Cinematographer Oren Soffer discussed bringing guerilla-style filmmaking to sci-fi blockbuster The Creator with Adrian Pennington.
A little ingenuity and can-do goes a long way. By some accounts British writer-director Gareth Edwards has stunned Hollywood in making The Creator for $80m while putting on screen the production value of a VFX spectacular four times that budget.
The world building of the sci-fi, set in 2065, may be derivative of films like Blade Runner, Star Wars or District 9 but it’s on a scale fit for IMAX and rendered with a brutal realism and cunning efficiency that puts mega-budget blockbusters like Avatar or Marvel movies to shame.
They did so by shooting guerilla-style with a relatively small crew in multiple locations, a prosumer camera costing £3,000, limited lighting gear and an unorthodox attitude to VFX grounded in the decade Edwards spent as a DIY filmmaker doing everything from VFX to editing in his front room.
“Our approach was less about saving money, although it was partly about keeping a small footprint, but an aesthetic choice to give Gareth the spontaneity he needed to tell this story,” said Oren Soffer, the film’s Israeli-American cinematographer in remarkably his first major feature as DP.
The project was prepped and conceived by Edwards with cinematographer Greig Fraser ACS, ASC, who shot Star Wars: Rogue One with the director before Fraser’s commitment to Dune: Part Two lured him away from set.
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On Fraser’s recommendation, Soffer joined the project and shot it all while Fraser supervised remotely. Fraser had noted in Soffer a similar approach to cinematography which was to go back to basics by first seeing if any scene could be shot using natural light.
“And if the answer is yes, then I’m going to do it that way, and if you need to add a light then can you do it with just one, and you build from there. That’s a philosophy I’ve been adhering to for years and builds on the approach pioneered by many DPs that came before us such as Owen Roizman (The Exorcist) and Nestor Almendros (Days of Heaven). They embraced practical sources and location light as the baseline of their work.
“That’s not to say a lot of very careful additional work goes on top of that. You often can’t light from available light on location. For me, it’s less about getting bogged down with tools and more about an aesthetic of naturalism that I just feel is more inherently cinematic. When lighting feels artificial, over lit and overcooked I respond to it less.”
The Creator, written by Edwards and released by 20th Century Studios, depicts a world at war with artificial intelligence. While forces in the West want to seek and destroy a super AI weapon that has been built in the form of a female child called ‘Alphie’, societies in Asia live alongside humanoid AI (‘simulants’) and view them as part of their family.
Behind The Scenes: The Creator - Reverse engineered VFX
Rather than stage this in a studio, Edwards decided to take the budget for the set and use it to build and shoot on location in South East Asia, retrofitting VFX into shots after capture. This included minimal use of facial markers on actors, with extras in crowd scenes turned into humanoids once they’d recorded the footage.
This reverse engineered process was a continuation of a style which Edwards, Fraser and ILM had done on Rogue One. Any of the 1000+ VFX shots would be a great example of this but Soffer selected the multiple scenes shot at a major train station in Bangkok and a large convention centre in the city. Thanks to Covid, neither was in full operation at the time and not as busy as normal.
“These locations doubled as NOMAD [the floating superweapon], as LAX airport, as the AI laboratory raided in the film and as Fort Valour, the miliary compound where Alfie is held. We shot the location without green screen or any heavy VFX work and those locations were then painted over by VFX to turn them into the different spaces.
“We shot the exact same space during the day for LAX and at night for NOMAD with a different 2.5D reskin that VFX mapped onto the geometry of the physical space we had filmed. It felt more organic to shoot these beautiful locations and then build them out digitally.”
They took the same approach throughout: shooting spaces as they found them with no VFX augmentation during filming, rotoscoping VFX after the fact. “It was all about finding a realistic hook for the VFX even if it was largely replaced in post. Part of my role was to try and get as much information as possible so that when we were looking at a shot, the team had the information to be able to add buildings, robots or vehicles to the frame.”
Edwards operated camera throughout, with Soffer shooting a second camera at times. “Thankfully for us he is a great op with good taste. He has a background in graphical design, industrial design, editing, VFX and cinematography [he served as his own DP on Monsters]. Maybe he’s not the most technical operator but we wanted this film to feel rough and tumble.”
To make things look bigger in scale than they actually were the key was to show something else relative in the frame and therefore give the illusion of greater depth between foreground and background.
Behind The Scenes: The Creator - Tank battle location switch
The most difficult sequence to shoot was the tank battle in which the US military destroy a remote seaside community in search of Alphie. This was shot at Saphan Mon, an iconic, 447m-long wooden bridge, the largest in Thailand, and a day’s ride from Bangkok.
“It’s a very complex sequence requiring a lot of extras including real villagers, drones, stunts, sfx, cranes, practical explosions, dollies, handheld camera and lots of story to tell – and we only had 7 days to do it all. It required a lot of thought and planning and lots of running around in extreme heat. We basically just built out the sequence as we were going.”
The scene was storyboarded but for a different location. They had planned to film a floating village in Siem Reap, Cambodia but the risk of having crew quarantined because of lingering Covid restrictions in early 2022 persuaded them to stay in Thailand.
“There was no time to scout the location during preproduction so we scouted it for three days just prior to filming there. Gareth also went to Cambodia after we’d wrapped and captured texture shots of the village there which made it into the final cut.”
Behind The Scenes: The Creator - Shooting on the FX3
Edwards chose a Sony FX3 ‘prosumer’ mirrorless camera, an unusual choice but in keeping with the Sony EX on which he shot his feature breakthrough, Monsters.
Soffer paired this with a Ronin gimbal rig for smooth but fleet of foot shooting, eliminating the need for Steadicam. It offered full frame full 4K resolution so it would be able to be shown on IMAX screens and what it lacked in colour depth, compared to say an Alexa Mini LF, it made up for in dynamic range.
They shot 95% of the film on one lens and one focal length, the 75mm 2x Kowa anamorphic. They carried three of them fitted to three FX3 bodies. This was complimented by a 42 mm Atlas Mercury 1.5x Full-Frame anamorphic and a set of Ironglass Soviet-era stills lenses which produced an oval shaped bokeh used sparingly for plate shots.
The 12,800 ISO of the FX3 allowed them to shoot many scenes well into dusk and blue hours (twilight). “One thing we noticed during scouts was that blue hour in the tropics is much shorter the further you get from the equator. We had only 15-20 minutes after sunset to get all the footage but the FX extended that by about 10 minutes. Well after the human eye can no longer discern light the camera still has enough. We lit the entire film with a relatively small package of lights that can plug into a wall socket.”
They also tested for shooting in moonlight but found cloud coverage an issue:
“There was a thunder storm somewhere every night which meant we just couldn’t rely on moonlight but I’ll definitely do this in future, maybe in a desert environment.”
Behind The Scenes: The Creator - Street photography
Like most cinematographers he carries a camera with him everywhere including on location in Thailand. “I’ve been taking pictures since middle school, purely street and travel photography, from the hip. I do it every day, everywhere I go. I enjoy the act of finding a frame and interesting lighting and composition. What’s great is that that type of photography fits with this film which is all about finding lighting that looks naturalistic and then creating the conditions for spontaneity.”
He’s always loved the movies with Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Arc, Back To The Future and Jurassic Park, “stored in my memory banks”. He’s also an avid drawer, painter and sketcher which dovetailed with photography into cinematography when at high school.
His favourite shot in The Creator is a reflection of Alphie shut into an escape pod at the film’s climax. The camera captures her reflection and that of NOMAD exploding. “It was pure serendipity and a perfect distillation of why we all made the film in way did, to allow for this spontaneity by creating the conditions for lightning to strike.”
Behind The Scenes: The Creator - Collaboration with Fraser
While Soffer was on the ground with Edwards “dealing with day-to-day project minutiae,” Fraser took on a more holistic role.
“You could call it Supervising but that doesn’t necessarily encapsulate the degree of collaboration we had,” Soffer said. “He was able to watch dailies projected in a theatre which weren’t able to do. I would send him stills. We’d identify things that needed to be addressed, consult about upcoming lighting set ups. We talked daily.”
Fraser also supervised three weeks of shooting on a LED Volume at Pinewood alongside some standard studio work with the footage shared back to the team in Thailand.
“The biggest single thing I learned from Greig is his commitment to being fearless. Pretty much everything we did on this film was unorthodox in one way or another. Doing things a certain way because that’s how they’ve been done in the past minimises risk but Greig is fearless in challenging convention. If there’s another way that helps achieve the goals of the project better then we took that route. I will take that into the work I do in future.”
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