High action on the high seas with Tobias Schliessler, ASC and director Peter Berg
As Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean and other films adapted from the unlikeliest of sources – toys, theme park rides and the like – have shown, high recognition factor at the box office pays off.
Battleship, directed by Peter Berg, occasionally gives a nod to its source material, a century-old board game that became popular in the 1960s when Hasbro introduced a plastic pegs version. The movie even incorporates principal strategies of the game, with the besieged heroes creating a grid of X-Y coordinates for the surrounding waters to aid in locating and engaging the unseen enemy. But in the film, the world’s naval fleets are pitted not against one another but against hostile aliens seeking global annihilation.
Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, ASC, who has lensed three of Berg’s last four features – Hancock (2008), Friday Night Lights (2004) and The Rundown (2003) – says the actor-turned-director brings strong visual ideas to each of his films.
“Pete said he wanted to feel like it is really happening,” Schliessler explains. “But he also wanted aspects of heightened reality, stressing the sense of adventure for audiences.”
The photographic vision for Battleship began taking shape in previs nearly three years before the (35-mm anamorphic) film cameras rolled. “We started with production designer Neil Spisaks’s detailed illustrations,” Schliesser recounts. “There were two incredible previs artists, Justin Denton and Barry Howell [from HALON and The Third Floor, respectively; see Previs/Revis, ICG April 2012].
“I would see and review their work every few days, sometimes offering alternative shots or ideas for movement. We made a point of integrating lighting choices into previs so everybody would know about the interactive lighting requirement before shooting. And we spent days moving scale model ships around to get a sense of geography. We had to figure out where to put the camera to capture the size and speed of these ships – I’m talking about 900-foot-long ships traveling at 30 knots – while getting them to where they needed to be for story points. Half of our final image wasn’t even going to be visible when we went on location, so previs informed how all of our operators would frame.”
Using many cameras and Guild operators, including Chris Haarhoff, SOC, Robert Baumgartner, Maurice K. McGuire, SOC, Patrick O’Brien, Don King and Langston Travis was nothing new for Berg. Schliessler says one of the director’s strengths is orchestrating multiple cameras on the fly. “He’ll change all the angles around from one take to the next as part of the storytelling,” Schliessler continues, “and that contributes to the energy of the shooting.” Local 600 members on the shoot included film loader Stephen Early, Doggicam operator Scott Dropkin, 1st ACs Jimmy E. Jensen and Jason Jensen, B-cam 1st AC Tony Nagy, 2nd ACs Brian Matsumura, Miguel Pask and Daryl Gilmore, 2nd AC and B-cam operator Scott Whitbread, and DIT Kurt E. Soderling.
Battleship’s second unit team (which also used multiple cameras) was led by cinematographer Larry Blandford and his camera operator Christopher Duskin, B-cam/SteadiCam operator Jason Ellson, SOC, B-cam 1st AC Louie DeMarco, 2nd unit film loader Savannah Teller-Brown and 2nd AC Rob Pittman. More support, beneath the waves and in the sky, came from underwater DP Peter Romano and aerial DPs Hans Bjerno and Kurt E. Soderling, aerial camera technicians Eric Dvorsky and Marc Ehrenbold (the latter on Wescam), with additional photography provided by 2nd unit DP Dino Parks and 2nd AC Halle Fischer, and unit still photographer Frank Masi, SMPSP documenting the production.
The overall shooting plan mandated a different look for pre-battle scenes, which featured wide lenses, smooth camera moves and softer light. Once the alien attack commenced, camera movement became part of the action – a mix of handheld, SteadiCam and longer lenses – to immerse the audience in the fight.
Battleship was shot on film, reflecting director Berg’s vision that subject matter and scale mandated anamorphic capture. “I was there from the beginning when there was a one-page outline, and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is going to be a big exciting action sci-fi movie,’” Schliesser remembers. “And Pete comes in with a visual approach [35-mm anamorphic] that got me even more excited to take on the task, as we ultimately kept to a stop between T4 and 5.6 to visualize the movie.”
Kodak’s Vision 3 250D 5207 and Vision 2 50D 5201 (for daylight exteriors) were Schliessler’s stocks of choice. For most interiors, he used Vision 3 500T 5219. With greenscreen sets (where there was enough light), Vision 3 200T 5213 was employed. Panavision Platinums were used for A- and B- cameras, as the operators appreciated the clear viewing system, which more than offset any weight issues. SteadiCam and crane work utilized Millennium XLs.
“Our anamorphic lenses were picked and tested by Jimmy Jensen,” says Schliessler. “I was very happy with the 40– to 80 [millimeter] and 70- to 200 [millimeter] zooms, and the E-series lenses gave me the nicest anamorphic flares. For SteadiCam, there were G-series lenses, and we used a set of Primo primes for lowlight situations.”
Production capitalized on U.S. Navy vessels engaged in RIMPAC exercises in Hawaii and San Diego locations. “We shot on real ships at sea and on a destroyer inside the harbor in Hawaii,” Schliessler states, adding, “We shot lots of interiors and exteriors on the [battleship Missouri], shooting on their flying bridge as well. Many of these shots were also done as stage work, so matching was tricky.”
Eighty percent of the film’s interiors were shot on sets against greenscreen in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, featuring accurate recreations by production designer Neil Spisak. All sets were built of steel to hold the heavy computer screens and cables hung from the ceiling. Magnets were used to hang lighting fixtures wherever needed, as Spisak designed the ceiling so panels could be opened (to hang Kinoflos for extra light on tight sets). Schliessler says that without the art department, “it would have been impossible to light and shoot the kinds of shots we ended up with.”
In fact, the DP’s biggest challenge was the low ceilings aboard the ship. “In reality, vessel interiors are no more than seven feet high, so practicals were the only way to light inside these sets,” he observes. The art department found fixtures that became main units, with three-quarters of the practicals consisting of small snorkel lights.
A variety of color temperatures, ranging from daylight to green fluorescents and warm tungsten, were mixed in gaffer Bob E. Krattiger’s lighting placements. To strike a balance between the reality of a ship’s CIC (Combat Information Center) – made up of overhead fluorescents wrapped in blue gel – and more natural light, Schliessler settled on a gel combination of ½ CTB and ¼ plus green on daylight Kino bulbs overhead, while monitor-based light sources used tungsten with ¼ CTO to keep natural skin tones.
“Bob Krattiger outfitted these with LED MR 16 bulbs and plain tungsten track light fixtures with tungsten MR 16 bulbs painted gray,” says Schliessler. “We made about thirty of each, and one-foot, three-bulb fluorescents, ubiquitous aboard naval craft.”
Custom-built LED light panels, ranging in size from 1 × 6 to 24 × 48 with daylight, tungsten, blue, green and red LEDs provided by LiteGear were easily hidden between set pieces. “Bob and Tobias had some great ideas for integrating LED panels into the ship’s controls,” LiteGear’s Chief Product Engineer Al DeMayo acknowledges. “We specialize in creating ‘building blocks’ for gaffers and DPs – strips and panels with flicker-free dimmers, DMX and wireless controls can be made to fit just about anywhere.”
The destroyer bridge set was redressed to serve as different ships. It was built on a 9-foot-high gimbal and featured exterior observation decks on either side.
“The bridges on actual destroyers in the ocean are lit from the outside through small windows,” Schliessler explains. “Enormous amounts of bounce light, off the water and sky, enter, along with slivers of hard sunlight.”
A 60 × 60-foot diffusion created the skylight effect, while a 375 × 40-foot greenscreen encircled the set, enabling elaborate 360-degree SteadiCam moves around actors on the observation deck. The camera would follow the actors (leads included Taylor Kitsch, Liam Neeson and Rihanna) through the interior and back out the other side.
“We had fifteen 20Ks on trusses plus about ten 20Ks on the floor, all on dimmers for a soft overhead sky ambiance,” Schliessler describes. “It was difficult to hide these lights on wide tracking shots. Our key grip, Mike Anderson, built different sizes of greenscreen panels that we could move in front of the lights to hide them. Mike also built a greenscreen covering 600 feet of highway on both sides, thirty feet high and five lanes wide, then covered a sinking ship set piece with a screen that was easily 300 by 40 feet!”
With no room to lay dolly track, sliders allowed for moving camera shots. Technocranes were used outside of the gimbaled bridge, either shooting in through the windows or swooping in toward the actors on the observation deck. Schliessler praises ProCam’s Moviebird crane, which was the size of a 30-foot Technocrane and offered a fast-telescoping arm with a reach nearly equal to that of the 50-foot Techno. A Techno on a Chapman Super Nova crane was also employed for a complicated 360-degree move on a ramp that the actors climb before the ship sinks, part of a nearly two-minute continuous shot that took both first and second units three days and hundreds of hours to rig.
ILM visual effects supervisor Grady Cofer also began working on Battleship nearly three years ago, heading up work on water and destruction, while ILM visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman supervised creature work once shooting commenced. Cofer says the challenge for ILM recalled Pearl Harbor in terms of ship replication and synthesizing ocean, but the extraterrestrials added more complexity.
“It was a massive water and destruction show,” Cofer says. “Out of 1,500 VFX shots, over half feature water, so we spent a year on the Hopper Water Project, where we reengineered how we tackle large-scale fluid simulations and rendering at ILM. Since Peter demanded authenticity, we amassed hours of real-world reference to emulate.”
The level of realism achieved via the CG water went beyond creating a reasonable facsimile of the ocean, in some instances demonstrating an ability to generate phenomena that when captured on film would be considered “happy accidents.”
“When a splash takes place, it goes through various looks,” adds Cofer, “from a dense, massive deforming shape to smaller globules, before atomizing into mist. All the while, it reflects and refracts the light, so we were able to simulate the rainbow-like effects present from certain angles when sunlight hits water.”
Since tugboats were towing the retired battleship Missouri back to Pearl Harbor, production was afforded an opportunity that would never come again – capturing comprehensive reference of the ship via camera boat and helicopter that showed how ocean bounce light and caustic effects played across her hull.
“She was a museum piece, so we had to come up with VFX ways to make Missouri seem a part of the battle,” Helman recounts. “As a general rule we tried to have at least one real ship in every shot to use as a basis for the rest. Even for fully CG shots, we still used real ships as reference. Destruction footage revealed how an explosive blast can become a light source, so we used our proprietary Plume tool to create explosions that could relight our CG ships.”
To create an aerial lighting effect to simulate the passage of alien ships at night, Schliessler considered military flares on a cable rig, but nixed the approach due to the potential fire hazard. And even though FAA regulations restrict the number of lights that can be flown aboard helicopters, pilot Fred North (literally) rose to the occasion.
“I love when cinematographers ask you to build challenging rigs,” North admits. “When Tobias asked me to install powerful lights on the helicopter, I met with my engineers, Andy Spak and Peter Graf, and decided to use only FAA-approved parts.
“After brainstorming, we came up with four extremely powerful helicopter landing lights on each side and a LAPD-style searchlight on the nose that we installed on approved mounts, plus two landing lights already on board. It was a great idea, and since Tobias gave us plenty of time to prepare, it worked out great.”
“Fred is the best pilot I have worked with,” Schliessler marvels, “flying the copter at night between my Condors and lighting towers.” And, he adds, “the interactive lighting effects made the visual effects more believable. To suggest explosion effects on set, I combined Maxi 12-lights on dimmers with Lightning Strikes, and matched many interactives to what was done in previs so ILM had as many real-world cues as possible.”
For the alien attackers, on-set motion capture utilized gray-suited performers, with helmets illuminated with LED spotlights.
“The aliens had different body types that vary according to their function,” explains Helman. “There are big one-on-one fights between humans and aliens, and a close-up dissection scene that required complete realism. To get that you need good design, good set reference and good lighting to achieve the necessary complexity and credibility.”
Company 3’s Stefan Sonnenfeld, who has worked with Schliesser for more than a decade, handled the digital intermediate. “Stefan is good at making the image feel vibrant and natural, not like some DI post effect,” the DP recalls. “To increase the drama we emphasized strong contrasts.”
Still, with all the digital and CG options available for the ambitious scale and deep-pocket resources of Battleship, there are no magic solutions when dealing with Mother Nature’s mercurial ways. “The hardest time I had in the DI,” Schliesser concludes, “was trying to match cloudy days with sunny ones in scenes that are continuous action and that we shot over weeks. When the weather changes on the day, everyone always says, ‘Let’s fix it in the DI,’ but unfortunately you can’t make a cloudy day look sunny. At least not yet.”
By Kevin H. Martin / photos by Frank Masi/ILM/Universal pictures