by Nestor Almendros
As a cameraman, I am drawn naturally to the works of visual directors. In particular, there are three American directors I consider masters of visual presentation: King Vidor, Josef Von Sternberg, and John Ford. Their interest in set design, camera angles, composition, and lighting combined to produce films of timetested originality and expression.
These men were, above all, visual directors, and in spite of their reputations for complex and detailed aesthetics, they maintained a simplicity of the essential in their lighting preferences.
In their films, the light is united to the mise-en-scene to the extent that it actually becomes a part of the mise-enscene. Their total integration of light and visuals has always been a guide for me, and it was this artistic preference which drew me to Terrence Malick and his project, DAYS OF HEAVEN.
When producers Harold and Bert Schneider first contacted me regarding DAYS OF HEAVEN, I asked to see Malick's previous film, BADLANDS. On the basis of this screening, I immediately realized that Malick was a director with whom I could establish a unique and productive collaboration. Later, I learned that Terry greatly admired my work in L'ENFANT SAUVAGE (THE WILD CHILD), which, although black and white, was also a period movie with similarities to DAYS OF HEAVEN. As a matter of fact, it was because of this film, directed by Francois Truffaut, that Malick asked me to photograph DAYS OF HEAVEN.
In the filmmaking process, the communication between a director and a cameraman is often ambiguous and confused because the majority of directors don't understand the technical details required in cinematography. With Terry, there was never any miscommunication. He always understood exactly my cinematographic preferences and explanations. And not only did he allow me to do what I had always wanted to do which was to use less artificial light in a period movie than is conventionally used (many times I used none at all)-but he actually pushed me in that direction. Such creative support was personally exciting and directly enhanced the work I was doing.
Our creative work consisted basically in simplifying photography: cleansing it of the artificial glossy look of the films of the recent past. Our models were the films of the silent era, (Griffith, Chaplin, etc.), when cinematographers made unique and fundamental use of natural light.
Using natural light as often as possible meant using only natural window light for day interiors, like the great Dutch painter Johann Vermeer. For night interiors it meant using very little light, from a single justifiable source, such as a lantern, candle, or electric light bulb.
In this sense DAYS OF HEAVEN is a homage to those creators of images in the years before sound whose works I admire for their raw quality and for their lack of artificial refinement and gloss.
Cinema-the visual presentation of film-became very sophisticated in the thirties, forties, and fifties. As a filmgoer, I like the photography of these films, particularly the early sound pictures, but it is not the style I look for in my own work.
As in all my films, I was inspired by works of great painters. For this particular project, I was influenced primarily by American painters such as Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper.
Besides being a very educated and knowledgeable man of the arts, Terry Malick is also a collector of classic still photographs. His collection of turn-of-the-century reproduction books became a guide for designing clothes and sensing the mood of the people of the era.
Eventually we felt these stills to be such an influence that they were the first images chosen for the audience to see during the title sequence, thereby setting the mood and sense of period for the picture.
With Bill Weber's editing, these title images follow one another in a visual classic symphony, with andantes, maestossos, staccatos, tremolos, etc.
To develop a design and style for this particular film, my first consideration upon arriving on location in Canada was the character of the natural sunlight.
The light in France is very soft and subtle because of a mattress-like layer of clouds that covers the sky, making work in exteriors very easy, shots matching each other from any angle without modification.
In North America, however, the air seems more transparent and the light more harsh. When a person is backlit, his face appears to be in dark shadows to the eye of the film.
In filming day exteriors, the normal procedure is to use reflected or artificial light (such as an arc) to fill the shadowed areas and thereby reduce the photographic contrast.
In this film, however, Malick and I felt it would be better not to follow convention, to use no lights, and to expose instead more for the shadowed areas. The effect of this was that the sky would come out over-exposed ("burned"), thereby losing its blue hue. This was an effect that pleased Terry.
Malick, like Truffaut, follows today's tendency to eliminate color. The blue sky bothers them. They seem to feel that the blue sky gives the landscape a postcard quality, as though it was put there for vulgar tourist publicity.
Straight exposure of shadow in backlit situations would have given us a "burned out" sky-white, colorless. Using arcs or reflectors would have made the scene flat, without dimension and not very visually interesting.
I decided to forego the use of any artificial or reflected light, and to split the difference between my reading for the sky and my reading for the shadow, resulting in faces being slightly underexposed, and the sky slightly overexposed, taking away thereby the intensity of blue, yet not letting it burn white.
Surprisingly for me, this creative decision became a primary point of dissension among the technicians.
The circumstances of a European cameraman working on a major studio film precluded me from being able to select the technicians who would work for me. Instead, the producers assigned the technicians to the production. With very few exceptions, the crew was made up of the typical Hollywood old guard.
They were accustomed to a very polished form of lighting and photography. For them the faces should never be in shadow and the sky should always be blue. I found myself walking onto the set with the arcs in place and ready for each scene. My work became deilluminating, that is, removing the false and conventional light.
I could see members of the crew were very unhappy with our creative approach to this film, and some began openly to comment that we did not know what we were doing, and that we were not "professional". At this point, as a gesture of good will, we would do one take with the arcs, and another without. We then invited the dissenters to view the rushes to see and compare the results, and offer their comments.
This creative conflict became more accentuated as filming progressed. I was fortunate that Malick not only sided with me, but was even MORE daring. In scenes where I initially felt it necessary to use a sheet of white Styrofoam to bounce a little sunlight into an actor's face to slightly reduce the contrast, Malick would ask me to shoot without it.
Since we could see the rushes immediately and it was apparent the results were adding to the visual presentation of the story, we became more and more daring, using less and less artificial light, preferring the look of the raw, natural images. Some of the crew began to see what we were doing and little by little, joined our interpretation. Others never understood.
If on the one hand there were conflicts with some of the technicians, on the artistic level I had the good fortune of working with some of the very best collaborators I could have imagined.
In each film there is actually a very small group of people who are really responsible for "creating" the film. On DAYS OF HEAVEN this group consisted of about six or seven individuals:
Production designer Jack Fisk, who designed and constructed the mansion and the shacks where the migrant workers lived.
Patricia Norris, costume designer, who created with great taste and extraordinary sensitivity the clothes of the period.
Jacob Brackman, an associate of Malick's, who was in charge of second unit; and, of course, Producers Harold and Bert Schneider.
Each day, this group would ride in a large van from the hotel to the wheat fields. The trip was an hour one way, and invariably we would talk about the film. In this way, this group would have an improvised special production meeting each morning. The effect of such a creative unity and focus in the actual production of a major film cannot be discounted.
Between the set decorator, props, and wardrobe, we selected combinations of colors which were muted because historically colors then were not as bright and aggressive as colors today.
Patricia Norris created old clothing and dresses that didn't have that synthetic look or quality that is recognizable in the finely machined clothing of today.
The mansion was built solid in the middle of rolling wheat fields. It was a real "house-both inside and outside-not just a facade, as is typically done for a film. Even the colors and selection of the wood were period, all dark and realistic.
Many people in the film business think the Director of Photography need only be concerned with the camera and related technology. I believe that the Director of Photography must also work closely with everyone involved in the visual presentation. The truth is, you cannot achieve good photography-photography with a particular style and grace-unless you work hand in hand with the set designer and the costume designer.
If poor taste is used in the selection of the items that will visually appear in the film, then no matter how striking the work of the cameraman, the strength of the visuals will always be diminished by the ugliness or inappropriateness of the items within the frame.
You cannot get beauty out of ugliness; unless you aim for the oxymoron of Andy Warhol, who found "ugly beauty".
There were several camera operators for this film. Contrary to the films I do in Europe, (for union reasons) I was not allowed to operate a camera. Of course, I lined up the shots, and rehearsed their visual design with Terry (the movements of the camera and the actors inside the frame). Considering the situation, I was fortunate to have four camera operators of great skill and talent. From Hollywood, John Bailey; from Canada, Rod Parkhurst; Eric Van Haren Noman, the Panaglide specialist, and the second unit camera operator, Paul Ryan.
To be fair, the praises given to my work should be distributed among these and other anonymous technicians, especially in the multi-camera scenes where one camera shot wide angle, another detailed with a telephoto lens, and another was hand-held-all while the Panaglide slid through the flames and around and in between groups of people. And finally, Haskell Wexler, ASC, who supervised the last three weeks when I had to leave due to a prior commitment. ALL this was unified by the immense talent of Terry; thanks to his technical knowledge and his infallible taste.
When I was initially contacted by Producers Harold and Bert Schneider, I advised them of my commitment to Truffaut, which would begin just as DAYS OF HEAVEN was scheduled to end.
Malick and the Schneiders accepted this condition with the hope that Truffaut's film, THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN would be delayed in preproduction. It wasn't, and to complicate matters, Canada experienced an Indian Summer and the snows we needed for the story were late in coming.
Once the situation became apparent and I knew I would not be able to finish the film, I thought of all the great Directors of Photography in America, searching for someone who would be appropriate to replace me. I thought of Haskell Wexler, a man whose work I greatly admire, and a man I also consider a friend. I asked him if he would complete the work I had begun, and again, fortunately for me and the project, he accepted.
He overlapped with me for one week, observing the style we were using, screening all our rushes, sensing what we were after.
In the end I had shot for 53 days; Haskell shot another 19. I don't believe anyone can tell the difference between what I shot and what he did.
He was directly responsible for the final scenes in the city, after the death of Richard Gere; for all the snow sequences; and for completing shots in other sequences where additional angles or coverage was necessary.
The continuity he achieved is a remarkable achievement; an example of his immense talent for which I am forever thankful.
As often happens in films, a story with a particular setting may actually be filmed in a totally different locale that has the appearance of the real setting. Such was the case with DAYS OF HEAVEN.
Set in the Texas Panhandle, in 1916, the film was made in Canada, in a region of southern Alberta. And as so often happens in filmmaking, the elements of the location directly enhanced the design of the film.
The locale chosen was a vast virgin landscape owned and farmed by the Hitterites, a religious sect who emigrated many years ago from religious intolerance in Europe. Like the Mennonites and Amish in America, these people live in another era.
They communally own and work the great stretches of land, growing a wheat that is longer than the kind grown by modern farming today.
They make all their material possessions, including their austere furniture. They have no radio or television, eat homegrown natural foods, and even their faces look different from ours (some appear in the film). In the one-hour drive from our hotel we would pass from the twentieth to the nineteenth century.
There is no doubt that the atmosphere of this land added authenticity to the images in our movie.
In addition, rising out of and rolling across this extraordinary landscape were red-wine-colored silos and antique, steam-driven tractors and combines loaned to us from nearby private collections.
DAYS OF HEAVEN was my first opportunity to use a camera which was the rage in America but hadn't yet arrived in Europe: the Panaflex.
It is a very light, self-blimped, late American answer (but I believe superior) to similar European cameras.
Today's evolution is toward the miniaturization of equipment that will afford more freedom of movement during shooting. To this end the Panaflex was developed, with such versatility that now we have a studio camera with the flexibility and configuration of a documentary or newsreel camera. During our production its only drawback was a dim viewfinder, something that hassince been corrected with great ingenuity.
It is a highly sophisticated camera, and adding the ultra-speed lenses, filming that was once impossible is now available to us all. DAYS OF HEAVEN could not have been made without this camera and those lenses.
Over the years, I have noticed a certain inertia among Hollywood technicians. Since they were the first in everything, it takes them time to catch up to date or to accept the need for modification or new design.
After World War II, Europe was the forefront of new equipment development. Light cameras were among the first items developed, allowing the filmmakers to be freed of the confines of only studio sets. As a further development, these cameras were made as reflex cameras, something that did not happen in America until much later.
Another example of this inertia is the use and development of the dolly. I prefer simple movements-and I find handiest for this the Italian Elemack, which is very versatile and light. On DAYS OF HEAVEN, the crew was determined to use a conventional studio dolly with hydraulic riser-a piece of machinery so heavy it takes six men to lift it, and its size precludes it from fitting where you need it. Obviously not a flexible unit for filmmaking.
I suppose there is an American weakness (or perhaps human weakness) which prompts men to resist simplification.
Typical of this resistance is the continued use of the gear head. Today there are gyroscopic and hydraulic fluid heads which move the camera as smoothly and directly as the old-fashioned gear heads, or even better. (Sachler and Ronford are two perfect examples.)
It does not require a great deal of experience to use them -a person with a good sense of rhythm can make a perfect panoramic sweep and accompany characters in their movements without losing the composition.
With a camera on a simple head with a handle, the man and mechanical elements become one, and the movement becomes almost human. The mechanical perfection of the gear head cannot compare with the almost human sense of a handmade panoramic.
If Americans resist on the one hand, on the other hand there is no doubt that when they put their mind to something, they are the greatest technicians and innovators in the world. And doubly praiseworthy is that whenever they seriously attack a technological problem, they offer the results freely to any nation.
On DAYS OF HEAVEN we were fortunate to have a perfect example of this ingenuity: the Panaglide System. This is Panavision's version of the Steadicam System, with several advantages.
In the beginning, Terry was very enthusiastic and wanted to do practically the whole movie with Panaglide. Very soon, however, we realized it was a useful gadget, virtually indispensable on occasions, but not universal.
Like the first filmmakers, who used the zoom lens and were so enthusiastic over their new toy that they made audiences seasick, we too paid to be freshmen.
Because we had the freedom to move in all directions, the thing became a merry-go-round. The whole crewsound, script, director, and myself-had to run behind the operator on every take so we would not be in frame.
The dailies were incredible-brilliant; but there was an impression of tour de force, of great effort. The camera became a protagonist, a living actor; and it was an intruder. We discovered that very often, nothing is worth more than a steady shot on a tripod or a very smooth, invisible classic dolly move.
Nevertheless, the main sequences and shots in DAYS OF HEAVEN could not have been done without a Panaglide. It is these scenes that the audience and the critics continually talk about.
For instance, there is a scene in the river where Richard Gere convinces Brooke Adams to accept the marriage proposition of Sam Shepard. This scene required movement, yet it would have been impossible to put track under the water for a dolly. Further, the actors improvised in the water, wading around knee deep, moving wherever they wanted without blocking, and the camera never lost them. Only the Panaglide made that shot possible.
Similarly, in the fire sequences, the camera could penetrate the flames and move around in a brilliant vertical movement that visually heightened the drama of the moment.
Juxtaposed with these brilliant takes were editing problems. The novel improvisations of the actors and the camera prevented several cuts without continuity problems.
Also, it was quite difficult to shorten a sequence, and for this reason one of the most perfect scenes had to be eliminated in the final cut. The operator was standing on the crane arm, even with the balcony on the third floor of the mansion. Linda Mantz walked into the house from the terrace, through the bedroom, and down the stairs. The crane boomed down at the same time, following her, and we could see her intermittently through the windows. When she reached the ground floor, the operator stepped off the crane, and moved step-for-step with Linda, following her into the kitchen, where she encountered Richard Gere, and they exchanged dialogue (in sync sound).
The first part of the shot, the crane following her down the facade of a building, and describing along its way several actions as seen through the windows is nothing new. King Vidor did it in STREET SCENE; Max Ophuls in MADAME DE. On the other hand, what follows-the camera actually entering the building, is very, very new.
The French invention, the Louma, could penetrate into the building at the end of MADAME ROSA, but only in one room because it cannot twist; it cannot bend and follow a character into another room. But with the Panaglide, you get the true impression of three-dimension and the real geography of the set is described perfectly.
For all its magnificent possibilities, however, the Panaglide has one very serious drawback. The weight of the system is considerable and the operator has to be an Olympic athlete. If the system becomes standard equipment in the state it is in now, we will have to create a whole new generation of cameramenathletes, and the problem will be to find athletes who are also artists.
All three operators and myself tried to operate the apparatus, and we all gave up, breathless. Undoubtedly that is why Bob Gottshalk at Panavision sent a special operator with the camera; a very well-trained athlete, Eric Van Haren Noman who did his push-ups all day long, and who is also a great artist.
From the very start of filming, I consistently pushed the night scenes. A few years ago when 5247 was first released, the results of forcing the film were not very good, but when we began DAYS OF HEAVEN, the response of the new stock had come to perfection, and our tests at Alfa-Cine Laboratory in Vancouver were more than satisfactory.
Our night scenes were overdeveloped one stop, to ASA 200, and in extreme cases, two stops, to ASA 400. Astonishingly, the grain was not noticeable, even with the 70mm blow-up.
These ASA ratings, combined with the new ultra-speed lenses, enabled me to shoot at lower light levels than I had ever done before. For example, the speed of the 55mm lensisT/1.1, and you can literally shoot with the light of a match or a flashlight. Very often we would shoot at T/1.1, pushing one stop, without the 85 filter, using the last glow of the day.
Even though I was sure of the exposure, I was concerned about the focus, since the depth of field was at an absolute minimum, and my concern doubled when we began to consider blowing the release prints to 70mm.
Again I was fortunate to have a second assistant who was an artist. Michael Gershman was responsible for the focus, and he knew he was gambling with his job. Difficult as his task was, he proved himself to be a perfectionist, and he rehearsed and rehearsed until he was sure of his gauge. Whereas some became impatient with him, I can never thank him enough for his dedication. I was using no diffusion and I wanted a very crisp, clear image. The sharp images in the film are directly attributable to his professionalism.
Professional cinema does not risk underexposure and focus very often, but Malick wanted the film to have a certain style, which carried with it those risks. To achieve this style, he allowed me to go very far-as far as I wanted.
The night exteriors in 1917 would have been illuminated by bonfire or lantern. In our bonfire sequences, to give the impression of reality, our challenge was to light the scene as though the light came only from the flames.
Westerns are famous for these scenes, when the characters are sitting around the campfire. Usually electric lights are hidden behind the firewood to increase the natural light given by the flames. I always thought these scenes looked very fake.
Even in a marvelous movie, like DERSU UZALA, they have a photographically ridiculous scene near the fire. Not only is there too much light, even overpowering the flames, it is white, conflicting with the color temperature of the fire and ruining the atmosphere.
Another often-used technique is to shake things in front of the lights to give the impression of flickering flames across