Cinematographer Simon Duggan has had an impressive career working on such films as “Live Free or Die Hard,” “I, Robot,” “Underworld: Evolution,” “Ravenswood” and so many more. He’s also been responsible for some of the most innovative commercials seen on television across the globe, such as those done for Visa, Heineken, Pepsi, Adidas and other well known brands.
Our reporter, Linda Craddock was able to talk with Simon during his recent vacation in Australia. He had recently finished work on the next Brendan Fraser film “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” and just wrapped on the new Nicolas Cage movie titled “Knowing.”
Linda Craddock (SoSF): Hello Simon and welcome to Slice of SciFi. How are you today?
Simon Duggan (SD): Hi Linda, I’m now holidaying at my apartment on the Gold Coast of Australia having just finished shooting a film called “Knowing” with actor Nic Cage and Alex Proyas directing.
SoSF: You got to work as the director of cinematography for the film “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”. Talk a little about some of the features you’ve designed to bring this particular film to life.
SD: One of the most exciting aspects of “Mummy” was its scale and diversity of it’s locations ranging from the Himalayan Alps to desert landscapes, ancient Chinese palaces and post war Shanghai city. My approach was to breakdown all these environments and give each one a very different look through lighting and color.
SoSF: It’s been seven years since the last installment of “The Mummy” epic, and this will be your first. Obviously a great deal has changed with respect to computer CGI effects. Is that part of your role, and if so, what approach do you take once you read a script when working on a job from pre-production to post-production with respect to lighting, camera movement, color imaging, etc?
SD: There has been many changes in the VFX world over the last several years. The most significant is with greatly improved software the ability to achieve more complex visuals in less time and look completely photo-realistic. One example was of the VFX team accomplishing a real time 3-dimensional scan of actor Jet Li that captured every facial expression and range of on-camera performances that would be used later as he morphed into different characters. I’m also finding that there is a lot less green screen being used especially where the VFX team wants to preserve as much of the actual shooting background behind an actor as possible.
My role with the CGI effects involved a close working relationship with the post production teams Digital Domain and Rhythm and Hues in Los Angeles. In the preproduction/planning stages of the film where CGI work was planned we looked at location photos, set plans, previsualized storyboard frames or even rough animated sequences where visual effects work was complex. I always tried to establish a look for the color and lighting approach early on in this process giving the guys a direction to head in. A lot of people don’t realize that the CGI work commences sometimes just a couple of weeks after principal photography so it’s important for everyone to be on the same visual course from the start. During the shoot I took hundreds of digital stills from which I shared with the Visual Efects Team and the dailies colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3 Los Angeles.
As we shot I was always aware of what interactive lighting would help sell any of the effects. Atmospheric effects such as wind, smoke, dust, snow and rain were also very important elements to help blend VFX shots. We would always shoot a shot of a scene that involved heavy atmospheric effects as a reference for the VFX team then go lighter for the take. This allowed CGI components to be inserted first then further layers of atmospheric elements would be added for a completely convincing result. This approach was also used where our actors were filmed against green screen, a good chroma key could be achieved first before addition of further atmospheric elements over the final composite.
SoSF: Everyone knows that the world of special effects is synonymous with the sci-fi genre. Can you describe a sequence where and how you apply the CGI effects after a scene is shot using actors and what we have come to know as the “green screen” background?
SD: The use of complete green screen backgrounds has become much less over the years. On “Mummy” we were very aware of the importance, for realism, of the actors physically performing in a real environment or set however small or partial. Most “greenscreen” use was used to extend the existing set or location to add further backgrounds or increase the size of a set that couldn’t be built within budget. As much as possible small screens were used just to cover the actors body when necessary.
Most of the CGI effects were composited into the in-camera shots that required no greenscreen. Often a rough rotoscope around the actors was enough separation to add CGI components within the scene the actors were performing in. This applied to the two most challenging and complex scenes for the visual effects teams that were the initial coming to life of the Mummy Emperor and his brass horses that end up trampling their way through the city streets of Shanghai and then the end battle sequence where our actors interact, fighting with the CGI armies consisting of thousands of CGI soldiers.
SoSF: What would you say was one of the most challenging scenes you’ve had to complete while filming this “Mummy” film?
SD: Apart from the creative approach there were also the logistical challenges such as the â€œHimalayan Alpsâ€ location. It was shot on an exterior stage in Montreal during a sweltering summer. I wanted to give it a very cold, cool cyan feel so I used filtration and blocked all sunlight of the location, it was the size of a football field. We were working in tons of Epsom salts in place of snow and detergent based snow flakes for a few weeks. The grip team were struggling with huge diffusion cloths used for blocking the sun from flying away. The VFX teams onset computers were breaking down because of the highly saline and acidic atmoshere. It’s not an entirely digital world yet!
SoSF: Tell us what you remember when the world of special effects in the film industry found its way into the digital format and describe some of the equipment and technology used in this or any feature film.
SD: I remember the days when CGI work was attempted in the anologue computer world and by performing just two effects you had dropped a couple of generations and the material was almost unusable. The coming of the digital format meant that the amount of effects and layering was limitless as the working environment was almost quality lossless. I remember Quantel introducing “Harry” which was capable of multilayering of images at broadcast quality and then Quantel’s “Domino” that could work at film resolution. We now have an incredible choice of digital manipulating and grading machines but most importantly is the design of software programs for CGI artists that extend their capabilities.
SoSF: You have been involved in several feature films such as “Live Free or Die Hard” and “Underworld: Evolution” and “I, Robot”. As Director of Cinematography, do you have a regular crew you enjoy working with from project to project, or, are the personnel you supervise based on the film itself?
SD: I really haven’t managed to have any continuity as far as crew on my films because nearly every project has originated in a different country and/or city. Iâ€™ve been very lucky though always picking up the best crew available and I would go back to them all when the oportunity arises. Most of the communication about your expectations and working style is established in pre-production and then it only takes a week or two for everyone to be in sync.
SoSF: What was it that propelled you into the field of special (do you mean Visual) effects? How did you get started?
SD: I don’t believe that I specialize in the Visual effect field yet I have been involved in a few visual effect laiden films. I think it has become the norm for most films now to have visual effects elements and Digital Intermediate finish. I was introduced into the field of visual effects when I was working as a DP in the commercial television business shooting high-end productions. It was from there I was taken on board as DP on ‘I, Robot’ with Director Alex Proyas. This was my introduction into a film which at the time had one of the most VFX shots. I think it was in the vicinity of 900 VFX shots whereas “Mummy” has about 1100.
SoSF: You were nominated for Australian Film Institute Best Achievement in Cinematography for “The Interview” and won Film Critics Circle of Australia Award for Best Cinematography for the same film. To sum up this interview tell the fans what you enjoy most about your craft.
SD: The most enjoyable aspect of cinematography for me is creating/setting the mood and atmosphere of a film through lighting. I feel it steers the whole emotional response to a story, performance and setting.
SoSF: What advice would you give to an aspiring cinematographer?
SD: To any aspiring filmmaker I would say if you love films then being a part of the process is very exciting and rewarding. Once you get a foot in the door you can take your career in any direction as long as you have the dedication and patience.
SoSF: Thank you Simon for taking the time out of your busy schedule and well deserved holiday to take this interview.
SD: Thank you Linda. It has been a real pleasure.