Claudio Miranda has had an interesting career thus far. After working as a gaffer on films like Se7en and Fight Club, filmmaker David Fincher (with whom he’d worked on a few commercials and music videos as a cinematographer) asked him to serve as the cinematographer for the wildly ambitious 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. That VFX-intensive effort scored Miranda an Oscar nomination and led to him then shooting visually breathtaking movies like Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, and of course Life of Pi, for which he won the Best Cinematography Oscar.
Miranda’s latest film reteams him with director Joseph Kosinski for the third time and also marks something of a departure—the true story drama Only the Brave. The film revolves around one unit of local firefighters who battled the Yarnell Hill wildfire in 2013 to tragic results. Josh Brolin leads a cast that includes Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, and Jennifer Connelly.
With Only the Brave hitting theaters on October 20th, I recently go the chance to have an extended conversation with Miranda about his work on the film. He talked about his working relationship with Kosinski, the challenges of capturing real fire onscreen, shooting on location, and his approach to shooting realistic visual effects.
But I’m also a big fan of Miranda’s work in general, so the conversation veered off into his early days working as a gaffer for Fincher, and we discussed his “trial by fire” experience shooting Benjamin Button as well as what it’s like to work with Fincher and how his gaffer work with other cinematographers like Harris Savides and Dariusz Wolski has shaped his approach. Finally, with Kosinski next set to direct the Top Gun sequel Top Gun: Maverick, I asked Miranda what the prep has been like on that movie so far.
It’s a wide-ranging and refreshingly candid conversation that hopefully admirers of Miranda’s work, or just those curious about cinematography in general, will find illuminating. I certainly had a great time chatting with the talented DP. Check out the full conversation below.
I know you worked with Joseph previously on Tron Legacy and Oblivion, but this is a very different kind of project with its own unique challenges so I was curious, how did you first get involved with Only The Brave?
CLAUDIO MIRANDA: Because I did (laughs). I don’t know. Joe just asked me to do it. Joe and I just have kind of a little bit of a connection so we just almost, whatever he does do, I’m always the first call on that. I think we always do good work together. We’re probably going to move on to Top Gun maybe, that’s coming up and I’ll probably say yes to that as well.
What were your early conversations like about how you guys wanted to approach Only the Brave visually?
MIRANDA: Joe and I were looking at a movie that was grounded in reality a little bit. I think we needed that, I love my movies but it’s been fantasyland since Life of Pi to Oblivion to Tron. Benjamin Button was kind of more grounded. So we wanted to do something that was in-camera and obviously we had to figure out a way to capture fire. Fire is, well it’s kind of interesting to scale it, right? I mean you can’t have fire … The bigger you get it the farther you have to get away, for safety’s sake. It’s hard to shoot people engulfed in fire. But we did have fire on set for actors to react to. I feel like it gave them a better performance even though we had to replace a lot later. When you see the actors cower because of the intense heat, it’s sometimes real cowering, it’s really hot. That was a challenge. I love to test cameras, and my main test was to see what captures fire the best. And figure out how we’re going to approach that and the logistics of the movie, as well. I wanted to feel natural and let it go to the dark side when it needs to for certain scenes, and kind of play some scenes very simple.
Was honing in on the drama and simplicity more of a challenge for you, or was it exciting to have that change of pace?
MIRANDA: It was kind of exciting to do, I mean what we did do a little more of—you know the drones are getting really popular, everyone’s kind of hopping on the bandwagon of drones. But we were shooting up in the high mountains a lot so we didn’t want to hire a separate drone crew, so we kind of did it ourselves. I mean, I sort of wanted to do it ourselves, in a way, just keep it in house so we kept it in house. We flew our own drones and did that for the movie, because a lot of times we just didn’t want to have a crew waiting around all the time, we wanted to fly it when we wanted to. Imagine being around mountains, it’s hard to get away or in certain areas. So we got involved in some drone work, that changed a little bit of … There’s still helicopter work in the movie as well, especially when we have to chase another helicopter or follow another helicopter or get a super high field of view. There’s a lot of stuff you’ll see even on the trailer, watching some drops or some mountains on fire. Some of those mountains on fire are real, that’s the movie as well.
They did a controlled burn, which got a little bit on the verge of controlled fire. So, we went to go film that. I think that’s in the last trailer, you’ll see them look at a mountain that’s half on fire and half smoke, that’s a real shot, and then a shot of a real deer running away from that control fire and the helicopter actually shot that as well. So those little moments are kind of real, but obviously when they get completely surrounded and engulfed, you couldn’t be near that. Physically, nothing would last.
Yeah, I spoke to Paul Cameron recently and he was talking about using drones on the latest Pirates movie and how he had to teach the drone crew how to be cinematic. Because I guess this drone technology is kind of new.
MIRANDA: That’s what I don’t like, I mean I didn’t like how non-cinematic they were. That’s kind of why we took it over, I was tired of … I don’t need a hot shot shot, I just need a boom op to fly over. I don’t need crazy. I’m sure there are guys that are better than I am for fancy flying through things, but we didn’t need that. We needed simple boom ops to kind of reveal and orbit around points. Simple drone flying. That’s why we didn’t feel like we needed help and didn’t need Mr. Fancy Pants, you know.
And your approach to the fire, it sounds like some of it was practical but a lot of it was visual effects, so was a lot of that on you to get the lighting right?
MIRANDA: Not a lot of it was visual effects. There was one day we burned a couple thousand, three thousand gallons of propane in one day. When you see through it, you see pipes and fire. It may work in a long lens shot, but it’s not going to really feel right on a—it doesn’t look like a fire, you don’t have real trees on fire. They did a good job of doing the best they can, it’s just not quite the same as the real thing.
You have great deal of experience blending cutting-edge visual effects with real serious drama which sounds like it should be a given in a lot of films, but in a lot of movies it just doesn’t come together that well so I was curious what’s your approach to visual effects intensive shots?
MIRANDA: Normally I’m very protective of them. The better they have a nice key, the better they can integrate into the shot. I don’t try to “f” them too much, because I know in the end that’s the whole thing. If their inlay looks terrible and you’re not thinking about them as a unified front, it’s just going to end up as a terrible project, see? And I do try to know the final goal of the project, try to help them out, because it helps me out. If their integration looks good, then my stuff looks good at the end, too. I work closely with them. Eric Barba who was on the shoot has been with Joe since the beginning as well—he did Tron, he did Oblivion, and he did this movie as well, he did Only the Brave—we work closely together and we kind of have a shorthand, but I do what I can. Obviously there’s not going to be a blue screen when there’s a fire. Even the fake fire because it would set everything on fire. So that kind of stuff, it was a little more roto on that kind of stuff and then put a background behind there. I helped him as much as I could, but I couldn’t help him that much.
I think we did put one blue screen up, and I think it was for the campfire scene. It kind of looks out, they’re all kind of at a campfire and he’s picking bee stings out of his bottom. One of the scenes on there. Anyway, it kind of looks out and they’re all at this campfire, that was the one blue screen shot there. We did actually put up one, but I think that’s the only one, really.
Well, and I know you guys shot a lot on location in New Mexico as well, so what did the location shoots bring to the film visually? Because Tron is not super location-intensive.
MIRANDA: Well, we went to a ski resort called Pajarito in Santa Fe, I don’t know if you know that place. Anyway, this kind of gave us … they let us do little controlled burns. They do this thing where they do controlled burns to maintain the fire line or make a fire break. So we did a lot of that kind of exercising. And then we had a lot of… there was a guy, not Brandon, he headed up how that was going to happen. They gave us a natural location where we can do little controlled burns and do a couple of scenes in there. If we got bigger, we had a backlot about the size of a football field, I think it was 300 feet by 400 feet. And then there we can kind of burn… We had trees planted and we just let her loose there as much as we can. There’s some scenes where Marsh is pulling Brandon out of the fire, that I think a lot of that’s in camera as well.
There’s always a little bit of finagling around in there, adding a little bit in there as well but we have a force so we can go add a fire without being small. As in, when we got on location. Because when we got on location all we could do is be small as far as setting fires. But we had other locations, all shot around Santa Fe. There’s a jogging scene where they’re running around, that’s up in the mountains. So it’s kind of all this desert flat ground area, except Pajarito which had more of the tall trees. A little bit of a mix of everything to tell you the truth. And then at Santa Fe studios in the back we built the main headquarters. You’ll see that in the trailer too, it’s kind of the main interior.
As I said, I’m a big fan of your work and of cinematography in general, so I was curious if you could talk a bit about how you first got into the field of cinematography. I know you worked as a gaffer on a few films first.
MIRANDA: Well, I mean, I’ve always said yes to everyone’s push, you know what I mean (laughs). So people gave me opportunity and I sort of took it. I’ve been around Fincher for a while. I gaffed on a lot of movies for him. So when I started shooting some music videos back in the day, they just kind of—they liked that I had that Fincher connection because everyone wanted to have that Seven or Fight Club look. I didn’t gaff Seven, but I gaffed some reshoots of Seven, a couple weeks of that, but people were interested in the look of Fight Club and that was kind of a staple that people wanted to replicate. Even though these music videos didn’t end up looking like that. They just, you know, they just liked the fact that I was around that kind of scene. And back in the day I had a girlfriend at the time, and she was a producer, and she says “I have this music video, you wanna shoot it?” And I said all right. And I kind of kept going, that’s how I got started with music video. And then Fincher gave me a shot at shooting something for Nike, like a film strips thing, so I shot that for him.
Then David called me a long time ago, he goes “Hey, Claudio, want to meet me at Bixel?” Which was a video place. And I go “Huh.” I say “What’s it about?” He says “I’ll tell you when I get there.” So, I went online and I looked up what’s the fanciest new thing at Bixel and it was this Viper camera. So I learned as much as I can the hour before I had to leave to go there. I learned a little bit so I wasn’t totally blank, and then that kind of started me with shooting some … I was the first to shoot digital for Fincher on commercials. And then Harris [Savides] did Zodiac. I did this horrible commercial for David called Orville Redenbacher. It was terrible. It was ugly, David wanted it to be ugly, and I shot it with the Viper. I think it’s the ugliest thing that David’s ever done. He wanted it to be ugly. He goes there’s hardly lighting in this thing, I want it to look shitty and really ugly. And I go OK. I have weird judgment about how this looks. And he goes “Yeah, it looks pretty shitty.” And I go okay, alright, we were done.
And then I did some reshoots for Zodiac because Harris wasn’t available. I re-lit some things and they became a little bit different from what Harris had done, but try to keep the same mood, just because practically I couldn’t just redo a scene, it was going to be completely new. Fincher seemed to respond well to that. Then he’s sort of hiring my crew from under me after that Orville Redenbacher commercial. And they go, and Benjamin Button was starting in a couple of months, that’s when the DP was starting. And I had a commercial that was coming up, I said “David, you know, I need to know if I’m doing … some people said that I’m doing your movie.” He doesn’t really tell you that much, and I kind of wanted to know either way, either I’m taking this commercial, or I’m taking your movie, and because you’re taking my crew away from me, do I need to get new crew? I don’t know what I’m doing yet. And I kind of need to know by tomorrow, because I gotta either turn down this commercial or not. And then the next day he gave me Benjamin Button.