January 2001--Peter Pau freely admits that he was director Ang Lee's third choice for director of photography on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. "He wanted to use Gu Changwei or Christopher Doyle," says Pau, whose work on the romantic martial-arts epic has already garnered him cinematography prizes from the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics Circles. "But the producers were worried, because the other two cinematographers don't have experience in action sequences." Pau does--his credits include John Woo's The Killer as well as titles like Swordsman, American Shaolin, and the upcoming Dracula 2000. The Hong Kong-based DP went to Beijing, where Lee was setting up production, and was immediately hired.

He then embarked on a trek across China, covering locations as varied as the western desert regions of Xinchiang province, the Yellow Mountains of Anhui in the south, the summer palace of Cheng De in the north, and the bamboo forest near Anji. It was in the latter location that the film's most talked-about sequence--a balletic battle atop 100' high bamboo trees between Chow Yun-Fat's veteran warrior and Zhang Ziyi's young fighter--was shot. The action, accomplished with the aid of digitally erased wires, was choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping, who did similar duty on The Matrix.

"We just went bit by bit, day by day, talking about every shot before we'd do it," says Pau of this and other martial arts sequences in the film. "Those places are hilly, so you had to use industrial cranes to get the wires up. The most difficult part was the camera, which had to be very high too. My second assistant, Louis Jong, designed a rig that a power-pod remote control head attached to. The basic problem is, when you get a camera on the crane, it's hard to balance the head. This way, the camera remained balanced."

For the standard dramatic scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Pau used a sync-sound Moviecam Compact camera. Action scenes were shot with two Arri 435 cameras. "That's a wonderful camera to shoot high-speed with," says the DP, who operated one of the cameras himself. "My crew was very good in the power-pod crane operation, so we could really fly the camera; the camera is flying with the actors."

The look of the film, which is set at some vague centuries-old point in the Qing Dynasty, was grounded in Chinese watercolor paintings. "Usually, these painting are very mild in contrast, and not in vivid color," Pau says. "I decided to shoot with a fairly low-contrast negative, Kodak 5277, which is 320 tungsten. Then I rated it to 250. I also asked the production designer, Tim Yip, to be careful about selecting the colors, especially about restraining the blue. Otherwise, the film would be more saturated than it should be."

Though the film is projected in widescreen format, Super 35 was chosen over anamorphic, for several reasons. "Because we were shooting many sequences of action, we wanted to go much tighter on the actors," says the cinematographer. "The closest lens on anamorphic is about 2 1/2', but on Super 35, you can go 2' or 1' distance, and you get the dynamism of the bodies. The second thing is, anamorphic tends to be very shallow when you go to telephoto lens, and you don't really see little details in the background. Also, anamorphic is time and budget-consuming, and this is not a big-budget film. The critical point is the blowup, because you optically go to the second generation of film, so we lose about 10% of the color: which is not terribly bad, because we wanted the watercolor look. Also, CFI did a very good job on the blowup."

Lighting ranged from 18ks below the camera for fill light on the bamboo scenes, to 80 of Pau's custom soft lanterns--10 500W lamps in each, surrounded by Rosco's 3030 grid cloth--for a 200' x 150', 55' tall stage at Beijing Film Studio. Generally, says the DP, "I like to use big soft light sources like 6k PARs and 18ks. And on the whole film, I didn't use any filters, not even for close-ups on the ladies." (The other key lady on hand being Asian star Michelle Yeoh.) "So I used the 3030 grid cloth to make it as soft as possible."

After shooting, Pau also served as de facto visual effects supervisor on the film. "They said, 'we don't have money for a visual effects supervisor,'" he explains. "So then, who is going to do it? Ang has no experience with visual effects. So the job ends up with me. I'm not credited because director of photography is the biggest credit." Asia Cine Digital in Hong Kong did all the wire removal on the movie, which came to about 300 shots.

[Below, the smiling DP relaxes after a day of shooting.]

"The bamboo sequence was among the hardest of the wire removal sequences, because the bamboo leaves are so thin and narrow and there are three or four wires on each person," says Pau. "They had to very carefully paint leaves in. And because we were shooting so many days, and so many different times of day, I needed to digitally color time the whole scene to make it match." Because of the film's visual style, Paul couldn't use some of his traditional lighting tricks. "In previous action films, we just used hard light to cover the wires. But this was supposed to look as natural as possible." About 50 additional shots were accomplished by Manex, the company responsible for the effects in The Matrix.

After five months of production and four months of post, Pau saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon go on to rapturous acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, in its Asian release, at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals, and on its general American release via Sony Pictures Classics in December. At least one reason for its success? "It's a drama instead of an action film," says the DP. "Instead of overdramatizing without any reason, I went for a warmer look. Everything is so real, connected to the story and the person's heart."

Top, second, fourth, and final photo: ©Peter Pau.
Third and fifth photos: Chan Kam Chuen.