Darkness Never Falls in the Daylight Noir World of Insomnia

Light operates as a character, as a catalyst, and as a metaphor in the film Insomnia. Of course, in order to fully understand light, you need to have darkness. Although director Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister, whose last collaboration was the phenomenally successful independent movie Memento, have an affinity for film noir, they prefer to achieve their contrasts through naturalistic means. “Chris likes things very subtle,” says Pfister. “Our approach was to create a dark, moody environment with daylight as a constant.”

The movie's setting provides the justification for this omnipresence. Based on a Norwegian film of the same title that took place in the land of the Scandinavian midnight sun, the American version of Insomnia, which Warner Bros. released May 24, transposes the police thriller plot to a small town in Alaska. Al Pacino plays Will Dormer, a Los Angeles detective sent up north to help solve a brutal murder case. While pursuing the primary suspect (Robin Williams), Dormer's partner (Martin Donovan) is killed, and the veteran detective's subsequent feelings of guilt are made manifest by the light that stubbornly finds its way into his hotel room, depriving him of sleep night after night.

“As much as he tries to push aside the guilt he's experiencing, it keeps coming back to haunt him,” says Pfister, “and no matter how hard he tries to block out the light, it manages to sneak in.” Built on a stage in Vancouver (Insomnia was predominantly shot in British Columbia), the hotel room set was carefully designed to convey Dormer's experience. “I worked very closely with Chris and the production designer, Nathan Crowley, on the execution of this. I requested that Nathan build an oversized room, because you can always make a space look smaller on film, but if you build it too small, you limit yourself in camera movement and lighting possibilities.”

Apart from practicals, and some small softboxes used in one scene, the primary light source for the room is a large window covered by a slightly undersized and maddeningly translucent roller blind. “The original concept was to have curtains, but I requested a roller blind, because I envisioned a room that was warm and cocoon-like,” says the DP. “Nathan and I looked at a lot of colors and translucencies to find one that would give me enough of a glow.” To blot out the encroaching rays, Dormer first pushes furniture against the window, and eventually tapes up the 1" open gaps on either side of the blind — unfortunately, the masking tape is also translucent.

The quality of this perpetual daylight was an important consideration. “Chris had this concept of a softer light trying to sneak through, rather than smoking up the room and having hard shafts of sunlight breaking through, which would go against his subtle nature,” Pfister says. The director and DP both eschew “fancy filtration,” opting instead for a naturally diffused look. “I'll often, for a key light, take a fresnel, put it through a Chimera, and then add another 4×4 frame of light grid in front to soften it even more.”

Outside the hotel room window was a large translight of a mountain range, overexposed by about two stops, “so it felt bright, but you could see a little bit of detail.” Then the DP and his gaffer, Drew Davidson, installed a “small arsenal of tungsten lighting equipment.” Mole-Richardson 5k skypans lit the translight from behind, while a combination of Maxi Brutes and a 36-globe dino light hung on truss outside the window. “I also had a 20k tungsten light on a crane arm,” Pfister continues. “That allowed me to constantly control what angle the light was coming in at, and to do it very quickly, while Pacino was on the set. That also gave me the ability to move the light within the shot, so I could get this effect of the sun creeping across the wall, or across the bed.”

Augmenting the mostly Mole-Richardson package was the Arri Ruby 7®, which arrays seven 1,200W PAR-64 lamps on an axial focus system. “Drew had suggested it for use where we wanted to focus the light,” says Pfister. “I love the fact that you basically have a Maxi Brute that you can suddenly focus down to a single spot and get some heat and intensity out of it. When I just needed to have a little more heat in one area, instead of turning on more globes or having a fresnel, a much larger instrument, spotted in there, we could spot those globes down and get a really bright, punchy light through the window.” Ruby 7s were also used outside the windows of the Williams character's apartment.

Other sets on Insomnia included a local police station, a practical location lit primarily with Kino Flos, and a fog-enshrouded riverside shack set, built as an exterior and partial interior on location, and as an interior and partial exterior on a soundstage. With several local police officers (Hilary Swank among them), the detectives follow a lead to this setting, which has no electricity. “Basically, the only light making it in there is through small windows and little slats in the wood,” says the DP. Onstage, Maxi Brutes and PAR-64s provided these narrow beams of light, with a translight outside the door filtered through smoke to represent the fog. “It was a fairly simple lighting design, with no fill light at all,” says Pfister, who shot the scene (and operated it himself) handheld, like many other sequences in the movie.

In the shack, the police find a tunnel that serves as an escape hatch to the outside. “When they come out of the tunnel, they're completely engulfed in fog,” says the cinematographer. “So they go from dark into this complete white-out.” The location was a treacherously rocky waterfront made even more precarious by the pumped-in fog. “It was quite an ordeal just to get the simplest shot there. Key grip Kim Olson built crane track to get shots that seem so simple on film, like the tracking behind and in front of Will Dormer's feet as he climbs over these rocks in the fog. Steadicam can't track over these boulders, so we had to get a 24' (7.2m) crane arm in from the side, and to do that, we had to have a structural engineer survey the site.”

At least, on this location — unlike a lake house setting used for the climax — Pfister didn't have to worry so much about the changeable British Columbia weather. “It rained on us for at least one entire day and parts of others, and the sun popped out whenever it wanted to. However, in the end it was pretty easy to keep visual continuity, because the second we put in that amount of fog, it basically acted as a giant silk.” The production used Curtis Dyna-Fog and Igeba units for fog on the water, and Rosco machines on land.

Pfister used very little artificial light on most of the film's exteriors, which due to the nature of the story were entirely shot in daylight. Not that the British Columbia locations, which are further south than the Alaskan setting, actually benefit (or suffer, depending on your point of view) from the summertime midnight sun. “What I really wanted to do was shoot all the stuff that takes place in the midnight sun at magic hour, to get a more surreal glow to the light,” says Pfister. “That became prohibitive, but in some scenes we were able to do it.” An example is two scenes of Pacino wandering the town's empty streets at 3:00 in the morning, and ending up in an alley. “That gave me the ability to play with the natural lighting — there's some neon, and there's a flashing yellow light that stands out a little more.”

Overall in Insomnia, Pfister went for a far darker look than the film's Norwegian counterpart. “They just had glaring, bright light polluting every environment,” the DP says of the original's approach. “Our idea was to really play the light through darkness.” All of the film's interior work was shot on Kodak's 5279 500T stock. “A couple of scenes I shot on 5277, and I didn't really care for it — it wasn't contrasty enough, and it was a little milkier than I wanted. That was important: In order to feel the brightness of the light, the darks had to be really dark.” Exteriors were photographed with 5246, a daylight-balanced 250 ASA stock. The DP originally considered putting the film through bleach-bypass process, but in the end, “I found that it desaturated the colors a little more than I wanted. I was looking for heavily saturated colors, but very strong, rich blacks. I found the best way to accomplish this was to give everything a little extra exposure, and print on a higher-contrast stock.”

The movie's anamorphic format, which was also used in Memento, is a favorite of the director's and the DP's for several reasons. “We both like as little grain as possible, and a very, very sharp image,” Pfister says. “I used the Panavision C series and Primo anamorphic lenses, and we hand-picked each lens to make sure we were getting the sharpest ones possible. I tried to shoot at a 4 stop, to be in the best place on those lenses as well.”

Anamorphic's shallow depth of field also suited Nolan and Pfister's purposes. “It helps isolate characters,” the DP explains. “Effectively, on a medium shot, you can soften your background. What's in focus is what the director wants you to have in focus; the look is applicable to Will Dormer in the same way that it was to Leonard Shelby [the short-term-memory-deprived protagonist of Memento].” In the same way, the handheld camera, also used to a great extent in Memento, works towards viewer-character identification: “We're following a single character's journey, and in that is a complete concept for the camera — following behind the character, tracking in front of him, really staying with him.

“To get on film the conditions that help drive the character where he went,” Pfister concludes, “was a fun visual challenge.”

Contact the author at jcalhoun@primediabusiness.com.