Beyond the Black Rainbow: interview with Norm Li, csc
This is the first of what I hope will be two or three interviews pertaining to the Vancouver-shot Beyond the Black Rainbow, opening July 6th at the Vancity Theatre - the must-see film this summer for any and all Vancouver cult/ SF/ drug-movie buffs or fans of 1970's/1980's science fiction cinema. As the film has a remarkable visual sensibility - psychedelic, intense, and persistently, aggressively retro, self-consciously evoking various cinematic forbears and striving to appear an authentic product of the early 1980’s - it seemed appropriate to begin with the “eye” of the film, cinematographer Norm Li, csc We conducted the following interview by email; rather than tidy it to give it a more conversational tone, I’m electing to preserve the email structure. Thanks to Norm Li for agreeing to our extended conversation (It's relatively spoiler-free, though you won't really understand some of what we discuss until after you've seen the film). Thanks also to Mr. Li for providing some images from the film shoot!
Allan: How did you come to the project, and how fleshed out were the ideas for the "look" of the film before you got on board? (Was it storyboarded? Were references to other films decided in advance of the shoot? How much of the "look" of the film sprang from Panos' head, before you were involved, and how much of it emerged during the shoot)?
Norm: After shooting my first feature Altitude, I had re-edited my reel with some new footage from the film and sent it off to a few producers and directors that I had previously worked with. Literally, a few minutes later, Oliver Linsley, the producer of BTBR who I had not talked to for a few years calls me, said the new reel looks great, and asked if I would be interested in a weird sci-fi film that he was producing. His word for word pitch was "It's like THX 1138 meets Blade Runner." I was definitely interested but obviously asked him to send me the script first. I read it right away and fell in love with its simplicity and style. I called him back the next day and said I would love to meet the director. I met Panos soon after at his apartment. After a few hours of chatting and showing each other references of films, I went home thinking our first meeting went pretty well. The next morning, I received a phone call from Panos (Cosmatos, BTBR director) asking me if I wanted to shoot the film.
We discussed the look of the film but from what I remember, Panos was still figuring a lot of it out as well and it wasn't fully concrete in terms of the cinematography and use of colors. These ideas were fleshed out during our prep together but that being said, Panos is very specific with design and style. He knows what he wants.
Allan: How did you shoot it/ what did you shoot it on? (It LOOKS like it was shot on film, but my thought watching it was that it couldn't possibly have been, given the amount of care and control that inform the images, and how manipulated they are; surely it would require a lot more money than the project could have had, to achieve what it does and still be shot on film...).
Norm: This is an interesting story. Panos and producers all wanted to originally shoot on a RED camera. I think that every project has a specific shooting format required, whether it is film or digital, 35mm or 16mm, RED or Alexa, etc. it's all about the aesthetics to match the story in my opinion. After many hours discussing and trading references for films, I noticed a common pattern and look for all of Panos' references. They were all grainy, colorful, and full of texture. They were all from films mainly in the 70's and 80's. I felt that 35mm was the only way to shoot this BTBR so I brought this up in a meeting with Panos and Oliver and they both instantly said it was too expensive and they couldn't afford it. I told them to give me a few days and this is where I did my homework and research. I spoke to all my reps at Panavision, Technicolor, and Fujifilm and was able to figure out a way to make shooting 35mm affordable. We shot on a Panavision GII 2-perf 35mm camera which basically saves 50% in filmstock and processing costs because it natively shoots in 2.40 aspect ratio with each frame butt up against another. It doubles the shooting time per magazine so a 400' mag would be about 9-minutes and and a 1000' mag allows for 22minutes. 2.40 is my favorite aspect ratio and the aspect ratio that Panos and I had already discussed and agreed on early in prep. In the end, the numbers worked for them and we decided to shoot on film.
We did a lot of extensive testing in prep with different filmstocks, filters, lenses, lighting, flaring, etc. We tried everything in all combinations to really understand what we could do to best achieve the look and feel Panos and I wanted. There was a little bit of slight tweaking done in the color grade but basically everything you see in terms of the primary colors, lighting, flaring, etc is all done in-camera. We only had 2 short greenscreen shots in the whole film. We were very happy with the results.
Allan: I thought the film had a remarkably authentic old-school/ "retro" look. From the visuals alone I would
have guessed it was made in Toronto in 1983, NEVER Vancouver in 2010. I'm curious if the images were manipulated to give it its particular retro graininess and colours, and how these effects were achieved, and if most of that occurred during the shoot, or in post-production. I'm also curious if there were any rules or procedures implemented at any point to make it seem authentically a product of the 1980's - in terms of equipment used, how shots were set up, editing, etc. That is - did you (or Panos) set out to shoot a film LIKE IT WOULD HAVE BEEN SHOT in 1983, using equipment from that time, or did you set out to make a film that had the look and feel of that time, while being made on digital equipment, using computers and such...?
Norm: There were many things we did to achieve the special look and feel of BTBR. The entire film was shot on Fuji Eterna 400T film which has a nice neutral but very low contrast and slightly grainy look. We also shot most of the film 2-3 stops, sometimes 6 stops overexposed, and pulled 2-3 stops in the grade to milk out the blacks more and to give it more of a dream-like feel. To further enhance this "hazier" feel, we specifically used the Panavision Ultraspeed lenses and shot them wide open to bring out the softness. These lenses are very old and easily flare. Most of the film we shot with 1/8 or 1/4 Black ProMist filters to soften a touch as we well. Sometimes we stacked up to 4 specialty filters to achieve a certain look. This was mainly in Barry Nyle's home residence. One more technique to further haze the image was flaring. This was a bit experimental each time we did it which was most of the film because you're never sure exactly what you get on film when you flare. It's always a surprise. We rigged little Xenon flashlights gelled with a certain color (red, blue, or yellow) and used them for specific scenes to compliment the scene's overall color palette. These little flashlights were in a fixed position just blasting down the barrel of the lens. The flare color also represented a certain opposing mood of the character which was pretty consistent throughout the film. BTBR was a pleasure to work on because it was extremely experimental and Panos supported trying the craziest things to achieve the aesthetic.
Allan: What films were you conscious of as visual inspirations? Based more on text than images, Cronenberg and Burroughs came to mind, but visually, I thought of THX 1138, Dark Star, 2001... even Begotten, during the "trip" scene, and maybe (just slightly) some Stuart Gordon (From Beyond, say). What else informed the look of the film? Did you go out of your way to duplicate certain effects? (There are moments that consciously seem to evoke THX 1138, for instance). How much of this was you, and how much of it was Panos...?
Norm: There were many films that inspired the look of the film. I think that's a Panos question really as he had countless references. However, a few certain come to mind. Phantasm, Electroma, Suspiria, THX 1138, Darkstar, etc.
We didn't go about trying to duplicate any effects really. We just did our own thing and it happened to be all been influenced by a melting pot of bizarre, experimental, and brilliant films. We also looked at abstract paintings, photographs, illustration, and architectural design books.
Panos wasn't aware of this but a lot of how I suggested we framed shots, moved (or didn’t move) the camera, and lit shots, were based on my childhood nightmares. There were three recurring nightmares that I had as child that are still vivid to this day. It's very interesting how nightmares or dreams are usually intangible, faded, fragmented, and not within grasp. I embraced these common characteristics and tried to apply as much as I could visually to this film. One of the nightmares was a high school spiralled stairwell that I would descend from the top floor, which continuously got darker and darker as I walked down countless floors. I would eventually reach the bottom which was basically pitch black. I remember a single door at the opposite end of the room that I would walk up and try to open it only to discover it was locked. In fear, I would turn around and try to run back up the stairs I came from but it would crumble before me. I would then turn around to look towards the door that was locked but notice it to be cracked ajar. I would walk up to the door and open it slowly to reveal a labyrinth of floating staircases that had no railings, going up and down, sideways, upside down, etc. The distance and the abyss below was pitch black but with a faded dark red haze to it. I would run up and down these stairs carefully but at the top of one staircase which was very steep that ended in a straight drop, there was a indescribable gigantic demon-like figure, the size and height of a 30-story building. This is where I would wake up as a child and scream uncontrollably and run to my parents room in the middle of the night!
All that being said, the slow-burn paced editing, haunting score and sound design, beautiful production design, and amazing performances of the film were all obviously equally integral parts in achieving the nightmarish and surrealistic style of the film.
Allan: You don't have to answer or out anyone, but I have to ask: were drugs employed in the making of Beyond the Black Rainbow?
Norm: Haha, not for myself but I don't know about the rest of the crew!
Allan: Have you had reports back from viewers who were on drugs? I saw it on marijuana, which was great for the images and for Jeremy Schmidt's soundtrack, but not so useful when it came to making sense of what was going on. (I need to see it again to attempt to understand it. Of course, that might not be the pot's fault). Frankly, it made me want to take LSD again, or 'shrooms, though on the other hand, it seems in a way to be a kind of anti-drug film, trippy as it is, and I wouldn't be surprised if the experience of seeing it on acid proved deeply traumatic...
Norm: I read a couple of reviews and comments online about how they took different drugs before watching the film. They seemed to enjoy it but many have said and would agree that watching the film free of drugs will make you feel like you've taken drugs already. It's definitely a mind-trip.
Allan: The shaky-face thing that Elena does when, uh, "scanning" someone... how was that done?
Norm: When Panos presented this effect to me verbally, I suggested we try using the Clairmont Shaky lens adaptor which allows you to shake the image in X and Y axis are different intensities but when we tested it, the effect didn't feel right. We tried shaking the camera our self but it wasn't enough and was hard to control. Our SPFX guru Robert Brant McIlroy suggested we shake it using two industrial sized motors placed perpendicular to each other other. They were rigged to a platform of plywood leaving room for a tripod which we bolted down. We also had a large soft cushion underneath the plywood to give it some give. He was able to adjust both motors intensity and the effect was perfect. It shook so violently that it shook the film out of the magazine a few times. I was afraid the camera would actually break from how insanely fast the whole platform was moving! But it was fine.
Norm: I have no idea what he was taking but I'm sure it's some mega-drug! That scene was the one we overexposed by about 6 stops and had to still push the scene to be more overexposed in the Digital Intermediate to get that abstract blown out white highlights and resemblances of human shapes and figures that were black. I'm not sure what SPFX used but that pool of black goo was pretty intense. Although it looks wet, it was actually dry to the touch. It was very interesting shooting this for black and white with all black and white elements in the frame.
Allan: To what extent did you and Jeremy Schmidt (Sinoia Caves, Black Mountain) work together? The music and the images of the film are both so deeply important that one suspects a closer collaboration than one usually finds, like there needs to have been a "sound designer" credited. Was music used during the shoot or during post-production? Was there a temporary soundtrack?
Norm: I didn't work with Jeremy Schmidt at all actually. I haven't or spoken to him yet but I do want to tell him how amazing of a job he did. I love the soundtrack. I don't know what they did in the edit for temp music so I cannot comment on that.
Allan: Any good Kyla Rose Tremblay stories? (note for readers: Kyla was in charge of make-up).
Norm: Kyla was awesome. She's very talented at what she does. She was always so busy behind the scenes prepping for whatever was coming up next that I hardly saw her on set each day. So unfortunately, not many crazy stories!
Allan: Now that I've seen what you've done on Beyond the Black Rainbow, I'm curious about Altitude - I liked the sky tentacles on the DVD box, but it wasn't enough to convince me to rent it, back when there used to be rental stores. Any comments on that film? It can't surely be as visually exciting as BTBR...?
Allan: Has the, uh, visual magnificence of Beyond the Black Rainbow opened any doors for you, professionally? You seem to have a lot of projects on the go now; were any of them based on someone seeing BtBR and going, "I want THAT guy?"
Norm: Yes! Beyond the Black Rainbow has opened many doors for me. In fact, the last feature I just shot and an upcoming feature I'm about to shoot are all because the directors saw BTBR and wanted to specifically hire me. BTBR has received lots of international praise from for it's unique visuals and cinematography. It was a pleasure to be a part of this original film. I want to thank all my hardworking and talented crew members as well. Scooter Corkle my gaffer and Mike Branham my key grip did a fantastic job in the whole studio lighting/rigging setup. There was a lot of lighting used. As a base, we had close to 100 6K spacelights rigged from the ceiling that were all placed strategically and to allow for queued color transitions from a master DMX dimmer board. We had many lights floating on the studio floor that we adjusted for each setup as well. In the Arboria planetarium lobby when she escapes, we employed many colored garden lights, as well as floated balloon lights for a general overall fill. Similarly with the grassy fields, we used balloon lights to create soft pools of lights that were almost surrealistic when combined with our rigged blue flaring.
Allan: Any other questions I should be asking? Were there any challenges you faced during production?
Norm: One of the main challenges we faced were reflections! There were reflective surfaces everywhere. All the walls in the hallways and rooms, the giant piece of glass that was between Barry Nyle and Elena in the therapy room, the infinity-mirrored Sentinaut room, Margo's giant glasses, just everywhere. Sometimes it was very difficult to hide ourselves shooting very perpendicular and straight on into wall surfaces. You would often see the camera assistant, the dolly grip, myself, and the camera and dolly hiding under a sheet of duvatyne. It was easier when the camera was static but if there was any movement, we had to be very careful. I became very paranoid of being in any reflection that I may have not noticed in the viewfinder or the fuzzy video tap from the film camera.
One other curveball thrown at us was an accidental bee attack around 3am in the grass fields. Our gaffer stepped on a hole in the ground that disturbed an underground nest and thousands of bees started to fly out and attack the crew. Many people were stung and the production had to stop for about an hour to see how we could continue shooting. No one wanted to go back to the area we were shooting at to retrieve the equipment!