Cinematographer Oliver Wood finds his more “perfect self” for Surrogates, a graphic-novel inspired, future-thriller starring Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell


“Do I really have to go there? I’m more of a Telex man. I can fix the deals in an afternoon over the phone.” – Mac, the faux Scotsman of Local Hero

Derived from a graphic novel (see sidebar), the Touchstone feature Surrogates takes an “if this goes on …” approach to lives being lived more and more at a physical and psychic distance. In this future world, society has been transformed by the innovation of humanoid robot doubles, rendered in idealized form, which act as “surrogates” in the real world while their humans remain safe at home, directing their doppelgangers and experiencing life in a second-hand fashion. When this insulated system threatens to fray after surrogates are destroyed and their linked-in humans die along with them, agents Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell) investigate the unusual happenings in the usual fashion – via their surrogates. But when Greer’s surrogate is wrecked, he leaves his sanctuary and takes to the mean streets, a man well and truly alone in the world.

Director Jonathan Mostow reports being excited by the challenge of visualizing a future society on screen, and secured some old working mates to head up his departments, including director of photography Oliver Wood, who had partnered with Mostow on the WWII submarine thriller U-571, as did costume designer April Ferry and sound editor Jon Johnson. Production designer Jeff Mann had previously worked with the filmmaker on T3. Preparing for Surrogates, Wood and Mann studied a variety of films with a futuristic bent at Mostow’s home. Wood says, “We noticed in many instances, the included elements show a science-fiction future that looked silly. While in other instances, you just didn’t always believe (the futuristic elements), and they were really getting in the way of telling the story.”

Slanted and Dutched

Mostow and his collaborators approached the movie with a careful eye toward containing potential VFX costs whenever possible. Putting forth a credible-yet-ambitious future on film revolved around what Wood calls a “future is now” approach, involving a degree of stylization for both framing and cinematography. The cinematographer says that because Surrogates is more than a sci-fi movie — it features a murder investigation and plays like a thriller — the production team looked at John Frankenheimer movies, especially Seconds (shot by James Wong Howe, ASC), which used extreme wide-angle and deep-focus looks.

“That led us to slant focus lenses, which take the plane of focus from front to back rather than straight across,” Wood observes. “This meant lighting to a high stop, at least a 4 or 4.5, and that can only work when the characters aren’t in motion. But it was worth it. The slant focus, along with the Dutched angles, became a kind of stylistic go-to; we Dutched so often that when a straight-up shot came on, it carried extra weight. Plus, in a way, (this approach) acknowledged the comic book origins of the source material.”

Mostow applauds Wood’s flexibility. “Some people get so attached to their plans that they cannot work in the moment,” the director says. “But Oliver works intuitively, and listens to his inner voice. There were times in the middle of a shot when we might look at each other and both realize, ‘this doesn’t feel right,’ and we’d take a new tack. When the work isn’t all cut-and-dried, the creative juices often flow better.”

Filming was slated for Washington, D.C., but switched to Boston to take advantage of a generous Massachusetts tax incentive. Eight features were shooting in the city, and at one point, Mostow drove into base camp, only to find he was at the wrong film set! With local crews already engaged, 30 out-of-state carpenters were flown in for set building, most of which took place within a Boston manufacturing plant that also housed various production departments. Other sets built on location took advantage of existing architecture in and around Boston. Wood is keen to point out that while, “the DP/set dresser relationship never gets much discussion,” the rapport between those two positions has a significant influence on the final product. “Fainche MacCarthy did genius work, dressing all the sets and locations,” he says. “I always try to walk through the sets before shooting, and the bits she put in were a great enhancement.”

Wood utilized Kodak Vision3 stocks throughout: the 5205 250-speed daylight and 5219 500 ASA tungsten. The DP’s lighting plan for the robot factories and high-tech arenas was designed to convey the slick “future-is-now” theme. Gaffer Frans Wetterings brought in LED lights, and while Wood says he was a bit wary of their harshness, “they’re good effects lights that livened up the sets.” Wood took a more naturalistic bent when lighting the humans, sans surrogates, within their homes, because, “that’s where these people could really be themselves. I used a lot of Kino Flos, an approach dating back to Freaky Friday where I lit Jamie Lee Curtis just with Image 80s, and so I have made a point of using them in close on set to provide a soft and flattering light.” For wider angles, the cinematographer says he relied on HMI and Tungsten Fresnels from Kaye Lites, one of New England’s most comprehensive grip and lighting provider.

Flawless Inside and Out

Since offering one’s best face for public consumption is at the core of the story, Surrogates’ characters in the outside world are mostly a happy lot. Mitchell believes her character’s acceptance of surrogacy would be natural in such circumstances. “She was accustomed to it from childhood and considered it safe. Plus, since nearly everybody accepts it, there’s conformity at work,” Mitchell says. “For me personally, my surrogate wouldn’t be wearing the push-up bra and all that, but it would have a tail. There’s no reason not to include an animal characteristic as part of the paradigm. Surrogacy doesn’t have to just be a vanity issue; it could become a creative expression of self.”

The actress says that differentiating between her human and surrogate characters was often a matter of costuming. “My human costume had me wearing a padded butt, and it’s easy to see how the human would settle in for that in her real life, since people do choose comfort most of the time,” she laughs. “However, with the surrogate, I just thought how fun it would be to play John Wayne. Referencing an iconic character is a kind of shorthand, but so often we all do reference reality by citing examples from movies.”

From a visual standpoint, Mostow says the main priority was delivering the surrogates on screen in a distinctive fashion. “They had to register as robots, meaning they had to look terrific while being easily distinguishable from the humans. All our various disciplines had to come together to make this illusion work — casting actors with the appropriate appearance; finessing their appearance with hair, wardrobe and makeup; then lighting for effect; and finally digital changes in post to take out imperfections.”

Since the surrogate look relied heavily on cinematography, it fell to Wood to devise a way to make them appear like robots on camera. “I don’t like to impose a look on a movie,” Wood admits. “My preference is to have the look come about after seeing the actors in the on-set environment. And here we had Bruce Willis, one of the least robotic looking actors imaginable. His presence on-screen gives off a grounded-in-reality feeling that carries through the film.” Wood likened his robot lighting scheme to a Victoria’s Secret commercial, calling it the way everybody wants to look. “It was a move in the right direction, but to be honest, even with makeup and lighting, the skin was never quite smooth enough,” he admits.

Hence further embellishment in post was needed. “We were trying to bring all the surrogates to a level of flawlessness and consistency to match Jonathan’s vision,” VFX supervisor Mark Stetson relates. Tackling hundreds of VFX shots in 3D would have been cost prohibitive, so 2D roto/patch techniques were used. “We ended up having to relight the actors’ faces, as well as retouch the wrinkles. The real challenge was to find a vendor who could do the work.” Roughly half of the film’s 750 effects shots involved surrogate imagery, and the Western Massachusetts office of Synthespian Studios treated most of these. Most other visual effects work was divided between Massachusetts-based shops Brickyard VFX and Sandbox F/X, while Lidar Services provided location data for set extensions and Eyetronics scanned the features of the film’s leads and stunt performers.

Even with the Synthespian crew aboard, issues of how best to apply the necessary appearance smoothing were still not fully resolved. Stetson visited Company 3 to discuss DI possibilities with Wood and colorist Stephen Nakamura. “Stephen developed a look that capitalized on (Oliver’s) lighting. He helped us find a look that maintained the strong color palette that Oliver was after,” Stetson says, “yet gave a slightly artificial glow to the surrogates without excessive diffusion of the faces.”
The colorist worked exclusively on the midrange areas of the skin tones, lifting darker regions and lowering the lighter areas of skin. “This had the effect of creating a creamier look to skin while diminishing the visible textures,” Nakamura explains. “Only color and luminance values were affected, so the application of ‘anti-contrast’ didn’t impact the highlights or the blacks.”

Determining what constituted surrogate behavior was also a key concern. “I didn’t want actors to play robotic,” states Mostow. “But we did eliminate all signs of human foibles. None of the robots slouch; but they aren’t totally stiff either. I had a mime coach demonstrate the asymmetry in a person’s stride; that’s why you can recognize somebody from a hundred yards away. We had several people whose job was just to watch extras in certain parts of the frame to make sure they maintained the stance and walk.”

Even sound design figured into Mostow’s plan. “We cut dialog tracks to eliminate any sound of breathing from the robot characters. And we managed to stay consistent with that, though for dramatic effect I’d break the rule on occasion to allow a certain breathy quality to come through. But I could only do that because they had been so well established as robots by this point that it didn’t disrupt the illusion. If I did my job, you’ll never notice.”

Cause and FX

Wood’s preference for accomplishing dialog-heavy driving scenes on stage with actors in mockups against blue and greenscreen caused Stetson to lobby for a CircleVision system to shoot plates for an April 2009 reshoot, which Mostow says the filmmakers undertook to add an additional action sequence to the film. “Having the five cameras mounted on the rig provides a 120- or 270-degree view of the street, so you can get all plate coverage in a single pass,” Wood notes. “I found CircleVision to be a very effective tool; it isn’t cheap, but it does save money because the alternatives cost you time and manpower with re-rigging over and over.”

Time was at a premium for the added footage – shot on location in downtown L.A. and on Paramount’s New York backlot set. Wood points out that, “on a backlot, you don’t have time to get up speed, so that was meticulously planned and boarded to use as much of the lot without repeating ourselves.” The DP’s moving camera choices during various car and foot chases ranged from simple handheld and Steadicam to the Russian Arm and Technocrane.

Each attack on surrogates in the film is delivered with an arcing electrical animation effect, cued from interactive production lighting. “We had a big Lightning Strikes unit on set,” Wood reports. “Whenever light effects are being added in post, I prefer to cue them with something real; it helps the effects people and I think it looks better.”

For first unit scenes that might require CG embellishment, Stetson shot reference imagery using HDR-Cam. The four-camera system can record a series of bracket exposures in less than a minute, generating a panoramic view built on high dynamic range imagery. This can be employed in post as a basis for accurately recreating any location’s lighting dynamics through image-based rendering and global illumination techniques.

The images were of such high quality that the system was used in unplanned ways, for example, during a pursuit sequence featuring a helicopter crash involving heavy support from physical effects. “The helicopter work included about a dozen CG copter shots,” Stetson adds. “But even the big helicopter crash sequence was built around a master shot in which the CG helicopter transitions into a live-action hulk. Special effects supervisor Allen Hall’s crew, led by Bob Williams and Matt Hall, rigged explosions and winched it through the scene.” A lack of plate cameras for VFX had the potential to compromise the crash sequence, but the HDR-Cam imagery pulled double duty, serving as makeshift plate backgrounds for some shots.

Aerial director of photography Steve Koster, using a Cineflex-gimballed A-star as camera copter, captured the chase scene action with a Sony CineAlta HDC-F950 camera recording 1080P, 4:4:4 at 23.98 fps. Company 3 processed the HD imagery and delivered DPX frames to Stetson for compositing. “Contrast is vastly different with video and film,” observes Nakamura. “Getting them so that the two can live together is usually a matter of adjusting both to some degree. Sky imagery isn’t as vibrant on video as film, so we can pull a luminance key on that part of the frame and add some blue.”

For Wood, whose credits range from high-budget espionage flicks like I Spy and the Bourne trilogy, to spooks of a different kind (Scooby Doo 2), the futuristic Surrogates has its roots in the present-day. “With people on their cell phones or commuting online,” Wood says, “people aren’t really in their bodies anymore and we’re already operating at somewhat of a remove.” Describing how he helped visualize this delicate premise, the DP insists his job is not about creating any one look. “If I find myself getting locked into a look, I try to get unlocked in a hurry,” he declares. “If things are that predetermined, why not just get a robot to do the work, like in the film? Having said that, I quite like how Surrogates came out, and think it is a long way apart from everything else I’ve shot. But film is always a collaborative medium, with no one person responsible for creating the whole look. It is more and more about the overall workflow, where the result is more than the sum of the individual parts.”

By Kevin H. Martin / photos by Stephen Vaughan