Owen Roizman, ASC and Tobias Schliessler, ASC will discuss their experiences filming The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 during a seminar at the CineGear conference at Paramount Studios. Roizman shot the original film in 1974. Schliessler lensed the contemporary version, which premieres on cinema screens this month.
Both films open with hijackers grabbing control of a New York City subway train and demanding a hefty ransom in exchange for releasing the terrified passengers. Call it a sign of the times: The hijackers demanded a one million dollar ransom in the original film. They upped the ante to $10 million in the contemporary version. The stories are basically the same with just a few twists in the personalities and motivations of the hijackers in the 2009 version.
Both films were primarily produced at practical locations in New York City, mainly inside of dimly lit subway cars, on station platforms and in dark tunnels. Both films also featured breathtaking “money run” scenes with cars racing through Manhattan streets to deliver the ransom on time. Roizman and Schliessler both stressed that the environments at the practical locations where they shot their respective films were like characters in the stories. They lauded the cooperation of city officials.
Roizman and Schliessler had a common goal of creating visual grammars that lure audiences to feel like participants rather than spectators as the drama unfolds.
Roizman was still in the dawn of his career when producer Edgar Scherick and director Joseph Sargent invited him to collaborate with them on the production of the original film. Roizman had just five previous feature film credits as a cinematographer, but he had already made his mark with Oscar nominations for The French Connection in 1972 and The Exorcist in 1974.
Roizman brought a sense of time and place the project. He had lived in Brooklyn for years, and had ridden the subway countless times. Roizman had also filmed a memorable scene in The French Connection in a New York subway station.
Scherick and Sargent had planned to frame Pelham in 1:85:1 aspect ratio, which wasn’t surprising since films produced in widescreen format tended to take place in settings with exterior vista backgrounds.
“I went to the station where we were going to shoot, rode trains, walked around the platforms and noticed that the dimensions of subway cars were almost a perfect match for the 2.4:1 anamorphic aspect ratio,” Roizman says. “I instinctively felt anamorphic framing was right for this story.”
Roizman recalls that the producer and director were both “incredulous” when he suggested shooting in anamorphic format. He explained his rationale, and suggested shooting side-by-side tests in anamorphic and 1.85:1 aspect ratios with trains packed with passengers coming into and going out of an underground subway station.
Roizman shot the test with a 100-speed color negative film in available light. Just to put that into perspective, he notes that he had often worked with a 25-speed color film. “Shooting with a 100-speed film was like a luxury to me,” he says.
“It was no contest when we saw the tests projected the next day.”
Roizman gained some flexibility by having the laboratory “pre-flash” the film 20 percent with an optical printer. That treatment of the negative enabled him to record details in the darkest shadows the way the human eye would see them.
“I also replaced bulbs in tunnels with 500-watt photoflood lights,” he says. “They were so bright that I was a little worried about having streaks of light on the lenses. We sprayed all of the bulbs with brown Streaks ‘N Tips to avoid hot spots.”
There were no storyboards. Sargent discussed blocking for scenes with Roizman at the beginning of each work day. They generally covered the action with one or two cameras on dollies that tracked, panned and tilted with the actors.
“Joe was right by my side, making decisions while we were shooting,” Roizman says. “We were mainly shooting in available light with a little modeling when necessary. We had the advantage of seeing film dailies together along with Edgar and my crew.”
Flash forward 35 years: Schliessler began his career shooting documentaries, music videos and commercials before he ventured into narrative filmmaking during the early 1980s. Schliessler had previously collaborated with director Tony Scott during the production of various commercials. This was their first narrative film project.
“Tony initially considered using digital cameras,” Schliessler says. “We shot a side-by-side test comparing various digital cameras and 35 mm film, and timed the images in D.I. It was clear film was superior in both the look and the flexibility it offers in the most demanding lighting situations. It wasn’t part of the test, but I believe I can shoot faster with film cameras because I am not attached to a computer by cables, and I know exactly what different films stocks will do, including the latitude they offer.”
Schliessler suggested following the trail that Roizman had blazed by shooting in anamorphic format, but Scott opted for Super 35, primarily because he wanted to use spherical Panavision Primo 10:1 and 11:1 zoom and T5.6 lenses.
During preproduction, Schliessler watched the original film a number of times to get a sense of why the cinematic experience was so compelling.
“We had the advantage of shooting with faster lenses and (KODAK VISION3 500T) 5219 film, which has amazing latitude,” he says. “It sees details in the brightest highlights and darkest shadows the way the human eye does. Tony wanted to shoot with four cameras, so we could cover scenes from different angles, including close-ups. All the spaces were pretty small. Chris Seagers (production designer) helped me immensely by building practical lights into the sets. It was his idea to use fluorescent practicals with the right color tube lights on the train. The ceiling on the train was 10 feet high.
“We wanted a feeling of the light being right on top of them, so I put a key light overhead. When we came in tight, I had a hot toplight right above people’s heads that falls off in the lower part of the frame. We were about a stop and a half overexposed at the top of the frame, and around two stops underexposed at the bottom.”
Scott got up early each morning and drew storyboards for that day’s scenes right on the pages of the script. He gave everyone copies and described his intentions. One camera was usually on a 360-degree dolly track that went around the set. The other cameras were usually static but were on dollies so quick, little moves could be made.
Schliessler estimates that some 90 percent of the shots were made with one set up using top and bottom light. Occasionally, he used a small Kino Flo tube to reflect light onto a character’s face and into their eyes.
Scott was in a video village, speaking directly to the camera operators and first assistants through ears phones, giving directions, for movement, composition and focus.
Technicolor processed the negative, and Company 3 provided HD dailies. However, Schliessler visited the lab after shooting every day to look at the negative on the scanner to make sure shots made from different camera angles were seamless matches.
“There were times when I had to compromise because we were shooting from different angles,” he says. “I would tell myself, if necessary, we could fix it in D.I., but I always tried to get the best negative possible. Some of the more intense moments were shot at both normal speed and at six frames per second to get a strobing effect.”
The moral of this story: Schliessler and Roizman agree that every great or good movie begins with the story, the vision of the director and the performances of the cast. Cinematographers and their crews can contribute with artful lighting, composition, camera placement and other nuances of the visual grammar, but it’s not about technology. It’s about their vision for visual storytelling and its execution.