Focus On Film

What Maisie Knew

A Modern Take on a Century-Old Story

Published on website: November 09, 2012
Categories: 3-Perf , 35mm , Focus On Film , VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219/7219
Julianne Moore and Onata Aprile star in What Maisie Knew, Red Crown Productions
Alexander Skarsgard and Onata Aprile star in What Maisie Knew, Red Crown Productions

A dozen years ago, Giles Nuttgens, BSC was on the leading edge of electronic cinematography, shooting second unit and additional photography on the Star Wars prequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Today, his credits as a director of photography include The Deep End, Young Adam, Bee Season, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, and Midnight’s Children — all feature films shot on 35 mm film, often in a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

For his latest assignment, Nuttgens re-teamed with co-directors David Siegel and Scott McGehee, with whom he had bonded on two previous features projects. What Maisie Knew has its roots in an 1897 Henry James novel in which a young girl is caught in her parents’ bitter divorce. In the re-imagined tale, loosely based on the book and set in the present, the parents are an assertive, iconic rock star played by Julianne Moore and a charming but absent-minded art dealer, played by Steve Coogan. The cast also includes Alexander Skarsgård and Johanna Vanderham. In the title role is 7-year-old Onata Aprile, as a wise child who slowly begins to grasp how selfish her parents are.

Nuttgens says that while the adults never cross over into physical violence, they express a lot of manipulative emotional aggression, so portraying them humanely was a concern. “I knew the big challenge of the picture was to give the audience some sympathy for these characters, and to make them rounded even though they do some reprehensible things,” he says. “My starting point is to take the emotional space of the script and extend that with the cinematography. The images have to give strength to the movie without creating a style that pushes through, that doesn’t create impediments to the audience relating to a character.”

On the practical side, the filmmakers had to deal with a quick 28-day schedule and the very brief stretches of time they could work with the child. “The restrictions on our time with Onata would seem to argue for digital, running the camera continuously until you get the required performance, but the truth is that a 7-year-old kid can’t last that long,” he says. “The real question is how to be ready for that child when the time is right and she delivers. Knowing that you have a child with time limits, or an actor who is putting so much into it that they’re going to burn out rapidly, you try to work with the smallest pause and turnaround between setups in order to maintain the momentum and the dynamic. I’m convinced that you can shoot on fi lm extremely fast and efficiently, without huge lighting changes, and keep the shoot moving ahead.”

Nuttgens and the directors considered anamorphic, but ultimately shot 3-perf Super 35. The ARRICAM LT camera was often handheld. In exterior situations, the lenses were usually ANGENIEUX OPTIMO lightweight zooms, and for interiors, ZEISS Master Primes. Whenever possible, 1,000-foot magazines were used, which allowed 14 minutes between magazine changes.

“That’s enough time for mag changes to not be disruptive,” says Nuttgens. “I had just finished Midnight’s Children, where we had emphasized complete freedom for the actors, and I wanted to translate that flexibility to this project.” Nuttgens comes from a documentary background and prefers to operate a camera himself. “The process of operating handheld is having a relationship with the actor,” he says. “Actors relate to operators. They want to know how tight the shot is, and where the camera is going to be. There’s also a physical process that happens with the camera that I find invigorating. It makes your heart pump faster, so there’s blood going to the brain. There are two skills going on at the same time — one is mechanical and physical, and the other is the creative process of framing. The combination leads to an extremely satisfying experience. Most directors are more driven by the words and the performances and have the same adrenaline, but they find it in a different way.”

One of the goals in shooting the interiors was to present Maisie’s surroundings as slightly idyllic, so that the audience senses that she has something to lose. “It was warm, it was soft,” says Nuttgens. “All of the latitude of the negative was respected. It was not a hard-contrast look. It was a slightly idealized version of what we see with our eyes. Portraying the loss of this idyllic space was extremely important. We felt that the film should be completely homogenous, with all the information there. I think making this film dark, in the long run, would not have helped us. The script is dark enough, and the child delivered a remarkable performance.”

Nuttgens chose to photograph What Maisie Knew on KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 and KODAK VISION2 100T Color Negative Film 5212. “I have worked for years with 5212 Film and its predecessors,” says Nuttgens. “You become very comfortable with the process, and you understand what’s happening in a high contrast situation like New York City exteriors. You can see the pictures in your head, and you can see the texture. You need to see that final result in your mind — otherwise, you won’t know where to start. You need to know how to light and expose in New York, because of the way the buildings react to the light. It’s a long way from shooting exteriors in the desert. Knowing the stock gives me a sense of comfort that completely liberates me from the technical process.”

The film was scanned at Technicolor, and the digital intermediate was done at Light Iron in Los Angeles. Nuttgens was unable to attend due to another assignment, so he asked cinematographer John Lindley, ASC to fill in, and they discussed the images at length during the week-long grade. Siegel then fine-tuned for half a day.

Since filming What Maisie Knew, Nuttgens has also used KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213. “It has unbelievable latitude at the top end,” he says. “It’s cleaner at the bottom end. Film itself is something beautiful, and beyond that, it is an extremely valuable tool. Having worked with it for many years, cinematographers are extremely comfortable with it, and that allows us to work in an extremely efficient way, and very fast. Although I have shot digital, it’s still an experiment each time, particularly as cameras continually change. When you know a film stock, you are very aware of its beauty, and that is what pushes you forward.”