Michael Ballhaus, ASC, rode in on the crest of the German new wave during the 1970s, serving as Rainer Werner Fassbinder's invaluable director of photography. After moving to the US, he brought a fresh dynamism to a series of Martin Scorsese films, and established satisfying collaborations with directors as varied as Mike Nichols, James L. Brooks, and, in a roundabout return to his German roots, Wolfgang Petersen. But it took The Wild, Wild West, Barry Sonnenfeld's spectacular big-screen version of the 1960s TV western, to teach Ballhaus something unexpected.
"I've always said that I don't have a style," the DP explains. "But when I worked with Barry I realized that I must have some kind of style because it's different than his. He loves wide-angle lenses, which is something I normally don't do much. I like a lot of different colored lights. He doesn't like that at all; he wants all the lights neutral, or more on the warm side. His way of framing is different, also--he likes to have things in the center of the frame. I wanted widescreen for the movie, but when you shoot 1:2.35 and put things in the center of the frame, it's boring. He couldn't think in widescreen, so we shot 1:1.85."
Which is not to say that The Wild, Wild West was an unpleasant experience for Ballhaus. "It's interesting to work with somebody like Barry, because you learn a lot about his view of things, especially for comedy," he says. Sonnenfeld, of course, started out as a cinematographer, and his visual sensibility is strong. Think of movies like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Throw Momma from the Train, with their prankish camera movements and popping images, and then look at the films Sonnenfeld has directed: The Addams Family, Get Shorty, Men in Black. "He has a very specific style that he shoots all his movies in," says Ballhaus. "He did that as a cinematographer, and he's doing the same thing now working as a director. So you just follow his rules."
Ballhaus' connection with Sonnenfeld goes back to 1990, when he asked him to step in for a crucial task. "I was shooting Goodfellas with Marty Scorsese, and I had to leave a couple of days before production was over, because I had another commitment with Mike Nichols. I'd seen Barry's work with the Coen brothers, and I liked his style a lot. So I recommended that he finish for me. He shot a couple of days on the film."
Ballhaus shot more than a couple of days on The Wild, Wild West; in fact, with a shooting schedule of 129 days and a budget of roughly $130 million, this is by far the DP's biggest film. To give an example of the scope of the movie, Ballhaus says, "On one set, we had 1.4 million watts of lights hanging." There is also substantial CGI work in the finished product, which Warner Bros. is releasing July 2. Among the effects are a number of steam-powered gadgets and vehicles, designed by Bo Welch with a nod to Jules Verne and his 19th-century concept of science fiction. The culmination of the film's Victorian-style invention arrives in the form of a giant mechanical tarantula, created by the villainous Dr. Loveless to transport weapons and do battle with heroes James West and Artemus Gordon.
The dashing West (Will Smith) and master of disguises Gordon (Kevin Kline) are special agents employed by President Ulysses S. Grant's government to track down and foil the brilliant yet foreshortened Dr. Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), who plans to take over the country, if not the world. The movie, written by Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman, tips its hat to the series in numerous ways, from the unique blend of wit and fantasy in its approach to the western genre, to the moving railroad car that West and Gordon call home.
This set was built surprisingly close to actual specifications for an 1870s steam train coach. "Bo's work on this was incredible; it wasn't wider or higher or anything like that to make it easier for us," says Ballhaus. "You could move the walls out, but we did it very little. I don't like to do it, because suddenly you get a weird perspective from where the camera couldn't otherwise be. So we basically lit it from outside, according to what time of day it was, and whether it was sunny or not." Generally, hard sunlight sources were used over the windows, filled in with softer ambient daylight from below. Another wrinkle was that the car, realistic though its construction may have been, was sitting in the middle of a Warner Bros. soundstage, and the considerable amount of moving footage outside its windows had to be bluescreened in.
Chief lighting technician James R. Tynes, who has worked with Ballhaus on 13 films, explains how this process strayed from the norm. "Usually, the plates will be shot first, and you video-composite on the set to watch the plates go by. Then you can do your shadow gags and moving lights to match what's on the plates. In this case, the process was reversed. We did our work on the bluescreen stage first, and the plates were shot later. Pat Daily, the key grip, came up with an elaborate setup of shadow gobo patterns and branches and cards to move past the lights over the long distance of the train. Since we had no restrictions on matching the plates, the people in postproduction had to match what we did for a change." Nighttime scenes in the train were lit with small units, motivated from period practicals such as gas lamps and candles. "We didn't do much night bluescreen," says the gaffer. "We used poor-man's process, where you simply see black outside the windows."
A much more elaborate set--indeed, the biggest set in the movie--was Dr. Loveless' lair. Designed to evoke a cavernous Victorian train station with arched glass on a framework of iron latticework, this impressive focal point of evil was built on the high-ceilinged Stage 16 at Warner Bros. "It's a very large stage, and the set filled it completely," says Tynes, who likens the lair to an enormous greenhouse. Its setting within the story is at the bottom of a desert canyon, which meant very specific angles for the lighting. "The whole thing is supposed to be surrounded by the high walls of this canyon," says Ballhaus. "The scene is late afternoon, and the sun is pretty low, just peeking over the edges of the canyon, so we needed a strong, sunny sidelight coming into the lair." As Tynes says, "It was hard to accomplish that--when the set fills the stage, you have very little room for lights." The answer was eight 30k Moleenos on movable truss. "In that space, with the amount of light we needed, Moleenos with a very narrow globe seemed to be a good choice," the gaffer explains. "We were on a high f-stop, and they have a lot of punch. They're also dimmable, which on a large set is a cost-saving measure. The windows of the set itself had a layer of diffusion, so they blended out that multiple shadow problem you get with Moleenos."
The movable truss rig was necessitated in part by Sonnenfeld's proclivity for wide-angle lenses. According to Tynes, the longest lens on The Wild, Wild West was probably a 50mm, with 15s, 18s, and 20s the much more common choices. "For comedy, the wide-angle sells, but depending on how the set's constructed, you run out of options for backlight and sidelight angles; the lens forces it around to the front, and comedy is usually a little more frontally lit anyway." Yet that look would not have worked for sunset in the Loveless lair. Since there were numerous wide shots of the structure, the gaffer says, "Wherever you put the lights, they might be in the shot. The movable truss rig helped us get them out of the way yet still keep the sunset feeling."
The Moleenos only contributed directional sunlight to the set. For ambiance, Ballhaus and Tynes hung about 125 Mole-Richardson 1,500W 4-light far cycs and 125 space lights, diffused through 200'x300' (61x91m) of silk. "It was a very soft, still light from the sky," says the DP. "It was a little more on the bluish side, with a color temperature of about 3200K, while the sunlight was more like 2700." While the Moleenos were run on Strand CD80 dimmers, and controlled by an ETC Expression 2x board, the far cycs and space lights were run on available DC power, to keep true to 3200K.
The low-angle lighting style was favored throughout The Wild, Wild West, and sometimes had to be created even on location. "We had some exterior day scenes around Santa Fe, NM, where we also wanted the late-afternoon look," says Ballhaus. "But you have that only for an hour or so every day. So most of the time I covered the exterior sets with a huge silk to take the sunlight out, and then lit it again with Moleenos. We tried to make it look interesting and late in the day, even if it was noon and the sun was on top of the scene, which is not very beautiful."
One major night exterior, a stagecoach racing sequence, was shot at the Disney ranch outside Los Angeles. The lighting of this scene was complicated by the requirement of covering a large area. "We had a run of about half a mile where this coach loaded with nitroglycerin was racing along, with Will Smith on top," the DP says. "He jumped from the wagon to the horses to try to stop them, and we shot that with several cameras on different lenses driving parallel with the coach. The lighting was difficult, because we wanted it to be not too bright and we wanted the scene to be backlit." The sequence was divided into two 1/4-mile sections, with three Musco units and three 18k HMIs each on two Bebee rigs providing a moon-like background, although they were filtered with half-CTO "because Barry didn't want it too blue." In addition, 20ks and Moleenos were sprinkled around the location on 80' (24m) Condors.
"We filled in soft from the front where we could, hiding lights behind trees," says Ballhaus, "And we had one light traveling in front of the horses so you could see their faces." Adds Tynes, "We shot that sequence a number of times. It's challenging because it's a night exterior out in the woods where there's no light source other than the moon. Also, the Disney ranch has very dense oak trees that can give you a total blackout." It was a relief at one point to light up a western town in the background. "That was done with 30 or 40 Mole-Richardson Mickey and Mighty Mole units, on the ground for splashes on buildings," says Tynes.
"You don't sleep well the day before those big night exteriors," says the gaffer. "There wasn't a lot of rehearsal time, so you go on instinct. You have a clear idea from this spot to that spot where the action will take place, and you rely on manufacturers' specifications and your own experience with the units to tell you what you can do with them. You look at the terrain, and once you're out there, you just fly by the seat of your pants. Something that large at night, when you finally get it in place, it always feels just one light short. You're always stretching, trying to make it do what you said it would do."
Ballhaus' choice of Kodak's Vision 320 stock did give him quite a bit of exposure latitude on the movie. "We used it for most of the scenes," he says. "It's an excellent stock. It can go from 320 ASA to 200 or even 125. I exposed it with a 200 ASA, because the more light you give the stock, the more contrast you get out of it. When you expose it with 320, it's nice but a little flat. At 200, it has a very good contrast." The other stock he used was 5248, exposed at 100 ASA, for the bluescreen scenes. "The blue layer of the 48 is much better for bluescreen," he says. "We lit all those scenes with Kino Flos." The cinematographer's camera, as always, was supplied by Arriflex. "I used the 535A and 535B camera, and for a lot of the high-speed stuff I used the new 435. It's not soundproof, but it's brilliant, you can go from 2 fps to 150 fps with it. We shot a lot of plates with that camera, and also handheld shots, as it's very light."
Loyalty to Arri is one element Ballhaus retains from his German cinema days. Perhaps another is his very non-Hollywood temperament--patient and unposturing. "He is the nicest, most gracious person you would hope to meet," says Tynes. "He's not a screamer." The cinematographer's heritage is actually in German theatre; both of his parents were actors, who ran their own company. "For a while, when I was a kid," he says, "I wanted to be an actor for sure, because that was so fascinating. But then, when I was 14, I started taking pictures. My parents bought me a Rolleiflex, and I started taking pictures of the performances for advertising, then I started doing portraits of actors; it became a hobby."
A turning point came several years later. "I had my first encounter with a movie," says Ballhaus. "It was Lola Montes, directed by Max Ophuls. My family was friendly with him, so I had a chance to be on the set, to watch them shoot for a couple of days. From that moment on, I think I knew that I wanted to become a cinematographer."
When he finished high school, Ballhaus studied photography, since there were no film schools around in the late 1950s. "After that, I started in television as one of the camera operators," he says. "Pretty soon, I started shooting TV movies on film. From the time I was 25, I always worked with film. I became the chief cinematographer at that TV station, which gave me a lot of chances to experiment and do different things." He also worked with directors like Peter Lilienthal, for whom he would later shoot several features.
Ballhaus went freelance in 1968, took a teaching job in the Berlin film school, and started breaking into theatrical films. It was in 1970 that Rainer Werner Fassbinder came in to the picture. "I met him through a producer friend," the DP recalls. "I was shooting a documentary in Ireland, and my friend called from Spain. 'Listen, I am sitting here with Fassbinder, and we lost our cinematographer.' Within in a week, Ballhaus arrived in Spain, to work on a never-released item called Whity. "The financing was a little tricky, so nobody knew who owned the movie," he explains. "But it was shown in a couple of festivals and won a lot of prizes." Next came Beware of a Holy Whore and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant--two films that were released to theatres, including ones in New York, where the director was taken up as the harbinger of the New German Cinema.
During the 1970s, Ballhaus shot 14 films with Fassbinder, including Fox and His Friends, Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven, Despair, and The Marriage of Maria Braun. (It should be noted that their work together represented only about half the director's output over this nine-year period, while Ballhaus also found time to shoot eight other movies.) But the collaboration's beginnings were not auspicious. "When we started together, I was much more experienced than he was," says the DP. "I had already shot maybe 20 movies. So he was a little tense, and very strong about what he wanted. I never unpacked my suitcase. I thought, 'This is not going to last long; he's not the kind of guy I like to work with because he wants to do everything himself.' But from day to day it got better. After four weeks, I unpacked my suitcase.
"From film to film, our relationship changed," he continues. "He knew that I had my own ideas about things, and we were always discussing. He always tried to top my ideas. That was quite creative, I must say. What I learned from working with him for so many years, and on so many movies, was to think in terms of the rhythm of the film. He never did any coverage. We just shot what he needed, and that was it. So you had to think carefully about how your images come together, if the cut works right, if the transition is smooth--thinking in terms of the rhythm of the scene, and not just in single images. And you had to be fast, because he was pretty pushy. It was a very interesting, not-easy relationship. But who says that moviemaking is easy?"
Although Fassbinder's admiration for the studio-artifice stamp of Douglas Sirk's 1950s Hollywood melodramas is well known, his own style was never so confined. "It was different for every movie," says Ballhaus. "But if the story came closer to this kind of melodrama, we looked at a lot of Sirk movies, and he would mention, 'Look, there is always this blue outside and warm inside.' I did a lot of color in those days. You could play with colors and use them as a dramatic way of lighting people. But he didn't want every movie to look the same."
Budget often dictated location shooting that couldn't approximate the look of a studio, anyway. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, for example, was shot for about DM 150,000, or roughly $75,000. Their most expensive collaboration, the English-language Despair, from a Vladimir Nabokov novel, had a DM 4 million ($2.2 million) budget, and included a fair-sized lighting package, cranes, and dollies. But Petra von Kant, along with Maria Braun and The Stationmaster's Wife, are among Ballhaus' favorites from his collaboration with Fassbinder, who died in 1982.
The first picture Ballhaus shot in the US was Lilienthal's Dear Mr. Wonderful. But his first bona fide American film was the 1983 Baby It's You for John Sayles, whom the cinematographer met through production designer Jeffrey Townsend. Soon, Ballhaus was in talks with Scorsese for the director's long-planned film version of The Last Temptation of Christ. "That was supposed to be my first movie for Marty," says the DP. "It was all prepped, they had all the locations in Israel, and then the studio pulled the plug. But then, a year later, he got the offer to do After Hours, and that became our first movie."
Ballhaus' feelings for Scorsese are unequivocal: "I adored him for a long time before I met him, because I saw every movie that he had done, and he was my big hero." Something in their work together--which includes The Color of Money, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, and The Last Temptation of Christ, finally made in Morocco in 1988--really seems to mesh. The rhythm Ballhaus learned from Fassbinder has probably been put to its best use with Scorsese. It's there in the movement of the camera through the kitchen of the Copacabana in Goodfellas; in the roll of a ball to the pool table pocket in The Color of Money; in the fetid atmosphere that rises from the ancient Mideast market in Last Temptation, and from the close-knit 1870s upper-class New York in The Age of Innocence.
"He has a very strong idea about his shots, and makes a shot list for every movie," says Ballhaus of Scorsese. "When I read his shot list, it's so much what I dream can be done with images. He loves to move the camera as I do, he loves interesting compositions and telling stories with images, not with talking heads. The camera can sometimes tell the audience what the characters in the movie feel, but what they don't say. It's very, very exciting to work with him."
Ballhaus' adjustment to American moviemaking was gradual, starting with low-budget movies like Baby It's You and After Hours, projects that were not so different in scale than what he was working on in Germany. "The first bigger budget was The Color of Money," he says. "That was wonderful, to have more time and money, and if you needed a big crane or a Steadicam or more light, you could have it all. All of a sudden, my fantasy opened up, because whatever you could think, you could basically do. Yet sometimes less is more. With Last Temptation, I think we did a better movie for $7 million than we would have for $20 million."
The budgets grew as Ballhaus worked his way more and more into the Hollywood studio system, winning an Oscar nomination in 1987 for his work on James L. Brooks' Broadcast News; collaborating with Mike Nichols on Working Girl, Postcards From the Edge, and last year's Primary Colors; experimenting with in-camera effects (using the Arriflex 535 in its infancy) on Bram Stoker's Dracula, for Francis Ford Coppola; and entering the big-budget action game with Outbreak and Air Force One, both for Wolfgang Petersen.
Ballhaus hooked up with Tynes on a smaller-scale film for HBO called Baja Oklahoma, in 1987. "The first feature I did with him was Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and the first real home run for us was The Fabulous Baker Boys," says the gaffer, speaking about the film that brought Ballhaus his second Oscar nomination, in 1989. The story of a small-time lounge act, Baker Boys won the DP several critics' awards for the textured romantic glow he imparted to the film, and particularly to star Michelle Pfeiffer.
"Since then, I've done every movie he hasn't done out of New York, where he has a long-standing crew," says Tynes. "The collaboration has certainly made a change in my life. He usually knows exactly what he wants to do; when we go on location scouts, months before we're going to shoot a certain scene, he will know that the camera will be here, it will move there, and it should look something like this. Then we set out to accomplish what will be done in a very economic and efficient way. As far as our relationship, gaffer to director of photography, he will let me know the feeling he wants, or the color choices from a psychological standpoint, and how to accomplish that. There's a lot of give and take about what lighting source to use, and how we can rig it cheaply. I'm not just a technician tweaking the lights he wants--he relies on my judgment. That's what's contributed to the long relationship and the high-level reward I get for it." Key grip Pat Daily joined the team on The Mambo Kings, in 1992.
The "less is more" concept is something Ballhaus didn't get to try out much on Wild, Wild West. Says Tynes, "When Michael says it's the largest thing we've ever done, he's right. The only thing remotely as large were the night sequences on Air Force One, in terms of equipment and manpower and simultaneous work being done. That Loveless set was rigged and being used while we were shooting on another set, and there was a bluescreen unit on another set, both of them with an equipment list of similar scope."
Ballhaus has mixed feelings about this. "Sometimes, money can get in the way," he says, though he reiterates its power to also free the imagination. "My experience with Wild, Wild West was that sometimes you're losing a little control, with so much CGI and bluescreen. You're not really totally in charge, totally in control of everything. I like to be in control, to be the one who designs the light and the images. On a big movie like this, you lose part of that. So it's not my dream to work on more of these special-effects movies with high budgets."
To refresh himself after a massive job like The Wild, Wild West, Ballhaus returns to Germany, to a teaching post in film at the University of Hamburg. "I have a master class of students, so I take care of them a little bit. I have been a professor there for three years. They know that when I have a film job, that's the priority. But I spend at least six to eight weeks a year at the university teaching, in a block seminar. After I was done with Wild, Wild West, I was in Hamburg, teaching every day from January 4 to mid-February."
Ballhaus and his wife still consider Germany to be their home, though he hasn't made a film there since the early 80s. He keeps a house in Berlin, and says, "It's always inspiring to go back, and experience the culture. Basically, our stay in LA is for work, and then we try to go back to see our folks and spend some time." But the cinematographer's full work plate does limit those stays. By March, he, along with Tynes and Daily, were prepping their next movie, for Mike Nichols, whose style is a little more open than Sonnenfeld's. "For him, different stories require different images and different solutions," Ballhaus says. "It's a little more fun, because I have more freedom."
DIRECTOR Barry Sonnenfeld
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY Michael Ballhaus, ASC
CHIEF LIGHTING TECHNICIAN James R. Tynes
KEY GRIP Pat Daily
LOVELESS' LAIR LIGHTING UNITS (123) Mole-Richardson 4-light 1,500W far cycs (126) Mole-Richardson 6-light space lights (10) Mole-Richardson 24-light Moleenos with NSP globes, hung with Doughty TV Overlocker clamps (4) Mole-Richardson 20k fresnels (8) Mole-Richardson Baby 10k fresnels (10) Mole-Richardson Baby Senior 5k fresnels (10) Mole-Richardson Baby Junior 2k fresnels (10) Mole-Richardson Baby Baby 1k fresnels (4) Mole-Richardson 4k zipsofts (8) Mole-Richardson 2k zipsofts
DIMMERS (1) Strand 48-rack 2.4k CD80 (3) Strand 12-pack 12k CD80 (6) Strand 20k CD80s
LIGHTING CONTROL BOARD ETC Expression 2x
OTHER LIGHTING UNITS Mole-Richardson Mickey Moles Mole-Richardson Mighty Moles Musco Lights Night Lights by Bebee 18k HMIs
EQUIPMENT SUPPLIERS Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, CA Entertainment Lighting Systems, North Hollywood, CA Universal Studios, Universal City, CA Sony Studios, Culver City, CA CBS/Radford Studios, Studio City, CA Mole-Richardson Co., Hollywood, CA
CAMERAS Arriflex 535A, 535B, and 435
1972 The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant Rainer Werner Fassbinder, director
1974 Fox and His Friends Rainer Werner Fassbinder, director
1975 Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven Rainer Werner Fassbinder, director
1977 Despair Rainer Werner Fassbinder, director
1978 The Marriage of Maria Braun Rainer Werner Fassbinder, director
1983 Baby It's You John Sayles, director
1985 After Hours Martin Scorsese, director
1986 The Color of Money Martin Scorsese, director
1987 Broadcast News James L. Brooks, director
1988 The Last Temptation of Christ Martin Scorsese, director
Working Girl Mike Nichols, director
1989 The Fabulous Baker Boys Steve Kloves, director
1990 Goodfellas Martin Scorsese, director
Postcards From the Edge Mike Nichols, director
1992 Bram Stoker's Dracula Francis Ford Coppola, director
1993 The Age of Innocence Martin Scorsese, director
1994 Quiz Show Robert Redford, director
1996 Sleepers Barry Levinson, director
1997 Air Force One Wolfgang Petersen, director
1998 Primary Colors Mike Nichols, director
1999 The Wild, Wild West Barry Sonnenfeld, director