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Cinematographer Jo Willems on Limits and Limitless

March 24, 2011 | By

Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper star in Relativity Media's Limitless. (Photo by John Baer. © 2011 Dark Fields Production, LLC All Rights Reserved).

Limitless is the recent film co-produced by and starring Bradley Cooper as a down-at-heels writer who comes across a super drug that unlocks that dormant 80% of the brain most of our species doesn’t use (thus explaining the constant outbursts of war, and the general state of the biosphere). In it, cinematographer Jo Willems wanted to find two textures, two visual moods, to denote Cooper’s world when the drug was both “on” and “off.”

And find it he did, in good ol’ retro film stock – from Fuji and Kodak.  Willems’ describes Fuji as having a “more photographic” feel than other stocks. For the scenes in which Cooper’s character was off the drug – thinking less clearly, or sluggishly-as-usual – he, along with director Neil Burger, wanted a “less processed” look,  with lighting as “uncontrolled as possible,” in “very hard light.” Think of the urban documentary photography of the likes of Robert Frank, or the big city journalistic harshness of Weegee, for a sense of what he was after (or even director Ken Loach, inasmuch as Willems’ says both he and Burger are fans).

Kodak film was deployed when the brain was fully on, to show “a more grainless, more perfect world – a luminous look. On the drug, his character is in full control of everything he does.”   Except when that world gets too luminous, and he begins blacking out or memory lapsing, overwhelmed by stimuli, possibility and input.

At which point, to show the tension, Willems plays with the shiny perfection of the hues in the Kodak-shot scenes. He originally toyed with “shooting half the movie in digital, and half on film,” for the contrasting palettes that he wanted, but instead used the DI to give the glossy on-the-drug scenes a “synthetic look.”

Bradley Cooper in Limitless. (Photo by John Baer. © 2011 Dark Fields Production, LLC All Rights Reserved).


And within that, Willems, along with Burger, would “play with focus in parts of the frame – adding stuff in DI that I wouldn’t normally use.” He mentions Michael Hatzer, Technicolor‘s colorist for the DI, as being “very committed” to pushing frame, focus and feel this way, noting “the film wouldn’t have looked this way if you’d shot it on digital. There’s a certain depth you wouldn’t have gotten.”

But then again, there were certain key sequences where digits prevailed. The film has a couple of sequences of what feel like “hyper” tracking shots – following all the way off the side of a building, or zooming at high speed through block after block of New York street (even if some those streets were actually in Philadelphia, where much of the film was shot). Those scenes were actually shot on a Red.

Indeed, Willems’ crew took the digital cameras and “moved through these shots and kept shooting these plates.” Then the long “zooms were developed after we finished shooting,” all the plates woven together, in a seeming continuous take, in post.

And while those sequences are thrilling, they are somewhat of an artifice – not what you might expect in a Ken Loach film, say. But then again, the story’s about moving between two different worlds.

For the more familiar one,  Willems didn’t want to light the sets – like Cooper’s apartment – so that they’d look like sets. He tried to make each location look like you’d just “turned on the lights.”  Hence, the switching between film stocks, each of them  “perfect for what the movie had to do.”

The movie’s “got to have a look,” he says, but “performance and script” are key, and Willems also sees his job letting those elements proceed as unimpeded as possible. “I’m the sort of DP that tries to give as much performance back to the director,” he says.

A self-imposed limit, if you will, except when the visual possibilities are limitless.

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