Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez is clearly a devotee of the graphic novels that provide the basis for his new movie, Sin City. First, he hired the novel's writer and illustrator Frank Miller as his co-director. Then, to preserve the exact visual character of Miller's illustrations, he chose to reproduce as closely as possible the mostly black and white frames from the three novels — Sin City, That Yellow Bastard, and The Big Fat Kill — dramatized in the film. To most easily accomplish this, Rodriguez, who is credited as screenwriter, co-producer, composer, editor, and cinematographer, shot the bulk of Sin City on a greenscreen stage in his Austin studio. Bruce Willis, Benicio Del Toro, Jessica Alba, Clive Owen, Rosario Dawson, and other actors playing the title location's denizens are real; the settings that surround them are, for the most part, not.

“The way we approached it is, we had a very specific storyboard, because we were following Frank's books very closely,” explains gaffer John Sandau. “So, we knew what we were getting into as far as what we wanted it to look like in the end. Planning for something that's largely greenscreen, we didn't have to worry about having a location package, such as HMIs. Being entirely an indoor film, we used mostly tungsten lights, and we picked fixtures based on the look we wanted to end up with, which was a lot of hard light, a lot of very steep angles, heavy contrast, and deep, deep shadows.” This look matches Miller's vision of a rainy, dark alley-ridden city inhabited by criminals, strippers, and grubby cops.”

That does not mean that the film is simply a series of slavishly imitated comic panels. Sandau, who collaborated with Rodriguez on the last two Spy Kids movies and on Once Upon a Time in Mexico, all of which were shot, like Sin City, with Sony HD cameras, says, “Robert's description to us was, look at the panel in the book, think about it as an individual frame of the film, and consider what would be the frames before and the frames after. If there's a frame that shows two people talking, how did they get there? Where are they talking? What are they going to do when they finish talking?”

Apart from Rodriguez, Sandau had to work very closely with visual effects supervisor Daniel Leduc and visual effects coordinator Keefe Boerner, who were responsible for creating the movie's digital backgrounds in post. “Before the film, we talked a lot about the pieces they would need to get to the final image,” says the gaffer, adding that, though the source material often dictated what the sets looked like, “there were times where we'd just say, ‘The actor looks cool like this.’ If we wanted the actor to walk out of shadow and into light, or walk from light into shadow, we could do that. We weren't constrained by what the set dictated to us, because there was no set. We lit the actor so he looked great, and then they built the set around our lighting. If an actor walked forward and stepped into light, they looked at it in post and said, ‘Hey, we need to put a window there.’ So we sort of went backwards.”

Sandau describes this “backward” process as liberating for a lighting professional who is accustomed to dealing with the real world. “There are places where we have one actor in complete shadow and one actor in complete light,” he says. “And then in post, they can put them together, because they're creating the backgrounds anyway. My job is usually ruled by physics, where these things can't happen. When we shoot on greenscreen, we can put a light anywhere we want, as long as there's green in front of it. We have so many lights and pieces of equipment in the shot, and we don't worry about it, because we know we're going to take that element of the actor out and put him in a background that they're going to create later. It's fun to just think about the actors and what they're doing and not be distracted about the other pieces.”

This tight concentration on the actors, together with the bold graphic look Rodriguez was aiming for, meant Sandau's lighting setups were often spare. “I've done other largely greenscreen movies with Robert where, even then, we would have a few lights going,” he says. “But because of the look that Frank created in the books, even if we had shot this movie on practical sets, there would probably have been smaller setups. There are situations where, according to the drawing, it's one person standing under a light. There's a lot of downlight in Frank's drawings, so at various points, we would pick places on the greenscreen, and we would have a downlight hanging above that and then backlights focused to that point. For wider setups, we'd just have 30 or 40 lights set up to try to cover actors as they moved around to different areas.”

In terms of equipment, Sandau relied to a great extent on conventional Mole-Richardson studio sources, including 10Ks, 5Ks, and 2Ks. “We also used a lot of tungsten PARs for backlights, because they can be anything from very narrow to very wide, they're very controllable, and they have a lot of punch for the amount of amperage,” he says. “We would have two backlight trusses just loaded with 24 PAR cans each, and then we'd have Maxi Brutes. Everything we had was hanging on dimmers, so we could go from a single backlight to quite a bit covering the entire stage in a matter of moments with our dimmer board.” Buzzy Burwell was the operator on the production's ETC Expression 3 console, which controlled two 96-channel ETC Sensor® racks, four Strand CD80 6kW racks, and four CD80 12kW racks.

To bolster the hard, high-contrast look, Sandau went to opposite extremes of diffusion on key and fill lights. “We'd have a hard light like a 10K coming across an actor, with maybe the smallest amount of diffusion, like a fraction of Hampshire Frost,” he says. “It takes the curse off the light but leaves it with sharp shadows. And then our fill would be a low-level light like a 2K with a double Lee 129, which is even heavier than 216. But we'd still do fill light because it gave the guys in post something to work with.”

Sandau also found creative ways to use more non-traditional lighting. “We discovered that no matter how much backlight we had set up, there would always be a situation where an actor would be in position where we had no backlight,” he says. “Or a stunt would be happening, and someone's going to fly through the air above the backlights. So I started using six [High End Systems] Studio Beams®. [HES] happens to be based in Austin, so we got great service from them. We used those quite a bit, so we could actually focus a backlight wherever we needed. They have a lot of punch and allowed us a lot of flexibility.

“We also used a lot of ETC Source Fours® because they gave us precision,” he continues. “We could have an actor step into a real small piece of light or light a gun in somebody's hand. Sometimes, Frank would draw a person's face completely in shadow, but the eyes would be white. We made a special mount for a Source Four, so we could put it on a fluid head and sticks. A lamp operator could stand behind the [Source Four], make a small shape for the eyes across the face, and the minute the actor moved, he could move it very smoothly, slowly, and evenly, because it was on a fluid head like a camera. In post, they would take the light on the eyes, keep that, and darken everything else.”

Similar strategies were employed for the film's very selective use of color. Sin City was shot in color and converted to black and white in post, although switchable HD monitors on the set allowed Rodriguez and Sandau to get an approximation of what the final image would look like. “The black and white aspect was interesting, because we didn't have to worry about the color temperature of the lights,” the gaffer says. “It also allowed us some freedom and ability to do specialized things. There are images in Frank's book that show an actor in complete shadow, but he may have something that shows up in complete contrast.” An example is a tie worn by Hartigan, the cop played by Willis; Hartigan is obscured by shadow, but his tie, which blows in the wind, glows white. “To create that, we came up with the idea of using blacklight. Anything that was going to show up would be bright orange, and when we would shoot blacklights at the actors, whatever was painted orange would just glow. In post, they take that orange and make it white.”

But other elements in the film are always seen in color, like the yellow hair of a character named Goldie or a heart-shaped bed with red sheets. In those cases, the color was achieved on set and retained in post. A major exception is the character Yellow Bastard, whose skin indeed appears a vivid shade of yellow in the final film. “They discovered the easiest color to make him so they could pull it out later was blue,” says Sandau. “I guess the yellow was too close to skin tones on other actors. So, we actually shot him blue. It made for some bizarre things on set, people in orange jewelry and blue faces.”

As in any film with substantial post digital work, the issue of lighting interactivity was important, especially during numerous driving scenes. The gaffer says, “We did a lot of pieces with interactive light on the characters driving: lights passing by them, lights dimming up and down, that kind of thing. But we also had to be careful on the wider shots, because if you have a light pass over a character, then they have to create that light interacting with the rest of the background we don't see while we're shooting. They'd have to figure out how to get that light to look the same on the background as we got it on the actor. During the course of shooting, Keefe, the visual effects coordinator, would be there most every day. As we were shooting stuff, if I had a question, he could come by and take a look. So by the time they got to post, they had it the way they wanted it.”

For variety's sake, there was one major set actually constructed for Sin City: a bar where characters in the story's three-story strands periodically converge. “We built that partly because it kept us from going insane, being on the greenscreen constantly,” says Sandau. “Each segment of the movie would maybe have two or three days of shooting there.” One of the challenges presented by scenes in this location was making them match the rest of the film. “The first time we were in the bar set, we lit it like a [regular] set. Then, we realized it was too different from what we were accomplishing on the greenscreen. So, the next time we went in, we lit our actors first and then really reined ourselves in on the background and tried to create a look that felt like other parts of the movie.”

The adjustments necessitated by going back and forth from green stage to practical set kept everyone on their toes. “It was fun having that little mix in there,” recalls Sandau. “It was like, ‘wait a minute, we can't put a light in the shot because this is the shot. This is the background we're going to use.’ It was back to the physical reality of lights having to be out of the frame.”

SIN CITY GEAR:

MOLE-RICHARDSON GEAR:

2 20K Fresnels
6 Baby Teners 10K
10 Baby Seniors 5K
8 Baby Juniors 2K
4 6" 1K
8 Baby Babies 1K
6 Tweenie IIs
6 Betweenies
6 2K Mighty Moles
6 1K Mickey Moles
2 2000 Baby Zip Softlights
2 1K Baby Softlights
2 Minisofts
6 5K Skypans with can and scrims
6 2K globes for skypans with spacers
4 9 Light Maxibrutes with medium globes
4 9 Light FAYs with FCX globes
12 Single MolePARs with medium globes
2 6" Baby Foco spots (Mole model #407247)
2 Tweenie Foco spots (Mole model #282100)
2 Betweenie Foco spots (Mole model #280108)

ETC GEAR:

10 ETC Source Fours® with 26° Degree lens, iris, holder, gel frame, and bale block
6 36° lens
6 50° lens
2 ETC Sensor® Racks
1 ETC Expression 3 console

ADDITIONAL GEAR:

24 Wide PAR64 globes (to change out in Maxis and other PARs)
48 Narrow PAR64 globes
36 James Thomas Engineering PAR cans (medium globes and bale blocks)
1 Fisher Light Maxi Light with medium globes
4 LTM Pepper 100s
1 GAM Camera Light
2 400W Joker Bug kits with Bug-A-Beam adapters to Source Four
2 150W Dedo Light kits
2 100W Dedo light kits
6 Dedo foco spots
1 Dedo light DP Eye Set filter set
4 Kino Flo 4'×4 Bank with KF29
4 Kino Flo 4'×2 Banks with KF29
4 Kino Flo 4'×1 Banks with KF29
4 Kino Flo 2'×4 Banks with KF29
4 Kino Flo 2'×2 Banks with KF29
4 Kino Flo 2'×1 Banks with KF29
4 KinoFlo 4 Bank to 2/2 Bank splitters
4 KinoFlo 4 Bank to 4/1 Bank splitters
4 KinoFlo 2 Bank to 2/1 Bank splitters
2 KinoFlo 4'×4 Bank harnesses
2 KinoFlo 4'×2 Bank harnesses
6 KinoFlo 4';×1 Bank harnesses
4 KinoFlo 2'#215;1 Bank harnesses
1 Kino Car Kit (12V, 15")
2 KinoFlo MiniFlo Kits (12V, 9")
1 KinoFlo MicroFlo Kits
2 KinoFlo ParaBeam 400s with KF29 globes
8 6 Light Space Lights to Socapex
6 High End Systems Studio Beams®
3 Strand CD80 dimmer racks
6 Strand 12K Dimmers
6 Strand 6K Dimmers
2 10K Magic Gadget® dimmers
2 6K Magic Gadget dimmers
10 Cable crossovers
Various Chimera Daylight banks, rings, grids

VENDORS:

TFM Productions, Dallas

Olden Lighting, Austin

Red Dog Productions Ltd., Los Angeles