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Behind the Lens: Peter Suschitzky & After Earth

COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Peter Suschitzky ASC BSC : Behind the Lens: Peter Suschitzky & After Earth
CreativeCOW presents Behind the Lens: Peter Suschitzky & After Earth -- Film History & Appreciation Editorial

Peter Suschitzky ASC BSCPeter Suschitzky ASC BSC
Behind the Lens
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Cinematographer Peter Suschitzy, BSC, ASC was the first to shoot with the first four Sony F65s to ship, for M. Night Shyamalan's latest movie, After Earth. The futuristic movie takes us to back to Earth, 1,000 years after humanity has abandoned the blue planet. There, they encounter fearsome beasts and the other dangers as they fight to survive.

Suschitzky shares with Creative COW readers what it was like shooting After Earth, as well as other highlights in his career.


Jaden Smith on location in Costa Rica during production of Columbia Pictures' After Earth, also starring Will Smith. Photo by Alan Silfen.
Jaden Smith on location in Costa Rica during production of Columbia Pictures' After Earth, also starring Will Smith. Costa Rica would be an excellent test of the camera's performance under difficult circumstances - and the camera performed well. Photo by Alan Silfen.
I was at a festival in Zagreb when I got a phone call from my agent to say that director M. Night Shyamalan was interested in me for After Earth. He told me in general that he liked my work, and we had a friendly conversation in which he told me a little bit about his next project. I'm guessing that he must have seen a mixture of things including my work with director David Cronenberg and perhaps Mars Attacks! He and I had a good conversation and good feedback but I didn't hear anything for a couple of months. A month before the shoot was supposed to start, I got a call saying they wanted me to shoot the movie.

For this type of film, one would normally expect perhaps two months to prep. I had a crew to sort out, equipment to decide upon. I hit the ground running and it was a breathless prep, with locations as far afield as Costa Rica, Northern California and Utah to scout.

With regard to establishing the look of the film, in my conversations with Night, he showed me a few photographs and we had a general conversation. But I think you'll recognize it's difficult to put into words what you want something to look like -- just as it's well nigh impossible to tell anyone what a Mozart symphony sounds like if they haven't heard one. If there is a discussion about the look, it's in general terms or with reference to stills or particular movies.

When a director casts actors, unless they're very inexperienced, he or she will cast them because of what they've done before and will know what to expect, even if they hope to be able to stretch the actor in question and obtain a performance that will surprise.

The same will be true with Directors of Photography, unless they're untried and unknown. We are cast, just like an actor, based on our previous work. I wouldn't expect somebody to ask me to do something that's totally foreign to the body of my work even though I will, of course, unconsciously change and adapt my style to the movie in front of me. Ideally, I strive to find the right tone, in the way that I create the photography of the film, a tone and style that will be in tune with the drama and content of the screenplay. I can give one emphasis in one direction or the other. I don't like repeating myself -- my greatest enemy is the formula so I do like to change my approach from movie to movie, but the way I work is instinctive, from the gut, not theoretical. It happens without my knowing what happens.

This was the first movie to use the Sony F65 [Oblivion began shooting at the same time]. I didn't expect to take that decision but when I met Night, he said he wanted to shoot on film with anamorphic lenses. I said that I will do it the way you wish, but I want to show you what a digital camera can do. I was won over the very first day with my very first digital camera experience.


Will Smith, left, and Jaden Smith in Columbia Pictures' After Earth. © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Will Smith, right, and Jaden Smith, left, in Columbia Pictures' After Earth. © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Jaden Smith stars in Columbia Pictures' After Earth, also starring Will Smith. © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
After Earth was the first movie to use the Sony F65 [Oblivion began shooting at the same time].

The first movie I shot digitally was with an ARRI Alexa; it was Cronenberg's Cosmopolis. I have, I think, a practical approach to the choice of digital over film. Film projected on film is beautiful, but if you shoot on film today it is digitized and projected on a digital projector so it doesn't have quite the same quality of film projected on film.

Night said, yes, I'm interested to have a look at a comparison test. The natural choice seemed to me, at the time, to be the Alexa but the studio said, we have a camera we'd love you to try, the F65, but they said that they wouldn't pressure us to use it. We hadn't even heard of it. We tested a film camera and two digital cameras side by side. Film lost out to both digital images because, in the translation of scanning to digital format, the shadow areas lost their details and didn't look as sharp. The Sony camera seemed to me and Night to be the winner. It records in greater detail and has very fine contrast range.

We had some anxieties, of course, about being the first. The unit production department was the most worried; they were concerned that the new and untried camera might break down on our first location, which was going to be in Costa Rica.


Jaden Smith stars in Columbia Pictures' After Earth, also starring Will Smith. © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

Jaden Smith stars in Columbia Pictures' After Earth, also starring Will Smith. © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
The movie was shot partially on zooms and partially on Cooke primes.


Certainly that would be a test of the camera and how it performed in difficult circumstances. Because it was a Sony production and Sony camera, they sent several technicians with us in case we had issues with the camera. But we didn't have any major problems and the technicians went back to Los Angeles after the first week of shooting. There were some bugs, mainly in the prep period. The camera team had to spend a very rushed prep week -- the camera was a prototype when we took it on. The crew wanted small changes to be made and they had full cooperation of the Sony technicians. The camera performed well.

I shot the movie partially on zooms and partially on Cooke primes. We ended up using zooms for a lot of the movie. We had a short schedule -- 62 or 63 days -- for this type of film when the scale of production would ordinarily dictate in excess of 80 days and because some of the sets were hard to get at and set up in, we used a crane quite a lot of the time. For instance, the cockpit scenes in the spaceship were built on a mechanical gimbal 30 feet in the air and the walls didn't come apart. It was like shooting in a long tube. The crane was inserted into the tube so we could easily move from one angle to another but that meant that there was precious little room for anything else such as lighting!

The locations for the movie were another reason that made me hope that Night would agree with me to shoot on a digital camera. The locations in Costa Rica were in the jungle and in northern California were beneath a very dense canopy of trees in the redwood forests. Those locations were on the very dark side and it would have been tough to shoot on film and get an exposure.


Jaden Smith stars in Columbia Pictures' After Earth, also starring Will Smith. The locations in Costa Rica were in the jungle and in northern California were beneath a very dense canopy of trees in the redwood forests. Photo by Alan Silfen.
The locations in Costa Rica were in the jungle and in northern California were beneath a very dense canopy of trees in the redwood forests. Photo by Alan Silfen.


Digital cameras are much more light sensitive than film. I learned that on Cosmopolis, because we shot most of the movie in a limo and I was able to use small light sources. The third location for After Earth was in Utah, and we had almost too much light there!

Because of the number of visual effects in the movie, we did do a lot of green screen shooting, and some of the elements on location were also green screen. I have had a lot of experience with shooting movies with visual effects in them, including Star Wars: Episode 5 -- The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, Krull in 1983, Mars Attacks! in 1993 and The Red Planet in 2000 and Cosmopolis.



Iconic scene from The Empire Strikes Back


Effects have changed radically since The Empire Strikes Back. Today, visual effects are more flexible on the shooting end. With Empire, we used blue screens and they had to be lit with extreme precision; we also used that magical but now obsolescent procedure, front projection. On After Earth, I was constantly in contact with the movie's Visual Effects Supervisor Jonathan Rothbart; I was always calling him over to ask if he was happy with what I was doing.

Visual effects did not slow us down at all. Our lighting kit was substantial because of the number of green screens that had to be lit. We were able to use the latest LED lamps from MacTech, which take much less power than conventional lamps and we were able to save a considerable amount of diesel fuel by using them. I took them on location as well. When we were in difficult-to-access locations in the jungle or by a riverbank, we didn't have to run miles of heavy cable to a big generator; we were able to use just a small Honda generator. Sometimes I had to resort to conventional 18K HMIs but not often.

Getting it all done in the time was the biggest challenge. I never felt unduly rushed, but I didn't always feel spoiled for time either -- I always felt comfortable. The creative demands are the same for every DoP: how to come up with the look for each scene that is both appropriate and interesting. For me, at present, the F65 would be my camera of choice just because the sensor does record in such detail and with such flexibility. There seem to be new cameras becoming available all the time. Tomorrow there will be another camera that I may prefer, so I don't feel wedded to it but for now the F65 is the best one around.






My career has thus far been lucky. My father, Wolfgang Suschitzky, was a Director of Photography [Get Carter is among his credits] and a photographer as well. He's 100 now and still in great shape. Photography or image making was around me from when I was an infant. From the time I can remember, I always wanted to get into the dark room and I'd reach up to try to get the handle.

Get Carter (1971) is among the many credits in the illustrious career of Peter's father, Wolfgang Suschitzky, who is now 100 years old.
I would knock on the door and occasionally he'd let me in for a few moments. Some friend gave me a Brownie camera and my father gave me the chemicals to do printing in daylight. I started doing prints and became obsessed with making images and took photography seriously. I was also in love with music, but my father persuaded me to keep that for pleasure, and offered me the chance to go to film school. I went to IDHEC, the L'Institut des hautes etudes cinematographiques (the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies) in Paris.

I had some lucky breaks early in my career, and perhaps I took them for granted. I didn't realize it at the time, but I realize now that I was extremely lucky. The first was to be asked to start shooting documentaries in Latin America when I was 21. I became a one-man production unit with a journalist and spent a year shooting B&W documentaries for German TV and shot a lot of stills on the side.

When I came home, I printed up the stills and showed them to Kevin Brownlow who was making a movie which imagines Britain occupied by the Germans during WW2. It Happened Here, was my first break into movies; I was 22. After that, I had a visiting card, I had shot a movie. It was unheard of at the time to be a DoP of that age on a movie. The film industry was very hierarchical and it took a long time to climb the ladder. You were lucky to be Director of Photography by the time you were 45. I felt a mixture of resentment and curiosity around me about being so young and not having come up through the ranks. It was indeed a real lucky break.

I worked twice with Peter Watkins. He had already made The War Game, in 1965 I made Privilege in 1967 and, later on in 1969, Gladiators. Privilege had somewhat of a cult status, and it's the reason why George Lucas asked me to shoot Star Wars. At the time, I didn't know why he came to me, because I had never shot a movie with visual effects, but it seems that he had seen Privilege when he was a film student and was impressed.

I said to George, in my interview, Why not ask Geoffrey Unsworth, who had shot 2001: Space Odyssey. But he wasn't available, they said, and the studio recommended that he, a relatively inexperienced director should work with a DoP of greater experience. But Lucas came back to me for The Empire Strikes Back, which proved to be another amazingly lucky break. Another notable movie I shot around that time was The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1974.


Tim Curry in the Rocky Horror Picture Show Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers
Rocky Horror Picture Show and Dead Ringers. Twentieth Century Fox.

I'm pleased that some of the movies I've shot have become "cult" movies. It means that these movies have sunk into the unconsciousness of many people, who have enjoyed them in many ways or another. I'm proud of them. Being asked to shoot The Empire Strikes Back also changed my career. Up until then, I'd shot more modest films, and this movie took me into a different league. In 1988, I shot Dead Ringers for David Cronenberg and that was the beginning of a long relationship, over 23 years and 10 movies. It was a very fortunate meeting. Cronenberg's movies, like them or not, always have a strong character and are always very challenging. He doesn't repeat himself. For me, it is a very stimulating experience each time. There aren't many directors of his caliber and daring working today, and I consider myself very lucky to be shooting with him.

I have continued to work also with my still photographs for pleasure. For a while, I used to shoot only street photography -- photojournalist type photographs, which I took during my travels around the world. I stopped doing that about ten years ago, apart from shooting stills of my children. Over the last ten years, I've been shooting B&W nudes with, I hope, my own point of view, and I am assembling the work into a book.



Peter shot photojournalist type photographs a decade ago, which he took during his travels around the world.


Shooting stills is so different rom shooting movies. I think that it is actually harder to produce a good still than to shoot a movie. After all, we, the DoPs, have the drama, the music, the actors, all working together and hopefully producing a strong effect on the viewer and involving them in the course of a narrative. A photograph has to make a statement in one image, with no script and no music. That is, to me, a harder task.

Of course there are a huge number of images around today and I sometimes feel that we are almost drowning in images. Because there are so many of them around us. It means that to engage the attention of the viewer is ever harder. For me, making stills is a stimulating contrast to my "real job" as a DoP.






Title graphic: Director M. Night Shyamalan, left, and Director of Photography Peter Suschitzky in Costa Rica on the set of Columbia Pictures' "After Life," starring Will Smith and Jaden Smith. Photo by Frank Masi; SMPSP. © 2012 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Stills from "After Earth":

Jaden Smith on location in Costa Rica during production of Columbia Pictures' After Earth, also starring Will Smith. Photo by Alan Silfen.

Will Smith, left, and Jaden Smith in Columbia Pictures' After Earth. © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Will Smith, right, and Jaden Smith, left, in Columbia Pictures' After Earth. © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Jaden Smith stars in Columbia Pictures' After Earth, also starring Will Smith. © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Jaden Smith stars in Columbia Pictures' After Earth, also starring Will Smith. The locations in Costa Rica were in the jungle and in northern California were beneath a very dense canopy of trees in the redwood forests. Photo by Alan Silfen.




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