|Claudio Miranda, ASC|
Oscar Winning Cinematographer
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When director Ang Lee brought on cinematographer Claudio Miranda, ASC to shoot Life of Pi, the two were faced with a multi-pronged challenge. For Lee, the movie was to be his first shot digitally as well as his first 3D stereoscopic film, and he relied on Miranda, who had experience in both. But Miranda had other challenges, including shooting the movie's extensive water scenes as well as a key character -- the tiger -- who wasn't there. In this article, Miranda explains how he made it all work, to create what is arguably the year's most gorgeous movie.
The son of a Chilean architect and an interior designer, Miranda briefly studied at a Los Angeles Community College, but his work as a stage manager was far more interesting. His big break came in 1994, when Dariusz Wolski hired him to work as chief lighting technician on Alex Proyas' The Crow.
Claudio Miranda, ASC. Photos by Peter Sorel.
From his first jobs as a stage manager, electrician and best boy, Miranda moved on to gaff Fincher's The Game, followed by watershed feature Fight Club in 1999. He also gaffed Tony Scott's Crimson Tide, The Fan and Enemy of the State.
After honing his lighting chops on tentpole action flicks, Miranda won AICP and Clio awards for the Pocari Tennis spot in 2002, a Clio for Xelebri in 2004, an AICP for Heinekin in 2005, as well as an MVPA for a Beyonce clip in 2004.
Miranda's firsts feature cinematography credit was the 2005 Sundance Film Festival hit A Thousand Roads, directed by Chris Eyre. In 2009, he received an Achievement in Cinematography Academy Award nomination for his lensing of Benjamin Button, directed by David Fincher. The film earned cinematography nominations at the 2009 ASC Awards, the BAFTAs and the Satellite Awards, as well as winning Best Cinematography awards from the North Texas, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Houston Film Critics Societies. Variety magazine named Miranda one of its 2008 "10 Cinematographers to Watch."
Miranda, ASC recently completed principal photography on the sci-fi action thriller Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise. Helmed by Joseph Kosinski, Oblivion is slated for an April 26, 2013 release. His latest work, an adaptation of the bestselling novel Life of Pi with director Ang Lee, opened across the country on Nov. 21.
When I went for the interview for Life of Pi
, I found out that it was going to be 3D and digital, and Ang Lee wanted to meet me because I'd done 3D with Tron
and digital with Benjamin Button
. Life of Pi
was Ang's first digital movie and first 3D movie, so it was a double hit for him. With so much water, a first-time boy actor, digital, 3D...there were a lot of big things to be nervous about.
In the interview, Ang said that he wanted to shoot 3D for 10 years, and he wanted someone with experience in 3D for Life of Pi
. I bounced some ideas around with him about what I liked in 3D, and we found we had a common thought process about what we liked and didn't like. He was looking for a more immersive storytelling, a new way to tell a story, and there are more tools in 3D to do that. We discussed some of the things we could do and things he wanted to explore: if a character is aggressive, we could bring him forward in the screen; and to make the boat feel like it was small in the ocean, we could do a bit of miniaturization.
I also paid attention to what we didn't want to do in 3D. Ang had seen several 3D movies that he didn't like. I went and saw one of them and it was the worst movie I ever saw from every
point of view: lighting, direction, story, as well as 3D. But both working on Tron
and watching these bad 3D movies helped me learn some things not to do. One of them was a tight shutter angle. That doesn't work. When the ocean is moving in all directions, a tighter shutter angle is eye-boggling. So I opened the shutter up and it worked. It was nice to have that one movie point out what I needed to not do. Bad 3D is often ill conceived and comes from ill-advised 2D people who don't know how to proceed.
There were some good 3D movies that helped point the way. 3D made Life of Pi
a very technical shoot and a big undertaking for what is really an art house movie. It's not like Clash of the Titans
or any other movie with a lot of CGI animation. We looked to a movie like Coraline
, which is probably my favorite 3D movie, that and Avatar. Coraline
was really beautiful. Director Henry Selick made the real world saturated, the other world more muted and more accentuated in 3D. I thought it was a great story frame between both worlds. You can be really precise with animation. Live action is really hard, and Cameron did an amazing job with Avatar.
It's all the sensitivity of the filmmakers that can tell us where 3D stands. James Cameron is sensitive to it, and Ang saw Avatar
and thought, "Now this is a place we can go." Coraline
was the ultimate inspiration for him as well.
Ang left the camera decision up to me. I showed him the tests and explained why I thought we should pick the one we did -- and he agreed with me. As a cinematographer, I'm responsible for everything that goes on the screen. I use my own scopes and I don't rely on the DIT for exposure. I always do camera tests; I put all the cameras in consideration next to each other and shoot them all. We picked the ARRI
Alexa because I knew I had to deal with super high contrast, with the sun shimmering across the water with the reflections.
The Alexa was the clear winner. It was super amazing in dealing with highlights in the background and extreme contrast.
In one test at the Venice Pier, I put a big crane in the water with a boat in the water and shot three different cameras on the water line. The Alexa was the clear winner. It was super amazing in dealing with highlights in the background and extreme contrast. The sun was in the background and I could still have shadow detail, with this great dynamic range and the water reaction. The Alexa's curve felt almost film-like. It's a bit bigger than the other cameras, which made it a bit more challenging.
The test on the water was what sold me on 3D. In 2D, sometimes you have to make the waves 200 feet to seem massive. You don't have to try as hard in 3D. The waves aren't massive -- no more than 30 feet -- but they feel massive in scale. It's just an interesting story point, to use a new tool for a new way of doing it.
Regarding the look of the film, we looked at life, the real ocean, for our reference. We had a great night where we dove off this boat in the middle of the night in southern Taiwan; the phosphorescent plankton was there and we were underwater, stroking our hands back and forth and making the water glow. That became a lot of our reference for the whale sequence. A lot of the daytime references were in the water off of southern Taiwan.
Pi Patel takes in the bioluminescent wonders of the sea. Photo: 20th Century Fox.
We took a bit of license in one scene where Pi throws a can into the ocean and this light comes across the whole scene; that had more heightened realism, a bit more fantasy looking. But everything else is pretty grounded in a real look. We made the rule that it didn't have to be beautiful light all the time. Sometime it's high noon, sometimes it's overcast and the light comes from everywhere. I love lighting with practical sources. In the scene where he puts Vishnu in the water, we lit it with 120,000 candles. It's a magical scene, and what I love about it is that these candles are the main lighting sources.
When I shot Tron
, everyone gave me a list of things not to do in 3D and I intentionally did all those things to learn why. I discovered that many of these "3D rules" were false, and I broke a lot of them. I don't know where some of those ideas come from, so it's important not to take these rules for granted but test them. People said everything needs to be sharp in 3D and I thought, that sounds like a terrible TV show. So I broke that rule a lot. As Ang said, if you are concentrating on what the talent is saying, everything falls into place. If the audience follows the actors, background and depth of field fall into place
Shutter angle was another big test for me. I discovered that I never want to go tight with high contrast backgrounds, and when you start cutting in and out, the scenes have to have a good optical flow so your eyes don't get jangled from one scene to the other. You can change convergence in post, but you can't change the interocular distance. The editor Tim Squyres
adjusted the convergence a bit as we went from scene to scene to make it more natural to the audience's eyes, something that wasn't done in that bad 3D movie I saw.
There were also the rules about depth of field; I was told a smaller sensor was the better way to go. But I discovered the regular 35mm sensor was fine and depth of field was great. It's all about what the eye needs to look at. People get technical but look at the screen. If the story is about a man and you look at the man, everything falls into shape. If the story is good, we are looking at the right place. I got annoyed by the rules and went the opposite way, to make the image calmer to look at. Now, I follow my own rules.
I chose the Cameron/Pace Group
to back us up on 3D, because they've done underwater work. Cameron/Pace built the 3D rigs, the underwater housing and were the infrastructure for our data lab and acquiring the data. They built all the on-set monitoring and 3D operation as well, and provided the codecs to record the cameras -- they were pretty instrumental.
The water tank was very versatile. We built it at an abandoned airport in Taiwan. We dug into the ground and built this 30-meter by 90-meter tank that was able to create 8-foot waves. We had 300-feet by 150-feet of material that we could make either into a black grid or like a sailing grid for light diffusion. We could make giant sun that could power across 300 feet, for example; we could make everything we wanted. There was also a 40-foot by 60-foot door where I could let in a real sunset.
We had a big lighting kit. We had a truss frame hanging off a crane, with nine ARRI Maxes on Max movers and that was all built in a single grid that were the keylights. We had 10 or 12 18Ks for additional light. We had almost 500 feet of white and black on track, behind it painted blue, so I could fill or subtract. There were three 100x150 rags that we could sheet out. We had a CableCam
system so I could fly around the tank, high or low. We had underwater photography, we had a Techno crane and wind and air knives. It was quite a spectacle.
We scripted Life of Pi
with attention to the thread of emotion going through it, from heavier to lighter scenes. You're not always running as fast as you can -- you have to let it breathe. The same with lighting; sometimes we let it not be beautiful -- on the boat it gets a little bit harsh -- and that leaves way for more beautiful things.
Life of Pi was scripted with attention to the thread of emotion going through it, from heavier to lighter scenes. You're not always running as fast as you can -- you have to let it breathe. Suraj Sharma takes the title role in Life of Pi.
In the end, I think we had to exceed expectations. There's never been a better computer-generated CG tiger, which is 85 percent of the time we see the tiger. I think if people had to guess what was real and fake, a lot of people would get the reverse. Nobody thinks the tiger -- or the water for that matter -- looks like it was processed. Suraj [the actor who played Pi] held half the movie by himself with an invisible tiger. If the tiger was supposed to be there, either there would be a man in place or we'd have to tell Suraj what the tiger was doing. He did great; everyone excelled on that goal.
Shooting Life of Pi
was a lot different from Tron
in how we approached 3D. Tron
gave me a great set of tools and we expanded from there. Ang was really into experimenting with the 3D and really trying to use it as a narrative tool, and I was trying to figure out how to go farther than what I'd done before.
It was interesting to play with the 3D, thinking that Pi is on our side of the screen and the boat on the other side and seeing how that impacts us emotionally. I hope people get that. It was an interesting way to frame it in that language, and some of that wouldn't have been done if it were 2D.
People need to think in 3D for it to be 3D. I don't know if 3D can ever be an after-fact, because the original production wasn't thought of in 3D terms. Everything has to be taken into consideration -- camera, framing, lighting -- to have that great effect in 3D. I hope my peers are immersed in a unique world that they haven't visited before.
Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger. Nobody thinks the tiger -- or the water for that matter -- looks like it was processed. Suraj [the actor who played Pi] held half the movie by himself with an invisible tiger. If the tiger was supposed to be there, either there would be a man in place or we'd have to tell Suraj what the tiger was doing.
Thanks also to Debra Kaufman for coordination and additional editing on this piece.
Follow her on Twitter @MobilizedDebra
Photos from "Life of Pi" are ™ and © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication. Photos by Peter Sorel.
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