IMAX SPECIALIST TALKS INTERSTELLAR AND CHRIS NOLAN
By Rusty Deluce
Doug Lavender is in demand and his next shoot could bring him anywhere in the world. As a 3D and large format specialist, Doug makes good use of his Canadian and E.U. passports, American work visa and dual membership in Local 600 and 669. Over a dozen of Doug’s sixty odd credits are IMAX productions in a range of environments, from glaciers to equatorial lava fields. This guy is on the move. Parts of his resume read like a list of Hollywood blockbusters including “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse”, “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Interstellar”. Doug also worked with director Christopher Nolan on “The Dark Knight Rises” as an IMAX Technician in the Pittsburgh and New York locations. Shortly after viewing “Interstellar” at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood in a glorious 70mm IMAX presentation, I caught up with Doug at the 669 Christmas party where he kindly consented to a Q&A.
To date, “Interstellar” has taken in $671,000,000 worldwide and is headed back to select IMAX theatres on the Saturday before the 87th Academy Awards. At the Oscars, it will compete in five technical categories including Best Visual Effects. With an approval rating of 72% on Rotten Tomatoes, “Interstellar” has been a critical success. It has also won over the scientific community where its black hole imagery is currently boosting the cause of astrophysics. Far from trivializing science, the groundbreaking visualizations of “Interstellar” have prompted unprecedented research into black holes and led to the publication of a joint research paper. Cal Tech theoretical physicist Kip Thorne served as consultant for the film while the screenplay originated from the brothers Jonathan and Chris Nolan. Thorne did the math for VFX Supervisor Paul Franklin while CGI artists from Double Negative rendered software to create the simulations. The resulting imagery is groundbreaking and making a big splash in the scientific and computer communities. The filmmaking on display in “Interstellar” isn’t too shabby either.
Captured entirely on film in a combination of 35mm anamorphic and IMAX 70mm “Interstellar” is boundary pushing cinema.
Thank you Doug Lavender for taking the time out of a Christmas vacation in Hawaii to answer a few questions.
You’ve done plenty of IMAX work before “Interstellar”–you’re pretty much the IMAX guy–how does director Chris Nolan’s use of the format differ from tradition?
My first IMAX shoot was “Wings of Courage”, a 40 min drama filmed in 3D in 1995. The director Jean-Jacques Annaud was a filmmaker who saw past what others had used IMAX for and disregarded the ‘rules”. After that I was fortunate to work on other IMAX films, almost all of them in the traditional large format genre i.e. slow tracking shots, static frames and letting the action move within wide shots (40-50mm). When I was asked, or rather told, to come out on “Dark Knight Rises” when the other IMAX tech took ill, it was like any (non-IMAX) movie set. The IMAX size and rules were ignored and Chris made fun of how long it would take to reload the film, or if the camera would even roll. Rather than letting IMAX cameras influence how he would approach action and dramatic close-ups, Chris used the huge frame to make a stronger visual impact.
My role on “Interstellar” was different; there I was B Camera focus for the Alberta and Iceland locations. Greg Irwin, the A Camera 1ST would be beside Chris at all times and have us (2nd assistants Jeff Sayle, Adriane Wyse) set up the cameras and do whatever B Cam coverage was required. Nolan seemed so comfortable pressing the limits of IMAX that by the time he started “Interstellar” he was unrelenting trying to keep it up. They had the budget to have “everything ready all the time” on the callsheet. There were memorable shots that seemed so un-IMAX, like a remote head on a hostess-tray side mounted to Matthew McConaughey’s truck to shoot driving close-ups on 110mm and 150mm IMAX lenses. We did almost every shot on the ice planet (Iceland) handheld with very little coverage or going again. The film making language changes a lot when you shoot IMAX film. The 1000’ rolls of 65mm negative last 2 min, 58 sec. the film travels at 336 feet per minute, much faster than 35mm film because each frame is 15 perfs, not 4. This is a huge change from using digital media where we get 17 minute record times or longer. Also, when you roll an IMAX camera, everyone on set knows it: it’s loud. So, no sneaky shots of actor’s adlibbing, and when the camera rolls actors, crew and director are in the moment. The film is expensive, the time to load and deal with cameras is consuming, actors are aware of not blowing takes yet being natural because everything shows up in IMAX. This attention and in-the-moment awareness is what I really like about dramatic IMAX shoots. The absolute focus and the entire crew and cast being in-the-moment of the scene.
When pulling focus with IMAX, especially scripted drama, how brutal is it? Does the operator have a decent viewing system for seeing the focus or are you on your own with a tape measure, zero depth-of-field and a prayer?
IMAX focus success is all in the prep. This process is similar to using anamorphic lenses on film. You really need to know how that lens falls off near and far and at different stops. Does is have a focus curve? Can you trust the focus when you go near-to-far that it will match far-to-near? The depth-of-field is less than 35mm digital sensors or film but the field-of-view is bigger, so it is important to really look at the frame and visualize how large it will be in an IMAX theatre and decide where the focus should be. The viewfinders on the MSM IMAX cameras were fine for the documentary work they were made for; now that the cameras are in the dramatic feature world, they fall short. Panavision Woodland Hills has made an adapted Arri eyepiece that helps and is short enough for handheld work, but focus comes down to prep, knowing your lenses and good old measuring.
How do you wrangle these monster cameras and 65mm film magazines around anywhere let alone a cornfield or Icelandic glacier. Can IMAX really be handheld?
IMAX film stock is big, the image is 10 times larger than the image of a 35mm 1.85:1 frame, but the cameras and lenses are not so large. My benchmark for large and heavy is a Panastar with 111 zoom, matte box, FIZ, cinetape and 1000’ mag of film. It weighs 90 lbs. more or less. The IMAX MSM camera that most Hollywood productions use is 63 lbs. with film and lens. Yes, it is much heavier than a Red Dragon or Arri Alexa, but not that far removed from what we used as a standard sized camera 10 years ago. Size and weight for using the MSM on "Interstellar" were not too daunting because we had the manpower and camera support to make it work. The run time and film stock weight do come into play when doing shoots in the Galapagos Islands, Grand Canyon or Panama. When six minutes of your recording media weigh 15 lbs. and are in a 1 cubic foot box, you need a lot of space for storage!
Is IMAX a more inherently tableau format because of its unwieldy size and weight? To what extent have IMAX cameras evolved from the niche format they originated in?
IMAX shots are really beautiful in the tableau sense. There is so much information and texture in the frame, it is nice to look around on the screen and really see the environment. This is not the use of the format in “Interstellar” or the “Dark Knight” films. That said, one of my favorite IMAX shots in “Dark Knight” is the aerial that sets up the bank robbery. The image detail and sound combine to really set the sinister scene to follow. IMAX film and aerials are unrivalled in quality and beauty. IMAX cameras have evolved from using a Mitchell style magazine mounted sideways that made them side heavy and very prone to weight shifting during running. Steadicam impossible. Now that the large film mass is in a bottom-to-top coaxial magazine, it's compact–to an extent with much less weight shifting and rather easy to mount on remote heads and cranes.
“Interstellar” is a mix of 35mm anamorphic and 15-perf IMAX formats–over an hour of its 165 minute running time is in IMAX–how would Nolan decide when it was appropriate or necessary to shoot in the big format?
When Chris Nolan shot the Batman films, IMAX was used on large wide and action shots, then returned to 2.40 when the story went back to dialogue and normal drama. I will paraphrase this as IMAX for holy crap and 35mm for blah, blah, blah. That is not the case with the format choices in "Interstellar". Large portions of the Alberta scenes, of the family farm when the story is anchored to Earth were shot in IMAX, also all of the Iceland work on the water and ice planet sets was shot in IMAX. All aerials were IMAX. Many of the stage shots were IMAX as wellspace ship shots, great shots of the exterior of the ship...I would think it is safe to say that Chris Nolan introduced the IMAX format to narrative films and has grown its use in each movie since he did so.