show how important it is to remain involved in the process all the way to the end.

            The movie was originated on Eastman Kodak 5293 and 5245 negative stocks; dailies were printed on their 5386 positive.  I shot the usual tests during prep and established a single printer light for all of the tungsten-balanced sequences.  DeLuxe Lab’s Dailies Manager Ron Koch took great care of us and I was pleased by the superb day-to-day consistency of the look.

            The issues began after editing had been completed and the movie was ready for the public.  Universal ordered that 2000 release prints be made by the Toronto branch of DeLuxe while the intermediates and 500 release prints would be struck by our original facility in Hollywood.  This was a common practice and shouldn’t have caused problems as long as I continued to perform my diligence.

            But at the first check print screening I was shocked to learn of a studio policy dictating that productions budgeted at less than $15M (AP came in at $9M) must release print on Fuji positive stock.  Compounding things, the Kodak interpositive (IP) was to be struck from a Fuji internegative (IN).  At the time Fuji made an excellent line of products that I had used to good effect on many prior occasions.  Mixing and matching here did neither manufacturer any favors.  The results were atrocious.  The print looked as if it hadn’t been timed and all our work was for naught.  The shadows were pink and murky, the image lifeless and grainy.  If I had been aware of this edict when I started the show, I would’ve shot some tests during prep and found a way to bring out the best.

            Oddly, a Kodak IP and IN – when printed on Fuji positive stock – rendered something close to the look of that combo printed on Kodak’s 5386 positive stock. Contrast was a little stronger in the Fuji positive version; a subsequent 10% flash of the Kodak IP mitigated some of the curse but didn’t fully solve the problem.

            A final kick in the pants came when the studio declared that the movie be printed four points brighter than normal.  I understood their concern.  In an effort to save money on bulbs, many exhibitors used to run their projectors at lower than normal voltage, which dimmed the image.   Unfortunately, a lighter print doesn’t solve that problem.  It only fogs up the look and makes everything appear worse.  No amount of reasoning by myself or legendary release print timer Phil Hetos would move the people in charge.  I was tempted to suggest making the prints slightly out of focus (many projectionists are sloppy with that, too), but I was wise to hold my tongue.

            So, the lighter prints went out to the world, ultimately created from a Kodak IP and IN married to Fuji positive stock.  The look was not exactly what Paul, Chris and I had envisioned for so long, but it was acceptable and everyone else was pleased.

            In the aftermath, I quickly came to terms with the compromises that had to be made.  I also learned valuable lessons about negotiating studio politics.  Regardless of how attached we become to our work, a moment arrives in every production where you need to let it go.  That shouldn’t be so hard, especially when you’re certain you’ve done all you can to serve the image.  But I like to think that reluctance originates in a desire to do right, to live up to the responsibility that has been given to us.

            For their part, audiences had no hesitation showing up in droves.  American Pie brought in nearly $250 million dollars at the boxoffice during its 1999 release.


7 thoughts on “POST PALPITATIONS”

  1. Thank you for sharing this experience Richard. Your ability to manage developments (pun intended) such as this remind me that cinematography is about so much more than what happens on set. It also helps to put technical issues and even creative differences in perspective.

  2. Chris – It seems amusing now but I assure you…it was no fun while it was happening!

  3. Richard, a very interesting “ behind the scenes story “ with parallels to today about combination of budget limitations and having non-technical/creative folks mandating key decisions . Fuji did make a quality product. But , was always a bit challenging to combine Kodak and Fuji . Was there any material or even subtle changes in the look to try to return to the original creative intent in later digital remasterings, or did the theatrical release always stay as the reference. ( Beautifully shot abs composed )

  4. Hey Eric! The video transfer was kept pretty much in line with the film print’s look, except of course for not being brighter than it should’ve been. Everyone had adapted to that look by then and that’s what they wanted to stick with.

  5. Richard, It’s amazing that the production came in at $9M.
    I wonder who came up with the idea of releasing the print
    on Fuji positive stock when the productions was less than $15M.
    Never know when you’ll be thrown a curve ball. Sounds like
    you handled it well.
    I like the scene during the party with the camera moving
    continuously through Stifler’s House of Love. Great timing!
    It had to be a hilarious cast to work with. Wow. 22 years ago.

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