Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) shows Disneyland to Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). (Photo: François Duhamel) © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
When John Lee Hancock called about Saving Mr. Banks, John Schwartzman, ASC leapt at the opportunity. Although the film’s budget paled in comparison to Schwartzman’s previous assignment, The Amazing Spider-Man, it was a chance to shift gears and work on an adult drama with an old friend. “We’re very proud of the film,” says Schwartzman. “It’s a very small movie, but the story is compelling, and I think it’s some of my best work.”
The story is based on the fraught, real-life relationship between Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) and P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the Australian novelist who wrote the source material for what eventually became Mary Poppins. The story follows Disney as he cajoles and persuades the difficult Travers through a long and arduous creative process. The time period ranges from 1906 Australia to the 1961 opening of Disneyland in Orange County, California, and the Hollywood premiere of Mary Poppins in 1964. That film won five ACADEMY AWARDS® and earned an additional eight nominations, still a record for a Disney film. Mary Poppins also helped lay the groundwork for Disney’s long-term success in live-action filmmaking.
Schwartzman and Hancock chose to shoot in 35mm anamorphic format, as they had more than a decade ago on Hancock’s feature debut, The Rookie.
“Anamorphic is a beautiful way to shoot,” Schwartzman says. “When Gordon Willis (ASC) did The Paper Chase, he said that anamorphic is a very intimate format, and I’m a big believer in that. I don’t think it’s necessarily just a landscape format. I think it’s an actor’s format. You can shoot two actors in a medium close-up in the same frame, which you can’t do in 1.85. In the anamorphic frame, you can let things play — you don’t need to cut as much. It allows you to move the camera in a way that doesn’t force you into as much cutting coverage. You can develop really interesting moving masters that cover things in a very cinematic way. If it were up to me, I would shoot everything on 35mm anamorphic film.”
The lenses were PANAVISION G Series anamorphics, the same set Schwartzman had used on The Green Hornet. The Primes were augmented with ATW and ATZ anamorphic zooms.
The film stocks were KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213 and KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219. “I always use the same stock,” says Schwartzman. “I keep it simple. I use 200 tungsten for everything that I possibly can, and when I need the speed, I go to 5219.”
For the opening of Disneyland, the theme park was dressed using actual Autopia posters, Tomorrowland iconography, and other items that were pulled out of the archives. Another key setting, built on a soundstage, was the room where the brother team of Richard and Robert Sherman composed the now-classic Mary Poppins music. To recreate the premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, Schwartzman studied the voluminous archival footage.
“Across the street from Grauman’s, on scaffolding, were about 15 big-eye 10Ks that lit the courtyard and façade of the theater,” he says. “I literally just recreated what they did from the old photographs and footage. Since the movie is really more about the writing of the script than the making of the original film, that was the first time I felt I had full license to put movie lamps that were lighting the shot into the frame.
“This movie was so much fun every day,” he says. “It was a joy to work with these actors, and we were all allowed to create. Everybody really went for it, and did an amazing job.”
Currently, Schwartzman is in Belfast, where he is shooting Dracula Untold. Once again, the format is 35mm anamorphic film.
“There’s suddenly a resurgence of capturing on film,” he says. “Right now, there are 11 movies with budgets over $100 million shooting or prepping in London — and seven of them are on film. Film fails with elegance (in overexposure), and digital does not. I’m not anti-digital — we did The Amazing Spider-Man with digital cameras — but film allows me to shoot in a very organic and naturalistic way. I prefer to look through the eyepiece, rather than at a TV set. The eyepiece shows me what I’m going to see, as opposed to a monitor, which is a Rec 709 image.”
On Dracula Untold, Schwartzman insisted on film in part because of its ability to perform under difficult conditions. “Electronics and water don’t mix well,” he says. “On the location scout, we were standing in the pouring rain, and I said, ‘We need film cameras. We can throw them down on the sandbags in the mud and they work.’ You’re not going to run fiber-optic cable across this field. We can’t have a DIT tent on the hillside in the muck. On a 70-day schedule, it ain’t going to work. Framestore is handling the visual effects on Dracula Untold, and they were so relieved to find out that we were shooting film, because of the resolution. You can’t measure it in dots.
“A while back, I shot some comparison tests with every format and type of camera, including three digital cameras, and showed it to a range of filmmaking professionals,” says Schwartzman. “We processed the film photochemically, and we also scanned at 4K. Every person in the room said anamorphic looked the best. It wasn’t even close. I’m not talking about a little bit better — I’m talking better in every respect. The photochemical print made me realize why Christopher Nolan, Wally Pfister (ASC, BSC) and Janusz Kaminski don’t do a DI. I ran it for the studio without telling anybody what they were looking at. I told them to pick the one they liked the best, and in every single setup they picked the film. They didn’t know what they were looking at, but they knew there was something magical about it. The image quality off of a photochemical finish on film is still by far and away the gold standard. Nothing looks better. Until something comes along that is better, I prefer to shoot film.”