FOR CINEMATOGRAPHER MICHAEL CHAPMAN, KEEPING IT SIMPLE IS THE KEY TO EVOLUTION
During his time off from The X-Files, David Duchovny found himself still fighting aliens, albeit in a lighter mode than usual. The vehicle is Ivan Reitman's science-fiction comedy Evolution, which DreamWorks is releasing this month, and which contains enough slime and antic otherworldly creatures to echo the director's earlier smash hit, Ghostbusters. Encouraging the comparison are the questionable qualifications of Evolution's alien-busters: community college professor Duchovny and his two semi-bumbling buddies, Orlando Jones and Seann William Scott. Joining them is Julianne Moore, a government scientist investigating a meteor that has crashed to earth, spewing extraterrestrial life around the Arizona desert.
It may be a surprise to realize that Michael Chapman, director of photography on the classic likes of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, shot this piece of high-priced frivolity. But the DP has a tradition of settling into comfortable working relationships: This is his fourth collaboration with Reitman (the others are Ghostbusters II, Kindergarten Cop, and Six Days, Seven Nights). “We have a method that seems to work for us,” says the cinematographer, who is familiarly known as Chappie. “Ivan can be rather strict, but I think I'm actually more strict with him than he is with me — we're a couple of grumpy old guys, and we get along.”
Shooting Evolution was all about staying out of the way of the jokes, says Chapman. “Everybody says tragedy is a close-up, and comedy is a long shot,” he explains. “You want to be able to see the people, to see the jokes; you probably want to have the joker and jokee in the same frame, things like that. Arty lighting generally doesn't make any sense in a comedy.”
Of course, it's a little more complicated than that, particularly when you're shooting a film as heavy with digital effects as Evolution is. Yet Chapman underplays this, as well. “We had to have two different ground glasses, one for our framing, and one for the framing of Phil Tippett and his guys.” Tippett, the visual effects supervisor whose creations range from dinosaurs for Jurassic Park to big marauding bugs for Starship Troopers, here contributes dozens of goofy and/or menacing aliens, including spiders, monster birds, amoebas, and walking logs and tree limbs. The choice of a flat format almost goes without saying on such a movie, because it is much more compatible with the effects work.
Of the emphasis on the digital, Chapman says, “It's more and more common in movies; you can't get away from it. I'll get through with something and say, I just want to light that little area there. And they say, never mind, we'll take care of it. And fine, they do. There's no sense getting upset about it; it's part of the technology that's evolving. Pretty soon all photography will just be templates for some kind of drawing. After all, the very earliest photography was often templates for artists to paint. So, why not?”
“The effects don't affect my job at all,” concurs chief lighting technician Mel Maxwell, who has been working with Chapman since his former gaffer, Jono Kouzouyan, went off to work, ironically enough, on The X-Files. “We had to supply a light for them to shoot a color chart with, and then leave everything burning while they did their deal.” In the case of a shopping mall sequence in which patrons are set upon by dozens of flying aliens, there was a lot of lamp light to leave burning. In addition to three 36-light dinos, 20ks, and soffits installed with fluorescent tubes, there was daylight, both real and simulated. “We shot in wintertime, so the days were pretty short,” says Maxwell. “There were these big openings to the sky, and when it got dark, those went black. So we had close to 80 nine-light and 12-light Maxi Brutes on the roof to dump light down into the mall, and as many as 14 generators, too. All those lights didn't really do anything for us in terms of exposure; they just made it look like it wasn't nighttime outside.”
The most imaginative set, and the most galling, is a cave where the meteor comes to rest, and where the new life forms (and slime) start evolving. Designed by J. Michael Riva and built at Raleigh Manhattan Beach Studios, the set included a host of invasive flora and fauna, crafted by the art department out of tubing, pet toys, and beach balls. “That was the set that wouldn't die, the set from hell,” Maxwell recalls. (Even a fire during production failed to kill it.) “There were no level surfaces at all, there were pitholes and hillsides you couldn't stand on. There was no place to suspend or hang anything, so we had to use light stands with location legs. You've got a fully enclosed set, so what do you do? You light for every shot.”
“We lit it various times in slightly different ways, because each time you come back to it, there's been another step in the evolution of these life forms,” says Chapman of the cave. The first lighting source is a hole from the surface punched by the meteor, through which sunlight — actually a 36-light dino on truss above the set — streams. Later, the US Army comes in to investigate and sets up work lights, “so that gave us a reason we could use more lights in there,” says the gaffer. “We used 20ks, 10ks, 5ks, juniors, babies. We used some CTO, and everything was mostly on dimmers, just to warm it up.” When the slimes start to grow, “they pulse and glow with orange and blue light, or whatever — we were free to be as outrageous as we wanted,” Chapman says. That meant using Lee, Rosco, and GAM: whoever had the right color for the particular life form. All the stage and interior scenes were shot with 5279, Kodak's Vision 500 stock, while 5245, a slow daylight film, was used for exteriors.
The latter included about a month of shooting around the red sandstone buttes of Lake Powell, on the Arizona-Utah border. For one exterior, in which a monster is “developing like a jellyfish” above several of our heroes, “the grips had a pretty interesting job,” Maxwell recalls. “These guys are supposed to be in the shade of this beast, and we're working in hard sun. So they had to hoist a 40'×60' black in the air on a crane rig.” This needed to intercut with setups of the creature's belly on a soundstage. “We had a sky blue backing with clouds, and shot it with 50ASA film, like the exteriors,” the gaffer says. “For close-ups on the actors, I think we had as many as 10 HMI 18ks burning.”
Evolution's high desert location also hosted the 1968 version and Tim Burton's recent remake of Planet of the Apes, as well as other films. “It's marvelous-looking there,” says Chapman. “It also has that feel of Them!,” he adds, referring to one of the many 1950s science-fiction classics in which mutant creatures run rampant across the desert. “We wanted to evoke the feeling of those old movies.”
LIFE BEFORE EVOLUTION
The cinematographer, who was raised in New England, has been in the business for about 40 years, and says, “I'm of an age where movies were a big thing in my childhood, but I didn't know that ordinary people could actually go and be moviemakers.” He started out working as a camera assistant in a New York commercial house, “and it slowly began dawning on me that I could make a career out of this.” At that company, Chapman met Gordon Willis, who used him as a focus puller. “Then Gordy got offered a feature, and asked me if I would change my union card and operate. And I did — I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Presumably, once I was, I did a decent job. But a lot of it is just accident, you know.”
It was a fortuitous accident, nonetheless — among the movies he operated for Willis were Hal Ashby's The Landlord, Alan J. Pakula's Klute, and Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. Chapman's first feature as a DP was Ashby's The Last Detail, in 1973. His second was Philip Kaufman's Arctic-set White Dawn, the first of four films he shot for the director (including another creature feature, 1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
In 1975, Chapman met Martin Scorsese. “Marty was interviewing cameramen for a low-budget movie, Taxi Driver,” he says. “We met and talked, and hit it off — we had a lot of the same references in common, we'd seen all the Godard movies and everything. So he hired me, for whatever reason: You'd have to ask him. It clearly worked out, anyway.” Well enough that Chapman stuck with Scorsese through his next two films, The Last Waltz and Raging Bull. That black-and-white boxing saga, considered by many to be the top film of the 1980s, was full of inventive camera and lighting tricks, and earned the DP his first Academy Award nomination. But, he says, “from the inside, the life of a movie takes over so much that it doesn't necessarily seem unorthodox or strange. You're simply doing the movie in the style, and with the methods, that seem inevitable. It seems like you have no choice — that light has to be right there. It has to be out of frame, and we don't have much time. Also, mistakes repeated often enough can eventually become a style. Maybe that's only in my case; other people may be far more conscious artists.”
After time out for a few so-so directorial efforts, including All the Right Moves and The Clan of the Cave Bear, Chapman returned to cinematography in the late 80s, and has been shooting ever since: His credits during that time include Scrooged, Rising Sun, Primal Fear, Space Jam, The Story of Us, and The Fugitive, which won him a second Oscar nomination.
Says Maxwell, “Chappie is the consummate filmmaker, not just a director of photography. He sees what the big picture is. He knows what it takes to tell the story, and he knows it from all the angles — from a directorial point of view, the actors' point of view, and the crew's point of view.” But the way Chapman sees it, he's mainly solving technical problems. “I'm not sure but what the intelligent solution to mechanical problems is what passes for art, maybe most of what passes for art,” he says. “So I'll stay with the mechanical problems, and if other people can see art, then fine. But I have to get through the day.”