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American Cinematographer: Secret History

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Da Vinci Code
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Prairie Home
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Spotlighted in this shadowy gallery is the elderly curator’s corpse, lying naked on the floor with arms outstretched like da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, a pentacle of blood painted on his chest. For this scene, Totino wanted forensic-style lights. Working with the art department, the team came up with portable fluorescents placed on tripods. “They weren’t film lights, just something we found through a construction-type supplier,” says Evans. The full-frontal nudity was a dilemma that lighting helped resolve. “We didn’t want to make too much of the curator’s genitalia, so we put a 400-watt tungsten Dedolight on a tripod and spotted it into the midriff and groin area of a prosthetic model, and then Sal overexposed that by 4 or 5 stops,” explains Evans. “That allowed the camera to be free and look anywhere.”

And the camera did move. “We were able to bring the 15-foot Technocrane inside the Louvre, and it was easy to move around,” says Totino. “We averaged 30 setups a day on this film. Almost every technique [for camera motion] was incorporated, but I like to work on a jib arm. We had little slider plates I had made, 3-foot, 4-foot and 6-foot sliders built perpendicular to the dolly tracks so we could dolly one way and push in another way. For instance, when we’re tracking along the bars that separate the monk from the curator before the shooting, the camera is moving right to left, and as the monk pulls the trigger, the camera pushes in toward him. A lot of times you do that on a dance floor, but we did it with these slider plates.

“It’s worth noting that we averaged 30 setups a day while working a continuous day, meaning we worked a 10-hour day with no break for lunch,” adds Totino. “Food was provided and everybody ate, but we worked 10 hours per day and no more.”

Even more challenging than the Louvre was shooting on the streets of Paris and the attendant French bureaucracy. Paris has no centralized film office, so permits had to be obtained from each district. “If a driving shot happens in the first district and goes one block into the second district, there’s a whole different set of rules,” says Totino, referring to Langdon and Neveu’s nighttime escape from the Louvre in Neveu’s car. “Also, they wanted lighting diagrams of the street scenes three months before filming! That was difficult, because we had to determine how we’d light something the director hadn’t rehearsed yet, and there was a chance he might block it in a very different way than was discussed in the preliminary scout.” Totino managed this by overcompensating. “I’d imagine every scenario and put all those details in the plan for the permit,” he recalls. Then he would subtract equipment as blocking took shape. Parisian-style preplanning “is something we’re not used to,” he adds. “In America, if you have a street closure and want to put a light on each end of the street, you just do it on the day.”

The districts’ restrictions influenced how Totino lit the interior of Neveu’s car. “We wanted to be at the bottom end of the meter, and on a lot of streets we were restricted in what lights we could rig,” says Evans. “On some we could get a cherry-picker and a bit of ambience working, but others wouldn’t let us use any equipment. In those cases, we had to make sure all the shops on that street would cooperate; we sent someone to every shop, door to door, to make sure they’d leave their lights on when they shut up shop that night. Some said they would but then did not.”

For the car interior, they needed something extra small and cool, because Neveu’s vehicle is a petite Smart car. “We were trying to find a light that wouldn’t get too hot and melt the car — they’re all plastic inside,” says Evans. Looking for something like Panalight’s 18"x4" LED panel, they eventually found a smaller version through an office-lighting catalog. They tucked one into the speedometer for the driver’s key light and one into an air vent for the passenger’s.

Five Smart cars were modified for the shoot by father-son stunt coordinators Remy and Dominique Julienne. Some cars could accommodate a three-camera setup. “They had built a sort of go-car, taking the body and engine of the Smart car and building a different frame that was extended further,” says Totino. “We could put platforms on the side of it, which meant we didn’t have to tow the Smart car. It could actually drive through the traffic. It appeared as though the actors were driving when there was actually a driver outside the car. And I mounted three cameras on it. It was fantastic.”

Langdon and Neveu’s trail leads from France to England and church to church. Given the Vatican’s condemnation of Brown’s book, it’s no surprise that several Catholic churches denied the production access. Even West-minster Abbey, which is not part of the Catholic church, refused permission. Fleet Street’s Temple Church, on the other hand, said yes, as did Lincoln Cathedral, which stood in for Westminster. (The 1,000-year-old cathedral had launched a 200-year restoration project and was keen to receive both the publicity and a generous “donation.”)

The three churches used — Lincoln, Temple, and Rosslyn Chapel in Midlothian, Scotland — are all historic landmarks, and each had its own restrictions. Evans and key grip John Fleming worked closely with the church engineers, the Clerk of the Works. Again, detailed diagrams were required in advance. Evans recalls, “Their main concerns were the lights: How hot are they? Are they close to the lead windows, and might they cause heat damage? There were also questions about affixing to the building, or bringing in Genie lifts or gondolas when there were tombs underneath the floor, which might crack under the weight.” At Lincoln, tombs were also outside, so cherry-pickers couldn’t park on the church grounds. Instead, scaffolding was built to support all exterior fixtures.

For all three churches, “Sal came up with a brilliant idea,” says Evans: each window would have its own blind hung on the outside of the building. Constructed much like Austrian blinds, these 30'-long blinds were made of black Duvatyn set in a metal frame with a nylon cable running through the middle. Using a pulley system, the fabric could be raised or lowered in the blink of an eye. “We thought it would be a bit of a headache, but once it was in place, it worked brilliantly,” says Evans. “Though we were shooting day scenes in all the churches, Sal didn’t want the ambient light coming through the big windows and taking away from the light/dark contrast.”

“When we’re in the churches, we get very godly with shafts of light,” says Totino. “I also wanted to keep the mood with a little coolness in the shadows, and a little bit of the stained-glass color coming in.” Blinds went up and down as needed to control the natural light, and 18K and 12K Pars outside the windows created the godly beams. Interior lamps were minimal. In Temple, for instance, “we had a tube light and a bit of poly,” says Evans. “We’d just gather up what was coming through the windows and use the poly to fold it around the actors; or, we’d lay this tube light, a 575-watt HMI with a 1-meter snoot, on the floor, as if the sun had come in and was bouncing off the floor.” No hanging lights were allowed or needed. “What we were getting through the windows was perfect,” says Evans.


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