by Mary Hardesty
Veteran Miniature model cinematographer Gary Waller is very aware that on commercial projects where parts of the visual image are manipulated, enhanced and then blended back together, the process will no doubt suffer a snafu of some sort. Says Waller, "Part of my job is to help solve technical problems and make the bad things go away, so I'm constantly reminded of the three principles of concept, design, and execution, which seem to define and predict the outcome of most projects."
According to Waller, the logistics of shooting simple exteriors on location in Las Vegas for a recent New York, New York Hotel and Casino commercial (in which The Statue of Liberty saunters down the strip to the new hotel) were "trying" at best.
"The major casinos don't really care much about the few thousand dollars they can make on a commercial shoot, and we wound up losing locations just minutes before rolling up in the camera car," Waller recalls. "Fortunately, I had my Hollywood contingent, which included gaffer Ken Holt and key grip Kirt Harding, to keep me alert and productive. Also, the Shotmaker [camera car] gave us enough mobility to run and gun and grab as much as we were allowed."
In order to distract viewers' eyes from the majestic Miss Liberty (portrayed by an actress clad in a latex suit) Waller and director Yariv Gaber tried to provide as many cutaways as possible. The cinematographer and his crew were constantly devising new angles and locations for the coverage shots of Vegas that were needed to lend credulity to the spot's premise."
"We wanted to suspend the mystery, as it were," explains Waller. "But, with only six and a half shootable hours in total darkness, every change impeded progress. You could smell daylight coming on each of the four nights we shot in Vegas."
"I tried as much as possible to keep in some sky to enhance the wide-open, flat skyline associated with Las Vegas," adds Waller, who believes that the Vegas location cries out for the use of anamorphic lenses. "It's so flat and spread out, so much not like Manhattan."
Along with the usual specific budgetary lock-down plates the crew had to create, Waller and Gaber decided to give the spot more of an edge by using as many moving shots as possible.
Says Waller, "This directly impacts the degree of complexity. Not only are you taking more time on the set to create something, but you are affecting the shot all the way down the line. It's a tough position. You must not only be able to work fast, but also to know when to take the time needed to enable the spot to sail through post."
At the start of this project, Waller commissioned an experiment with the new Kodak Vision 500T color negative film. As the project called for nighttime background plates of Las Vegas, it presented an ideal opportunity to see how well the blacks would hold up with the new stock while still maintaining the richness of Vegas' neon signage.
While Waller found the neon test shot by his assistant Renee Hedstrom to be "truly exceptional" in saturation, richness, and detail, and the 500T "impressive," the cameraman realized that for this spot, he did not want to be that deep into the lens. "I wanted to smear some of the colored practical light in the background, so I went with less depth of field."
Once the crew returned from the desert and the edit was assembled, Waller could start the studio portion of the project. Since the actual New York, New York hotel was not completed during the production, a miniature was built by Vision Crew Unlimited, a new visual effects studio established by three former staff members of Boss Films.
For several weeks prior to production, Holt and Waller had been deciding on what lighting approach to take on both the miniature hotel and Miss Liberty.
To add scale to the Liberty model, Waller ultimately used a very large silked source very close to it. "The color, texture, and sheen of a costume all share a part in the lighting scheme," notes Waller. "Photographing elements for compositing and digital manipulation is different than shooting a regular scene, and the 93 has always been consistent in this regard. Every gradation falls where you expect it to. Being able to visualize the effects element at this stage, knowing it will be edited on a Flame or Henry, is very reminiscent to me of holding up an old black-and-white negative and figuring out by eye how much exposure is needed to get a nice print."
Unfortunately, a limited budget led the producers to decide against adding patina or aging the miniature resort in any way. "when the wonderful guys at Vision Crew-Evan, Jon, and Doug-are allowed to do what they do best, their aging, painting, and detailing adds tremendous scale, not to mention believability," stresses Waller, who used a Panastar for the high speed miniature work. "The lighting I add then becomes butter, rather than ice. If we had had more time, I would have put a bluescreen behind the miniature to give a better matte when they added the fireworks in post."
There was time, however, to install hundreds of small lights behind the hotel's windows to create a lived-in feeling. "Vision Crew's Doug Miller, who was in charge of the model, had placed photocopied images of furniture in some of the 5,000 windows, and we then glue-gunned white Christmas lights behind the Plexiglas windows and used Kino Flos to create a moonlit night feel."
With more than a dozen miniature projects under his belt, including Batman Returns, Waller knew how important it was to do a test and get the agency to sign off on it before he started going for takes. "Once we got back in the edit bay and everyone saw the footage, the client and the agency calmed down," he reports. "The only thing we changed when we went to shoot was a camera move, which meant that I had to throw out the smoke we had planned to use. I find smoke to be very helpful in creating a realistic depth of field and adding atmosphere around a miniature."
During the four days of shooting on Hollywood National Stages, Waller and gaffer Holt would run back and forth between the Liberty set and the miniature hotel, which was built at 1/4"=1" scale. The cameraman was somewhat rushed on his model work, having spent about three hours shooting the hotel during each of the first three days, and about five hours shooting it on the final day. Noting the difference between theatrical and commercial schedules, he says, "On a feature, I would have about three days to light and shoot a similarly sized model."