Cinematographer Michael Seresin Talks Filming in 3D, the Look of the Film, GRAVITY, and More on the Set of DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

     April 16, 2014


While I love getting to talk to the actors and director on a film set, one of the people I always want to talk to, and rarely get the chance to do so, is the cinematographer.  The reason interviews with cinematographer is so rare is time.  While actors take a break in between shot set ups, the director of photography is constantly working.  The second the director gets the shot, the DP is moving his team to the next location, trying to figure out how to make it perfect.  Because of time constraints, I’ve rarely talked to a DP on a movie set.  But on the New Orleans set of Matt Reeves Dawn of the Planet of the Apes last summer, I was able to participate in a group interview with cinematographer Michael Seresin.

During the interview Seresin talked about why they used the Alexa camera over the Sony F65 and the Red Epic, the decision to shoot in 3D instead of post-converting, what shooting in 3D adds to the schedule, how many rigs were they using, why he wanted to use new Leica lenses, if they were trying to match the look of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, working with the motion-capture actors, his work on Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (he did additional photography on the film), and more.  It’s a great interview so check it out after the jump.

Before getting to the interview, if you haven’t seen the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer, I’d watch that first:

Michael-Seresin-dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-interviewSo you guys are shooting with the Alexa 3D?

MICHAEL SERESIN: The rig is called “Threality TS35,” I think and Leica lenses.

Was it your decision for the Alexa? Was it Matt? Was it the collaboration?

SERESIN: The previous film, which I took over on, Gravity we used Alexas, but that was 2D with post conversion, this being native 3D. The regular Alexas don’t fit in the rig, so we used the M, which is like a small mini version of the Alexa, but the principles are the same. It’s the closest to film. I mean in an ideal world we would have shot the film on film, but this is a good second choice.

If you don’t mind me nerding out for a second, there’s obviously the Sony F65 and the Red Epic. Was there a reason why you used the Alexa?

SERESIN: My experience with it, it’s very close to film. I shot tests on the Epic, not on the Sony. The new Sony had just been released and I wasn’t sure how many were going to be available, so I was sort of settling with something… not settling, beign happy with something and it’s sort of acknowledged that the Alexa is closer to film if that’s what you’re after. Some people like the digital look. We prefer to have the film look, so that’s why we went with that.

What was involved with the decision to shooting in 3D instead of post-converting?

SERESIN: These are not my decisions. These are made by… It’s probably time, because to have done this, we would have shot faster with 2D, but the post conversion would have taken half as much time again. Now it’s virtually done and is handed over to the visual effects boys when it’s required and they just go on and do it without having to worry about post conversion.

How much longer is a day when you’re shooting native 3D?

SERESIN: It’s around thirty percent probably. The whole thing is very complex as I’m sure you guys know. The whole system is like a circle, each thing has to work. The days of digital just sticking a camera, as it was with film, on a tripod or whatever and put a lens on it, plug it into a battery and you’re ready, doesn’t happen at all. It’s incredibly complex, but it works. We had a few teething troubles, but that was sort of inevitable. We were up in Vancouver where it was cold and wet, not ideal for anything electronic, but it’s worked brilliantly I would say and we are real happy with the results.

How many cameras do you guys have on set at any given time?

SERESIN: Today we have four rigs. We are shooting on four rigs, which means eight cameras. Each rig has two cameras.

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-set-photoNot counting reference cameras.

SERESIN: Oh yeah, I mean the mocap and all of that stuff I’ve got no idea how many of those are here. There’s dozen and dozens of those.

I’m just curious, because the Alexa is obviously an expensive camera, do you guys have like twenty of them?

SERESIN: The thing is we needed one more rig and there were no cameras left in the US. We had to get them in Europe and in the end we decided to go with 2D and post convert that. The other thing was when you have 3D, you need a minimum of like five extra people on the crew, because each crew is kind of separate. It’s that sort of circle, you have the camera, all of the related bits and specialists in each department. Consequently you can’t just say “Bring in another camera” for the day, you also have to test it, test the lenses, each individual camera, lenses, the rig all have to talk to one another electronically, which is… I’m not particularly technical cinematographer, but I’m beginning to understand. We have these guys who have brains like rocket scientists and they are essential, you can’t do it without them.

You mentioned the lenses you were using. Are those like the seventies type lenses?

SERESIN: No, they are brand new. They are Leica and beautiful. Leica are known for their still camera lenses and in the last year and a half have come out with a series of film lenses and they are brilliant. The best thing about them, apart from their quality, which is uniform, is that each one is the same size, pretty much the same weight… So in terms of fitting into the rig, everything is almost purpose built for that and the quality is beautiful, really beautiful.

How much of an effort is there to match the look of the first film, if at all?

SERESIN: It’s like when I did Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, we just did our own thing. It’s a different director, different story, different screenplay, different actors… Everything is different about it and in a way… I suppose we looked at the film and discussed various things, but this is its own thing really.  I think to do it justice, we have to do that.

And whole new environments.

SERESIN: Everything. Pretty much everything about it is different.

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-horsesMatt’s kind of a cinefile. Are there any films that he brought for reference?

SERESIN: We used a lot of films and it’d be a bit indiscrete to talk about them, but we watched a lot of films, talked about a lot of films and were inspired by references. They tended to be a bit older. We were going for a fairly subtle 3D look by virtue of the story. For me the content always defines the look. I’m not interested in something looking amazing if it’s not appropriate to the content. In the relatively short amount of prep time we had, we did a lot of referencing, discussing, some times it was paintings or photographs, some times a sequence from a film that I had shot with somebody else. So in other words, when you look at an image, you don’t interpret it… I could say “Do you know that Rembrandt?” and you sort of try to imagine it. If I show it to you, that’s it. A “picture is worth a thousand words.”

We’ve talked to some of the mocap actors about shooting their performances live here on set and then also going to the tank. Is there a challenge at all matching that up?

SERESIN: Not really. First of all, I don’t get involved in the mocap stuff. On the set I am, but then when they go and do the performance stuff, I guess that’s all that’s used… To be honest with you, I don’t know that much about it, because I’m not too involved in that, but for sure the process is quite laborious, because if you’re doing a sequence with apes, actor apes, back ground apes, and actors, you have to do everything like three or four times, so you get it with everybody, then you get rid of the apes, then you get rid of the actors, and then you do background plates and if you have special effects you do that… It’s like a big sandwich, you shoot everything together, then you take all the elements, separate them, film them separately, then it’s all put back together again once the mocap apes are turned into the real apes.

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-caesarYou’ve worked on a number of films, do you have one or two shots that you’ve done that you are just incredibly proud of? You know what I mean. Maybe there was one shot that was a tracking or a dolly or just something.

SERESIN: Cauron pulled a fast one on me on Harry Potter. It was an incredibly complex shot, which was a hundred and eighty degrees. The second unit had worked out all sorts of technical stuff, because we were busy. They shot tests, we said “Great.” We came to shoot it on the day and he said “Why don’t we make this a three sixty instead of a one eighty?” I said,  “What would Chivo,” his regular DP “say to you?” “He’d tell me to F off.” I thought “I won’t say that. I like a challenge.” So we made it work. I don’t know if it was pride, because it was not just me, it was visual effects and all of this stuff. It was a challenge and we overcame it. Occasionally there are movies with sequences where the light was going and we said “Just shoot it” where you couldn’t measure the light any more and they looked amazing. Something specific, I can’t tell you. It’s the principle rather than specifics.

You also worked on Gravity. We’ve all hear of these crazy long shots and stuff like that. What kind of challenge was that?

SERESIN: Well I went in for a couple of days to help out and ended up shooting close to half the movie. It was huge, but I know Alfonso [Cuaron]. He’s a good friend. He is perhaps one of the most balletic directors I’ve worked with in the sense of his choreography. There are shots where you will see half a city and end up on a close up of somebody’s face and that requires, for me, a huge imagination to conceive of something in your head and then to watch it into realization. That for me was a huge challenge, but I loved it, because it is a huge challenge. There’s this kind of machine gun way of filmmaking where you’ve got four cameras and shoot everything  from every direction and then have an editor put it together, but his thing is really choreographed and I like it a lot.

What sort of process has changed for you, specifically between shooting in 2D and 3D, if any?

SERESIN: Well the time. 2D, film or digital, is faster. 3D is renowned as taking thirty to thirty-five percent longer. Probably from the moment we start out a shot, it’s close to an hour before the camera is up and running. Before you see anything, it’s controlled form an Apple computer. That’s how it is. So the two lenses go on the cameras, everything is worked out by the rig tech and the camera crew, then it goes back through the system. Maybe forty-five minutes later we start to see an image and then we work out the shot. Sometimes we have to switch out lenses if it doesn’t work. I mean however much you figure out what you’re doing, also once you watch what the actors are doing. That’s what decides what you’re doing. It’s all working it out in the abstract, but once the actors turn up and start acting, it’s like “You know what? We should be wide” or “We should be closer.”

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-shotgunYou’ve obviously made the transition to digital with using the Alexa. What are the advantages? Do you envision a future for you where you are shooting film and digital? Do you feel you’ve moved permanently into digital? What are the advantages of digital?

SERESIN: When I know, I’ll let you know. (Laughs) I don’t know that there are any. I mean the thing is a regular camera crew on a film used to be DP, operator, a couple of assistants, maybe three. It was fast and you chose different films for different looks and did different things technically. Now with 2D you have a huge choice, maybe too much. With 3D as much. The machinery of filmmaking is really slow and ponderous and I don’t know how you’re going to make it any faster with any of the systems, whether it’s Red, Sony, or whatever. I mean it’s minutes you might save on one over another, but it’s sort of the day where you can pick up a camera and say “Amazing light, fuck it, just squirt that off, that looks beautiful” forget it, gone. You can’t do that, and I like the possibility of doing that. Me and Allen Parker occasionally would see something cool on the way home after a shoot and say ‘Tomorrow morning, just take a cab at the end of the day, I’ll stick a camera in here. Drive there, stop, squirt it off.” We did that here when we were doing Angel Heart. So those days are gone. You can’t do that. I miss them. I doubt if they will come back. It was a different way of filmmaking, but also the small movies. The small films are still make on film and it’s not gone away. I’m surprised at how much is still done on film, some quite big films as well.

Does the 2D image ever suffer when you are shooting for 3D?

SERESIN: Not that I’m aware of, but from ignorance I’m really not too sure. Do you know what I mean? I didn’t answer your question probably about the thing on Gravity. I think it was… I took over… [Emmanuel Lubezki] had like six months prep or four months prep. I went in there and had no idea what they were doing and from one day to the next had to pick up on it. I was there for a couple of days and I finished the film off, so I was pretty blind with what I did. It was so complex and what goes on in that guy’s brain is phenomenal and I think it was just this imagination. I mean most of it is inside a spaceship, which is about as big as a car interior and you have these shots that start with a profile and go a hundred and eighty degrees and then come back again.

Michael-Seresin-dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-interviewI’ve heard the movie is filled with ten minute shots, like a lot of ten or thirteen minute shots, which is fucking crazy.

SERESIN: Yeah, well you’re not aware of it, because you go from a close up to a wide shot to a medium shot. It really is a powerful, powerful film. It’s pretty much Sandra Bullock by herself out in outer space with George there for a little while.

One other one from me. Everyone’s laughing, but do you use a lot of storyboards or do you tend to find it on the moment?

SERESIN: No, you have to have storyboards and pre-viz, because some of it is so complex. I mean this thing that you’re looking at. This is the interior of the thing and the outside and inside is about eighty stories high, so the we have to know if we are framing a shot out that you’re not just framing the façade of this, you have to be aware of what’s in the background and you do forget on occasion, but we were reminded. We are pretty well immersed in the whole film, so we know what to expect. Girls, you’ve got any questions?

What was the most challenging aspect of this particular shoot?

SERESIN: Well the film is supposed to take place in San Francisco. We started in Vancouver for a few weeks where it rains even when it’s not raining, and then we come down here where you’ve got southern Louisiana light and that’s why we have all these scrims and stuff. That’s a challenge. Basically the quality of light is my responsibility, so we are trying to make that work. I mean it was cloudy until like thirty-five minutes ago and then all of a sudden the sun came out and then that’s it for the day. Luckily we are in here now, but that’s probably the biggest challenge, and the heat isn’t all that nice, but it’s a really challenging project. It really is and I think the key people are doing a brilliant job. I have a very good report with Matt. I admire him. It’s a tough film for a director, really tough with all the pressure that there are and schedule… The film’s being released in eleven months and there’s a release date world wide, so everybody is aware of the pressure. You know a van broke down this morning for half an hour and that put a huge amount of pressure on us with thirty minutes in a seventy-five day shoot means a lot. It shouldn’t be, but it is. No gossip. Come back in a couple of weeks.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens July 11.  For more from my set visit:

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