The current state of action cinematography owes a debt to Paul Cameron. Along with being on the forefront of the digital revolution with his stunning night-time work on Collateral, he also collaborated with Tony Scottt on films which have an experimental visual energy simply missing from the genre today.
His latest feature, The Commuter, finds him collaborating with one of the great directors of today’s thrillers, Jaume Collet-Serra, and working carefully in the confines of a single train car. Through a custom rig and well-executed trickery, he expands the scope of this location while still adhering to lucid spatial coherence, something Collet-Serra can pride himself on film after film.
I spoke with the cinematographer about the utterly brilliant opening sequence, utilizing the new technology of Cinefade, the custom rig he built, his collaboration with Michael Mann and Tony Scott, his early film-going memories, and more.
Let’s start at the beginning. The opening sequence brilliantly conveys the passage of time. From a cinematography point of view, as it relates to matching the shots or coming up with the structure, what was your hand in that?
Well, it was interesting. Jaume Collet-Serra, the director, he wanted to try something different to show the passage of time and we kinda talked about it. We talked about how do we show the repetitive nature with different times of day and all that. We kind of defaulted on this idea of the same time of day, but the same scenes. Then it was like, okay, we have very limited time to shoot it, so we did a little test on it to see how it would work then we were very judicious and very well-planned in terms of how we would cover a line and how that would cut with the next reaction shot, so the test actually helped us lay it out quite well. I had a lighting scheme that I could turn from a hot summer day to a wintery snowy afternoon, so we just had a good plan and we were able to execute it well.
One thing I love about his films is the spatial coherence as it relates to the action. A lot of that has to do with your cinematography. Even though you didn’t shoot his previous films, this feels in line with his vision. The film is kind of taking the ideas of Non-Stop then multiplying it by 10-15 more cabins. Can you talk about bringing that to life?
Yeah, Jaume is a very talented director. He’s got this genre down very well. I’ve shot a fair amount of action films with Tony Scott and other people, so I think it was: how do we merge the two worlds and try to notch it up a bit? Again, he’s just so judicious about he plans things. In this case, it was how do we utilize one train car? Basically we shot it all on one train car with a small section of another one. So to give this reality of six cars and Liam moving up and down and different people in different trains, it was quite a challenge that way. The train didn’t move. It moved 20 feet up and 20 feet back. It would pull into a station on stage, then leave. It was very limited how we shot those platform sequences, but I think they turned out pretty well.
There’s something called Cinefade that is a new technology you used, allowing the depth of field to fluidly change. Can you talk about that?
Yeah, I actually saw a demo of Cinefade quite awhile ago and decided to use it on the film in its prototype form and I’ve since facilitated bringing it to the U.S. as a rental here. What I love about it is that it changes depth of field with spinning polarizers and your iris. In the past we used to do it with more of a shutter control, so it would have a completely different feel to it. This is a much more photographic way of doing it. We employed it on a few shots in the film, one of which is when Liam gets fired. We slowly track in and the background dissolves away. It’s kind of like we’ve seen these Vertigo effects–and we actually did one Vertigo effect in the movie–so Cinefade is new and it’s very subtle and it’s very photographic, and kind of charming to use.
You use a lot of insert shots, which help to heighten both the emotion and the thrills by adding to your perspective as a viewer. The planning must be insane for this. Do you know how many shots total are in the film?
No, I don’t. [Laughs] I’d be curious to know. For us, we really believe for thrillers, it’s how the audience discovers the story and what they do with the clues of the story and how they take a misdirect and how they pay attention to different things. In this case, there’s a lot of insert shots. I hate to even call them insert shots, cause they are really shots and they have to do with Liam’s point of view for the most part and it has to do with Liam trying to figure out, what do the tickets say and how do I know what zone they are in? This group of people sitting here, how many of them have that zone that are getting off? Those pieces were very important to show for both Jaume and I to get a sense of the reality of it. It’s about finding a bag on the train or finding a person on the train so there’s a lot of points of views that Liam drops into and a lot of details within that.
Speaking about Liam Neeson, he’s built his own iconography with his physique and his expressions that it must be a joy to shoot him in an action film because he brings so much to the table already. Can you talk about how involved you were in the blocking and framing of him?
First off, Liam is an amazing actor. He’s obviously a big movie actor, a big close-up actor, so he’s an absolutely pleasure to work with. He comes prepared and he knows his lines and he’s ready to make suggestions. In terms of blocking, we had to adjust the blocking quite a bit with Liam and a lot of the actors, due to the nature of the train and how we were able to get cameras where we needed to get them and get some kind of light or glimmer in an eye the way we wanted to do it. It was a challenge how to make that train interesting. The blocking ideas, we kind of went through the script and we realized we wanted sections of the film to be dormant and static with very subtle push-ins and then we didn’t want gratuitous dollies or Steadicam, then there were other parts where we were very certain we wanted to handheld and we wanted the camera right in Liam’s face in a lot sequences. It kind of evolved that way and then Jaume and I came up with a lensing chart. We broke it down in five sections of the movie and we decided we would stay within certain focal lengths in certain parts of the movie. We stayed true to it, even though we were blocking something and we felt like, oh, let’s go to a 17mm [lens] or something and we realized our bible said that we couldn’t go wider than a 40mm. So, we had to adjust the blocking or figure out a way to make it, but it was interesting to come up with that plan and do it, because I think it helped overall.
You created a rig for the train car with a custom rail that could move back and forth and 360 degrees around actors. Setting that up, does that free you up in a way to experiment or is there a loss in spontaneity?
I think the primary challenge on the train was: how do you move the camera on the train? We made the aisle width slightly wider as it was just so that we could potentially get handheld cameras and there was a lot of scenes where characters cross each other or pass each other. On a normal train that can be quite though. But the biggest challenge for us was how to move the camera, how to make dynamic movies over seats and go to Liam, wrap around Liam, and go the other direction and the physically it was kind of a process of me envisioning how to do it. I came up with the center track rig that actually would travel up and down the length of the car. You could also travel left and right manually and I added a z-axis to it, which was the ability to actually pan an extended arm all the way around, so actually do a 360 around him and track. There’s a fight sequence we tried to emulate as one shot. There’s quite a few wrap-around shots that would have been impossible without the right. Then there’s shots like Liam when he’s taking the cash and he realizes he’s on a train with hundreds of people and the camera pulls back through six train cars. That rig was obviously amazing to do the pull back on it and then five days later when we are redressing for another car with a different group of people, we were able to pull back through and get another car all the way through, etc. so we ended up on six different days doing the same shot, but we had it programmed. It was a lot of motorized winch systems so we could just execute the shot perfectly with very little time.
Yeah, it looked beautiful. If I could ask a few more questions about your background. Collateral is just an incredible feat of cinematography. Now it’s well on ten years old, looking back, the digital cinematography, even though you guys were on the forefront of it, it still holds up so well. Can you talk about your experience shooting that and working with Michael Mann?
Well, on the film I never intended to shoot the film digitally. Digital wasn’t even kind of an option back then. There was talk about it. We knew that in the technical world, companies were looking at this possibility and Michael had done a little bit of shooting on Ali with a Sony 900 on a rooftop with Will Smith and I remembered it from the movie. We looked at some of the scenes to get a feel for it. I mean, it was quite honestly like a film stock for me at that time. It was this kind of acidic acrid film stock that happened to be digital capture. [Laughs] It was never meant to be on the forefront, but it certainly changed a lot of things, that’s for sure. That film is interesting for me because it has a lot of action, but it’s kind of a night of, less than 24 hours in the movie, and the ticking clock, and you have the intense character that Tom plays, and the limitations of the taxi, so it was a lot of challenges. I bet specific trailers for being able to go handheld and keep the interactive light on the car and keep it sound-proof. There was quite a bit of planning that went into that it. So, it was quite a feat. I’m very happy with the results.
You mentioned Tony Scott and your collaborations with him brought such an experimental vision that seems like it’s missing nowadays from action films. Do you miss seeing his approach to the genre?
Yeah, Tony was one-of-a-kind for sure. He probably pushed cinematographers in general more than any other director I know, quite honestly. Our first film together was Man on Fire and we were talking about to enhance the visual palette and Tony had some hand-cranking on cameras. I had done some hand-cranking on cameras. We decided why not experiment with it? We saw this radical footage from hand-cranked cameras and using reversal film and cross-processing, so I brought a lot to the table with that, but I was supported a lot by the director who was very much in love with the results and the energy that type of photography brought. We went on to do a less chaotic film Deja Vu, but also very chaotic action-wise as well and that was a different approach. That one had to do with timeline change, so Tony, I think he was still in love with the frenetic visual quality but lessened it because I didn’t feel it was as appropriate. The bar got raised very early by Tony visually in action movies, and certainly we saw people like Michael Bay follow. Since then it’s been amped up completely. So it was a great evolution and it was great to see his effect on that genre.
My last question is going back even earlier. You’ve mentioned how you went to SUNY Purchase and you came into the city to go to New York Film Festival. Can you talk about those first experiences where you fell in love with cinema and what drew you in?
Yeah, one of the first films I saw at the New York Film Festival was Wim Wenders’ The American Friend. That had a major impact on me. The cinematography on that film was certainly evolutionary. Robby Müller from Germany was doing a lot of mixed light, natural light and I think for me the experience of the New York Film Festival was getting exposed to many more foreign films and I saw much more of a global vision to storytelling and cinematography and directing across the board. I realized that my first experience there at the film festival, standing on line and trying to get tickets, I would go every year. It was the most important, significant week of every year for me for many years.
The Commuter is now in wide release. Listen to our discussion of it below.