Rearprojection And Other Challenges

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Few problems confront cinematography more vexingly than the rear-projection plate. The plate, a strip of film projected onto a screen behind actors in a soundstage (alternately called a stereo when it contains nothing but a landscape), is shot by a special effects team, almost always in advance of principal cinematography. During the 1950s at Paramount, where the rear-projection process was worked out most intensively by Farciot Edouart (1895-1980), special cinematographic techniques were developed for making the plates. In more modern filmmaking, companies that specialize in plate photography are hired to accomplish specific shots or sequences for a production. All motion in the final narrative scene where the plate is to be used has to be replicated backwards and inverted in the plate for in the actual process of studio composite photography, the projection screen remains rigidly fixed in a position perpendicular to the sound-

stage camera. Because neither the plate nor the screen onto which it is projected can be moved in relation to this perpendicularity, all the "motion" and "angle" in the rear-projected image has to be shot into the plate by the rear-projection photography team. This work is often done months in advance of the studio shot into which the plate is to be integrated. The lighting has to replicate the desired "outside" scene, yet match perfectly with the soundstage lighting that will fill in the front portion of the image, and actors in the plate have to be in proper focus for the background positions they will ultimately occupy in the finished shot.

Yet more problematic in the early days of rear projection was producing a projection of sufficient brilliance that it could be believably projected in a soundstage as a "real" background. Early rear-projection plates are noticeably dark and disconnected from the front action. Rear-projection screens had to be developed with maximal translucence and minimal fall-off of illumination from the hot spot created by the projection. In addition, distortion in the plate projection had to be reduced, the screen and projection system had to provide for very sharp focus, and the soundstage camera had to be aligned in perfect synchronization with the projecting device. Both the soundstage camera and the rear-projecting device had to operate in perfect synchrony at 24 fps, so that no fringing or haloing occurred in the background plate (as would occur if one of the apertures was open while the other was closed). In order to make the plates sufficiently bright, Edouart invented in 1933 a triple-head projector, in which three perfectly registered identical background plates were projected simultaneously using a gold mirror system in a water-cooled machine with an intense beam—all of this synchronized with the front camera through an interlocking electrical motor system that ran camera and projector together as one unit. The results are visible in the Marrakech marketplace sequences of Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), where 123 degree Fahrenheit midday Moroccan sunlight is faithfully replicated behind James Stewart and Doris Day as they perform on a Paramount soundstage. To further accentuate the realism of Paramount's background plates in the 1950s, they were typically shot in the VistaVision process, which made special use of 35 mm film in order to capture an image almost twice the normal size, yet with exceptionally fine grain. The cinematography of this film, by Robert Burks, elegantly matching Edouart's background plates throughout, is "good cinematography'' indeed.

In the twenty-first century, composite shots can be handled on the soundstage through front projection background images, frequently on slides. This process is enabled by highly reflective 3M Scotchlite screens and a

Nestor Almendros's color cinematography for Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978). everett collection. reproduced by permission.

mirror system of projection that allows the projected image to be aligned with the camera's focal angle.

Beginning in the 1970s, with the advent of new, smaller cameras and lighting units, as well as more flexible camera mounts and cranes, it became possible for cinematographers such as Vilmos Zsigmond (b. 1930) to produce in American film artistic visual effects that would effectively simulate the European art film that had been capturing attention in American theaters since the 1950s. Zsigmond found a way to produce a simultaneous zoom and pan, which, marking his work in such films as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Deliverance (1972), The Long Goodbye (1973), The Sugarland Express (1974), The Last Waltz (1978), The Deer Hunter (1978), and Blow Out (1981) played a significant role in establishing the reputations of a cohort of Hollywood auteurs including, respectively, Robert Altman (b. 1925), John Boorman (b. 1933), Mark Rydell (b. 1934), Steven Spielberg (b. 1946), Martin Scorsese (b. 1942), Michael Cimino (b. 1943), and Brian De Palma (b. 1940).

It is often necessary for cinematographers to devise unique methods for making narratively crucial shots that are unrepeatable for technical reasons. For Professione: Reporter (The Passenger, 1975) by Michelangelo Antonioni (b. 1912), it was required that the film end with a lengthy sequence shot involving extraordinary camera movement: through the length of a hotel room in which a man is sleeping, through the grating at his window, out into the plaza outside—where numerous activities are taking place—then around the plaza in a pan of more than 180 degrees (now revealing that the grating at the window is still in position), back to the window, through which we can now see that the sleeping man is dead. Luciano Tovoli's (b. 1936) camera was placed on a specially constructed ceiling-mounted track, moved forward by grips toward the window; a team outside slowly pulled the two halves of the window grille apart as the camera remained stationary (thus creating the illusion that it was approaching the window). Then the grips continued to move it forward until the outside team hooked it to a cable hung from a construction crane hidden off-camera. From there it could be manipulated around the plaza. But during the shooting a severe storm wind was blowing, so that maintaining fluid motion and clear focus was immensely challenging.

For the same director's Zabriskie Point (1970), a lavish mountaintop house in the California desert was to explode in one character's imagination. To produce the explosion, the director had a second residence built identical to the house that was being used for the location. Seventeen 35mm cameras were set up, many of them overcranked, so that at the moment of the detonation seventeen different angles could be covered, many in slow motion. The cinematographer, Alfio Contini (b. 1927), used a walkie-talkie system to direct the work of his seventeen camera operators. In the screen sequence, the house is seen to blow up again and again and again and again, from every imaginable angle, from a distance and in closeup.

Contemporary cinema is making new cinematographic demands. Very fast film stocks are used with computer-controlled camera mounts and remote-control focus systems, making it possible for the cinematographer to be at a greater distance from the camera. Shooting Francis Ford Coppola's (b. 1939) One from the Heart (1982) from a trailer off-set, for example, Vittorio Storaro (b. 1940) could make use of an offshoot of the video assist system invented in the early 1960s by Jerry Lewis in order to obtain excellent control of lighting and camera movement while at the same time intensively economizing on printing expense (since it was not necessary to wait until the screening of dailies in order to determine the best shots). Also, with more lightweight, more mobile, and more intensive lighting systems, it was possible to systematically produce the effect of being inside the action of a fast-paced dramatic event: this is typified in the large-grain contraband-video-style opening sequence by Matthew F. Leonetti (b. 1941) for Strange Days (1995).

To shoot live-action footage so that it will blend with computer-animated effects is often a challenge in itself. For Minority Report (2002) Spielberg's cinemato-grapher Janusz Kaminski managed the problem by overexposing the live footage so that when projected onscreen it is overly bright and hazy. The special effects seem to float out of a dream reality. The early requirement of cinema for restricted space in which the actors and camera crew could gain precise control of behavior and lighting is virtually obviated by the technical development of small and lightweight camera units, high-powered but portable lighting, and high-speed film stocks. Increasingly, cinematographers are experimenting with high-definition video, a format which is so light sensitive that it is possible to pick up richly colored details of wallpaper from twenty-five or thirty feet away with no direct lighting at all.

see also Camera; Camera Movement; Collaboration; Color; Crew; Film Stock; Lighting; Production Process; Technology further reading

Almendros, Nestor. A Man with a Camera. Translated by Rachel Phillipo Belash. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.

.Alton, John. Painting with Light. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Fielding, Raymond. The Technique of Special Effects

Cinematography, 4th ed. New York: Hastings House, 1985.

Gunning, Tom. D. W. Griffith and the Origins ofAmerican Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Higham, Charles. Hollywood Cameramen: Sources ofLight. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.

Malkiewicz, Kris. Cinematography: A Guide for Film Makers and Film Teachers, 3rd ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Maltin, Leonard. Behind the Camera: The Cinematographer's Art. New York: Signet, 1971.

Thompson, Andrew O. "Magic Bus." American Cinematographer (November 1996): 56-66.

Turner, George. ''Hitchcock's Acrophobic Vision.'' American Cinematographer (November 1996): 86-91.

Murray Pomerance

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