When Rob Cohen asked me to shoot his next feature after we finished “The Rat Pack,” I was ecstatic. I could not wait to get the script. He told me that it was a thriller about the Skull and Bones Secret Society at Yale. I love these types of stories where you know that there is a “New World Order” and that 5 people manipulate puppet strings and control everything. Rob asked me to do some research and to take photos of Yale to help the Production Designer and to get a sense of the scale of the University.
Two days later I was on a plane to New Haven, Connecticut with my Nikon and a whole assortment of glass. Yes, you heard the word Nikon. Research is essential to becoming a good cinematographer. You are not only responsible for the light, composition, movement, and mood, but how the space feels. It is important to ask yourself, “what is the the emotion of the location?” I woke up very early every day when I was in Connecticut and took pictures of all of the locations that were described in the script. It was so much fun going into the cafeteria at sunrise. The shafts of light that came through the gothic windows are something that I put into my memory banks forever.
There was a heavy feeling in every room that I visited at Yale. Presidents graduated from here, the CIA was created behind these walls, history and power walked through the halls and chambers of this incredible institution. I quickly noticed all of the Pagan symbols that garnered every door, building and fence. It was so amazing to go to each Secret Society and to be able to experience their auras. Book and Snake, Wolf’s head, Key and Scroll and, of course, the infamous Skull and Bones.
After 3 days of shooting all of the locations at different times of day, I decided to become a detective and track the ins and outs of the Skull and Bones. I wanted to get a taste of the flavor of people that will soon be ruling the world and pulling on MY string. You would never know that this was an entrance to a Secret Society let alone an entrance to anywhere. There were simply two skinny black doors that looked as though they had been painted over a million times. All of the other societies were stand alone buildings with grand entrances. They did not dissolve into the campus like this entrance did. You didn’t know where the University stopped and the secret society began. It was so cool!
It was amazing to see who was coming and going. Attire ranged from Surf bum gear to formal dinner wear – even tuxedos. I was so into it that I went out and got a 600mm lens and a 2X Extender from the local photography store. It was really cold on the last night there. I hadn’t experienced much activity for a bit, then all of a sudden, with the right lens, I shot an amazing photograph of a member walking up to the door at twilight. A metal box slid out, and he opened it and placed his hand in it. I saw a green glow come up like a photo scanner, and I thought, “are they really scanning his hand for entry?” Sure enough, the door opened and he dissolved into the University. I was on the phone to Rob Cohen immediately. I told him “you are not going to believe this.” He was so excited that I was there to experience it.
As an artist I consider seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and the sixth sense of feeling a story emotionally. Choosing a set of brushes that will tell this story in the best possible way is the next task. Finally, intuition and following with your heart. As you get more experience as a Cinematographer you will not talk about what you are going to do, you will just know what to do. It is so hard for me to explain to you how I light the way that I do, because so much depends on the day, the moment, and how a location feels.
With all of this R & D in New Haven, I was very emotionally connected to Yale University and I was ready to create. I was flown to Toronto where we would be shooting the picture. The University of Toronto was designed by the same Architect that designed Yale, and the Gothic thread weaved throughout. This location had everything that we needed: the big library, cafeteria, campus green, hallways, beautiful classrooms, as well as an incredible Gothic Cathedral.
One of the sets that we could not find was the re-birthing sequence in the film where Lucas McNamara drinks the liquid in the science lab and passes out. “Where does he end up?” was the question Rob and I were both asking ourselves. We looked at old warehouses, barns, and factories, but nothing really spoke to us until we walked into an old brewery about 30 minutes outside of Toronto. The main room had barreled ceilings that were quite high – I would say around 30′ – and it had cement circles that stainless steel fermenting tanks sat on. Immediately I had a crazy idea. I thought, “what if we flood this place so that the cement circles seem like they are little islands where we can set each casket for the Skulls to be Reborn, to cross over to the ‘dark side’?” Rob loved the idea. I thought that we could use lighting effects to make it like a theatrical event. They obviously do this every year, so it is always rigged and ready. So – I set off designing lighting for this rebirth experience. I wanted the audience to feel disoriented and confused just like Luke (Joshua Jackson) and the others did. The lighting had to be surreal, edgy, dark, and mysterious. At the same time it had to come to life and to show the spectacle of it all. Here was my approach:
I hung 9 Arri Ruby 7 Par lights as 3/4 back top lights for each coffin, then I hung 12 4′ 4-Bank Super Blue Kino Flo’s to top light the coffins and also to light the white washed walls. This Kino color was designed to light blue screens, but I thought it would look awesome in this environment. The mix of the two color temperatures really looked slick. We dimmed the Ruby 7’s down to about 75% so they would read 2800K while the blue screen tubes were 40,000K. I over exposed the coffins about 4 stops to burn them a bit and underexposed the super blue Kino’s 1 stop. In the wides, I love how the light hitting the bottom of the coffins bounces up and lights the underside of the silk interiors. We shot the whole sequence at a 2.0 and 5/10ths. In the beginning I wanted to disorient the viewer so we started with the camera upside down. We had a 3 axis head mounted on a 30′ Technocrane that we rotated slowly to right itself just as the hand came out of the coffin. The dripping water, super cold look, and extreme close up composition was confusing and exactly the feeling Rob and I wanted.
When the Red Monks were revealed it had to be shocking. We put a 12k Ari Tungsten light on the deck and blasted up into the rafters to silhouette the first monk, then for the other I chose a 7K Xenon that I put Full CTS in front of it so that the light was not cold but perfectly hyper white. This we struck on cue and brought the second Red Monk out of the darkness. It worked well to have everything on a dimmer or a switch because at the end Rob wanted the lights to go out except for one light left in the middle. He felt that this would show visually that the team was together amidst the darkness and that they had to band together in order to succeed.
My next series will describe the lighting in “Crazy/Beautiful.” Stay tuned!