There is a town of Sleepy Hollow in upstate New York, a historic village whose main claim to fame is the legend immortalized in the Washington Irving story. But for Tim Burton, director of the upcoming film Sleepy Hollow, the title town, circa 1799, is not so much a real spot as another place in his imagination, perhaps just over the hill from the Gotham of the Batman movies, or down the road from Halloween Town in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Therefore, when cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was approached to work on the film, he was surprised to hear that the plan was to shoot it on location in the Hudson Valley.
"The first thing that came to my mind was that doing this movie in locations was not the right approach," says Lubezki, the Mexican-born, Oscar-nomin ated DP of Like Water for Chocolate, A Little Princess, The Birdcage, and Meet Joe Black. "I talked about it with Tim, and he said, 'Yeah, I have that feeling about it, but I want to go to New York to do some research.' When he came back, he called me and said, 'Chivo, you're right.' " (It should be noted right off the bat that everyone, from his family to his coworkers to a reporter that calls him up for an interview, refers to the cinematographer as Chivo--it means "the goat," and it was bestowed on him at age 5.) The DP continues, "The movie is not a historical reconstruction at all, it's not The Crucible; it's a fantasy. We decided to build the exteriors inside a stage, because then we would have all this control."
Burton's models for Sleepy Hollow, which Paramount Pictures is releasing November 19, included the studio-bound Hammer horror films of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, along with Italian shockers like Mario Bava's Black Sunday. "I've seen these movies, and I've never really loved them," Lubezki says. "But I appreciate the way they are made, how synthetic they are. They didn't have a lot of money, and they had so many limitations that they really synthesized things into one image, using symbols and iconography. They have a lot of visual impact." When New York was dismissed as a primary location for the movie, everyone's eyes turned to England, to studio environments like the ones that produced the Hammer films. Yet Lubezki adds, "I don't think Sleepy Hollow has much to do with the Hammer movies. Only that we used some of the same actors, we shot on stages, and it's this mix of fantasy, horror, and romance."
For one thing, the Sleepy Hollow palette is markedly muted, quite unlike the lurid color schemes of The Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. For another, Burton's sensibility is wholly his own. Lubezki had never before worked with the director, but he was a major fan. "When [producer] Scott Rudin said he wanted me to meet Tim, it was incredible, because he is one of my favorite American directors alive," says the DP. "There are very few directors who work in mainstream Hollywood movies who are authors, who have their own voices. Tim is an author. And we connected almost immediately." Fortunately, Lubezki also felt right at home with other Sleepy Hollow crew members, many of whom, including production designer Rick Heinrichs and costume designer Colleen Atwood, had been working with Burton for years. "They don't need to talk much to know how to make it Tim's vision," he says. "And for some reason I fell into place very well--maybe because I love his movies."
During preproduction on the film, the DP made himself uncharacteristically scarce. "Usually, I get involved really early, and I'm bothering the production designer about windows or places to hide lights," he says. "But in this movie, I felt the team was so strong, I didn't want to bother them. All of Tim's movies have sets that are so hard to light, teeny rooms with no windows, and he uses very wide lenses, you see three or even four walls at a time. So I knew it was going to be hard," and--in a way like the experience of the Hammer filmmakers, "I knew the limitations were going to tell me what to do." The DP knew he wanted to light simply. "I didn't want to make the movie even more baroque, more packed with elements. And I didn't want to light with hard light. I wanted the light to be almost invisible, though not naturalistic--more pictorial, like an old book of illustrations."
One matter that did need to be addressed before principal photography was how best to achieve Burton's desired monochromatic look, just this side of black and white. "Tim is drawing all the time, and his characters always have dark circles around the eyes, and their skin is very white," says Lubezki. The movie's pale-skinned stars--Johnny Depp, cast as New York constable Ichabod Crane, sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of murders allegedly committed by a Headless Horseman, and Christina Ricci, who plays his lady fair, Katrina Van Tassel--certainly fit the visual bill. But more desaturation was required. Lubezki ordered a series of tests, and here he did need to "bother" the designers.
"We tested what everyone's doing now, the ENR and CCE processes, and Tim liked the most brutal of them, the CCE process," says Lubezki of Deluxe Labs' Color Contrast Enhancement, a silver retention technique. "It gives really muted colors, but an incredible amount of contrast. So much so that it even affected the skin of the actors, made it too harsh. Colleen found out that the blacks were going almost without detail, so she changed some things. Johnny Depp's basic wardrobe was a black police uniform, and after seeing the tests, she added little lines of shiny material to outline it. We tested every single color Rick was going to use in the movie, and with the special effects guys, we tested the blood, because Tim wanted it very saturated. They had to come up with an orange, almost radioactive color to look red on film.
"The other thing we learned from the tests," he continues, "was that smoke was the best thing to use to balance the contrasts. We didn't like flashing, and I didn't want to use any filtration. But with a lot of smoke, it killed some of that harshness. You can't see the smoke in the movie, because the CCE process made things so contrasty. But every scene has an incredible amount--if you had gone on the set, you would have said, 'What the hell is this?' But it looks great onscreen."
The smoke served another purpose. Though many of the Sleepy Hollow exteriors were shot on soundstages at Leavesden and Shepperton Studios, the village itself was too big to fit on a stage. Built on a private preserve north of London, the town comprises 11 full-sized structures. "We didn't want to just do it in miniature, because we had a lot of action there," says Lubezki. "We had a lot of scenes outside on the location that we had to match with the stage exteriors, and it had to be seamless. The smoke helped us to camouflage the difference between set and location. We would shoot the scene first on the stage with a certain amount of smoke, and then on location we would put in as much smoke as we needed to match."
Outdoors, smoke--along with the cloudy English winter--also helped achieve the "dusk-type" atmosphere Lubezki wanted to maintain in the film. "There is not really night and not really day in the movie," he says. "There are scenes that are darker and scenes that are lighter, but everything takes place in dusk." The look was carried over to the soundstage exteriors, which included fields of corn or harvested wheat, various woodlands, a graveyard, and a windmill in a series of scale miniature sizes, with traditional canvas backings. The largest studio set was the Western Woods, containing the imposing Tree of Dead, built on a large stage at Shepperton; all of the rest were installed at Leavesden, a former aircraft factory.
"When we went to England, I thought we would shoot in Pinewood or one of the other famous places," says Lubezki. "Then we arrived to shoot at this big warehouse with ceilings as low as 17' [5m]. My first lighting approach didn't work at all, especially with the lenses Tim used in the movie--17mm to 40mm, with 21mm our basic lens. Every time we put that on, we saw the ceiling. So we put hundreds of space lights in the top of the stage, really close to each other." Gaffer John Higgins, affectionately referred to as Biggles, says, "Each space light consisted of six 800W lamps arranged as spokes from a central hub to which dimmer connections were made. They were suspended above a silk cylinder on the bottom of which Lee 250 diffusion was attached." The effect, says Lubezki, is "of a huge chinese lantern, very soft." A final touch--once again, smoke--effectively turned the lighting grid into a grayish dusky sky. "The effects supervisor rigged it so the smoke would stay at the top of the set, and erase the equipment and the greenbeds," says Lubezki. "In a very realistic movie, it would look like something weird, but in this movie it looks beautiful."
The setup was copied at Shepperton on the Western Woods stage. Higgins says, "The set at Shepperton needed in excess of 500 space lights, and there was not enough time to move the equipment from Leavesden, so the rigs had to be duplicated. This required 800 space lights to be manufactured by Lee Lighting, and the extent of their manufacturing and logistics was certainly tested; I know they had people working for weeks making space lights." Everything was on dimmer systems controlled by Strand DMX boards, and separate systems were needed for the two stages. "I would say I'm almost addicted to dimmers," says Lubezki. "A movie this size you just have to have them. I could turn off pieces of the stage to create more contrast, and it was really fast. We could just grab a walkie-talkie, and Biggles would tell the dimmer operator, 'Turn off this piece of the set.' Everything was basically ready. Also, sometimes you don't want to use the lights at 100%."
Frequently, the DP would use the space lights without augmentation. "I would turn on the lights far away in the set, and keep the lights near the camera dark to create more depth," he says. "Or I would do the opposite, light near the camera where the actor is walking, and then keep the background dark to give the sense that you can't see through the forest and maybe something is going to come out of there. Sometimes with close-ups, we would augment--it depends. But everything was so complicated. The Headless Horseman is already a big problem, with a blue condom on his face, and two guys from ILM checking the shots. We had to have the right amount of smoke low and high. There were so many elements that I didn't want the light to be distracting or complicated. It looked complicated, though: The producers said, 'Why so many units?' The answer was, 'If we use less, we leave holes in the stage, and it doesn't look like a sky, it looks like light through the smoke.' "
If simplicity was one mantra of Lubezki's, an aura of mystery was another. The guiding force for the lighting style in every scene was mood, often inspired by the storyboards Burton so scrupulously made and then discarded for greater intuitive freedom on the set. Particularly on the film's interiors, such as the Van Tassel Estate and other Dutch Colonial residences and businesses, that meant fidelity to lighting sources was not an issue. "The sets are lit, but you don't know where the light is coming from," says the DP. "I didn't want it to look like an English period film, where the light is coming from the candles or from the fireplace. When there are candles, the light won't be coming from them, but from who knows where. I was just following my instincts, rather than being scientific about it. For purists, it will be bad lighting. Most of the time, it's based on the blocking of the scenes, or on the feeling that's most correct for the moment. Since it's almost film noir, with Johnny Depp as the detective trying to find the killer, for some of the meetings between the people of the town and him, the light is placed low, to make it eerie in a theatrical sense--whatever I thought was appropriate."
Paintings with some degree of expressionism were in the back of everyone's mind; in Lubezki's case, it was a work by German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach, picturing a woman carrying a man's decapitated head on a dish. "The light is very flat, but the blacks are really black, and everything is painted in muted colors, especially different shades of green. The light is soft, and it's not realistic; it's not coming from anywhere but the painter's brain." The idea of a painterly frame was such an influence that Burton and Lubezki briefly discussed shooting Sleepy Hollow in the old 1:1.33 format, until they discovered that would render the film nearly impossible to distribute. So they went with today's flat standard, 1:1.85.
Generally, interior lighting was kept soft, with scrimmed 10kW and 20kW fresnels used for most close-ups. "Because the CCE process isso contrasty, it doesn't look that soft," says the cinematographer. "And because the walls are so dark, it doesn't look that bright either." Since there is such a stylistic throughline from interior to exterior scenes in the movie, Kodak's 200ASA Vision stock was used throughout. "I didn't want to use the faster film, because with the CCE it was just too grainy," says Lubezki. "I didn't want an element that you are aware of all the time."
The film's palette was strictly controlled at all times. "Most of the sets are almost black and white," the DP says. "Katrina's room is red, but because of the process, it looks really dark. The only accents are in the wardrobe, a little blue or very dark green." For the most part, there were no gels on the lights, and no filters on the camera. Color tones were varied throughout, but all of this work was done in the lab. "The lab coordinator, Ian Robinson at Deluxe London, was amazing," Lubezki says, adding that the participation of Beverly Woods at Deluxe in Hollywood was also valuable. "In tests, we decided on a neutral skin tone, and then I asked him to print the same shots three different ways towards blue--slightly cool, cool, and very cool--and three different ways towards red and yellow--slightly warm, warm, and very warm. So when I would shoot a scene, I put in the slate 'print this slightly cool,' and he knew what I meant. Sometimes the movie is bluish, and sometimes it's almost amber. I thought it was better to do it in postproduction, to have more latitude."
Though Lubezki primarily employed tungsten light, HMIs were sometimes used on the village exteriors for balancing late in the day. For Higgins, this sprawling outdoor set was the most problematic. "Access to the location was not ideal," says the chief lighting technician. "The scheme we devised was to suspend very large soft sources on rotating bases which could be positioned at any point above the set while remaining hidden." A scale model of the village aided Higgins in determining that there were three likely points for the rigs, and after locating three cranes with a reach of 75m (248'), the art department made working scale models of those as well. "We positioned them around the model and confirmed that the only way to reach all points on the set was to use the three cranes," says the gaffer. "To install them required roads to be built to support the weight; it was an enormous effort from all departments and rental companies."
The finished rigs consisted of a 20'x20' (6x6m) base surrounded by 12'-high (4m) scaffolding. Six wide-angle 24-light Maxi Brutes were mounted in the roof of each rig for toplight, and three nine-light Maxi Brutes were positioned through the sides, for an output of 252kW from each spot. "We had 50m [165'] black ropes on the corners to fix and control the rotation of the rigs," says Higgins. In addition, 70kW Lightning Strikes units were installed at the bases of the rigs, with control cable fed to Burton's monitor, so he could cue the lightning. "The power for all this was provided by twin 200kW generators, two generators mounted on one truck used mainly to service live TV," the gaffer says. "We ran both simultaneously."
Chivo and Biggles got on famously. "He would have 30 different ways to achieve the same thing," says Lubezki of his gaffer. "He was completely into the movie, watching every shot. It was hard for me to go to England, because I didn't know anybody, but he made it so simple."
In fact, the DP says, the division of lighting labor in the UK bears some similarity to Mexico, in that the gaffer and his crew handle grip. But Lubezki, who helped start an independent Mexican film industry with movies like A Long Way to Tijuana and Bandidos, hasn't worked in his native country since the international release of Like Water for Chocolate and Love in the Time of Hysteria caused Hollywood to beckon.
"I miss working in Mexico," says the cinematographer, "but a lot of the young directors there have their own friends that are DPs. I think that's the best way." He has joined his two most famous Mexican collaborators, directors Alfonso Arau and Alfonso Cuaron, on their American filmmaking forays: Arau's A Walk in the Clouds, and Cuaron's A Little Princess and Great Expectations. And he has worked more consistently than he could have in Mexico, and on such gratifying projects as Sleepy Hollow. Still, Lubezki's head is not completely turned by blockbuster productions. "After Tim's movie I did Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her," he says. "The entire budget was less than the money we spent on tests for Sleepy Hollow. People in Mexico may think I'm too expensive, but I did it with less equipment than I had on Love in the Time of Hysteria. The more you learn, the easier it is to do it with more limitations."