Split Level

Alwin Küchler, BSC, reflects a myriad of new looks for the Chicago-set YA thriller Divergent

Divergent, based on the first of Veronica Roth’s popular juvenile novels, is a futuristic tale of society segregated into separate factions based on the aptitudes of each individual. Enter Tris (Shailene Woodley), a “divergent” who fits into not just one of the castes, but three. After choosing the Dauntless faction, she undergoes various rites of passage before discovering a plot that will cause war throughout her pocket civilization, set in the scarcely inhabited region of Chicago.

“Creating a whole new world is a great challenge for any filmmaker,” states director Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist). “But I didn’t want all-digital skylines with miles of CG buildings, because for me I still see the synthetic origins. I wanted the effects of real sunlight and wind, with all the irregular shadow and light interaction from real buildings.” Striving to give the film its own unique look and energy, Burger chose to shoot on the streets of Chicago. “While we did futurize it to some degree, most modifications were subtractive processes, removing aspects that screamed ‘present day.’”

Describing a sequence that evokes memories of Paul Atreides’ riding a huge sandworm in Dune, the director found the film’s train scenes emblematic of helping to set the realistic tone. “The characters climb up to the El, jump on, then later disembark by leaping from the still-speeding train,” says Burger. “I didn’t want to rely heavily on CG or green screen or do it all on stage; I wanted my actors running alongside some physical representation [of a train] moving along tracks. That established my approach to dealing with this world, getting as much in camera and on location as possible, using CG as embellishment to that reality. We strove for getting 80 percent of what was in frame to be real, which gave us action that had some real and messy energy.”

Among Burger’s key collaborators was Alwin Küchler, BSC, who recalls how Burger had liked the quality of light the cinematographer had captured in Hanna. “I’m attracted to directors who like to create their effects on set,” Küchler shares, “because it benefits the actors as well as the visuals. Sunshine with Danny Boyle was like that. To represent a giant spaceship viewing screen, I created a massive curtain of reflective, CD-sized gold and silver discs. The actor sitting there had so much to respond to with this immense light. You can see his iris responding, and there’s beauty in the truth of that response to a genuine environment. Neil, like Danny, shares that philosophy, rather than hoping for something to emerge in post.”

“Neil wanted to convey up front that this city is a successful model world,” Küchler adds, “but then as things go along, we see darker aspects to it. He said it shouldn’t look like dystopia, that the point was to make it seem like utopia. In many ways, it would have been easier to create a straightforward dystopia, relying on our many tools for lighting, plus set dressing.”

Production designer Andy Nicholson and VFX supervisor Jim Berney [Exposure, page 32] scouted Chicago to figure out the division between practical and VFX builds. Nicholson notes that the novel didn’t provide reasons for Chicago’s isolation. “We had to address the relevant story issues visually, but without the cues you’d take from a William Gibson or Robert Heinlein book. Looking back in time from present day to see what the buildings were like in the past gave us a good idea about how some things remain while others get replaced.

“Chicago gave us many great gifts,” Nicholson continues. “But the most important was its industrial 1930s look. Hancock Tower is 50 years old and well maintained, and it’ll still be there a century from now. Along with glass and steel, granite is used throughout the city to protect against atmospherics, aiding preservation. We could keep aspects of the real Chicago, but alter them, showing how the inhabitants use skyscrapers to anchor wind turbines that power the city.”

Monitor displays were of particular concern, with the screen surface designed to resemble a flexible printed material more than a conventional screen with lights.

“So much of the design graphics from the last five years look like they came from the same mind and toolset,” adds Nicholson, “which really annoys me as I find it dangerously self-referential. That’s opposed to Blade Runner and 2001, which pulled from literature and genuinely good innovative design, both architectural and scientific. Instead of a fancy extrapolation from the designer Mac look, I went for utilitarian.”

Nicholson drew on his Gravity experience, referencing the Soyuz capsule’s screens. “Even though they were in Russian, those user interfaces were simple enough to figure out in three minutes,” he says. “Computer-graphic designer Derek Frederickson did some great work for us in this vein, using AfterEffects.” To guarantee that actors would be providing credible interaction with the to-be-inserted screen graphics, green screen pads with numbered spots cued their movements.

Even after the decision was made to capture via ALEXA, Küchler strove to attain a film-like quality. “In the photochemical era, our visual expression came from both lens and filmstock choices,” he offers. “But now, lenses are the prime tools with which cinematographers make their aesthetic calls. Those range from image cleanliness, choosing to bake flares into the image and including lines that go softer toward the edges of the frame. With this in mind, I chose PVintage lenses that Panavision has rehoused. The glass is older with more imperfections and a wonderfully irregular falloff that fought the cold, soulless look of digital. These lenses provided a softer look to the skin, too; I strongly believe your look has to come through the glass, and if you use filters on the camera to soften, it won’t be anywhere near as effective.”

Küchler does allow that “the toe of the shadows on digital is interesting, and that gave us some nice visuals. Since the film is really Tris’ journey, we tried to keep things subjective to a degree, staying close to our lead actress to see how the environment registers on her face, even well into the shadow area, and how it all affects the character’s psychology.”

Burger drew the storyboards for a sequence in which Tris enters a dream-like state and sees herself reflected in myriad ways.

“This is a controlled nightmare designed to challenge and test her,” the director explains. “There’s a psychotropic element to a landscape in which she faces her fears while being monitored, which is a thing apart from most dystopic movies. It begins with a single mirror running the length of one wall. She looks to one side and sees another wall with a mirror, and suddenly it is all a four-walled mirror in a dream. I wanted to see her step into that world of infinite reflections in all directions, right through the reflections geographically, even as they react optically.”

Another artist elaborated on Burger’s boards, allowing the sequence to be refined with stand-ins before a full previsualization was built. To differentiate these dreams from the rest of the film, Panavision’s E anamorphics were employed, along with a +1 diopter.

One aspect that subtly futurized Chicago was the use of cutting-edge lighting instruments contrasting with the more ancient post-industrial aesthetic. “When they presented me with the spaces for some sets, I worried how many units I’d need and how much it would cost to light these areas,” Küchler recalls. “Gaffer Len Levine helped me create looks that met the challenge using LED units: Ohms, TruColor HS & Fotons from PRG, plus miles of LED ribbon from Litegear, integrated into custom plexiglass forms.  Plasma lights, which actually originated with Tesla and offer a slight fluctuation, came from Hive Lighting.”

Referencing the light in the Flemish oil painting of Brueghel’s farmer at a table in candlelight, Küchler replaced the candle with the small, intensely bright plasma lamp.  Second unit DP Jake Polonsky reports that “Len and Alwin embraced the idea of new lighting units to get that different look. The Studio Force units were unbelievably powerful, doing the work of a physically much larger Fresnel lamp.”

Much of the film is set in the domain of Dauntless, built locally as a 220- × 120-foot pit. Tunnels winding their way out of the pit provided a variety of shooting perspectives looking both into and away from the cavernous base. “The tunnels and sleeping quarters are very low-light,” notes Küchler. “Surelight, a company in England, makes lighting strips with a turquoise glow that are three to four inches wide. The kind of lurking-in-the-shadows feel becomes more prevalent as the film goes on, with Dauntless initially seeming very appealing before turning frightening.”

Iconic Chicago locations included the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier (a rare crane day), and Cinespace Film Studios. Shooting was predominantly handheld and Steadicam, even while on dollies, with two cameras wide and tight, transmitting wirelessly via Paradox.

“A-camera operator Martin Schaer and B-camera/Steadicam operator David J. Thompson are just fantastic at their jobs,” enthuses Küchler. “They can deliver whatever you need but also contribute intelligent suggestions that make you look good. I have a huge trust in key grip Jim Shelton as well, who volunteers many creative solutions.” In fact, the whole crew happily pushed to accommodate Burger’s vision, as A-camera 1st assistant Trevor Loomis laughingly recalls: “Every day of this shoot was hairy in some way. Even day exteriors weren’t much above F4.”

Arriraw was recorded in 4:4:4 to Convergent Design’s Gemini and to cards as backup, with media passing from the ACs to an online representative of Efilm. DIT Nate Kalushner and 2nd unit/splinter unit DIT Robert Cauble colored the live image and created LUTs, while also pulling wireless iris as needed.

“Alwin had worked with Efilm to develop a lookup table specific to the film,” recounts Cauble. “Additionally, we produced scene-specific grades, which were handed off to the dailies colorist as CDLs. This allowed Alwin to communicate his creative intentions with color and contrast on set while maintaining a technically dynamic Raw image.”

Second unit work expanded beyond original expectations, with three cameras shooting the Chicago El Train sequence behind the North Plant Stages. “Twenty stuntmen jumped onto the passing train, which consisted of two cars on wheels pulled by a hitched truck,” recalls 2nd unit/splinter unit DP Paul Hughen. “Then they leapt onto rooftops once they arrived at their destination.

“Jim Berney and Greg Baxter from VFX were always on hand adjusting our massive proscenium of surrounding green screen,” Hughen adds. “We carried two 30-ton construction cranes so we could quickly lift an additional two 40-by-40 green screens and place them where they needed to be for the best background coverage and the moving sun.”

Nicholson’s crew had built the train sections atop a downtown parking structure, with a section of full-size track that could be moved to another section of town to vary the perspective. But as Hughen explains, “the difficulty was only having two train cars when the train could be up to 6 or 7 car lengths in the finished film. We were always backing the camera up ‘into air’ so that VFX could place a car or two in the foreground or several more in the deep background. [Second unit director] Garrett Warren knew exactly what Neil and Alwin wanted. Using the Artemis application, I forwarded stills taken with my iPhone to Alwin and Neil so Main Unit could see precisely what we were shooting.”

To address the issue of train interiors with green screen windows, plates were shot – using a three-camera rig – after VFX supervisor Berney determined they could be later stitched together into a panoramic view. “Lighting console programmer Josh Thatcher put those on a media server to recreate the lighting on the interiors with Color Force LEDs,” relays Küchler. “Len Levine and Jim Shelton built fantastic rigs to sell the interactive trees going by.”

Additional second-unit work that followed the first-unit shoot included a nighttime zip-line sequence for a Dauntless initiation ceremony. “For that,” Polonsky recalls, “Len placed remote-control LED units all around the tops of the buildings.”

In post, Efilm colorist Tom Reiser was called upon to extend Küchler’s concept. “Sometimes Alwin likes special LUTs to achieve a look,” Reiser observes. “[He] uses a lot of power windows, curves and keys. Baselight is robust when it comes to this functionality, updating a background render as you work; you always get playback. I can use video corrections [lift/gamma/gain] in addition to the usual film printer lights. The video controls are very useful when it comes to getting the most out of digitally captured footage.”

Reflecting on the making of Divergent, Kuchler notes a change in the importance of at least one other department. “Over the past five years, collaboration between the DP and VFX supervisor has become utterly crucial. It’s not only the meeting of minds on technical matters, but a matter of aesthetic-mindedness as well, appreciating what the other brings.”

CREW LIST > Divergent

Director of Photography: Alwin Kuchler, BSC
Operators: Martin Schaer, Dave Thompson, Joe “Jody” Williams, Chris Rejano, Rob Carlson
Assistants: Trevor Loomis, Chris Wittenborn, Don Duffield, Peter Kuttner, Patrick Sokley, Dave Wightman, Andy Borham, Rob Faison, Keith Hueffmeier, Mitch Koepp
Steadicam Operator: Dave Thompson
Digital Loader: Josh Ramos
Digital Imaging Tech: Nate Kalushner
Still Photographer: Jaap Buitendijk
Publicist: Toni Atterbury


Dir. Of Photography: Jake Polonsky, Paul Hughen
Operators: Joe “Jody” Williams, Chris Rejano
Assistants: Steve Cueva, Jorge Sanchez, Zach Gannaway, Rob Faison, Hunter Whalen, Matt Rozek, Bing Liu, Jason Bonner, Eric Hingst
Digital Imaging Tech: Robert Cauble, John Waterman
Utility: Filip Dvorak
Underwater Operator: Peter Zuccarini
Underwater Assistant: Robert Settlemire

By Kevin H. Martin. Photos by Jaap Buitendijk/Summit Entertainment