The Hunger Games is a sci-fi phenomenon set in a dystopian society that pits adolescent boys and girls in a battle to the death. Praised for its literary approach to plot and character, the tale was first brought to the screen by director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) and cinematographer Tom Stern, ASC, AFC.
Now, the second book in the series, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, has been translated for cinema. This time, the director is Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants, I Am Legend) and the cinematographer is Jo Willems, SBC, whose credits include the features Limitless and Hard Candy, television pilots like Touch and Awake, and many music videos for top artists such as Prince and Justin Timberlake.
Willems says that the filmmakers’ number one goal was to tell the story from a human perspective, with a timeless look that was neither too gritty nor too polished.
“The look was to be as naturalistic as possible,” he explains. “I wanted it to feel real and not embellished in any way, but still beautiful – not too modern or present. We kept a real simplicity in the lighting and the camera work for the most part. The interior lighting was mostly motivated by practical sources or windows. I rarely used any lights for the exteriors in the districts, where we created a cool, desaturated palette. We planned for the time of day that gave us the best contrast and direction of light, and planned as many overcast days as possible to give us a real wintery, bleak feel. If you make things too perfect, the audience gets a feeling of uneasiness and does not believe it because it starts to feel artificial.”
Willems and Lawrence chose 35mm film in anamorphic format as their origination medium. “Film was definitely the right choice for this project,” he says. “Film helped by giving the images some texture, which fit perfectly with my idea of not being too clinical and perfect. Film gave me that extra bit of soul and character – it goes places that digital does not go.”
A handheld approach allowed the operators to react to what the actors were doing, without making the movement too manic. “You let the actors play the scene and the camera finds it,” Willems notes. “The camera has a different energy that way.”
In interior situations, Willems shot KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219, and for most exteriors, he used KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207. In low-light jungle exterior situations, he sometimes went with the 5219, shooting uncorrected and adjusting the timing in the DI.
The competition at the heart of the story was covered with a different approach. Much of it was done in the 1.43:1 IMAX format, which uses 65mm film and a horizontal frame that is almost 10 times the area of a conventional 35mm film frame. The IMAX scenes were generally done on the 5207. A few scenes that were shot spherically to intercut better with the IMAX footage were done with KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213.
The IMAX scenes were Willems’ first experience shooting the big format. “It’s amazing to me,” he says. “We shot almost all of the IMAX scenes handheld, with a few Cablecam shots and some Steadicam. We still went for the big close-up. The conventional wisdom is that you have to shoot a little wider. People say that it’s a big landscape format. But Francis kept urging us to move in closer. In the end, he was right. Those shots look great. To me, it’s incredible when you look at people’s faces when you’re in that full close-up. You can feel every bead of sweat. You get so close to these characters, so intimate that you can really sense them, and feel as if you can almost touch them.
“I think the IMAX format works on a lot of different levels,” continues Willems. “Audiences have responded very well to this series of films, and I think it’s because there’s a very human aspect to them. In a way, the film is a character piece – your quality is the characters. We tried to keep the filmmaking very human, so you feel empathy, and you can transport yourself into the reality of their world – even though it’s sci-fi and set in the future.”
Willems shot almost all of the nighttime scenes of the “games” using day-for-night techniques. Day-for-night was a standard technique in the golden age of Hollywood, but is far less common today.
“There’s a whole section of the film that is set at night, and we shot that in a real jungle in Hawaii,” Willems recounts. “Shooting real nights in the jungle makes the filmmaking process less efficient. It would have added another couple of weeks to our schedule, and it would have looked a lot more artificial, like ‘movie night.’ I wanted to have a softer moonlight look, which would have been hard to achieve in dense jungle because there’s no space to hang large soft boxes off cranes. The light cannot get through the canopy. By shooting day-for-night, we can see deep into the jungle, and we didn’t have to light the entire jungle to accomplish that. Shooting day-for-night also fit in with our shooting ethos: fast, not inhibited by too much equipment, and flexible.”
The day-for-night was shot on the 5207 stock. Willems took out as much direct sun as possible with full grid “rags.” The grips pre-rigged pulleys to add flexibility. A few daylight balloons were floated to create soft cross-light or backlight or to get some light into the eyes of the actors. The balloons did double duty, also helping to cut out real sunlight. Nothing had to be rigged on stands or very high up in the canopy. Visual effects completed the illusion.
“By taking out the direct sun, we created a soft overall ambience that was pretty moody already since we were in the deep jungle,” says Willems. “It had a bit of a dusk feeling. I underexposed a little bit, but not so much that I couldn’t have the full control of the negative in the DI suite. It was all about getting the contrast ratios right. I took stills on set with a DSLR with a couple of stops of underexposure just to see how deep my shadows were going to be in the final image. Since we shot mostly under a canopy of dense trees, there was not a lot of need for NDs.”
The digital intermediate was done at EFilm with colorist Yvan Lucas. “Again, we kept things simple,” says Willems. “We mostly worked in primary colors, contrast and saturation. I never wanted the audience to see an over-stylized image. It still needed to work in our naturalistic style. For the day-for-night scenes, we desaturated the image and went for a slightly cool silver tone. I was really happy with the end result.”