January 16th, 2012

The cinematography of “Quantum of Solace” – interview with Roberto Schaefer ASC

I am very thrilled to have the honor of interviewing the cinematographer Roberto Schaefer ASC. Over the last decade he has been the director of photography on “Monster Ball”, “Stay”, “Stranger Than Fiction”, “The Kite Runner”, “Finding Neverland” and, most recently, the latest installment in the Bond series, “Quantum of Solace” featuring Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Judy Dench and Gemma Arterton. Roberto has been gracious to find time in his busy schedule to talk about his work on “Quantum of Solace” and the visual turn that the iconic series has taken since Daniel Craig has joined it.


Roberto’s picture courtesy of Douglas Kirkland

Kirill: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your path to become a cinematographer

Roberto: I am a graduate of a fine arts college where I majored in Multi-Media which at the time was mostly conceptual, installation and every other art that didn’t fit into the classic categories. I minored in still photography. When I was growing up I, as so many others did, made films with my father’s 8mm camera and later on super 8mm, usually inspired by songs or sounds. I endeavored to become a fine artist but was somehow swayed into the path of commercial motion pictures by way of feature news, documentaries, music videos, and TV commercials.

Kirill: What is the essence of what you do, and what advice would you give to aspiring cinematographers?

Roberto: I attempt to find images in the words that I read on the page, and what is in between the lines. Look within yourself for inspiration and believe in your gut instincts.

Kirill: “Quantum of Solace” is 22nd movie in the Bond franchise. Did you spend time researching the previous installments to keep some of the visual elements?

Roberto:  Along with the director and the production designer we watched most of the earlier films to look for the keys to the kingdom. In the end I think that we were most taken with the “Goldfinger” period and the 1960’s design aesthetic. I paid homage to that film in one of our iconic setups where the girl was covered in oil instead of gold. I did a match frame to the original shot but with out the cheeky chair.

Kirill: With Daniel Craig playing Bond in “Casino Royale”, the movies have transitioned to a more gritty, dusty, cutaway type of action. How does this affect your planning and execution?

Roberto:  Following the lead set in Daniel’s first outing, “Casino Royale”, we needed to keep him more real, less enigmatic. We tried to allow his persona to show through his emotions and personal attachments while allowing him to be brutal and ruthless in his quest. In doing so we allowed him to guide us on his journey and kept it real. Action sequences and the like were kept more realistic than earlier Bond adventures. There was an attempt to achieve a more tactile, more visceral effect to the fights and chases. Marc Forster [director] and I worked very closely with 2nd unit to plot out the frames and action that they would shoot and we joined with them on several occasions to overlap 1st and 2nd units in order to try and keep a uniformity to the film.

Kirill: What happens in the weeks before the shooting begins? Do you scout locations, discuss storyboards, try preliminary shoots?

Roberto:  We were very fortunate on “Quantum” with the extreme support of the producers to have ample prep time to scout possible locations very early on. Then when the choices were made we went back to plot our scenes and later again for the tech scout. In the meantime Marc and I sat for weeks going through the entire script from cover to cover and back again to make shooting plots and lists for the entire film. That was to work off of like a blueprint for all departments to understand our vision. We didn’t do any storyboards but we did do the aerial diagrams that we’ve done for most of work together. I did some early testing on film and cards to find the look that I was hoping for. The only thing we couldn’t do was shoot anamorphic due to a very constrained post schedule with a release date already in place 4 1/2 months from picture wrap!

Kirill: Most of the scenes in “Quantum of Solace” were filmed in outside daylight. What difference does this have over your control of lighting?

Roberto:  I don’t really think of it as mostly in outside daylight. If you consider 55 vs. 45% it may be possible but I’m not convinced. In any case as in any scenes shot day exterior you need to try and control scheduling so the relation of the sun to your location works at the various times of day. And there is often need for more large diffusion or negatives control as well as bigger lights to keep the light consistent throughout a scene which might take several days to shoot.

Kirill: The high-tech setting of MI6 office is washed in wide swaths of white light. What is the message and how do you convey it?

Roberto:  I guess that I need to rewatch the film because I don’t recall that much wide bathing of white light. For sure in M’s office there is a large frosted window to give an opportunity to make a severe lighting change when the walls in her office shift to viewing screens. This was an effect we shot with motion control as the aide goes into her office but it was eventually cut from the film due to the length of the scene.

Kirill:  The last scene in a secluded Bolivian facility is full of explosions and fire. How does this affect or limit your equipment and shot setup?

Roberto:  That entire scene of the interiors was shot on the big 007 stage at Pinewood. The set was built full length which was about 2/3 the size of the real hotel in Chile where we shot the exteriors. The SFX team did real explosions, air canons, and fire on stage, most repeatable. It is always tricky working around real flames and burning set pieces but we took all safety precautions and put the cameras as close to the positions that I wanted as possible. We used a telescopic crane as well as dollys, tripods and hand held to get what we needed. The flames were mostly controllable so we never felt too at risk. The stuntmen and Daniel did have to be covered in fire retardant gel for some of the shots, especially those running through the burning hallway and into the final room. I worked very closely through months of prep with the SFX co-ordinator to ensure that we could get the best shots to tell the story. I showed him my ideas of coverage and he did his best to make it work as well as some great suggestions for the sequences.

Kirill: What is the process of working with visual effects, particularly with the touch-based interfaces in MI6 office? Do you continue this through the post production stage?

Roberto:  I had a very close working relationship with VFX throughout the entire prep and shoot and during the various stages of the DI [digital intermediate] too. I had worked with them on 4 previous films so we know each other pretty well. They had an extensive pre-vis group working full time at Pinewood for all the effects on the film and I spent a lot of time going in there and mapping out shots and sequences. Choosing lenses, moving camera positions, making moves, etc. As for the touch based computer table which was based on real DoD technology we just shot the table and actors to predetermined scripted moves using real placeholders on it which were then converted in post. I did shoot some tests for light levels and image “wrap” around the fingers to establish what would work best to enable us to use the correct illumination values on set that would remain consistent for the final VFX work.

Kirill: How much time did you spend on planning, shooting and editing the aerobatic battle in one of the first sequences (where Bond and M’s bodyguard hang on ropes, jump on crashing platforms and fall through sheets of glass)?

Roberto:  That was one of my favorite sequences which I didn’t get to shoot in the end. It was eventually given over to 2nd unit to shoot on stage next to us. In the beginning I did map it out with Marc and the 2nd unit director Dan Bradley, who had a lot of great input on making the scene exciting. I did an initial lighting scheme for the stage to try and match the real Sienese locations. I worked very closely with Shawn O’Dell who DP’d most of the 2nd unit work. I did insist on one segment of the scene which was where 007 and the bad guy fight and fall over the edge of the bell tower and down through the glass dome into the art gallery. I insisted that the camera continue through the dome with the actors and into the fight inside the gallery without cuts. I had seen a scene in Bourne where he jumps off a rooftop in Morocco and through a window into an apartment. I was really wanting the camera to follow him all the way into the room but it cut before it got there. I requested that we do more and continue it in. With VFX and Dan we choreographed a series of 3 shots with CG enhancements to make it do just that. I was very excited by the results. All real actors and sets. From there Dan choreographed with the stunt co-ordinator the fight action spinning around the room on ropes. That was also pre-vised so I could see what it should look like at the end. Marc and I did visit them on the set when we could break away every now and then.

Kirill: What are your thoughts on shooting or post-converting to 3D?

Roberto:  I have not shot 3D and not really cared much for it. I’ve seen some good work and some terrible. I think it works best in CG / animation like “Avatar” though “Pina” was really enchanting. As far as post-conversion goes I think it is a great idea if it can be done well. It frees up the camera and lighting to work smaller and more efficiently. That said, it must be agreed that the movie will be converted to 3D after production finishes and not decided upon only then. You would obviously set shots , choose lenses and moves dependent upon that understanding.

And here I’d like to thank Roberto Schaefer once again for this interview. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of his work in the future.