Hi Film Folk,
Today we bring you another In Conversation.
This time with the talented cinematographer behind Warcraft – and Oscar-winning The Great Gatsby – Simon Duggan!
Tell us a little bit about your background? Were you from a creativity-encouraging family? How did you get your “foot in the door” in the film industry?
I had an interest in photography as a teen. My high school in Australia had one of the first Film and Television courses which gave me an idea of the options available.
My father was in the advertising business and he managed to get me a few interviews starting with a position in a Post House as a Tape operator. They assumed I had little interest and told me I had no future in the Film Industry.
Finally I landed a job with a commercial film studio based in Sydney. Starting as an assistant in the camera department I worked my way up and – after several years –was shooting commercials.
It was a great training experience as the company employed a full time film crew, we had full editorial and projection room. The crew would make a point of watching projected film dailies from the previous day’s shoot every morning.
You’re originally from New Zealand – have you spent time working on local projects? Do you have an overview of the film industry in New Zealand nowadays?
I left New Zealand as a two-year-old so Australia has been my home for most of my life. I often go back for commercial work. As well as servicing larger budget international films they make some great original feature films with some great home grown stories.
I have have filmed quite a few feature productions in Australia including, The Interview, “Garage Days”, “Knowing” for Dir Alex Proyas, “The Great Gatsby” with Dir Baz Luhrmann and most recently Dir Mel Gibsons “Hacksaw Ridge”.
Australia has great film crews and currently filming is Director Ridley Scott’s Alien sequel and Thor Ragnarok with New Zealand Dir Taika Waititi as well as several other Independent Australian films.
Working on Warcraft – how long was the prep and how long was the shoot?
It was a long prep of about 12 weeks and 18 weeks of shooting.
Director Duncan Jones was very much about being faithful to the established design of the Warcraft franchise. The detail that went into the production design by Gavin Bouquet was incredible. Many cues were taken from the design of the game, one element in particular was that the physical sets and environments were built to double the normal human scale.
A lot of time was spent working out how to squeeze everything into the stages and then how to light them with very little space left in the perms of the stages. There are also many lighting gags associated with the different spells that are cast by the characters. A lot of testing went into this.
The shoot went very smoothly and I attribute it to a thorough prep time.
What percentage of the shoot was exterior and what percentage in the studio?
It was about 90 percent on stage as we needed the control for Lighting continuity and VFX requirements such as witness tracking cameras. The impact of any bad weather would have been a major issue.
What was the biggest challenge? The most exciting parts/sequences?
One of the most challenging set ups was “Elwynn Forest” built for many of the fight and chase sequences. We built a forest featuring scaled up trees with girths of about 12’ in diameter on a stage the size of a football field. We had dozens of horses galloping through the set at times.
We couldn’t set this up on an exterior location as the weather was a problem. We had to achieve this on stage for continuity of light and so that the Visual Effects team could set up 200 witness cameras placed to track every movement of the actors who were to be transformed into “Orcs” as well as the onset filming cameras which each had antennas attached sending back exact coordinates and angle information.
The lighting challenge was massive as we wanted streaming sunlight through the tree canopies without the light sources being in shot. We decided on thousands of small Par Lamps all in parallel surrounding the perimeter of the whole set high up in the perms of the stage. We then used dimmer boards to make quick lighting changes throughout the whole set.
Warcraft was shot on an ARRI Alexa XT Plus — what was special about the way you shot this one in comparison to other movies?
I used the Alexa in Full Sensor mode giving VFX a higher definition image to work with.
The camera and the actors playing the CG characters had tracking sensors attached and we were able to feed the CG characters in real time into the camera operators eyepiece.
The operator could simply switch between the real actor and his CG character to check physical size and position in frame of the CG character as it was almost twice the size.
You’re a DoP with a proven record of VFX/SFX projects (incl. shooting native 3D for The Great Gatsby) could you describe how this might work on the day? Do you find the deeper we go into the CG world the harder it is to combine that with photographing real life items in the same scene?
It often surprises people how much is filmed in camera, most of the time on a CG-heavy film the actors are on a stage with a built set so they feel comfortable within the space they are performing. Green screen is often there just to extend the backgrounds.
The Great Gatsby and Warcraft had some of the largest set builds I have filmed and the actors were mostly contained within a physical set. There was almost always a physical dimension, color, tone and lighting reference behind the actors.
But yes at times when you only have a character in front of green screen it is harder to light and create a sense of mood when the background is fluorescent green.
And what’s your basic shoot day from wake up to sleep time involve?
The larger VFX films require a lot of pre-production with story boards and previs for complex scenes. With a long prep the crew and cast are familiar with what we are trying to achieve well before we start shooting. This makes the shooting process so much faster as most script issues have been addressed well before the shoot day.
We’ll start with a block through with the actors and send them back to makeup. Lighting trims will start and grip, camera and VFX will set up. It’s then a couple of rehearsals and we are shooting. The process then keeps repeating itself.
While shooting, the Director is being fed an HD image that I have applied a color grade to. The quality of the image is so good that it’s very seldom directors and crew want to spend another couple of hours at the end of the day watching dailies.
I do miss watching the dailies with the director and crew as it was a time to watch through everything closely and communicate ideas or make changes. It’s now the time where the director often goes straight to editorial and starts working on the cut.
Where do you see the next technological development taking place with cameras or projection?
Digital cameras are becoming smaller with even greater resolution and light sensitivity and camera platforms are becoming more refined and inventive such as the use of Drones for aerial work and specialised cranes, tracking vehicles and stabilised heads.
Projection systems are getting better with new units that can screen Dolby Vision which gives a much higher dynamic range with contrast, brightness and color information.
What are some of the shots/sequences/scenes in your past projects that you’re most proud of? Or that were the most challenging and satisfying at the end?
I don’t really think in terms of scenes in a film when it comes to most satisfying but rather how a film comes together as a whole in regards to the mood, lighting atmosphere and camera movement.
Every film requires a different treatment using different lighting and camera approaches to suit the plot, characters and setting of a film. It’s always rewarding once the film is finished to see that everything has come together as imagined.
“The Great Gatsby” is a good example. We went in shooting with real 3D stereo cameras. It was our first experience with the 3D medium and quite a challenge on many levels including the bulkiness of the camera systems and attention to VFX requirements but we were able to achieve a very heightened visual film with a freedom of camera movement and great performances throughout.
You’ve worked several times with Alex Proyas, twice with Len Wiseman – What are the key elements to building a successful working relationship between a Cinematographer and Director?
Its about building great communication and trust with your director, sharing a common creative viewpoint from the start of a project and being able to create the imagery that the director envisions throughout.
I try and be well prepared for shoot days when it comes to a lighting plan that enables quick adjustments that gives the director as much flexibility and shooting time with the actors. Simply put, the director will come back to you if he is happy with your work on his last film.
What would you say are the common traits shared by all great directors?
The best directors are great story tellers and absolutely passionate about their films. Their research, script development and casting are brilliant. Their judgement on performances and camera are crucial to making a great film, never making compromises.
They are generally great communicators with everyone involved.
You must have watched scores of performances. What separates good acting from bad or good acting from great?
I enjoy it when there is great chemistry between the cast but that is no guarantee of great performances. It really depends on the roles they are playing.
On some films the actors choose to detach themselves from each other to create tension. Some are method and stay in their character on and off screen for the run of the film. Some actors can turn their film character on and off like a switch.
They all have their differences yet most great performances are born out of a great script with amazing characters.
What piece of advice would you offer to aspiring cinematographers looking to follow in your footsteps?
Once you have decided you are passionate about the industry the early days are all about observing as much as you can, watching as much cinema as you can. Digital cameras are very accessible now so it’s much easier to go out and get experience shooting your own material.
A great way to make contact with established cinematographers is by joining the local Cinematography Society as a student or junior member, this will give you contact with all the members and open up opportunities for work experience.
Once the opportunity comes where you are on a film set its really important to watch how the whole crew works as a team, observing how they make creative decisions and how they go about achieving them.
I’ve seen a few young DPs who have not yet realised that its a collaboration with the whole crew that gets you the imagery you are after.
Name 5-10 films that you think are great examples of cinematography/personal favourites you’d recommend to filmmakers?
The films that made a biggest impression on me were films I saw in my youth, mostly produced in the ’70s and ’80s, especially the ones where the cinematography and lighting had an impact on me;
The Godfather, 1900, The Conformist, Raging Bull, Blade Runner, Angel Heart, Alien, The Right Stuff, The Last Emperor, Se7en.
Thank you, Simon!
RELATED ARTICLE: Read our interview with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas cinematographer Nicola Pecorini
RELATED ARTICLE: Read our interview with High Rise cinematographer Laurie Rose