Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a pivotal movie for the young Larry Fong. The movie stayed with him because it featured an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances, unlike fantasy epics like Star Wars that influenced many future filmmakers of his generation. “It was one of the few times where I felt really transported to that place,” Fong recalls.
Fong grew up to become a talented cinematographer. His latest assignment is director-writer J.J. Abrams’ Super 8. The film is executive produced by Close Encounters director Steven Spielberg. “Super 8 is clearly a nod to those science-fiction films of the 1970s,” says Fong. “It was an opportunity for me to try and emulate that feel, and that tone.”
Director/writer/producer J.J. Abrams on the set of SUPER 8, from Paramount Pictures. Photo credit: François Duhamel
Left to right: Zach Mills plays Preston, Elle Fanning plays Alice Dainard, Riley Griffiths plays Charles, Ryan Lee plays Cary, Joel Courtney plays Joe Lamb, and Gabriel Basso plays Martin in SUPER 8, from Paramount Pictures. Photo credit: François Duhamel
Left to right: Ron Eldard plays Louis Dainard and Kyle Chandler plays Jackson Lamb in SUPER 8, from Paramount Pictures. Photo credit: François Duhamel.
Left to right: Joel Courtney plays Joe Lamb and Ryan Lee plays Cary in SUPER 8, from Paramount Pictures. Photo credit: François Duhamel
Close Encounters was photographed in anamorphic format by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, who earned an Academy Award® for his work. Fong’s first step in echoing the feel of the 1977 classic was to choose the anamorphic film format.
“Flares were also an important aspect of our look,” he says. Anamorphic lenses produce flares in a characteristic way. “There was never really a question – anamorphic is what J.J. loves anyway, and that’s how his past two films were done.”
Abrams’ two previous feature films were Mission: Impossible III and the very successful reboot of Star Trek. Before that he was critical in the creation and success of the television shows Alias and Lost. Fong’s credits include episodes of Lost, including its memorable pilot, as well as 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch with director Zach Snyder.
Abrams and Fong didn’t want a carbon copy of Close Encounters. For example, their approach to camera movement was much more kinetic, and they often shot with three or more cameras.
The production was mounted for about five weeks in West Virginia, which stood in for Ohio. There were also nine weeks of work in the Los Angeles area, including time at locations and on sets at studios in Playa Vista. The story involves a group of kids who by chance film a train passing through town. Something mysterious and powerful threatens to bust out of a train car. As is typical with Abrams, much is left unexplained.
Bits and pieces of the home movies made by the kids show up in the film, and the entire piece plays under the end credits. ILM, the visual effects house, planned to treat 35 mm images to create the home movies, but Fong insisted that they be shot with a smaller gauge to retain the right lens characteristics and depth of field. The compromise was Super 16, but some Super 8 footage was shot as well.
Other images depict black-and-white military documentary footage shot at Area 51 in Nevada where, according to legend, alien life forms and other secrets were hidden from public view by the military. Second unit cinematographer Bruce McCleery shot some of these images.
A Super 8 camera was borrowed from Pro8MM in Burbank, who also did the transfer using an HD scanner. “We used a tripod, but we still made it somewhat wiggly and jerky on purpose,” says Fong. “We also lit it really badly, which was so much fun.”
Fong used the same film stocks he loaded in the 35 mm Panavision cameras: KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 and VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213.
“The 5219 seems to be one of the best stocks yet,” says Fong. “We pushed it a stop for all the night scenes because we needed the stop with the long lenses. We did a test and it looked great. The grain holds up. In fact I wouldn’t have minded more grain. I’m not afraid of grain at all.”
In fact, Fong found he had to boost the grain a bit on the Super 8 and Super 16 material. “Some were afraid that the Super 8 footage on the big screen would be a mess,” he says. “In fact, it’s incredibly sharp. The registration was bad, of course, but the transfer techniques now are excellent, so grain wasn’t really an issue.”
Hard light was another key aspect of the look. “I think that when cinematographers first learn about soft light, they love it because it can be this beautiful, amazing, flat light,” says Fong. “In learning to light with hard light, you really learn to appreciate the skill of the cinematographers who came before us, like Vilmos, and what they could do. It’s really a challenge, and sometimes the results are surprising, even for me.
“With hard light, you have to pay more attention to the angle, and to the eyelines, and it’s less forgiving in some ways, because it’s more specific.”
Fong notes that Abrams thrives with a spontaneous approach, and he adds that shooting anamorphic doesn’t hamper that in any way.
“I’ve been interviewed for movies where the director says they have to shoot with HD or digital cameras because the camera is smaller, and they’ll get more done,” he says. “Once you put the mattebox on, the monitor and the zoom lens, and the person who is always connected to the camera, the difference in size is only a matter of degrees. How does that get you through five more pages a day, or trim a week from the schedule?”
The technical aspects of being a cinematographer do not engage Fong as much as the aesthetics. “I have good friends in our field who are obsessed with technical things,” he says. “But that’s not why we get paid, and that is not what makes the movie memorable. For Super 8, I knew in my head how the movie should feel, and even if it wasn’t technically accurate, it was right.”