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Cinematographer flies high with ‘Peter Pan’

Melding traditional camera work with digital effects for a magical result
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

One viewing of Universal Pictures’ Christmas Day release “Peter Pan” and it’s no wonder that people are asking, “Whose shot is it anyway?”

With the emergence of more and more computer-generated imagery in live-action films, the work of cinematographers, production designers and visual effects supervisors has all been thrown into a complex mix.

“It’s getting harder and harder for the lay audience to know where basic photography finishes and where effects take over,” cinematographer Donald McAlpine says. “I’ve had people come up and ask me how such-and-such a scene was lit in a film, and I say, ‘Well, there was never any physical lighting involved; that was a computer-generated set.”’

Seamlessness is a production value most visual effects films only aspire to. But in director P.J. Hogan’s “Peter Pan,” McAlpine’s photography is melded with Richard Ford’s detailed production design and Industrial Light + Magic’s spotless effects. As a result, the production components add up to a lush storybook spectacle.

To enhance that practical and magical meld, McAlpine developed his own homespun on-set preview system.

Using a Canon EOS-1Ds digital still camera, an Apple G4 laptop, an Apple Cinema Display and a combination of iPhoto and Adobe Photoshop, he was able to patent a look for the film on location that was adhered to “for a good 90% of the film” and which ultimately served as a road map for ILM visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar.

“It was great to get the kids on the monitor; they all loved seeing themselves,” he says. “But the real advantage was that it all related back to the visual effects people. We used the (still) images to test bluescreens and make lighting judgments for postproduction. Normally we would have taken two to three hours lighting the bluescreen using endless cranes. This way we saved a fortune.”

Despite the brilliant look of the film’s digital backgrounds, what lingers in the foreground are sparkling portrayals of classic characters by earnest children actors.

McAlpine and his crew’s main responsibility was to be in the right place at the right time in order to capture the work of the somewhat unpredictable and untrained kid actors.

“P.J. would work with the children maybe two hours and then expect us immediately, and I mean immediately,” McAlpine says. “He’d turn around and say, ‘Roll,’ and we had to be there.”

Such on-the-spot readiness meant the camera crew chewed through 2 million feet of film. Keep in mind that the average Hollywood production shoots 250,000 feet, while a blown-out actioner can use as much as 1 million feet.

“The challenges to get this right were immense,” he says. “I realized from Day 1 that the input I had into the film potentially was as great as any film I’ve ever worked on. There were no new skills I applied; I just had to apply all my skills in a pretty superb way.”

Following 180 days of shooting on eight stages in Australia that were set up with mostly 20K lights, using a phenomenal number of colored gels, and after viewing 1.6 million feet of dailies, then spending 15 days of digital intermediate timing at EFilm, McAlpine seems thrilled that he trusted his initial instinct about “Peter Pan.”

“After I read the script,” he says, “I realized that I wasn’t going to let any other cinematographer get within a mile of this.”