ONFILM Interview: Tobias Schliessler, ASC

Published on website: July 01, 2011
Categories: ONFILM
Tobias Schliessler, ASC - Photo by D. Kirkland

"I started taking still pictures when I was 11 or 12 years old. I had a little lab for black-and-white photography. There was something about handling the camera and moving it to find the right places for framing and focusing shots that came natural. I began my career shooting documentaries. That experience taught me how to use light and make fast decisions. You have to learn to trust your eyes and instincts. ... Watching a great movie is like reading a great book. It can open your mind to things that you wouldn't otherwise experience. Collaboration is one of the things I enjoy most about filmmaking. Every film is a team effort with the director and everyone on my crew, including operators, assistants, the gaffer and grips."

Tobias Schliessler, ASC has earned an eclectic range of credits, including documentaries, music videos and commercials, in addition to such narrative films as Bait, The Rundown, Friday Night Lights, Dreamgirls, Hancock and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]

A Conversation with Tobias Schliessler, ASC
by Bob Fisher

QUESTION: Tell us where you were born and raised?

SCHLIESSLER: I was born and raised in Baden-Baden, Germany.

QUESTION: What did your parents do?

SCHLIESSLER: My father was one of the best known mountain climbers in Germany in his time. He did expeditions around the world and shot documentaries about them. He started in 35 mm format and switched to 16 mm, because the camera was more compact, more light weight, and the films improved. My mother's side of the family was in the cosmetics business. Looking back, that was also part of my education as a filmmaker.

QUESTION: Were you a movie fan in your youth?

SCHLIESSLER: I was fascinated by movies, but unfortunately, there was only one theater in the small town where we lived. They only had one or two new movies a month, but I always liked films. We saw very few American films. Later, I lived next to a television station where I watched them make their own movies. I was a fan of Fassbinder's films. Michael Ballhaus (ASC) shot many of them. Vittorio Storaro's cinematography (ASC, AIC) on The Conformist also inspired me. By the time I was 15, I knew I wanted to work in the movie business as a cinematographer.

QUESTION: There are many roles in moviemaking, including writing, directing, producing and editing. Why did you want to be cinematographer?

SCHLIESSLER: I started taking still pictures when I was 11 or 12 years old. I had a little lab for black-and-white photography. There was something about handling the camera and moving it to find the right places for shots, framing and focusing that kind of came naturally. When I was in film school, I started shooting a lot of films for other students.

QUESTION: Where did you go to film school?

SCHLIESSLER: At Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. My parents had moved to Vancouver. I had done a little work as an assistant on documentaries and ski movies with my father, but I wanted to get into dramatic filmmaking, and the school had a good program. I really enjoyed the camaraderie between the faculty and other students, and learning about film history. We were required to study everything, including editing and sound. That was a great help later in my career. We had 20 to 25 students in my class. We worked, experimented, hung out and watched movies together. I'm still in contact with a lot of them. After graduation, I got my first job shooting a documentary for the National Film Board. Charles Wilkinson, one of my fellow students, directed it.

QUESTION: What was it called and what was it about?

SCHLIESSLER: It was called Tiers: A Story of the Penitentiary. It was a 20-minute documentary about a maximum security prison that was closed after a riot. We filmed it in the empty prison with narrations by prisoners who had great stories.

QUESTION: What were the next steps on your career path?

SCHLIESSLER: I bought a camera and started shooting documentaries and music videos, mainly with directors whom I met at school. MTV definitely changed the way people look at movies. After a while, I got opportunities to shoot independent movies in Canada. By the late 1980s, there were a lot of television movies being produced in Canada. I also began shooting commercials, which gave me opportunities to experiment, work with different directors and build my reel.

QUESTION: Did you work with directors on commercials and later on movies?  

SCHLIESSLER: Yes. For example, I worked on a couple of commercials with Antoine Fuqua. Later, I shot the movie Bait which he directed. I also shot a couple commercials for Tony Scott. Last year, I shot The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 with him.

QUESTION: When and why did you move from Canada to Los Angeles?

SCHLIESSLER: I worked on Lighthouse, a small, independent film that was directed by Paul Tucker in Vancouver. In 1991, when he produced a television movie called Duplicates in Portland, Oregon, he asked me to shoot it. That led to opportunities for me to shoot a number of other television films.

QUESTION: How did shooting that first film in the United States affect your career?  

SCHLIESSLER: For the next five or six years, I went back and forth from Canada to the U.S. mainly shooting television movies and independent films. I was also shooting commercials, and learning how to tell stories with images in 30 seconds. I moved to Los Angeles in 1997 after I got deeper into the commercial world.

QUESTION: If you were to look back, was the use of the telecine during the postproduction of music videos and commercials a preview of DI timing of movies today?  

SCHLIESSLER: Yes. The telecine and postproduction of commercials was a forerunner of manipulating images in DI.

QUESTION: Would you share some memories about some of your recent films?

SCHLIESSLER: Friday Night Lights is one of my favorite movies. The story is about a high school football team in a Texas town. I wouldn't describe it as beautiful cinematography, because the story didn't call for beautiful images, but I think our camerawork was right for telling that story.

QUESTION: How about Dreamgirls, a story about three young girls from Detroit who become a very successful song and dance group?  

SCHLIESSLER: That was my second film with (director) Bill Condon. Our first film was Candyman (in 1995). I started getting excited when I read the first page of the script. It was a rare opportunity to shoot a musical. It was also a period film with interesting characters who are coping with conflicts and drama. The story opens in Detroit, where The Dreamettes begin their careers as background singers for a rock-and-roll performer. It has a happy ending in modern times where they are stars performing in big theaters in Los Angeles. There were about a dozen performance scenes that were shot in theaters. I was collaborating with Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, two legends of the Broadway stage. I learned a lot by watching them work and talking with them.

QUESTION: Could you share some more memories about lighting that film?

SCHLIESSLER: The dancers' costumes had different colors and textures that were like silent dialogue. After I lit and shot tests with both the costume designer and the makeup person, Bill Condon and I agreed on a visual arc. The lighting and camera movement was subtly rough and a little raw when The Dreamettes were getting started in Detroit. We had questions about how raw it should be…after all it was a musical. As they began to succeed, the lighting and camera movement became more sophisticated and natural.

QUESTION: How did you know how raw lighting in the early scenes should be, and how sophisticated it should be to look and feel natural?  

SCHLIESSLER: You have to learn to trust your eyes and instincts.

QUESTION: What was your first project where you did a D.I. ?

SCHLIESSLER: The first D.I. I did was on The Rundown in 2003. The story was set in the Amazon region in South America. We shot it on stages and locations in Hawaii in Super 35 film format. The weather was constantly changing from cloudy skies to bright sunlight. We used D.I. timing to match colors and contrast for a consistent look.

QUESTION: What are your thoughts on the international appeal of movies?

SCHLIESSLER: Watching a great movie is like reading a great book. It can open your mind to things that you wouldn't otherwise experience.

QUESTION: Do you think that your experience shooting documentaries early in your career affects how you think and work as a cinematographer on fiction films?  

SCHLIESSLER: I think that experience has helped a lot, because you are generally limited in lighting and equipment when you shoot a documentary. They taught me how to use available light and make it look interesting, and how to make fast decisions about where I am going to put the camera, move it and frame images that are right for the story.

QUESTION: A cinematographer has to work with so many people - your crews, the director, production designer, and so many other people. How do you feel about that?  

SCHLIESSLER: Collaboration is one of the things I enjoy the most about filmmaking. Every film is a team effort, including everyone on my crew, the gaffer, grips, operator and assistants, in addition to the director and so many other people. At the end of the day, when you are looking at dailies, you can see how everyone contributed.

QUESTION: This is a totally unfair question, but what do you suppose you might have done with your life if you didn't become a filmmaker?  

SCHLIESSLER: You are right. That's an unfair question. I can't imagine doing anything else, but I do love architecture. I have renovated a couple of houses, and enjoyed working with the architects and contractors, deciding where windows and lights should be and the shapes of things. I have every light in my house on a dimmer; when I come home at night I usually spend half an hour lighting the house for the mood that I am in. I also still enjoy still photography.

QUESTION: You shot Hancock after Dreamgirls. That film got great reviews and an array of awards for Will Smith. Then, you went on to shoot an absolutely totally different type of film, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, which was a remake of a classic film that Owen Roizman, ASC shot in collaboration with Joseph Sargent in 1974. How did you happen to shoot that film, and what were your initial thoughts?

SCHLIESSLER: As I mentioned before, I have worked with Tony Scott on a number of commercials. He is an incredibly visual and hardworking director and an amazing human being. Tony Scott thought about using digital cameras because of the lighting situations we were going to encounter in the subways. We shot a test with the popular digital cameras next to a film camera and timed the images in D.I. It was clear that film was superior in both the flexibility it gave us and the look. It wasn't part of the test, but I believe I can still shoot faster with a film camera, because I'm not attached to a computer by cables, and I know exactly what my film stocks will do, including the latitude it offers.

QUESTION: Can you give us an example of Tony Scott being a visual, hardworking director?

SCHLIESSLER: You have to be on top of the game when you are working with Tony. He knows what he wants from every shot. We were covering scenes with four cameras at 360-degree angles. They were all on dollies; there was no room for mistakes.

QUESTION: Were you shooting on real trains or on sets or both?

SCHLIESSLER: We were shooting on a real train, in a subway tunnel and on sets.

QUESTION: When you were preparing to shoot this movie, did you go back and look at the original movie that was shot by Owen Roizman?

SCHLIESSLER: I watched it a couple of times. In one of my first meetings with Tony he said it didn't have to be the same visual style as the original film, which was produced with anamorphic lenses 34 years ago. We decided that a widescreen format was right, but to shoot it in Super 35 format with a D.I. finish.

QUESTION: In addition to watching the original film, what other visual references were used during preproduction?

SCHLIESSLER: They had already started preproduction when I came onboard. Tony knew the look he wanted. He had a very clear idea of the color palette and the feelings that he wanted to evoke. It was up to me to catch up with him. In addition to talking about the visual style he wanted, Tony had a lot of reference pictures that he pulled from still photography books, other old photographs and shots taken by the location scouts.

QUESTION: Is The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 set in the same period as the original film?

SCHLIESSLER: No. This story is happening today. In the original film, four hijackers code-named Blue, Green, Grey and Brown highjacked a train and demanded a million dollar ransom. Walter Matthau played a veteran transit cop who negotiated with them and also with City Hall. There are some different twists in the new script: One of the highjackers is a stockbroker who got caught pulling a shady deal, and they ask for a $10 million ransom. Denzel Washington plays the negotiator for the Transit Authority and John Travolta plays the main villain. There are some action scenes, including the money run where the ransom is being driven to the bad guys. The ending is different than the original film as well.

QUESTION: About how much of the story takes place on the train?

SCHLIESSLER: About half of the movie takes place on the train.

QUESTION: You mentioned a test comparing different digital cameras to film. What negative stock did you use during that test?

SCHLIESSLER: The (KODAK VISION3 500T) 5219 film, which is amazing. We shot the test in the extreme situations that we would have on the train with bright practical lights and areas with dark shadows. We had about two more stops of latitude in both the highlights and shadows with the film. It saw details the way our eyes do.

QUESTION: Were you underexposing the negative?

SCHLIESSLER: No, it wasn't necessary.

QUESTION: Were you filming scenes in real environments?  

SCHLIESSLER: Yes. The city of New York and the Metropolitan Transit Authority couldn't have been more cooperative. We shot on a real train and in a subway station and tunnel. They also shut down the lower level of the Manhattan Street Bridge over a weekend.

QUESTION: Was everything shot with the 5219 negative?

SCHLIESSLER: Everything except for the money run scene where they are driving through city streets with extremely bright sunlight coming through spaces between buildings and dark shadows created by skyscrapers. It made sense to shoot that scene with the (KODAK VISION2 250D) 5205 film.

QUESTION: What did you film on stages?

SCHLIESSLER: Scenes in the MTA office and on a train car where we filmed most of the dialogue.

QUESTION: Why were you covering scenes with four cameras?

SCHLIESSLER: We blocked scenes with Tony and positioned the four cameras to cover the action from different angles. He was watching the monitors and talking to the camera operators through headphones, telling them to go tighter, wider, left and right. We got 90 percent of our coverage with one lighting and camera setup. The actors appreciated that because they didn't have to wait for us to re-set the lighting for different angles.

QUESTION: How did you light with four cameras at different angles?

SCHLIESSLER: We used top or bottom light depending on the scene, so it was consistent for all four cameras. I also used a little eye light here and there.

QUESTION: Where did the eye light come from?

SCHLIESSLER: I used a small Kino tube light whenever I could to put the reflection of a light in an actor's eyes when that was appropriate for a scene.

QUESTION: How did you position four cameras for train scenes?

SCHLIESSLER: When we were on the stage, we had one camera on a dolly outside the windows, two cameras inside and the fourth on a dolly. We built a 360-degree dolly track which let us go through the back door of the train and keep the camera tracking around the car, shooting through windows. I had two other cameras covering the scene from either side of the train. We had a long lens mounted on the fourth camera which was usually used for extreme close-ups. Tony was in the video village with four monitors, talking to the operators and assistants. It was amazing how the operators hid themselves and the cameras.

QUESTION: Where was the front-end lab work and dailies done?

SCHLIESSLER: The lab was Technicolor, and Company3 provided HD dailies.

QUESTION: Are you are fan of HD or DVD dailies?

SCHLIESSLER: It depends on the project. There is something magical about watching film dailies projected on a big screen with the director and members of your crew.

QUESTION: Do film students and new filmmakers ask you for advice?  

SCHLIESSLER: I get asked a lot of questions by students and newer filmmakers. I always try to help. I had a great thank you phone call from Torry Tukuafu who told me that he had moved up from assistant cameraman to operator. I met Torry while we were shooting The Rundown in Hawaii. The assistant director was looking for a stand-in for one of our actors. They put an ad in the local newspaper. I walked into the production office a few days later, and the AD asked me to look around and see if anyone looked right. I saw one guy who stood out. He was a perfect match for the actor, including being the right height and having the right skin tones. It was Torry. He had never been on a film set before, but he loved movies and became fascinated with cinematography. Torry bought and read every book that he could find about cinematography, and got really interested. When he wasn't standing in, he was helping my assistants by schlepping cases around for them. When production moved to Los Angeles, we took him with us. That was the beginning of his career in the film industry.