Stranger Than Paradise

Oscar winner Guillermo Navarro, ASC, AMC, brings the otherworldly down to earth for the sci-fi thriller I Am Number Four

A 1982 TV series titled The Powers of Matthew Star posited the notion of an exiled extraterrestrial prince hiding out in suburban America. In the company of his warrior-mentor, Star awaited the day he could return to his home planet, which had been overrun by malevolent outworlders. A similar conceit informs the DreamWorks/Disney production of I Am Number Four. Based on the first of a projected series of novels by Jobie Hughes and James Frey, the film stars Alex Pettyfer as John Smith, one of nine young aliens from planet Lorien who have been hidden in our world after their own was destroyed by Mogadorian marauders. Their existence now uncovered, the young aliens are being hunted, with three already killed and John, who has been sequestered in the Middle-American town of Paradise, Ohio, next in line.

After producer Michael Bay brought the unpublished novel to executive producer Steven Spielberg’s attention, the feature was put on a fast track, with less than a year between director D.J. Caruso being hired and the film’s theatrical release. Director of photography Guillermo Navarro, ASC, AMC, long slated to shoot The Hobbit for director and frequent collaborator Guillermo del Toro, became available as that project stalled out due to studio issues. No stranger to depictions of fantastic creatures and environs, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of Pan’s Labyrinth found the script rife with potential.

“The multi-layered story offered visual opportunities that captured my curiosity,” he explains. “I always seek material that contains a kind of depth – a parallel reality – presenting more than talking heads in a contemporary moment. In this vision of Middle America, they are already among us. There is much literature in the field now about extraordinary beings, from Harry Potter to aliens, all looking at our world with different eyes. Portraying this would require certain elements be invented from scratch, and that kind of challenge always interests me.”

Navarro elected to originate on film rather than shooting digital. “There was no debate,” he declares. “Film is always my first choice and a medium I feel comfortable with. Venturing to digital would introduce something artificial to my process, though I’ll have to eventually.” Relying largely on Kodak VISION2 stocks 500T 5218 and 200T 5217, he also tested the VISION3 5213 200T, which he expects will find its way into his future work. The cinematographer employed his own Moviecam and ARRICAM 35mm cameras, shooting spherically with Zeiss Ultra Primes and Angenieux Optimo zooms.

With respect to moving camera considerations, Navarro finds each project has its own process of discovery. “I have to find the language needed for any given movie, in terms of how and when you move. Certain resources work better for one character than another, and that is especially true on this film, where we have very tall menacing creatures, plus others who move very fast or are capable of making tremendous leaps. In addition to the dolly, we used a lot of Steadicam® and a telescoping crane [with remote head] throughout.”

Since visual effects were sure to figure heavily, previsualization of certain sequences was an essential early step. Los Angeles-based The Third Floor, a previz facility known to Caruso from his Eagle Eye feature, was tasked with providing Maya-based animations that captured the director’s intentions for both camera movement and visual design. Company founder and creative director Christopher Edwards believes that, “These days, the best previz artist has been to film school or has a directorial sensibility, which helps with interpreting artistic notions from a filmmaker.” Caruso had his own ways to inspire the previz team. “D.J. provides a certain amount of info, then says, ‘That’s all I’m giving you for now,’ not wanting to hinder creativity. We’d spend a week on animation and motion capture, then get his feedback on what he liked. At that point, he might give us a bit more about the story to keep us in line with his intentions.”

A significant amount of effort went into previz on a battle between alien monsters. “Ninety-five percent of creature design was complete when we came on,” supervisor and The Third Floor co-founder Joshua Wassung recalls. “There were some extreme designs, so movement issues had to be addressed since imagining the speed and type of action would affect how the live action was shot. D.J. likes a realistic ‘if a cameraman was really there, how would he capture this?’ approach. We brought in [CG] artists to do a full animation test, and that really helped with locking in run cycles while giving production a solid guide for imagining these things in motion.”

The compressed production was different from the VFX norm, with Wassung describing it as one continuous and overlapping workflow. “We had to start generating generic high school environments well before the locations were locked in,” he states. “That meant we had to take a step back when reference pictures of the actual school came to us in order to refit the previz to the genuine location.”

When Wassung moved onto another DreamWorks project, Patrick Smith took over previz supervision on location in Pennsylvania. “Production’s art department provided blueprints for the cafeteria and hallways that my team assembled in 3D,” Smith relates. “Our workflow was a two-way street, because in another instance, we did director-approved previz for the big locker room fight – stuff showing about how long the stalls need to be, that the lockers go here  – and so that passed from me to the art department, which then built the set to our specs.”

Navarro confirms that the scenes using previz mainly involved those with visual effects. “There were digital characters involved,” the DP relates. “So the previz in that sense is an opportunity to understand how all the pieces fit together. It [visual effects] is a very abstract process when you’re doing it, so I find previsualization a very helpful tool, and use it every chance I can.  You can’t always get the exact kind or speed of movement in reality that you have in the previz, but that isn’t as important as the idea behind what is presented in the previz, and that is what I find most valuable.”

Except for a final week of shooting in the Florida Keys, all of I Am Number Four was shot in or near the Pittsburgh area. “We found representative locations that were very good for us in Pennsylvania for the high school and its football field,” Navarro explains. “When locations are selected because of rebate opportunities, it can sometimes be difficult to make things work, but the community was good to us and we were permitted to transform some areas to help tell the story.”

With a large volume of night shooting, Navarro credits two longtime associates, key grip Rick Stribling and gaffer David Lee, for their ability to interface. “I’ve worked with them off and on for the last 15 years,” he notes, “and we always had to keep communication going, since there were rigging crews working ahead of us. Existing [light] sources always justify our approach, in this case security-light sources, and then we make them work for us by supplementing with our own lighting tools.” Navarro prefers a stop of around 3.5, adding, “We are never shooting completely wide open, but the shallower depth of field makes it challenging to cover action properly at night, especially with a lot of changes in focus while following running actors at high speeds.”

Navarro had worked with stunt coordinator Bradley James Allan on Hellboy 2 and suggested bringing him on board. “A lot of the low-light night shooting involved the actual stars being hung and flown along on wires, which took place both in the stadium and at the school,” B-unit operator Joe Chess states. “It’s the first time I’ve seen stunts feature principal actors to this degree. We did a crane shot where John’s girlfriend slides off a roof about 45 feet up. It starts as a full closeup on her, shot from a crane that tips to follow her as she drops away. Brad had the actress playing number six [Teresa Palmer] on rigs that sent her 75 feet in the air, and she didn’t ever show the slightest worry.”

Chess says that Guillermo “wanted to be in control of the lighting and how everything was shot, so first unit [operator/Steadicam David Crone, 1st AC Jason Garcia, 2nd AC Rigney Sackley] did absolutely everything. At one point, D.J. wanted some driving scenes with Alex and other actors in a different town, so Guillermo stayed back to set up and light a motel room stage set on one of our two converted factory stages, while D. J. took us out with a camera car and crane. I’ve seen a lot of the U.S. on films, and the crews [in Pennsylvania] were as willing to learn and do whatever was necessary as they are anywhere. We had a terrific loader in [PA-based Guild member] Amanda Rotzlor, and a great production staff, led by Susan McNamara [UPM] and [Executive Producer] David Valdes.”

Shooting took place mostly at night, but the short summer nights necessitated two camera teams leapfrogging setups to complete the shot list. “Guillermo’s A-unit would set up in one location, usually the forest or on stage, while we [B-camera 1st AC Patrick McArdle and B-camera 2nd AC Tim Guffin] worked another setup nearby,” Chess explains. “We’d try to rough in the lighting, and then you’d see David Lee running between sets to finish things off here before returning to Guillermo and David [Crone].” Much of the night shooting takes place only in moonlight, so the lighting package was ingeniously small. “There were no Bebee or Musco™ lights on the stadium shots, just [2K quartz halogen] Fey lights up on a Condor. But they were enough to put across the intended mood,” Chess adds.

And because image quality can be sacrificed on action-heavy films, Navarro’s camera team says the DP makes an effort to keep the lighting looking good even when the camera, background and foreground elements are all in simultaneous motion. “With some of my stuff, I was probably a little off-axis from the ideal lighting angle,” Chess says. “But it helped put across the crazy action D.J. wanted in a dynamic way. When we got away from Steadicam and dolly, we just had to crash and burn through it handheld.”

Many of the film’s set pieces placed actors amidst large-scale physical mayhem, with a foamcore cutout to indicate the size of an attacking creature to help guide camera framing. “Though,” Chess says, “[the creature] was also capable of jumping up and away, which required some imagining on our part.”

At one point, a monster invades the school, tears through a classroom wall and enters the hall before bursting into another room. A motion-control rig was set up at one end of the hall and run backwards as an off-camera air-ram that triggered the first room break. From there, the computer handled the repeat passes, which included other wall hits and lockers flying. A final pass recorded fleeing actors.

Most visual effects-related work was shot with Navarro’s own cameras.  “Every cinematographer wants effects to look like they were shot the same as every other cut, so using the same tools is a way to assure this is going to happen,” visual effects supervisor Gregory McMurry [see Exposure] explains. “VFX films used to have an effects unit with special plate cameras, but it’s more likely now that we can get everything we need from first unit crews directly.”

Once the bane of main unit crews, bluescreen shooting has become less tedious and restrictive. “Because of developments in film stocks and our increased ability to track objects, it is easier to drop a small bluescreen in on the set to shoot the actors right then, instead of mimicking the setup weeks later,” McMurry states. “Our main concern when shooting bluescreen now is getting good separation on actor hair, which is very hard to rotoscope. But the screen doesn’t even have to be large enough to cover the actor’s whole body, so setting up and shooting is nowhere near as intrusive and time consuming.”

The most important visual effects sequences in the film are with the Lumen, a powerful glowing manifestation of John Smith’s power that had a very real presence during live-action shooting. “We came up with an interactive light process that worked from the actor’s hands,” Navarro explains. “It was key to making the whole character-power aspect credible.”

Lee created the source lighting from LEDs, which attached to Pettyfer’s hands and were wired to a battery pack on his back. “David needed advance warning every time the Lumen was required, because he had to build the effect each time,” Chess observes. “The first version was a square mat of LED lights and actually could shock you a bit. But then David put it into a covered plastic housing the size of his palm.”

Lee also programmed the dimmer board to allow control of speed and light intensity of the Lumen from a slider on his iPad. “There was complete freedom of movement for the actor and David could produce variations in lighting as fast as we could shoot them,” Chess marvels. “They even used it underwater, though he had to do a demonstration before Alex would agree to that!”

“We had to clean up the hands in some takes,” McMurry adds, “taking any wires or sign of the LED device away, and then putting a digital version of the light in with added rays to suggest power. The Lumen had to look like [Smith] was dealing with more than just light, because tremendous energies were emitted.”

Even as shooting wrapped, The Third Floor supplied updates to their previs that pulled animated characters out of virtual environments and placed them in actual film plates. “Providing the most complete and accurate information in this form, called postviz, helps serve as a direct template for VFX bids,” Edwards notes.

Navarro, who oversaw I Am Number Four’s DI at Company 3 with colorist Stefan Sonnefeld, says he began implementing an on-set process, a few movies back, that helps him with the DI phase. “My son has been taking digital pictures of all setups for reference,” Navarro concludes. “This way, with color correction in place, there is no surprise at the end of the process. Everybody knows how the scene is supposed to look, which helps protect my part of the collaboration.”

By Kevin H. Martin / photos by John Bramley