Peter Suschitzky, ASC, BSC, blazes new digital trails for the sci-fi thriller After Earth

A thousand years after inhabitants flee from Earth due to a cataclysmic event, a ship crash-lands on a now strange and unfamiliar world. Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) and his father, Cypher (Will Smith), are stranded, with Cypher critically injured and trapped within the ship. Teenager Kitai must embark on a perilous journey, encountering strange and vicious beasts as well as an unstoppable alien creature that escaped during the crash, in order to find help for his father.

The action-based father-son scenario is the latest from acclaimed director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs) who co-wrote the screenplay with Gary Whitta, based on a story by Will Smith. It incorporates over 700 effects shots including creating the current home of humanity, Nova Prime, and a new Earth completely devoid of anything that references humans.

For his DP, Shyamalan chose veteran British lenser Peter Suschitzky, ASC, BSC (The Empire Strikes Back, Mars Attacks and all of David Cronenberg’s films since Dead Ringers). Suschitzky’s photographic genes run deep, as his father, Wolfgang, and son, Adam, are also feature DPs.

Suschitzky says he and the writer/director clicked immediately, with Shyamalan relating his preference for long takes and camera movement based on the context of the scene.

“One of the reasons I’ve worked so much with David Cronenberg is that we believe that what makes the images meaningful is the context into which they’re put,” Suschitzky explains. “If I am working on a film that is not to my taste, then, however well I do my job, the images may be striking but they won’t tell the meaning in that beautiful context.”

Shyamalan wanted to shoot on film, using anamorphic lenses, until Suschitzky proposed a side-by-side test with digital. “Film suffers when it is digitized,” the DP explains. “It’s capable of producing a very fine and beautiful image, but that needs to be projected on film, and a very high percentage of theaters, certainly in North America, now all use digital projectors.”

The tests involved a Panaflex and an ALEXA and, as A-camera operator Mitch Dubin, who had worked with Suschitzky on the remake of The Vanishing, explains, “the Sony F65, as a kind of a lark, because it was a Sony picture and we thought we should reshoot some of the tests with this never-been-used camera.”

The film tests were digitized, and all were projected. To everyone’s complete surprise, Shyamalan chose the F65, and used Cooke S4s and Angenieux zooms.

“Everybody was terrified that Night had chosen the F65,” Dubin laughs. “There were no accessories; it was just a box that you point.

“We had about two weeks from taking the things out of the boxes to sending them on a plane,” recalls A-camera 1st AC John Kairis. “There’s so much going on with the physical prep of taking four cameras and lenses and supporting them internationally, let alone a camera system that has yet to be used. It’s not like we were going to London to shoot on stage. We needed to mash through rainforest – key word ‘rain,’ with its sidekick ‘mud’ – and work on slopes with a good pitch.”

“I had a similar experience on Next,” B-camera focus puller Steve Cueva adds. “We were shooting with the Genesis, and it hadn’t really been tested. The location was forecast to be 115 degrees, so we ended up switching to film for that week.”

Although problems were surprisingly few with the new system, Dubin says the main issues were power and environment. “You don’t want an unproven camera in the humidity of the jungle,” he states. “And I think half of Sony technical went down with us to help us through those first weeks. We had a few power issues, but it never failed.”

“The first cameras didn’t have frame lines, or the remote on/off capability,” Cueva continues. “So after we had spent weeks shooting hair, make-up, screen and costume tests, the guys from Sony came with their laptops, and as they’re plugging in the cables, said, ‘Well, this can either produce frame lines or it can wipe out the entire memory of this camera!’ We looked at them and said, ‘Guys, the operators need frame lines.’ It was pretty intense.”

Other aspects of the jungle location were unpredictable. “When we went to scout Costa Rica, it rained continuously,” key grip Charlie Marroquin relates. “Somebody said it rained 17 inches in a 24-hour period, and our guides kept saying, ‘Keep in mind, when you come back to shoot, it’s going to look totally different.’ For instance, the river we scouted was going to be 15 feet lower than it was at present. And, of course, there were all the snakes.”

“Eyelash vipers hanging at eye level,” B camera/Steadicam operator John “Buzz” Moyer laughs. “Every location we had to have a snake wrangler check around all the trees.

“The scary part,” VFX Supervisor Jonathan Rothbart adds, “was when we were on the scout tramping through the jungle and were alone. Then we’d come back and there’d be snake wranglers everywhere.”

Bringing in a Technocrane was not feasible, so the shoot employed the Giraffe Crane. “It breaks down into small pieces,” Marroquin says. “Everything had to be hand-carried in – one location, the ‘Hog Hole,’ was a three-quarter-mile hike straight downhill. My rigging grip, Craig Vaccaro, had a crew of mostly Mexican grips, and they were awesome. They carried anything and everything we asked.”

Another sequence called for the construction of a 30-foot-long platform, 15 feet high at one end, around the base of a volcano. Again, all materials were carried in and out.

Power was also a consideration, so gaffer Mo Flam introduced the Mac Tech 960, which employs 24 LED tubes and a limited power supply. “To me, they’re as powerful as an HMI and are very durable,” Flam says. “We could run this thing on a little 2,000-watt Honda generator.”

When production moved to a warehouse in Philadelphia, production designer Tom Sanders (Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart, Apocalypto) realized a year-long development process with Shyamalan that involved decisions every bit as daring as using the untested F65.

“I was so tired of seeing apocalyptic futuristic movies,” Sanders says. “I said, ‘Why can’t we see a future where we did something right, for a change?’ We had to go into space for a couple-hundred years to even find the right place to resettle, where we could create this beautiful world. And while we were in space, we had to use our brains and come up with a new plan for when we found this new place to live. There would be no resources, just organic bio-mimicry.”

This led to designs of a giant cave set, as well as a downed aircraft that used specially farmed fibers, strong enough for space ship hulls or skyscrapers on the new world, with some fibers having a phosphorescent glow that could actually store light and reflect it back as needed. It also led to a mantra of absolutely no gray, rust or stainless steel. Everything, from building to weapon, was made from this newly farmed cream-colored plastic. When the ship crashes, springs and metal bits do not explode from the controls. Organic material flies out.

Sanders worked closely with Suschitzky and Flam to incorporate practical lights into the ship’s interior. Low-heat Mac Tech LED lights were used under the plastic fibers. The light’s intensity could be remotely controlled, and, during later scenes, when Smith’s character is trapped, waiting for his son to get aid, the phosphorescence begins to dim, mirroring his outlook. In the cave, Flam used some ARRI MaxMovers remote lights so they could rig them under Condors and snake them into position to get the light where it was needed. “Everything has an organic feel to it,” Sanders relates.

During a bumpy ride through an asteroid field, an initial pass incorporated the Technocrane capturing all the jostling on the gimbal. Then, Shyamalan wanted to try it with the Steadicam.

“The ship was the length of two city buses, and 30 feet in the air on this gimbal, which was operated by a joystick, and this guy sat there and jerked the thing and the hydraulic pistons would cause the ship to pitch and veer everywhere,” Moyer recounts.

“I had no reference as to which way the ship was going; I was roped in from two points with two grips holding me and Night wanted a push in from all the way in the back to Will as he’s realizing the fate of the crew and his ship.  I kept the Steadicam away from me far enough so I wouldn’t fall forward, left, right or back. It was the most exhausting shot I’ve done in my career.”

“I remember that I first thought, ‘Why do we need this gimbal?’” Dubin smiles. “Then I saw it work, and I thought, oh, yeah, now I see. I was happy it was Buzz and not me.”

Other creative ways to expand the action scenes included Canon’s new 4K C500 strapped to a skydiver’s helmet. “Jaden base-jumps off the top shelf [of a continental rift between North and South America] and lands on another level, where he’s attacked by a giant bird,” Rothbart explains. “He’s carried back to the nest to be food for the bird’s babies. In the nest he’s attacked by these giant, evolved leopard-like creatures. We constructed the bottom half of the nest then shot footage of Jaden reacting against a green screen.”

The top part of the nest, and the creatures, were created by Tippett Studios. Aharon Bourland, Tippett’s visual effects supervisor, calls it “a pretty crazy sequence. We’re dealing with feathers and fur. I think the most complicated were the actual sticks. We had to build half of the nest and the tree in CG and had a lot of matte paintings for the surroundings.”

Bourland explains that by having the Suschitzky-shot F65 4K footage, they could get further in and/or repair camera shakes than with 2K origination. “We were also able to frame in on some of the shots to get the framing as they wanted,” he adds.

VFX Producer Jenny Fulle introduced another first for After Earth: Joust, a software program that streamlines the management of digital workflows. “The F65 was developed with a lot of thought toward the ACES workflow,” Fulle explains. “This made color management easier than on any other show I have worked on. Also, with the dynamic range of the 8K sensor, and the amount of detail we could get where half the frame is a dark jungle and the other half a bright sky, we could pull out the detail in both.”

Craig Mumma, digital pipeline supervisor, says RAW capture has allowed camera teams to move away from what he calls “NASA on the set,” the big video carts needed to engineer the video signal like a broadcast.

“With the advent of Raw, and cameras like the F65, you treat it like film,” Mumma says. “Back in the old days, you had your video tap, but it was for composition and lighting, not exposure. With Raw I teach DITs to trust their light meters. Once you calibrate the camera and you know where your indexes are, you can tell them an 800 ASA is probably equivalent to 1200 ASA on your light meter. So you don’t have to have all these moving parts on set.”

Although Suschitzky operated camera on all of David Cronenberg’s films, he knew the scale of After Earth called for a skillful camera operator.

“The person I thought of immediately was Mitch Dubin, with whom I worked twenty years before,” the DP shares. “I encouraged Mitch to choose his assistant, John Kairis, and to come up with the key grip, Charlie Marroquin, and gaffer Mo Flam. [Using a brand-new camera], I can’t say that we weren’t anxious, but after a few days, any initial problems were quickly overcome, and I’m very pleased with the images.”

Image quality notwithstanding, Dubin says the development of so many new digital camera systems often still fails to take into account the human element.

“It’s almost insulting how bad the eyepieces are,” he says. “They put all this research and money into the chip in the box, but they don’t think about what is necessary for the people who operate the machinery. That’s what was so great about Panavision. They made a system that respected the people who work it.  I know it’s still early in the game, but digital cameras need to go beyond the ones and the zeros, and put those on the set using them first.”

By Ted Elrick. Photos by Frank Masi, SMPSP