Super 16 mm Withstands the Test of Time

Published in Filmmaker Magazine

In 1982, Peter Greenaway explored a new frontier when he teamed up with cinematographer Curtis Clark, ASC on the production of The Draughtsman's Contract. It was produced in the Super 16 format, which was invented and pioneered during the 1970s by Swedish cameraman Rune Ericson. Greenaway scripted and directed that now classic film about the wife of a wealthy landowner who hires an artist to create 12 drawings of their country estate.

Zeitgeist Films Ltd. (www.zeitgeistfilms.com) in New York is handling a 25th anniversary re-release of The Draughtsman's Contract in the United States, with screenings scheduled for select cities. Zeitgeist will also release a DVD with additional content provided by the British Film Institute in December 2007. Following are Clark's memories of making the film in Super 16 mm, which at the time was considered experimental:

Draughtsman's Contract
A scene from "The Draughtsman's Contract," shot by DP Curtis Clark, ASC. Photo courtesy of British Film Institute

QUESTION: How did you get the opportunity to shoot The Draughtsman's Contract?
CLARK: I was looking into the possibilities of shooting documentaries in Super 16 format. It is a more robust format than standard 16 mm film because it uses the edges of the frame to get a larger image area and a wider aspect ratio. A main limitation was that there weren't any film labs committed to processing both the film and making optical blow-ups to 35 mm format. I believed that it was important to have the consistency of working under one facility's roof. At that time, I was doing a lot of documentary work at a lab where Paul Collard worked. He became the technical manager for Kay Labs. It was a major independent lab. Paul was intrigued with the possibilities of providing Super 16 film lab services from processing through the optical blow-up. The introduction of the Aaton LTR Super 16 camera was a catalyst. Prior to that, you had to modify the (Éclair) NPR 16 mm camera in order to shoot films in Super 16 format. Kay Labs invested in designing and testing the equipment needed for making 35 mm optical blow-ups from films produced in Super 16 format. They tested the use of color reversal internegative (CRI). I recall that everyone was very nervous about that because it was difficult for labs to maintain consistent quality control. CRI was a very complex process but it enabled you to get some remarkable results. I met Peter Greenaway at the British Film Institute around that time. He was intrigued by my experiments with Super 16 film.

QUESTION: Do you recall what caught his attention?
CLARK: He liked the idea of being able to use a smaller profile camera than 35 mm in a feature film environment with enhanced image quality compared to traditional 16 mm film. One day Peter handed me a script. He asked me to read it and tell him what I thought. It was his script for The Draughtsman's Contract.

QUESTION: What do you recall about your first impression?
CLARK: I thought it had an amazing, dramatic narrative structure. The story takes place during the 1690s on a country estate, where the wife of a wealthy landowner hires a young artist to create 12 drawings of the property. I felt it was a literary accomplishment with tremendous filmic potential. When Peter asked me if I was interested in shooting it, I said yes before he finished his sentence. After that exchange, it became a matter of deciding how we were going to approach shooting the film.

QUESTION: At what point did the two of you consider shooting in Super 16 format?
CLARK: Right from the start, I thought that there were potential major advantages in making the Super 16 format work for The Draughtsman's Contract. Peter really wanted to make it look like we shot in daylight and candlelight. That presented serious challenges concerning the need to record considerable depth of field while shooting at low light levels. He also envisioned tableau scenes that emulated the feeling of a Caravaggio painting. Peter didn't want a hint of light that didn't look like it was generated by the sun, candles and oil lamps. I knew that was going to be a challenge. The color negative film we used was rated for 100-speed in tungsten light, and it didn't offer much depth of field. It was also unforgiving. If you underexposed it, you got grain. I knew we would never be able to shoot everything in candlelight, but I had to find ways to create that illusion. That is when I began thinking that the Super 16 format could help give us an edge in getting the depth of field that Peter wanted.

QUESTION: How was that idea translated into the reality of producing the film?
CLARK: The Draughtsman's Contract was produced by the British Film Institute and Channel Four Films in England. When the film was green-lit, they and Peter agreed to make the time and resources available to do proper testing with the support of Kay Labs.

QUESTION: What do you recall about the general state of mind at that point?
CLARK: I won't kid you. We were exploring a new frontier. There were some realistic concerns. There were obvious cost savings attached to shooting in Super 16 format, but this was probably the most expensive film that the British Film Institute had produced at that point in its history. It was a serious drama with a planned cinema release. They didn't want to leave anything to chance or do anything that might compromise production values. We had to prove that we could produce it in Super 16 format without compromising either production values or the dramatic intentions for the story.

QUESTION: How about your own state of mind?
CLARK: I was intrigued by the challenge and was determined to see if we could accomplish everything that we wanted without compromising. I owned an Aaton LTR camera and a brand new Cooke 10.4-52 mm zoom lens, which was the state of the art in terms of image quality. I augmented it with a set of Zeiss Superspeed prime lenses that I hand selected from a rental house. I made absolutely certain that the camera was calibrated to the finest tolerances, and that the lenses had matching optical qualities.

QUESTION: We don't want to assume anything. Tell us why that was important?
CLARK: I could tell from reading the script that we would be using the camera in situations where we would want flexibility in focal lengths. I wanted to use the zoom as a variable focal length prime lens in order to give Peter the compositions he wanted with more depth of field. A 25 mm lens in Super 16 format is the equivalent of a 50 mm lens in 35 mm format in terms of what it covers. It also inherently offers more depth of field.

QUESTION: How did that work in reality?
CLARK: There were times when I used the variable focus zoom as a 9.5 mm lens. That gave us just enough depth of field for the way we blocked and staged scenes. We wouldn't have had that depth of field with an 18.5 mm lens in 35 mm format.

QUESTION: Was any consideration given to shooting in black and white?
CLARK: There were films being produced in black-and-white format in 1982, but this story demanded color. Our visual references for The Draughtsman's Contract were paintings by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer and other Renaissance artists. We felt that it was essential for our images to have that painterly quality. The tableaus and compositions that we used were critical to the aesthetic that Peter wanted to pursue. It had to be color but it was a limited palette. Just because you produce a film in color doesn't mean that it has to be colorful. We shot night scenes largely in flickering candlelight. There was just a little supplemental lighting from small tungsten lamps. Each lamp had a dimmer control, which allowed us to match the exact color temperature of the candlelight. That was the aesthetic Peter wanted but the color temperature of candlelight is extremely warm. When it reflected off of normal flesh tones it created a reddish or ruddy look that wasn't possible to control with traditional color grading at a film lab.

QUESTION: What film or films were you using?
CLARK: We shot everything on Kodak 7247 color negative film that had a 100-speed exposure index. There was a 400-speed film available, but it was far too grainy for the consistent look that we wanted. If we had used the 400-speed film at night, or in other darker scenes, the difference in grain structure would have drawn attention to itself.

QUESTION: What did you do?
CLARK: We experimented with using makeup to deal with the reddish flesh tones that we got when exposing images in candlelight. We found a white makeup that worked with the flesh tones of our actors. That allowed us to shoot in candlelight with normal looking flesh tones. Basically, I needed to amplify the candlelight a bit for exposure, and at the same time mitigate the reddish reflection on faces, so they look natural.

QUESTION: Did you discover anything else during testing that was useful?
CLARK: We used makeup that gave female skin tones a porcelain quality in keeping with the period. Women in England during the 17th century used umbrellas to shield them from sunlight, because pale skin tones were in vogue. It was probably also the makeup they used. We needed enough light to get the right exposures, and the right colors for the environment, flesh tones and textures. Our objective was to make sure that when the film was released in 35 mm format, no one would have any idea that we shot it in Super 16. We were simply using what we thought were the appropriate tools to achieve the results we wanted. There were some cost savings, but that wasn't our objective.

QUESTION: Was The Draughtsman's Contract produced at locations or on stages?
CLARK: It was produced at various locations in Kent, England, including many scenes at a period country house in Groombridge Place. Our schedule required that we find a location where we had flexibility to shoot inside or outside depending on the weather. The house they found, after rigorous scouting, met Peter's requirements for historic authenticity with the right backgrounds for exteriors.

Draughtsman's Contract
A scene from "The Draughtsman's Contract," shot by DP Curtis Clark, ASC. Photo courtesy of British Film Institute

QUESTION: Tell us about the costume design.
CLARK: The costumes were all kind of pale, monochromatic colors. The draughtsman wore black clothes and the others wore cream-colored, white clothing. There weren't a lot of costume changes, but there were wigs and makeup that had to be applied. That took some time. The main variables were whether we were shooting interior or exterior scenes in night or day, because that affected the makeup and how we lit for the right skin tones.

QUESTION: What did you do about lighting other than candles and lanterns?
CLARK: We mainly lit day interior scenes with a few HMI outside of windows. There were also a couple of small HMI soft lights inside, but the source of light was always motivated by what came from outside the windows. Night interiors were a mixture of actual candles and lanterns that you see in the shots, augmented by a few very small and lightweight soft lights that I had rigged on extension arms that were wooden beams attached to C stands. The lamps had tungsten bulbs and individual dimmer controls that were very accurate. That allowed me to bring the voltage down until the color temperature of the tungsten light matched the candles. The slightest mismatch would have been obvious. It wouldn't have looked or felt right.

QUESTION: Can you give us an example of how the diffusers were used?
CLARK: There were several scenes at night where the camera tracked up and down the dinner table with the dialogue, focusing on different characters. The candles on the table actually had transparent diffusers on them that served a double purpose. We had dinner scenes outside, where the wind might have been blowing. The diffusers shielded the candles, so the wind wouldn't blow them out. They also diffused the light.

QUESTION: What about moonlight in night exteriors?
CLARK: We had some night scenes where we used as many as three 2.5 HMIs to create the illusion of cool moonlight that blended with the warmer candle and lantern lights.

QUESTION: How much time did you have for live-action photography?
CLARK: We shot the whole film in 38 days and nights.

QUESTION: There was no video village in those days, so where were you and Peter?
CLARK: I was on the camera all the time and Peter was concentrating on the actors. He wanted the delivery of dialogue to be faithfully accurate, while he was choreographing blocking and the performances. There were many long takes with substantial amounts of dialogue. We could shoot for up to 10 minutes with a 400-foot roll of film without changing magazines. We had many takes in excess of five to six minutes. That meant I couldn't get two takes on one roll. I had to reload after one of those takes.

QUESTION: Were you shooting with a single or multiple cameras?
CLARK: We only had my one camera and one assistant cameraman. We were the crew. There was no backup camera, but there was never a problem or a moment lost. The Super 16 format also gave us a logistical advantage, because we didn't have a lot of heavy gear to haul around. There was a certain elegance to working that way.

QUESTION: Did Peter block and have marks for the actors or was it more spontaneous?
CLARK: Peter was very precise in blocking and laying down marks for the actors. There was no traditional coverage of master and close-up shots. The film mainly consists of single shots, except for montages that link sequences and scenes together. There are many important scenes that were filmed in one take, or by choosing a particular take during editing. There wasn't a lot of, 'Let's use the first part of take one and the second part of take seven, and put them together.'

QUESTION: How did you deal with the draughtsman's drawings?
CLARK: The draughtsman had a device that he used to draw exactly what he saw in front of him with almost architectural accuracy. The audience sees his drawings being made progressively throughout the film.

QUESTION: Were you actually filming the drawings that the draughtsman was making?
CLARK: No. All the finished drawings that you see, particularly the close-ups, were filmed after the completion of principal photography. Peter sketched some partial drawings that were used in wider shots, while the draughtsman appeared to be drawing.

QUESTION: Was anything else done to help establish the period?
CLARK: The principal location was a big part of establishing the period. There is a garden with formal hedgerows and flowers that we have seen in period paintings. It was important to find that at one location, which also had a house with believable interiors. That was a key to producing this film with the budget and schedule we had.

QUESTION: Was the camera static or moving or both?
CLARK: The camera was mainly static on a tripod with some tracking shots on a dolly during dinner scenes, and up and down the hedgerow in scenes where the actors are walking, both in daylight and with lanterns at night.

QUESTION: Was Peter a one-take or 20-take director, or was it something in-between?
CLARK: The answer to that question is that he knew when he got what he wanted, and he was comfortable in making that decision without video assist. The questions he had for me were whether the camera was where he wanted it to be during tracking shots in dialogue exchanges at the dinner table. He wanted the audience to see someone talking and someone else responding or reacting at the right moments. The camera movement had to be precise, but I was the only one who actually saw what we were shooting.

QUESTION: Did you get dailies?
CLARK: We had film dailies, but there was no way to project them because we didn't have a Super 16 projector. We saw dailies on a Super 16 Steenbeck editing machine six days a week. Every Sunday, I drove about 35 miles to London with the dailies and sound tracks for that week. I looked at everything that we had shot during the week projected in Super 16 format with synchronized sound in a theater. There were no technical concerns, because I trusted the dailies timer at the lab. I wanted to see the film projected on the big screen for aesthetic reasons.

QUESTION: It sounds like this was a very close collaborative process.
CLARK: It was a very intimate collaboration with everyone on the same page. Peter had definite ideas of what he wanted, but he was totally open to suggestions about how to accomplish it. Peter would say things like, 'Surprise me' and 'Delight me.' The actors were available all the time, regardless of whether their scenes were scheduled to be shot that day. If Peter decided that the morning light was perfect to shoot an exterior scene, he could change the schedule without any consequences, because he knew that the actors would be ready and willing whenever he needed them.

QUESTION: Was there any special treatment used in processing or printing the film?
CLARK: The special treatment was in how it was lit to create a patina with a kind of period veneer that had a painterly quality. We didn't do any manipulation in postproduction. We graded the film during timing in the lab to get the right color balance, but there wasn't any special process to give it a period feeling.

QUESTION: We have read the reviews, and verified that the critics loved The Draughtsman's Contract. That must have been an exhilarating experience.
CLARK: I had never done anything like that before, so I really didn't know what to expect. It was initially released in one theater in London. The lines wrapped twice around the block every day, and every performance was sold out. The number of screens was significantly expanded after the original release. It played for one year continuously in England, which is pretty extraordinary in itself, and it got a major art house release in the United States. Remember that was a different time with a larger art house market. Honestly, I was surprised that it made that kind of impact, but I had a very strong belief in The Draughtsman's Contract from the beginning. We could see that the performances were remarkable while we were making the film. None of the reviews I read mentioned that we shot it in Super 16 format. It was definitely an unconventional approach to narrative filmmaking, but I believe that the audience connected with it.

QUESTION: How did The Draughtsman's Contract affect your career?
CLARK: Basically, The Draughtsman's Contract launched my career in narrative films. In 1984, Louis Malle offered me an opportunity to shoot Alamo Bay in the United States. I moved back to the states shortly afterwards, and continued my career there.

QUESTION: Would you do anything differently today?
CLARK: Everything about that film is the result of how we did it. If you changed the way it was done, you would change the results. I wouldn't want to do that.