ILLUMINATING A BROAD CANVAS FOR THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTER
By the time you read this, Pearl Harbor, released May 25, should be well on its way to blockbuster status. The third and most elaborate pairing to date of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay, the wartime romance epic, like The Rock (1996) and Armageddon (1998) before it, was shot by cinematographer John Schwartzman, ASC. Lighting Dimensions spoke with the DP's longtime chief lighting technician, Andy Ryan, about the collaborative effort to bring Pearl Harbor, which at $135 million has the largest budget ever greenlit (by Touchstone Studios), to the screen.
Robert Cashill: You're calling me on a cell phone from somewhere near Austin, TX, on your latest project. It seems like a whole different experience from Pearl Harbor.
Andy Ryan: Me, and John, and John's whole crew, are joined at the hip. [Laughs.] It's a lot like having a second family — me, and Les Tomita the key grip, and Richard Mosier the first assistant cameraman, have been together for six years. Whether you're doing a small movie like this, or a big one like Pearl Harbor, everyone knows everyone else, which is a great situation.
The new film, The Rookie, is the true story of Jim Morris [played by Dennis Quaid], who came from a small West Texas town and pitched his first big-league game at age 37. It's directed by John Lee Hancock, who wrote A Perfect World and the film of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It has a tight budget and a difficult schedule — the challenge here is, “How do we get these great looks in these great little towns with no money and no time to do it?” Thank goodness we're pulling it off, with the very capable crew we have locally.
On Pearl Harbor, it was just the opposite. We had the kinds of problems other companies wish they had, like, “How do you get a 40-footer full of equipment from Los Angeles to Hawaii, and have another one standing by and ready to go to start shooting when you return to LA?” And it just snowballs from there. Fortunately, I just show up for work on Monday morning and the crew has somehow achieved it. [Laughs.]
RC: Achieving the impossible, or at least the very difficult, seems to be the common thread in your big-budget Bay/Bruckheimer films.
AR: Pearl Harbor was a film that lurched forward, stopped, and got off the ground again as Michael worked to get the budget down from $200 million, which no studio in its right mind would say yes to. We knew we were going to be involved from the beginning, though we thought it would be six months sooner than we did.
RC: Did the scaled-back budget affect the lighting on the 100-day shoot?
AR: With the cuts to the budget from the proposed amount we had restraints, too — which actually worked out well, because luckily it helped keep us as true to the period as we could be. We didn't use any Kino Flos, no xenons — we had none of the tricks you use on a day-to-day basis. We used carbon arcs to light our day exteriors, and a lot of practical globes, like batstrips — basically, porcelain bases on a piece of 1×3, that were appropriate to the World War II setting.
The batstrips really worked out well for us in Hawaii, where our first locations were. The battleship Missouri was the very first location, and we had to think of a way to get some ambient light in places there just to get a basic exposure. On these ships, there's one lightbulb hanging in the middle of a room, and whatever sun that comes in through the windows. I have to credit our rigging gaffer, Jeff Soderberg, for the way we used the batstrips: We came up with 2' pieces of 1×3, put two 150W globes on them, and magnets on the back of each strip. We made them ourselves, at a cost of $5 per unit; maybe $10 or $15 if you add in the magnets.
We walked through the ship and hung them up everywhere, then ran electricity to them. We used the same batstrips everywhere we went: not just in Hawaii, but in Texas, where we shot on the USS Texas, and the Lexington, an aircraft carrier in Corpus Christi. This made my life really easy, and made me look like a genius. [Laughs.] All the battleship personnel, I have to say, could not have been more gracious and helpful to us.
RC: A period sense, through lighting, was key throughout the production.
AR: The batstrips gave us this great 1940s look, when things were lit by lightbulbs. Besides the carbon arcs we also tried to use tungsten light where we could, instead of HMIs.
We had tons of reference books and material, and we were always asking ourselves questions, like, “What about fluorescents?” They did exist in the 40s, but that was new technology then, and a military facility would not have had them. So, all right, there go the fluorescents. It was that kind of research, including reviewing movies from that time, that helped us stay true, visually, to the early 40s.
RC: Pearl Harbor has something of a three-act structure: the introduction of the two pilots (Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett) and the Navy nurse (Kate Beckinsale) they both love, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the climactic raid on Tokyo, led by General James Doolittle (Alec Baldwin). Was there a lighting plan specific to each of these movements?
AR: Once you get to the attack on Pearl Harbor, there's not a lot you can do: It's putting 11 Panavision cameras out to photograph 17 ships blowing up [courtesy of the largest series of explosions ever devised for a film, supervised by special effects coordinator John Frazier]. I'm oversimplifying, of course, but you don't light that: You just hope the sun is there as a backlight and go after it. The final raid is what it needs to be as well.
RC: The first act lent itself more to you and the crew.
AR: Yes, the first third, where the characters are introduced and are making their way to Pearl Harbor, is really where we put our effort. This section is a lot of small moments in big places, like the nurses arriving in Honolulu on a Pearl Harbor ferry with the Missouri in the background.
We had many great sites in and around Los Angeles, these unbelievable old buildings that the locations department came up with, like the Claremont Colleges in Claremont, CA, and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. Some had never been shot before, and they're gorgeous. And it was very simple: Your impulse is to put a Condor up in the air with an 18k on it and wash the buildings, but instead we put PAR cans on beaverboards down below flying buttresses for some basic architectural lighting.
Now, everyone shoots LA's Union Station, and we did, too. But do you know how to make a big train station look really good? We had a big Musco light, and other equipment, parked outside. However, what you do is, you shoot it when the sun is on one side of the building, and it's streaming in through its huge windows. And that's it. It doesn't take a rocket scientist, or a big crew — you just shoot it at three in the afternoon. It does take a production that can say, “OK, we'll be there ready to go at 3pm,” however.
The advantage, too, of lighting with the sun is that if it looks great and impresses everyone, and I need a lot of lights somewhere down the road, it buys me them. “Hey, guys, remember how I lit Union Station with the sun? Can you give me what I need now?” [Laughs.]
RC: A lot was needed when you went from Los Angeles to Rosarita, Mexico, to Fox Studios, where Titanic was shot.
AR: There, we spent two weeks shooting the Oklahoma rolling over, and some of our Arizona footage. Everything in the water. [Photography under the water was handled by DP Pete Romano. See “The water dance,” LD June 2000, page 56.]
In Mexico, it was like going to ShowBiz Expo. We missed the show last year because we were in Mexico at that time, but we hardly needed to go. We had every gadget imaginable down there: Technocranes, an Akela crane, a Libra head, two Wescams, and tons of lamps, all on GFI, because they were out on the water.
The studio people were shaking their heads at how much lighting we were carrying there, but if you have only two weeks, you want to make sure you have the tools you need for the job. And we used everything. It pays off: There are scenes in the movie where you're glad we had the Technocrane or the Akela crane to get some of those key shots.
[Lighting equipment vendors for these and other sequences, where appropriate given the authenticity level of the production, included LTM, ETC, Mole-Richardson, Ultralite, Chimera, and Kino Flo. “It would have been tough to do this movie without the support of Paskal Lighting, and its president, Evan Green,” Ryan says.]
RC: Time was of the essence throughout.
AR: One example of speeding things up to save time: the Pearl Harbor hospital set, which was an extension that was built to the existing Linda Vista Hospital in LA. There were 15 big windows down its side [the film's production designer is Nigel Phelps]. I could've put fifteen 18ks, one each per window, outside. But that would've taken 10 guys to operate, with all sorts of cabling and platforming. What I did was I took a big Musco light, stuck it in the parking lot, and turned it on. It looked just like the sun, it covered all the windows, and we were up and running in 10 minutes each day. You pull the trigger on making that expenditure, but it more than pays for itself at the end of the week, when you've given the director an extra hour or half-hour per day.
RC: Are there crew contributions you wish to spotlight?
AR: Dave Christensen, our assistant chief lighting technician, will make a great gaffer someday; he's like my second pair of eyes. I'll mention Les again, who is the master of getting lights in impossible places. When we were shooting on the Lexington, John wanted to hang four 6k PARs off the end of the carrier, to light back through these windows. But he wanted them to move up and down as if the ship was going through the water.
We thought about remote heads and all these expensive ideas, but Les and his rigging key, Jake Jones, and Jeff devised this arbor rig — they took a Condor, rigged pipe off it, and hung the 6ks off the pipe. There was one guy sitting on the deck of the Lexington, pulling a rope, and the 6ks, two levels below, are going up and down, just as John had wanted. It was the funniest thing I had ever seen — a low-tech approach that really worked.
“Simple and elegant.” On Pearl Harbor and on The Rookie, that is our mantra, every day.
[Additional members of the set lighting crew included rigging best boy Pat Hoeshen, and lamp operators Tom DeRose, Justin Holdsworth, Cindy Langerstrom, Bill Cueto, Mark Cueto, and Duncan Sobel.]
Armageddon, anyone? Search LightingDimensions.com for our July 1998 feature story.