The science-fiction horror film Pitch Black almost seems conceived as an advanced exercise for a director of photography. The setting for the movie, which USA Films released in February, is a planet where a spacecraft carrying the principal characters crash-lands. The planet is arid and deserted, with a forbidding landscape that broils under the heat of three suns. These orbs of varying hue rise and set, but on different schedules, so there is never a night. That is, until an eclipse plunges the planet into pitch blackness, and brings out the monsters.
"The darkness wasn't hard to achieve--you just turn everything off," says DP David Eggby, ACS, who shot exteriors for the film on location in desolate, treeless Coober Pedy, South Australia. "But the rest of it caused a lot of gray hairs. Director David Twohy, as directors often do, wanted to achieve a totally different look on this planet. We watched a lot of commercials he'd recorded, and there were certain styles and looks he liked. One specific commercial was very interesting--it had a contrasty, solarized, almost pearlescent image. We thought it would be great for this alien planet, where it's bleached out, with red and yellow suns during one 12-hour period, and a blue sun during the other 12-hour period."
Eggby took the commercial to a lab for analysis, and determined that its look was derived from telecine manipulation of a normal negative. "There are wonderful things you can do in video," says the Australian-born cinematographer, whose other credits include Mad Max, Quigley Down Under, Dragonheart, Blue Streak, and the pilot for the Fox series Space: Above and Beyond. "You can stretch colors, you can increase contrast, you can desaturate. But these things are very hard to do on a film, unless you totally digitize it, which you can't do. There's a great cost factor. A commercial is only 30 seconds, and you can stretch and play with it however you want."
Twohy and Eggby started looking into other options. "During one of my conversations, he asked me what I knew about bleach bypass," recalls the DP. "I'd read about it, but it was not a technique I'd used myself, so I started to investigate and ask questions of the labs. It soon became apparent to me that in most of the movies that had used bleach bypass, it had been incorporated as a technique to make the film darker. What we wanted to do was the opposite. We wanted to keep the silver in so that we had as highlighted, desaturated an image as possible."
The cinematographer embarked on the customary tests, and found there were certain rules of thumb regarding bleach bypass. "The higher ASA film stock you use," he says, "the less effective the bleach bypass. I found that one particular film stock, Kodak 5425 50ASA daylight stock, allowed me to get the image I wanted more than any other--it allowed for much more variation. But it was still an extremely unpredictable and unorthodox thing to do; film is not really designed, and labs are not really designed, to do this."
Especially when, as Eggby decided, the thing to do was bypass the bleach process on the original negative. "Nearly all the films that have incorporated bleach bypass have chosen to do it on the internegative or interpositive stage," he says. "We took the bull by the horns, and said if we're going to do it, let's do 100% bleach bypass on the original negative." There was one major reason to do so on Pitch Black. "When you do it on the interneg or interpos, you have to do it to the whole roll, inside or outside, night or day. And we only wanted to do it to show the extreme on the outside of the planet." Initially, Twohy had thought the desired bleached-out look should also apply to interiors--inside the wrecked spacecraft, for example, and several abandoned structures found on the planet. "But I said, 'Let's just try to do something for the exteriors, and make the spacecraft more normal.' " Skipping the three-stage bleach process on the negative meant the required back-and-forth variations could be accomplished.
Eggby says he can't give enough praise to the two labs--Atlab QLD in Queensland, Australia, and Consolidated Film Industries (CFI) in Hollywood--that worked on the movie. "A couple of labs didn't want to touch it, because we were working on the original negative," the DP says. Another complication was that there were two major looks he wanted to achieve within the silver retention: one on the red end of the spectrum, and one on the blue. "We started with different colored filters for the suns," he recalls, "but what that gave us was an overall cast of color, which is not what we wanted--it's a cheap, hokey look. And incorporated with the bleach bypass, it was uncontrollable: You had nowhere to go, no possibility for the timer to add or reduce color because I was introducing too much color initially.
"For the red sun," he continues, "I started eliminating colors. I found that by using the 5245, which already has the 85 filter in the emulsion, using an extra 85 filter, and overexposing--not underexposing, which most people do with bleach bypass--and then having a lot of varied printer lights, this gave the best orange look while still retaining other colors. [For simplicity's sake, the red and yellow sun looks were treated as one.] For the best desaturated blue look on the 5245, we found that using no filtration on the camera gave enough of an effect, again using certain printer lights. Leaving all the silver in just does some weird things to the emulsion."
For each look, Eggby used corresponding gels on the lights. "For the red-yellow sun sequence, I used triple 85s and double 85s on our 20ks and Maxi Brutes," he says. "And for the daylight exterior blue sun, I was using HMIs with blue gel on them." When the time came to shoot daylight-infused spacecraft interiors on stages at Warner Roadshow Studios on Queensland's Gold Coast, the DP tried to duplicate the look without retaining the silver in the image. "Coming from outside the set, we had 20ks for the tungsten or HMIs for the blue, gelled to match as closely as possible the bleach bypass effect we had achieved on the exteriors."
The Coober Pedy location, where Eggby first worked when he shot George Miller's Mad Max, in 1979, was not as predictably dry and sun-baked as usual. "We had a lot of overcast skies, so in many ways choosing to go bleach bypass worked in our favor," he says. "It would have been pretty boring going out there and shooting an alien film on an overcast landscape and then trying to do something to the image later on; it would look like a low-budget TV movie." On the other hand, the DP adds, silver retention responds best to contrast and shadow detail. Overexposing the image helped, but still, Eggby says, "I can remember sitting there in dailies each night, and it would vary so much, because over a period of weeks the lighting conditions changed considerably." That was one reason timing became so crucial. "Lee Nicholls at Atlab, and later, Dan Muscarella at CFI, were very willing to understand what we were doing, and to sit there and tweak and play with it. Dan had to put extra power and extra trims into his timer lights. Retaining the silver makes the negative so dense, you've got to print right through it."
Though a few night exteriors were shot on location, most of the movie's post-eclipse scenes were staged in the Queensland studio. "We used forced perspective on a few of the sets, with just a small infinity cutout on the landscape," says Eggby. The near-total darkness effectively concealed details both of visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang's carnivorous flying creatures (which were mostly digital with a few animatronic pieces) and of the setting, but obviously some illumination was needed, or there wouldn't be a movie.
Part of the problem was taken care of by the script, which calls for the characters (played by Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, and Keith David, among others) to run a gauntlet to their spaceship, carrying various forms of light to ward off the monsters. "The show was all about these people being protected by the light they carried, so having a traditional big moonlight source would have negated that," says the DP. "But you have to have some ambiance or edging to give the canyons they're running through shape and form. David Twohy said he didn't want anything, but then you'd just see faces, and the audience would get bored with it. Also, it starts to rain, and rain needs backlight. You just have to be careful the ambient light doesn't overpower the light sources they're carrying."
These sources include flashlights, flares, and alcohol lamps, as well as futuristic-looking 1/2" fiber-optic instruments suggested by gaffer Tony Holtham. Eggby used most of these practical lights as is for illuminating the actors, with edge light underexposed one or two stops for ambiance. For film stock on the "night" scenes, he chose Kodak's 500ASA 5279 stock. "This is a movie of extremes in many ways," he says. "Sometimes using the 5245 on the daylight exteriors with a couple of filter packs, I'd be down to 32 or even 16ASA, with pretty wide-open apertures. On the other extreme, I needed as much speed as I could get on the night footage, and used 500ASA."
But even this speed was inadequate for the glow worms. These are the cave-dwelling life forms that provide last-minute luminous salvation for the remaining characters when all other light sources have been extinguished. "What can you do, it's not a $200 million movie, you can't have visual effects on everything," says Eggby of the frustration that attended the creation of the glow worms. "So we got the chemical that goes in nightsticks and tested it, and found that wide-open on the high-speed stock I could make it glow."
Glow on film, that is--the chemical still didn't provide enough illumination to cast light on the actors' faces. As in so many tight spaces, Kino Flo came to the rescue. "I had four Mini Flos wired into bottles containing this chemical, and ran cables down the actors' hands to battery packs on their belts," says Eggby. "When you saw the front of the bottle, it would be the chemical, and on the back of the bottle, which you couldn't see, were these Mini Flos illuminating their faces."
Such matters may have been difficult to resolve, but they didn't carry the risks of the filmmakers' stab at innovation in the bleach bypass sequences. "It was a big gamble on the producers' part to let us do this," concludes Eggby. "I signed disclaimers just to cover my ass, basically stating, 'Look, guys, I'm prepared to do it, but we are pioneering in a way.' " There was also a fallback measure in place. "I have four slugs of film of a test I did," the DP reveals. "I have an original shot of a correctly exposed, correctly developed image; an orange bleach bypass effect; a blue bleach bypass effect; and then a reclaimed image. After all that, if they didn't like the bleach bypass, we could have reclaimed 98% of the original image. We could put the negative back through the process and bleach it out. We would have done something else to try to create the look, but it would have been a fairly ordinary-looking movie.
"But as it is," he continues, "we've got an interesting look that I don't think any other film has been able to achieve. It was a tricky post, and fortunately, I was involved in the timing. I was able to go to CFI and spend a week with Dan Muscarella. But I do remember sitting there in the desert looking at the double-head screening system and thinking, 'Look at these images. I've been doing this 30 years--what am I doing to myself?'"