For Memoirs of a Geisha, cinematographer Dion Beebe worked for a second time with director Rob Marshall. The first time was on Chicago, which won the Academy Award in 2003 for best motion picture and earned Australian-born Beebe an Oscar nomination for best cinematography. While Chicago is a brassy musical, Geisha tells the tale of a young Japanese girl sold into servitude who rises to be one of the country’s leading geishas—ladies skilled in artful and stylized giving of pleasures.There are some highly theatrical scenes in Geisha, including several dazzling dance performances. But Beebe’s biggest challenge was to create a world where seasons change during the course of years, and where the floating world of the geisha takes place in interiors that themselves get transformed as shoji screens slide to contain and open spaces and keep out or let in natural light.The decision to shoot nearly the entire movie in California required the creation of an enormous silk umbrella during prep, which hung over the Japanese village built in Ventura County and could be manipulated for various effects. “The glaring California sun had no mystery whatsoever, so Rob and I decided early on that we needed to put up what wound up being perhaps the biggest silk canopy ever constructed over a film set,” noted Beebe. “That gave us the ability to have a kind of warm and mysterious quality of light that you have in Japan, and also allowed us to subtly control the passage of the seasons, which in Japanese art and culture is highly significant in a metaphoric sort of way.”One element of shooting indoors revolved around the fact that Japanese usually sit on the floor and that there’s little lighting from above. “We had to light low, so I came up with the idea of creating what were small covered wagons that would carry light strips from one- to four-feet in length, creating flickering effects,” said the cinematographer. “These were constantly hidden behind the sets and could be rolled around.”In his earliest years as a cinematographer, Beebe worked for a stretch with numerous women directors, many of whom hailed from down under. They include Alison McLean, Niki Caro, Jane Campion, Gillian Armstrong and, from Macao, Clara Law. “Now I’ve swung in almost the opposite direction,” he laughed. Beebe has lately been the DP for macho movie director Michael Mann. He and Paul Cameron were the cinematographers on Collateral (2004), and Beebe is just wrapping up the arduous six-month shoot on Mann’s Miami Vice. In both films he has pioneered the use of the Grass Valley Viper digital camera.
Written by Jack Egan