by Pauline Rogers
TAK FUJIMOTO, ASC, BRINGS JONATHAN DEMME'S BELOVED OUT OF THE SHADOWS
When Oprah Winfrey received Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, she devoured it in one sitting. She immersed herself completely in this world of slavery, and of what slavery did to a human’s soul. There was no question—she had to option the book for her Harpo Productions, and she had to play the part of Sethe, the woman who not only survives the horror of slavery, but learns to love when she has had little opportunity to understand what real love is.
It took almost ten years to bring the massive story to the screen. The final chemistry for the project came with the paring of Winfrey and director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia). For the visuals, Demme turned to his longtime friend and collaborator, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, ASC (A Thousand Acres, that thing you do!, Devil in a Blue Dress, Philadelphia, The Silence of the Lambs).
“Many people thought this book was not filmable,” Fujimoto comments. “It takes two, even three, readings to understand the complexity of this novel. For me, one of the first questions was, how do you film a story about a slave woman who has escaped her bonds and lives in a house that is haunted by the ghost of one of her children? I found the story to be wonderfully rich, but the idea of telling it through flashbacks was a challenge.”
But Fujimoto trusted director Jonathan Demme (the two have collaborated on eight pictures). One meeting with Oprah Winfrey, and he was sold. While production design, costume design, and others on the film’s crew grappled with creating an authentic 1870s look for the story, Fujimoto took on the challenge of finding a way to create the powerful and often horrific images of Sethe’s past. “One of Jonathan’s friends read the script and commented that it felt like the house was haunted and alive with memories,” says Fujimoto. That set the cinematographer off on a series of image tests. “At first, Jonathan thought of using 16mm film projected on the walls of the house,” he says.
Another approach discussed was to project these images on the house walls with slides. “That, too, meant we would have to be pretty certain of exactly what images we would project,” he explains. “We could do nothing in post. Once we had the images on film, there would be no going back.”
Even though director Jonathan Demme was reluctant to use techniques of which the results are only visible in post, Fujimoto realized that because of the nature of the story, he needed to leave his options open. There were things that would be better left to post. Fujimoto and effects supervisor Steve Rundell of D-Rez (whom Fujimoto had collaborated with on Devil in a Blue Dress and that thing you do!) explored various other options.
“Tak is a master of the proper use of blending in-camera and visual effects techniques,” says Rundell. “Although he (and Demme) knew they wanted to give the actors as much to play off of on the set, he also knew we could extend his creativity in post. It was important to Tak to find a way to light the film as naturally as possible, and not ‘show the effects.’ After all, this might be a ‘horrific’ story, but there are no heads being blown. We needed subtle elegance that was still dramatic and shocking.”
Fujimoto and Rundell then tested desaturation, saturation, colorization, and several different raw film stocks. They even tested 16mm blown up to 35mm. Nothing they did took the images far enough or could create a look that hadn’t been seen before.
“Two people suggested we experiment with reversal stock, “ says Fujimoto. “Robert Richardson used it very effectively on U-Turn, and it might work for what we needed.” Fujimoto sent second unit cinematographer Kyle Rudolph off to do tests. Since most of these flashbacks would be exteriors, Fujimoto suggested he use the reversal, exposing for the shadow areas. This way, the film would be so over-exposed the color would wash out and they would have an other-worldly look.
“Kyle came back with one shot of a woman shot with back light by a stream,” says Fujimoto. “There was a huge glare off the water in the background, giving her a halo effect. He had over-exposed it three and a half stops, so you could barely make out the features. Jonathan loved the look.”
Fujimoto now had the method of capturing the flashback images. “We knew there would be a few challenges in post, if we used the reversal stock,” says Fujimoto. “The stock can deteriorate quickly. We could have problems matching from shot to shot, especially if some were in front light and others in back light. However, Jonathan didn’t care. He loved the way the reversal looked. The grain structure looked old. And if we printed with a yellow cast, it would have the quality he wanted.”
“The stock would naturally make the images look different from the rest of the film,” adds Rundell. “We could do a lot, without having to do opticals or digital enhancement. When Tak would blow out the whites, we would be left with vibrant colors of greens, yellows, and sometimes a vibrant red, depending on the filtration. We could then enhance those colors we wanted, retaining the integrity of all the information on the negative.”
“Also,” Fujimoto adds, “this technique would mean we could save time and energy. It would not be necessary to lug huge lights into the hills and woods. We would not need the large reflectors either.”
By using this technique, Fujimoto and Rundell could choose what images would be done entirely by the first unit, and what images would be done with the CGI blend. “Our next challenge was to find a way to project the images against the walls,” says Rundell. “Even with this stock, straight on camera angles would not be interesting. We knew we would need more severe dutch angles and even forced perspective.”
As for the method of blending the images together, Demme had a particular look in mind. “He wanted a ‘nice little shimmering light’ within the context of the present lighting of the actors,” says Rundell.
A fan of the less-is-more school of filmmaking, Fujimoto decided on a very traditional tool: a pan of water and shards of mirrors to reflect the light. This way, he could bridge the sequences simply, adding various colors (blue, red, orange), depending on the memory being triggered.
The various elements come together to bring the horrific memories of these characters to the audience. “Working with these various elements, we could manipulate the images the way Jonathan wanted, and I could add the additional elements in post,” says Rundell.
There is a scene where Sethe and Paul D. (Danny Glover), asleep in the same bed, have individual dreams/nightmares of their slave past. Both of them worked as the slave plantation Sweet Home. Paul D. has become Sethe’s lover. “Tak was able to take the light level down to preserve the correct period lighting and to see their faces, and still give us enough illumination on the walls to separate the actors for the post process,” says Rundell.
“He placed the images in the lower part of the frame, tracking with the camera to get enough movement to sell the drama, and give me enough room to lay the ‘dream’ images into the wall behind them.”
“We used low key indeterminate lighting for the bedroom sequence,” says Fujimoto. “This allowed us to initiate the dream sequences, which Steve would lay in.”
In this particular sequence, Fujimoto shot two different memory images. Sethe and Paul D. are each dreaming of their days at Sweet Home. Sethe’s dream was a sweet image of her and her husband, as she kisses their baby girl. Paul D.’s dream is of the last time he saw her husband, shackled and chained, as he was loaded onto the back of a buckboard.
“The shot starts over Sethe’s head,” Rundell explains. “It then moves around and comes into him. At first, we see her single image, leading into four images on the wall. This wakes Paul D.”
He explains, “Tak gave us a skewed angle for each look, giving us an interesting perspective. The closest image to the camera would appear larger, and the other images diminish in perspective. I then placed the images he had shot on the reversal stock, in the appropriate moments,” Rundell adds. “The digital environment allows us to create the images on the wall, at the same perspective angles of the wall, while tracking along with the camera.”
In editing, this sequence was expanded. The lead-in to the dream begins on a day exterior of the location house built specifically for the production. The audience sees a young girl (Sethe’s daughter Denver) come out of the house, and stand on the porch. Operator Scott Sakamoto, on Steadicam, slowly pulls back to reveal more and more of the location. “Because of Steve’s CG capabilities, we were able to shoot this day for night,” says Fujimoto. “Knowing we were going to manipulate the picture in post also meant we didn’t have to wait for the right light of day.”
Fujimoto’s task was to get great images on the film. At a certain point in the pull back, Sakamoto held his position, giving Rundell enough material to work with. “In the final shot, we see the entire house,” says Fujimoto. “We see the front yard and the dog limping under the porch, chickens in the foreground. Suddenly, Denver disappears off the porch, the chickens disappear, and the blue sky empties to dark night with time-lapse clouds. Soon Sethe’s image appears in the sky, and this leads into an image of her in bed. It is a magical moment, as the moon comes over the house. And, it was also an economical shot transition to the bedroom sequence and their nightmares.”
The possibilities of blending his shots with CGI on this picture really excited Tak Fujimoto. “We had other night shots of the house and other locations,” he explains. “Because we could shoot day for night, we didn’t have to take whole crews out to light the house or the hills, or the other locations that would have taken at least half a night to shoot.”
“Tak has become a master of the CGI blend,” adds Rundell. “Even though he did not need to light the locations that were shot day for night, he knew exactly how they should look on the screen. When we went into post, to do these shots, Tak came to D-Rez and sat with us, as we painted in the various elements needed to make the sequence magical.”
“CGI really opens up a whole new world,” Fujimoto says, enthusiastically. “We were able to put in a cornfield that wasn’t there. We could make our characters walk through walls. We could put elements in that we had no time or place to shoot and take elements out that were not necessary. And, it didn’t matter what time of year we were shooting, we could make winter or summer or whatever we needed, in post.”
One of Fujimoto’s (and Rundell’s) favorite shots, blending both worlds, takes place outside 124 Bluestone Road and in the Cold House, where people kept perishable items in the 1870s. “We see Paul D. leave the (main) house, for the Cold House. Then a moment later, Beloved (the fragile human incarnation of Sethe’s dead ghost baby, played by Thandie Newton) leaves the main house and joins him in the Cold House.
“Because there was no dialogue, and no cuts, we needed very little crew. And since we were shooting day for night, it didn’t matter where the highlights were. In fact,” Fujimoto adds, “the scene was shot in overcast. In post, we painted the sky black, put bright highlights into areas of the house, added frost to the windows, and made the shot colder, even frosting the grass.”
For Tak Fujimoto, these sequences are a perfect example of how the old (i.e. reversal stock) and the new (CGI) can be brought together to make magical moments on screen.
For this picture, Fujimoto was also bringing director Jonathan Demme into the world of CGI, by choosing specific sequences for effects. “We still tried to give him as much as we could in the dailies,” Fujimoto adds. “He wanted to give himself, and the actors, the ability to see what they were working with on the set.
“One of our most difficult sequences was when Paul D. first comes to her house on Bluestone Road and sees Sethe,” he says. “In the book, the scene is described as scary. There is a red undulating light in the hallway that terrifies Paul D. He knows there is a mean spirit in the house. Jonathan wanted to see the results of the shot, as Paul D. walks down the hallway.
“The problem was that the set had a narrow hallway with barely seven feet of space. There was no place to put the regular lights. So to put a red undulating light was difficult, almost impossible.”
In pre-production, Fujimoto suggested they do the shot in CGI, with Paul D. walking to a blue screen. They would then shoot the hallway component. Rundell would composite the shot and add the red in post. “Jonathan didn’t like the idea. There was no thrill to the moment,” says Fujimoto. “There would be nothing for the actors to react to. Jonathan has never done a blue screen, and it was really out of his vocabulary. So, we had to think of a way to do this for real.
The film’s art director Tim Galvin, and Rundell, came up with an ingenious solution. “They asked me where I wanted the light to come from, top or bottom. I chose one direction—bottom. We would more than likely want to point the camera slightly up. So, he suggested we make the floor out of Plexiglas. And, since the set was built over a stage pit, there would be room for water trays, shards of mirror, and the red pulsating light from 2Ks with red gels. We ended up with three long, three by six-foot pans, with six inches of water. Each had six to eight lights on it, and small shards of mirrors. It worked perfectly, and Jonathan had his effect on the stage for the actors to react to and for him to see.”
Another element that provided the team behind Beloved with more than a few moments of exploration and discussion, was the method to be used to give the character Beloved a ghost-like, other-worldly quality. “At this point in the story, Paul D. has battled the ghost, which is now gone from the house,” says Fujimoto. “Of course, that ghost comes back as Beloved.”
“Tak and Jonathan decided that the character should be ‘of nature,’” says Rundell. “How do we show that? Do we do it in post? And, if so, what elements do we use?”
The team came up with the idea of a metaphor. They would combine the fantastic acting talent of Beloved, with a metamorphosis theme. When the audience first sees her, she appears out of a body of water and rests by a tree.
Fujimoto and Demme picked the right time of day for the shadows, and then released hundreds of butterflies. They floated around her, several landing on her body.
When day turned into night, they continued the theme, with a shot of Beloved and thousands of ladybugs crawling over her. For Demme and Fujimoto, this worked beautifully, and set up the ethereal element which they then carried through the picture.
But not every element in this complex story worked out as smoothly. “Sometimes, we had to cut and paste elements together in post, to make the magic work,” Fujimoto admits.
There is a simple sequence where Sethe, Paul D., and Denver (Sethe’s daughter) leave a carnival. It is the beginning of a bonding between the three of them, and hope for a “normal” life. “The idea was to see the three of them walking off into this new life together, then pull back and over, to see their shadows holding hands,” says Fujimoto.
“We shot what we thought would happen, but it didn’t work out just right. We were a little late getting to the sequence, and the shadows weren’t in the middle of the road. Also, the action wasn’t as good as we would have liked.
“Steve tried a version of it,” Fujimoto explains, “and that didn’t work exactly the way we wanted. We weren’t sure what to do, until we found another sequence, where we saw the shadows meet in the middle of the road.”
“We did a cut and paste between two plates, and then animated the shadow hands holding each other,” Rundell adds. “It was a very interesting way of using CGI to tell a story.
“The beauty of working with a cinematographer like Tak Fujimoto is that he really understands the use of CGI. He will always ask me what I need, then confirm everything with me before he does it,” says Rundell.
For the crew of Beloved, such a difficult subject can be a hard sell—especially when translating a book to film. Fujimoto’s take on the use of CGI is that it “can really open up the world of cinematography. There is so much you can do, when you work closely with the CGI artists. Being able to make the best use of this new technique as well as using the older techniques, like the reversal, was a big part of what made this such an exciting project,” he says. “It is amazing how the tools we have can help you fudge reality, especially when you have a story like this complex human drama called Beloved.”