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Andrew Lesnie Discusses the Challenges of Shooting in a New Format

December 24, 2012 | By

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first major film released at 48 fps.

Although the 48 fps format has received mixed reviews, with some critics to calling it “too realistic,” one thing is certain, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is just the first of many films that will exploit this new technology. Notably, James Cameron has already expressed his desire push frame rates even higher – up to 60 fps – with the release his Avatar sequel in 2015.

For cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, this was not only his first major digital film, it was also his first foray into 3D, let alone high frame rates.

Below the Line recently discussed the challenges that the new format poses for filmmakers with Lesnie.

Below The Line: Could you describe your experience shooting The Hobbit in 3D and at 48 fps and what made it different?

Andrew Lesnie: The Hobbit is my first 3D shoot, my first major digital shoot and at a higher frame rate. That was a lot to wrap my head around. Issues unique to The Hobbit were shooting at 48fps (in 3D), using slave motion control rigs and motion capture live on set. All these elements were developed and tested in pre-production.

Cate Blanchett as the Elf Queen Galadriel in The Hobbit.

BTL: What distinct artistic challenges were unique to The Hobbit?

Lesnie: I staged a series of comprehensive tests during pre-production. Full events were conducted in the two sets that were built; Bag End & Gollum’s Cave. We were testing the cameras, rigs, remote heads as well as the slave mocon rigs and onset motion capture. We made the systems as efficient as possible so we could tell the story without feeling like we were being hindered by the technology.

BTL: In the scenes with Gollum in his cave, describe what your task is as cinematographer in capturing Andy’s acting. How has motion capture evolved?

Lesnie: We shot some scenes on Lord of the Rings with on-set motion capture. The concept of using this technology on a live action set was really test driven on Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The point of incorporating these two processes is to allow real performances to play out against each other, even if one character will become fully digital. The many motion capture cameras need to be rigged to avoid movement or vibration while filming, and ideally have no lighting equipment blocking their view of the cast. We tended to film the entire sequence as a master in order to give Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis the opportunity to develop a rhythm.

Peter Jackson on set.

BTL: There’s been criticism about the look of The Hobbit in 48 fps as not being an improvement. Is the criticism unfounded? Do you think shooting and projecting at 48 fps is going to become more the standard and The Hobbit will be viewed as a landmark, or simply as a first attempt, and in the future 48 fps will be better liked?

Lesnie: 48 fps is another addition to the cinematographer’s palette. It reduces motion blur and strobing in some situations. I always stage a scene with priority to the storytelling, always looking for ways to illuminate the subtext of a scene. If the increased capture rate can enhance that prospect, then it can be put into play. Like all techniques, it should support but not dominate the drama.

The point of shooting The Hobbit at 48 fps and presenting at 48 fps is to make the 3D experience a more enjoyable one – to make it more immersive. However it will only be appreciated if a cinema can run 3D 48 fps at the right luminance. As of 2012, The Hobbit is being delivered in 2D and 3D, 24fps and 48fps, digital and film. We set the parameters for 3D 48 fps, but had to be conscious of the other requirements. Ultimately people go to the cinema to see a well told story. They don’t go to see technology. Technology is merely there to serve the filmmakers’ vision.

Tight spaces were a challenge to light.

BTL: Having done the Lord of the Rings and now The Hobbit over the past decade (plus King Kong and Rise of the Planet of the Apes), can you describe how your role as a DP has changed?

Lesnie: I have to maintain an understanding of the technology involved, but my mantra is the same as always – script and performance. My responsibilities as director of photography are the same as always. To enhance the director’s vision, contribute as much as I could, set the mood and tone of the film, make the work space as actor friendly as possible, and ensure that the safety, welfare and morale of the crew was maintained over the 266-day shoot.

BTL: Could you talk about your approach to lighting. Did it change because you were shooting at 48 fps?

Lesnie: For me, one of the great studio challenges is replicating natural light. Nature provides an infinite variety of fine subtleties and I’m always thrilled when people don’t notice a sequence that’s intercut between location and studio. Sometimes it’s the small achievements that provide me with my biggest personal victories.

Having said that, we had the full gamut of set sizes – everything from fortresses and vast forests at day and night, to intimate sets like Bag End, which exists as two sizes (the smaller one is a real headbanger). Fill that space with dwarves and you wonder where you might get some lights in. The other difficulty with the dwarves was that their makeup, prosthetics and wardrobe dictated the day’s schedule. Frequently we started with close ups until we had the full contingent, and then Peter just wanted to go at flank speed. I frequently put a plan in place that was flexible.

The other challenge is shooting 3D in small spaces. Peter and I generally use two rigs, often moving against each other. Controlling the look for both is complex as well as trying to get the stop up. When we’re after something very specific, we stick to one rig or put them side by side. At one stage, one character got so close to a matte box that he was being lit with the bounce coming off the 3D mirror. It looked good, so needless to say, we didn’t try to flag that.

There are always issues with 3D mirror rigs and backlight, but I tried not to let that influence my lighting decisions. I’ve also been trying to put the lighting exactly where I want the light coming from. Gaffer Reg Garside and key grip Tony Keddy had to reduce the flare impact on the mirror rigs, and they were very successful. In addition to a lot of physical textile work, we also used the dimmer board a lot, riding the level on lights throughout moving shots.

With our overhead ambient Kino lighting rig, we were able to change our color temperature very fast and also change the direction of our lighting by selecting various banks of lights. Traditionally you can’t dim Kinos, but we came up with an interesting program that allowed us to turn off individual tubes in a random pattern which created the effect of dimming. We also used the same process to change color temperature during a shot. So if Peter wanted to shoot a master that started at dusk and rolled into twilight, we could achieve that.

The other big help was a computerized lighting log, kept by a dedicated crewmember on each unit. All the information was uploaded to a secure website, so both units had access to everything. Sometimes we were doing pickups to a scene we’d shot 15 months before.

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