“There’s nothing like feeling the sensations of a real subway ride,” says cinematographer Lawrence Sher ASC. It was the reason he wanted to make every moment as real as possible while shooting this year’s runaway hit Joker. With a range of film styles from the broadly comedic Hangover to the recent fantasy Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Sher has employed just about every cinematic technique available today. But – he’s still a bit ‘old school real,’ believing that giving the actors something tangible to work from enriches performance and allows the creatives something solid to work off of – not to mention enhances believability – and audience engagement.
Sher’s approach to a film – whether comedy, fantasy or a bit of both – is all about serving the story visually. “You dissect the scene emotionally. What is the intent of the scene? What is the intent of the characters? And, from there, you start to derive a plan to execute and to tell the story visually to help drive those emotions.”
With Joker, he needed to create a way where the audience would really connect with one man’s descent into chaos and madness, “but also give the actors the most freedom and keep the set moving as quickly as possible to maintain the momentum of the day. We needed to keep the energy of the setup and the actors close while everyone is in the right state of mind." For Sher and the production team, that meant shooting as practically as possible.
“Yes, there are times when blue screen or putting characters in an environment that isn’t there is the way to go,” he adds. “But director Todd Phillips and I realized the way to make Joker really come alive was to keep it live when we were shooting it. That’s where enhanced environments and the way that LED technology allows you to make these environments live and on set come in. You realize what effect it has on the actors and what effect it has, even on a cinematographer. Suddenly, you're not guessing where the background is. You aren't coordinating that background later, but you are able to photograph it in real-time and make lighting decisions as you photograph, that you can’t do when you’re shooting blue or green screen.”
A perfect example in Joker – the super important subway scene where Joker kills the Wall Street Three. “It’s a critical watershed moment for the character’s arc,” explains Sher. “Todd Phillips wanted the scene to feel like a ‘fever dream.’ And because the movie starts and ends always in a place of reality, we were like, ‘well lets at the very least, see if we could shoot this live.’ Could we go out on a subway train and drive up and down the tracks – shooting for real?” It was possible, but even if they arranged to close down the tracks at some weird time of day that wasn’t necessarily good for the scene, other limitations mounted.
The two explored various options. One possibility, blue screen, and put the background in later. “Then you lose any of the interactivity of the lighting,” he countered. “And for me, what's cool about riding subways in New York is the way the lighting interacts with the environment, and the fact that when you drive by a subway station or another train car passes by – or the lights flicker off inside the car – all that interactive lighting is playing inside. If you use blue screen, you have some lights just out of frame, but they're only hitting the bottom of the frame or the floor. They aren't interacting in a way the actual real environment does.”
The solution. Connect with PRG. “We wanted to talk about the technology they used on Murder on the Orient Express and other projects,” Sher explains. “We didn’t want to replicate the reality – we wanted to enhance it – to get to the ‘fever dream’ feeling.
“With enhanced environments, I could make decisions as to when another train car passes by. When we pass by a subway station. When we go into a dark tunnel. When a light or a section of fluorescent lights goes by, I needed full control of all of those environments.”
He used the technology and media server to provide five or six layers of content, of timelines of information. "So, one timeline would be a passing subway car — one—a passing bunch of fluorescent lights. One would be a white subway station. Another, a sodium vapor lit subway station," he explains. "Suddenly, now we could be inside the subway car, which for the actors and our director and operator was a living, breathing, moving vehicle.
“When you got on that subway car and started moving the screens, it felt like we were moving,” he adds enthusiastically. “There was even a little bit of motion sickness that happened. You literally felt like, can we just stop the screen? When we got to a stop, and the screens were moving, and the doors opened, you almost didn’t want to go outside because it felt like you would fall off. That was the effect for the audience – and for the actors,” he explains.
“While we were lighting, I could be at the media server, and I could watch the scene in real-time and turn the lights inside the train on, the way I wanted, as a subway station passed by,” he adds. “The fact that the airbags were moving a little bit and the world outside was going by, and when the lights flickered off, you can actually see a subway car or station passing by, as opposed to just blue screen, made it seem so real. I’ve talked to people who thought we went out on a subway and just drove a train up and down the tracks.
“Keeping those environments real and visually right in front of you, as opposed to something that would be imagined later—made a huge difference,” Sher concludes. “The technology was essential to making that scene successful, and I don't know any other way we could have done it. One of the best things about working with a company like PRG is that they love to solve problems just as much as we do. At the end of the day, yes, of course, it's a business, and we all need to make money to keep the lights on, but we are still really enthusiastic about making movies and making something that really helps tell the story. I'm excited to work with people that are excited to solve those problems too.”