Star Trek Beyond, the newest instalment of the globally popular franchise created by Gene Roddenberry and reintroduced by J. J. Abrams, returns with Director Justin Lin (The Fast and the Furious franchise) and Australian Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon ACS ASC at the helm.
Interview by Lindsay Coleman.
AC: There is an amazing shot in Star Trek Beyond where the visual effect of the Enterprise crashing is seen from Kirk’s perspective and we see his reflection in the window of the shuttle which he is staring out of. It’s amazing because it looks like a film’s reflection superimposed on a CGI shot. How did you achieve that?
SW: That was a multiple pass shot. We shot it on the set of the Enterprise. Then we shot with Pine in the same position, black duvateen there so we could get 100% of his reflection, of his face. He would re-perform it very precisely and given the slight blur of the reflection any small differences would not be noticed. Then we shot a background plate, another pass with a blue screen. We had the background of the bridge, then did a camera move vertically, then the pod was still in-situ, then we did a black screen behind it, then a blue screen.
AC: Were there budgetary constraints placed on Star Trek Beyond?
SW: No, not really. I believe the budget for Star Trek Beyond was lower than Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), and slightly higher than Star Trek (2009).
AC: What’s your position having to go to bat for a particular shot, for a particular budget?
SW: In the end you have a certain vision in mind. As a Director of Photography, or any head of department for that matter, in making a film there are budget battles. Of course you have a responsibility, If you have a process, a technique or methodology which can enhance your vision and makes sense to the story you are telling, then your Producers will back you.
One time on a film I stood on a parking garage rooftop location at night in downtown Atlanta with the prospect of a week of shooting there. It was purely impractical, logistically, plus beyond the top floor of this parking deck the Visual Effects team were to replace the whole city skyline to Los Angeles.
Granted this film had a decent budget, however my advice to the Producers was to never shoot the scene on location but shoot it against blue screen but inside a stage at ground level where we weren’t exposed to weather elements and location restrictions, and continuity could be maintained. The only assets the rooftop provided visually was a concrete surface with parking bays painted on it, six overhead lights stands and a steel railing around the perimeter. The art department mimicked these on stage. The set was surrounded by a 360 degree blue screen and Los Angeles plates were keyed into the background.
The five days originally scheduled to shoot on location became three days because we didn’t need to set up the massive lighting rigs each night. In the end, happy Producer, happy Director, and very happy Director of Photography!
AC: Did you use filters for the alien landscapes of the film?
SW: I tend to shoot most images clean. As far as ‘look’ is concerned, I do a lot of what I want utilising DaVinci Resolve on set, and later in the DI. On the bridge of the Enterprise though we really went back to the 1980s and I shot using Pro-Mist filters. Every specular light in the frame, that could blind the lens, would have a little halo on it. We put a lot of the sets on motion bases.
AC: You mean like gimbals?
SW: Correct, like gimbals. With them we could have moments where the saucer part of the ship is banking and we could have cast running along a wall, or even ceilings. There’s a lot of set rotation as well, these huge 180 foot sets, sets being rotated by these huge steel rotisseries.
AC: Like Inception (2010)?
SW: Exactly. So challenges with having the light integrated and travelling with it.
AC: Were you using Technocranes on the set?
SW: Yes, particularly on the bridge of the Enterprise. Where the view screen was we could push in 50 foot Technocranes through there. We would poke the Technocranes through the end of these gimballed sets. We would even go old-school, Camera Operators strapped in, hand-held, and rotate with it. There’s a lot of that stuff.
I really believe in selling the physical realism and plausibility of the shot.
AC: Its come a long way from just shaking the camera!
SW: Absolutely. I really believe in selling the physical realism and plausibility of the shot. On Furious 7 (2015) there were shots of the actors in the cars falling to earth, falling out of aeroplanes. I wanted to shoot with the actors on a motion base with the car up in the air, tilted near vertical, pointing at the ground and have the Special Effects Team shake the car.
AC: You can’t deny gravity.
SW: You can’t deny gravity! You get all the visual in a shot, actors hair falling forward, a necklace tilting, straps from their seat harness.
AC: Scotty (Simon Pegg) coming out of the escape pod as it goes over the cliff, did you ramp up or down frame rates?
SW: The Director wanted this as a ‘oner’, We did a simple light reveal, as though the hatch of the pod were coming off. It was a piece of black cloth, which we then just pulled out of the way as Scotty pantomimed pushing the hatch cover upwards for the light reveal. It’s amazing how simple those things can be. The expensive item was putting the pod on a sliding rig, then tipping hydraulically into a vertical position then disappearing out of frame.
AC: So the elements are real?
SW: Yes, and that’s how Lin likes it. It’s very much a Fast and Furious thing, there are key things we do practically. Let’s practically shake the cast in the ships, practically pull Simon Pegg out, even if he’s on a wire, and have him grab a real ledge, even though it is on a sound stage. He is 30 feet up in the air when he grabs it, with the blue screen below.
AC: You can tell those dimensions are present because of the move itself. Was that your intention?
SW: Yes. I like to put the camera in the computer utilising the art department 3D renderings of a set, then design the camera move in collaboration with the Art Director and Production Designer. From this we can determine what set pieces need to be constructed. With this information we can then establish how much space we need around the set for grip and light rigging. My Rigging Gaffer will do lighting plans and from this budgets can be allocated for every set. We shot that at the Dubai Sound Stages as they had 90 foot high stages. We put a 50 foot Technocrane on a 20 foot steel deck to achieve the move.
AC: In Furious 7 there is a CG shot of the cars jumping from one building to another in the Dubai sequence. It is a gorgeous shot, but really calls attention to itself.
SW: There are several shots in this sequence that were part-practical, we launched cars through glass panels and photographed them from multiple angles and different camera speeds and shot on our backlot in Atlanta. Background plates which were shot in Abu Dhabi by Marc Spicer ACS were added to backgrounds, with visual effects augmentation. There are some shots, especially one where the Lykan HyperSport car is flying toward camera which is completely computer animation.
AC: Seamus McGarvey BSC ASC (The Hours, Atonement) said on The Avengers (2012) the spill from the blue screen was actually helpful to convey blue skies outside of the window of the carrier ships.
SW: 99% of what I have shot with chroma screens, at least for a daytime environment, on the Fast films and on Star Trek Beyond have been shot with blue screen. If I am going to have reflective contamination of the chroma screen – which is inevitable with screens so big – I would rather it be blue, which in our case by design, be replaced, by a blue sky anyway. I agree with McGarvey. I prefer if possible to use the chroma screen which is close to your final colour. For the ‘cars don’t fly’ sequence in Furious 7 it was blue screen, blue screen, blue screen.
AC: How did you go about desaturating the image on the planet?
SW: That’s really only in the trailer which, due to a schedule conflict, I didn’t get to time.
AC: Kirk (Chris Pine) on the motorbike, did you follow him with a crane?
SW: We used an Edge Arm. Same as John Seale AM ACS ASC and David Burr ACS used on Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Same as the one we used on all the Fast films, as well as Cable Cam.
AC: How influential do you feel Mad Max: Fury Road has been in action filmmaking, especially on the kind of films you make?
SW: It was my favourite action film of the last decade! Without a doubt. My jaw dropped. To me it’s so creative, so sensational, I can scarcely fathom the work and imagination which went into it.
AC: Was the Edge Arm you or second unit?
SW: A bit of both, half and half. We designed tow-rigs so we could pull Pine around. We would mount the motorcycle handle bars to match his on the bike onto four wheel quad bikes, then film him on the quad bikes for closeups. He was totally safe and would not tip over. Second unit did some cable-cam shots for me, following the bike. There were a few days of second unit work there. Bruce McCleary was a genius, he shot second unit. There’s not a lot of second unit on Star Trek Beyond, because the cast is so big. We call second unit the Visual Effects Unit.
AC: What was your resolution?
SW: Alexa open gate, which is 3.4K. I shot anamorphic, but we didn’t do the lens flares of the past two films. That’s very much an Abrams-Mindel (Dan Mindel BSC ASC) look. We did not want to rain on their parade. However, I did one scene which was a homage to blue lens flares.
AC: Have you embraced using small cameras such as GoPros or similar for action shots?
SW: Yes, lately I have been working with the Black Magic Micro 4/3rds. The GoPro is a well-deserved success story on its own. The problem with the GoPro is the lack of interchangeability of the lenses. As soon as you cut to a GoPro you know it was shot on a GoPro. You are restricted by that 127 degree field of view. It can take you out of the film. Also, whenever I think GoPro I think Top Gear. They don’t have twenty grips! Having said that, there is a place for very small cameras. It’s not about mounting them. Whether it’s about running down a corridor with them, or mounting them on someone’s helmet, there’s a lot exciting things happening with small cameras, especially with the resolutions and the lens options now in the mix.
AC: The moving hard light for the cockpit interiors on Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) also features in Star Trek Beyond.
SW: Yes, there’s a lot of moving light. There’s a lot of interactive stuff which comes through the port window.
AC: How much did you move them around?
SW: We moved them around a lot. We put most of the lights on camera cranes. You get where there is no light then the light would suddenly transition in, then disappear, then suddenly come back. We’d often have multiple cranes going. In the corridors, under red alert, I wanted the light to be moving through the corridors like a shockwave. That’s the good thing about LEDs. You can have a six foot band of light moving through like a wave and continually cycling through, or it would be coming at you. You can have an actor running at the camera and a wave of light moving over them in the opposite direction. There’s a lot of programming time, getting my dimmer guys in there in the days before a sequence, working it out.
AC: What would you say is the affinity of the Alexa for LEDs?
SW: They do click very well. Not just the LEDs. The Alexa is such a yummy, creamy sensor.
AC: When you were producing shade for virtual sets did you do it in camera, or in the DI?
SW: If there needed to be shade created for a building, or a spaceship passing over, I’d put it in there.
AC: Would you favour that over the DI?
SW: Yes, definitely. Moving a light I cannot do in the DI anyway. I do it or the visual effects team does it. I prefer to do it. There’s plenty of moments where shadows fall on people in this film and we do it practically.
AC: There is a lot of makeup for characters in the new film. A problem with the resolution is people can see it’s makeup. How do you deal with that?
SW: That is one of the biggest tests of pre-production. Our makeup effects team would prepare an alien. We would put them in front of the Alexa. We would put them in different lighting conditions, then we would take them outside and shoot them in natural light. That was really intensive. We would do one alien and there would be twelve different looks before we came up with something that was right on. It’s very complicated. Often what they’d use in their application, or in the prosthetics… a subtle change could make a huge difference.
AC: On the Furious films your lens is often getting blasted with light. Are you okay with that?
SW: I’m okay with this if it works for the shot, I don’t like protecting for things like lens flaring if it make a shot ‘dirty’. If it hits the lens, its real! Of course I would need to control the light if it is a continuity thing. Some of our visual effects shots shots have ‘designed’ lens aberrations and imperfections added.
AC: Sofia Boutella who plays Jaylah, her makeup is very, very white. Do did you light for that?
SW: Yes. I dealt with that where if I key lit from a given side. The Director was always flexible in allowing me to stage the characters to put them in the best light if they were in a group.
AC: The light intensity is down on the bridge set. Why?
SW: I think we generally wanted things to be visually darker than the previous two films. But it is still the enterprise. I went down in exposure across the board. We changed every light fixture in the consoles and wall from incandescent lights, or kino flows, to LEDs. It took something crazy like 5000 man hours to change 4000 channels of light. I also wanted much more movement in the light, things blinking, just really having the light moving more.
AC: Was that an influence from the classic films?
SW: The original Star Trek (1966-1969) television series and the early films did not have any movement. I felt we needed more movement from the lights, not just in the light fixtures but in all the consoles that the Enterprise crew were using. Especially when under ‘red alert’.
AC: I can tell that going with the Pro Mists you were going against the flaring look of the first two films. Was that a conscious move against the previous style?
SW: No, it was just something we wanted to go with. It just gave us our own specular look. It’s also a throwback to the softness of the television series. It’s still sharp, but really an older lens look.
AC: Sofia Boutella, given how graceful she is, you wouldn’t want motion blur.
SW: Yes, if there’s any action I generally sharpen the shutter. I always like to heighten the action. So any action I shot at 90 degrees or 60 degrees shutter.
AC: You shot Episode Nine of The Pacific (2009), and really achieved great resolution even with a fairly monochromatic look. What were you working with?
SW: That was 5919, for night and interiors, daylight stock was 5207 for day exteriors. 35 millimetre. We got special effects to ring the quarry with smoke so that it would haze the sun. That is probably what you are seeing.
AC: I would argue on The Pacific you were able to break away from the influence of both Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Thin Red Line (1998). Would you agree?
SW: Perhaps so. The Pacific had a different tone than those great films, completely different in style… the style comes out of so many things but most important is the narrative. The Director of Episode Nine, Tim van Patten (The Wire, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire), was a fantastic storyteller. He was never the guy to tell you where to put the camera. He let me have real autonomy with the photography. He would never use the video village Director’s station. He would always stay by the cameras and occasionally glance at the small on-board monitors mounted on top of the Arricams. Something I have not seen for a decade or two!
AC: What’s your attitude towards the camera. Are you not not worried about hurting it?
SW: No, not worried. Breaking cameras, that’s what we do. If we don’t put the camera in a sacrificial position then the shot is not interesting. We have designed a whole lot of interesting rigs over the years. We’ve used fenders from boats either side of an Alexa camera so regardless of what happens the camera is safe. It’d be on skip plates. The camera doesn’t get damaged at all, even if a car crashes into it, or slides by it.
AC: How did you light through the ship windows in Star Trek Beyond? Was it a green screen with directional light coming in?
SW: Yes, a lot of that stuff was interactive light.
AC: Did you use LEDs?
SW: Yep, also Maxi Bruts bounced off ultra bounce white fabric illuminating back into the set. 90% of the movie is LEDs. Whether from the view screen or the control panels.
AC: Have LEDs become more economical since Gravity (2013)?
SW: They’re still expensive. The functionality of them is a big timesaver. On Fast 8 we are using less gel stock than ever. I’ve hardly seen a roll of gel, because we can dial a colour temperature in easily with the LEDs. That’s been fantastic.
AC: There’s presumably a lot of set extension. How does your lighting translate?
SW: Yes, there is set extension, but visual effect people just translate my lighting design into their world. I set the look, then they follow that into the extension.
AC: Do you have particular views about where set extension should kick in?
SW: It was something the Visual Effects Supervisor Peter Chiang and myself spend a lot of time discussing. We figured out the best approach, the best technique. It was also based on discussing how best to illuminate things, whether something is illuminated by an explosion, and so on.
AC: Did you have much in the way of sky replacements in the film?
SW: There were a lot of sky replacements in the Yorktown sequence, the futuristic space station. That’s the one with all of the multi-level arms. We would shoot all of our ground based work in Dubai, then these other arms were created and were sky replacement in effect. There was sky replacement on one of the other planets, and again that was things which the Director and I looked at conceptual art, and asked if the sky would be better with an amber tone, or a greener tone. We would shoot tests to determine the look.
AC: For the torchlight scenes in the film did you use smoke, and what was your exposure range?
SW: Yes, I did use smoke. Some of those scenes were so underexposed, that’s where the Alexa is really nice. The blacks stay really dark. Working with available light is what the Alexa is really, really good at.
AC: Would you stick with it for future projects?
SW: Not necessarily. There is the right sensor, resolution and film stock for every project.
AC: Would you go back to film?
SW: Hmm. Highly unlikely.
Lindsay Coleman is an author, film academic and contributor to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.