Lighting Balloons Help DP Tony Pierce-Roberts With the Housework on The Golden Bowl

The filmmaking team of James Ivory (director) and Ismail Merchant (producer) is famous for scouting out priceless locations for their largely period-set films. Their new adaptation of Henry James' The Golden Bowl, which is shot in places with names like Mansion House and Lancaster House, is no exception. The preference for using real country homes and townhouses, even for interiors, is rooted partly in economics, as Merchant and Ivory are also famously frugal. But there's another reason, says director of photography Tony Pierce-Roberts, BSC: “I think Jim likes the built-in atmosphere you get with a real location; on a stage there's no atmosphere other than what you create.”

But this approach has grown touchier, adds Pierce-Roberts, who has shot seven films for Merchant Ivory. “Years ago, people were much more ignorant about allowing film crews into their properties,” he says. “You could get away with far more in terms of what you could do and what kind of equipment you could bring in. In England, there are now associations of all the big country houses; they all get together and share information. They are fully aware of what letting a film crew into your house involves.” So is the DP: “I personally would never let a film crew anywhere near my home.”

Fragile architectural detail, finishes, furnishings, and artwork can all be irretrievably damaged by grip equipment and hot lights, among other items. But it's also true, as Pierce-Roberts says, that “for somebody with a stately home, it's quite a reasonable source of income. It's good for helping defray the cost of running the place.”

Mansion House, home to the City of London's lord mayor, was chosen for a large-scale soirée scene in The Golden Bowl. “They had just spent a lot of money repainting and regilding it and so forth,” says the cinematographer. “It was just fantastic — beautifully painted white with gold leaf everywhere.” Accordingly, nothing could be attached to the walls or the ceiling of the house. Since lighting from the floor was an inadequate alternative for such a large, splendid location, that left one option: helium-filled lighting balloons, the new wonder source.

“They're easy to install, you just float them up to the ceiling and they're out of everybody's way,” says Pierce-Roberts of the balloons. “If you want to put one in another room, you just pull it down on a couple of monofilament cords, push it into the next room, and float it. And they are cool. You put an HMI bulb inside this envelope with a helium filling, so they don't burn anything if they touch a wall.” That was a particular issue at another location, the 16th-century Burghley House in Lincolnshire. “They had several hundred million dollars worth of paintings on the wall,” the DP says. “Original Holbein portraits of Henry VIII, things like that. We were very, very strictly controlled — we had a couple of balloons in the ceiling, and people running around with thermometers going, ‘It's getting hot, you've got to turn the lights out.’

“That's a big challenge,” he continues. “On the one hand, you try to make it look atmospheric, but on the other hand, you try to deal with the sheer problem of preserving the fabric of these places. One wants to accommodate them as much as possible — I certainly don't want to go down in history as the man who burnt Holbein's portrait of Henry VIII.”

There is also a lighting downside to the balloons. “They don't always give you the most atmospheric of lighting,” says Pierce-Roberts. “You have to fiddle a lot with black skirts and flags to put shadows where you want them. It's a toplight source, and it's sometimes not all that flattering for the actors. If you're not careful, you can get dark eye shadows and big nose shadows. So you try to supplement it where you can, or have several, rather than just one, and spread them out, so the shadow is softer. But of course, that doesn't help the producer, because it means you have to spend more, on more units. In the end, you just have to decide: Do you want to be in these locations?”

Usually on a Merchant Ivory film, the answer is yes. The Golden Bowl, which is set in Edwardian England with a couple of excursions to Italy, also found itself on location at Belvoir Castle, which merged with Burghley House to represent the country residence of rich American protagonist Adam Verver (Nick Nolte) and his new wife (Uma Thurman); at the duke of Northumberland's Syon House, which stood in for both Verver's London quarters and those of his daughter Maggie (Kate Beckinsale), who has married a penniless Italian nobleman (Jeremy Northam); and Lancaster House, a former royal mansion in London where another party scene was staged.

Of course, locations like this were used by Merchant Ivory and others before the introduction of lighting balloons in the 1990s. “To be honest, I can't remember what we used to do,” says Pierce-Roberts. “Obviously, you tried to put lights through windows; that hasn't changed. If it was a white ceiling, you'd bounce light off it, or you'd have put a piece of white fabric up. But the lights were on stands, which you had to have hidden or dressed with something. Balloons free up all the floor space.”

At first, the cinematographer recalls, “the balloons that came out were all circular; they used meteorological balloons, put a lamp inside, and figured out a way to fix it. But, being round, they took up a lot of room. What you really want is a long, sausage-shaped balloon, because (a) you get a softer light that's spread over a longer area, and (b) you can get up nearer the ceiling and out of shot.” The balloons Pierce-Roberts uses, all in a “giant sausage shape,” are manufactured by Leelium, a British company co-owned by his longtime first assistant cameraman, Rawdon Hayne. “Because he's my assistant as well, there's a direct line of communication for upcoming scenes — ‘Let's have this, how can we make this work,’ and so forth,” says the DP, who has worked with a fairly stable crew, including gaffer Tommy Finch, for the last decade.

The look of The Golden Bowl is in keeping with the lush, golden-toned style Pierce-Roberts has perfected on the Merchant Ivory films, including his Oscar-nominated work on A Room With a View and Howards End. But there are differences. This is Ivory's first true anamorphic film, for one thing; Howards End and The Remains of the Day were shot in the Super 35 format. “Jim and I for a number of years talked about doing widescreen, but you need a decent amount of notice because of the limited availability of the equipment,” the cinematographer says. “And you really need to check out the lenses, because some of them can be very dark.” Fortunately, he had about six months' notice on The Golden Bowl, and pushed ahead with the format. “Since so much of Jim's work has to do with the costumes and the detail and the backgrounds, on this I really wanted to shoot anamorphic.”

Since the anamorphic format requires more light, shooting an interior location-based period drama can be tricky. “The setting is between 1905 and 1908,” says Pierce-Roberts of The Golden Bowl, “and they certainly would have had some electric lights. Our rationale was that in London, it would be electric light, but when we went into the country, it was candles. Sometimes the candles were concealed inside a shade, and we would substitute that with an electric source. But in one location, I couldn't stick anything on the ceiling, I couldn't put any scaffold rails up, and I thought, the hell with it. I'll just shoot with real candlelight and a very tiny supplement — Chimera balls with a single bulb inside, strategically placed in different parts of the room. So when, for example, Uma Thurman moved around with a candle, I would fade up and fade down these Chimeras. Plus I pushed the film a whole stop.”

The picture is shot on Fuji film, 500 ASA daylight and 250 ASA tungsten stock. “I've used Fuji a lot,” Pierce-Roberts says. “I started using it many years ago, because they were the first company to bring out a medium-speed film. I always start on any film by taking all the emulsions, be they Kodak or Fuji, and shooting a test. I do a makeup test, I try to do a costume test. They change the emulsions all the time; they only tell you when they make a big, big change, but they're always tinkering with them. What you used two years ago is not the same as what you're using now, to some extent. In this particular case, I thought the Fuji was doing more for the costumes and flesh tones than the Kodak.”

As for lighting style, Pierce-Roberts says, “I made it rather flatter than I have in the past; I used more frontlight than I'm accustomed to using. It just seemed right, somehow, for the costumes, for the look of it.” In addition to the balloons, the DP found himself making substantial use of Aurasoft lamps for fill. “It's a big, soft light, but you can change it from a tungsten source to an HMI source just by swapping the innards out,” he says. “Because of the toplight with the balloons, it gives you a good, powerful fill-in to counteract the eye shadows and problems like that. I would place it in the actor's eyeline, about 90° to camera, and soften it even more with a big diffuser frame.”

Daylight location interiors were generally shot with 18ks and 12ks coming through the windows, but this was sometimes more easily planned than executed. “I keep saying to everybody, please find locations on ground floors, and it all goes in one ear and out the other,” says Pierce-Roberts. “They'll find this lovely location three floors up, so you say, ‘Fine — that means I've got to have cherry pickers or towers or scaffolding or whatever,’ and they say, ‘We can't afford this!’ But of course, you offer them the alternative, which is to bring all the lamps into the room, and then you lose 50% of your location. And you lose the atmosphere, because everyone has to traipse around all this lighting equipment.”

One location shot several floors up was Verver's library, one of the film's extravagant domestic interiors. “I couldn't put anything outside, because the drop was too far down,” says the DP. “Luckily, most of the scenes in there were at night, so we just blacked it out and closed the shutters. I used the balloons as sort of a general light, but sparingly. Partly because the anamorphic format is long and narrow, and also because the library had all these very tall bookshelves, I could put lots of small lighting units on top. Verver generally had on dark clothing, so I used these smaller units to backlight the suits and pick out the darker detail.”

The movie's main Italian location, a partially restored castle south of Rome that served as the Northam character's family home, also presented height issues. “It was on a hillside with a sheer drop down,” says Pierce-Roberts, “so it was a big problem getting the lamps up to come through the windows. But the Italian electricians are used to those kinds of locations.”

Though the cinematographer says the “restrictions on a real location can get troublesome,” he recognizes the boost they give to the Merchant Ivory films. And while he wrangled over economic issues early on in his collaboration with the duo — “Sometimes, I felt they were not really sensible; by saving a truck, we might lose an hour's filming” — he says that he was so thrilled to be working with them that the compromises seemed minor.

Pierce-Roberts began his career as a camera assistant in Central Africa, where he had moved with his parents at age 11. He joined the Central African Film Unit, working on wildlife documentaries and with visiting film crews. After five years of this, in 1966, his connections were sufficiently strong that he was able to move to London and get a job as assistant cameraman for the BBC. He moved up to cameraman in several years, and won BAFTA Awards for shooting television dramas like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Caught on a Train. His first feature film as a director of photography was Jerzy Skolimowski's 1982 Moonlighting, starring Jeremy Irons.

“I did A Private Function, with Maggie Smith, in 1984,” says the DP. “At the time, Jim was coming to England to set up A Room With a View, and he was looking for another cameraman. I had liked their films, and let it be known over the years that I was interested in working with them. But you can never get in touch with them unless they let themselves be gotten in touch with. They just rang my agent — Jim had seen A Private Function, and had liked it.”

Though Pierce-Roberts has gone on to shoot Slaves of New York, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Howards End, The Remains of the Day, Surviving Picasso, and The Golden Bowl for the filmmakers, he has continually attempted to broaden his horizons beyond the posh period set. Other films he has photographed include Hollywood products like The Client, Disclosure, and Jungle2Jungle, and the French extravaganza Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar.

“Around the time of Howards End,” says Pierce-Roberts, “I became concerned that I was known as only doing Merchant Ivory projects. So I went to Pittsburgh to do a George Romero film, The Dark Half. I thought, you couldn't get more anti-Merchant Ivory than this.” His most recent project was Dinotopia, a six-hour television miniseries with tons of visual effects. “That's one reason I wanted to do it,” he says. “More and more films have lots of effects in them, and by the time I finish this, there's very little I won't know about shooting an effects movie.”

But it seems likely that the cinematographer will remain most closely identified with the worlds of E.M. Forster and Henry James, worlds into which Ivory and Merchant love to delve. The Golden Bowl, which is a notoriously difficult novel, may be their most challenging foray yet — Miramax, which reportedly wanted cuts that Ivory was unwilling to make, pulled out of its distribution deal not long before the film's scheduled November release. Lions Gate picked up the movie, and released it on April 27. Whatever its eventual success, Pierce-Roberts' work should be beyond reproach. His assessment: “I actually think — he said vainly — it's one of their better-looking films.”

Top two photos: Erica Lennard.
Third photo: Seth Rubin.