Shooting & Editing <i>Passengers</i>
Issue: December 1, 2016

Shooting & Editing Passengers

DP Rodrigo Prieto had spent the better part of his professional career as a cinematographer shooting such Hollywood blockbusters as The Wolf of Wall Street, Argo and Brokeback Mountain for directors Martin Scorsese, Ben Affleck and Ang Lee. Now, with his latest project, Sony Pictures’ Passengers from director Morten Tyldum ( The Imitation Game), which stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, he takes his first steps into space. Surprising that it’s taken so long, considering his childhood fascination with the space/sci-fi genre.

“I’m a science fiction fan, from when I was a kid,” says Prieto. “Even before I knew there were film schools — no one in my family was in the film business, so I didn’t know that was a career you could consider — I made these little science fiction movies with my older brother. We were around 12 years old, doing all these stop-motion movies with space ships and monsters. I always loved that. I was in that generation when Star Wars came out and I loved the science-fiction books from Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. It’s funny because it’s a genre I always loved and never had a chance to work in — so, this was a perfect opportunity for me.”

On the other hand, editor Maryann Brandon is not new to the sci-fi genre. She already has an Academy Award nomination under her belt for her work cutting Star Wars: The Force Awakens (with Mary Jo Markey) last year for director J.J. Abrams, as well as acknowledgement for her work on Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. And although she’s now back in space with Tyldum’s new sci-fi adventure, Brandon says Passengers is a completely different type of film.

“The reason this film appealed to me is because it’s a human story and a love story that is not dependent on legend or characters, like Star Wars. Look, Star Wars is like a western. You have your good guys, you have your bad guys, and they’re all going to meet up at the O.K. Corral. [Passengers] isn’t that. This movie couldn’t be more different. What really appealed to me and struck me about this film wasn’t the setting or that it was sci-fi or not sci-fi or in space. In fact, I think I ignored the fact that I was back in space. I just felt that the love story and the human story were so compelling that you can set this story anywhere. It didn’t have to be in space. I loved doing Star Wars and creating those new characters, but this film is entirely different. Of course, having all the visual effects experience didn’t hurt me; it helped me. But I don’t apply visual effects unless they further the story — for me, it’s all about telling the story.”

Both DP and editor speak exclusively with Post on some of the film’s biggest challenges on-set, as well as in the cutting room.


How would you describe how this film was shot, in terms of style/approach? What was the overall look you were going for?

“When we started discussing the movie, some of the first questions Morten and I asked ourselves were, what kind of cameras would we use? What kind of aspect ratio? The first consideration was what Morten would want it to feel like. He mentioned, for example, as reference some of Kubrick’s movies, 2001: A space Odyssey is one of them and The Shining as well. Though, not in terms of horror, but how the shots were filmed — the presence of the space. In the case of The Shining, how the hotel itself was photographed. Towards the beginning of the film, Morten felt that the camera should be more mechanical — and feel like it’s almost part of the spaceship. Then, it evolves into a more subjective, or personal camera where it’s more with the characters and in their personal space and following them and what they’re feeling.

“What I felt the movie needed, as I was imagining a space ship 600 years in the future, was an image that should be very pristine and clean. I imagined that the air in one of these space ships would be totally manufactured — the oxygen would be at the right level and everything would be done with the comfort of the passengers in mind. That’s why I proposed we shoot the movie digitally, even though every other movie I’ve done was shot mostly on film. I tend to use film grain a lot in other movies I’ve done as an expressive tool. I use more or less grain sometimes depending on the emotional state of the character. In this case, I thought it should be consistently clean — so that’s why we ended up shooting the film with the Alexa 65. When I did the comparative tests with other camera systems, including film, we felt the Alexa 65 had the combination of the feeling of scope and clarity and yet it did not feel harsh, it did not feel like a nasty sharpness to it. It had sort of a relatively soft feel and yet with high resolution. It really films like a movie when we saw the camera with the Panavision Primo lenses compared to other systems.

“In terms of aspect ratio, we explored ideas of going 1.85:1 [and others] but in the end we went with 2.40:1. Morten felt it was an aspect ratio that was more cinematic and grander. And it fit well with the sets that [production designer] Guy [Hendrix Dyas] built — sort of better at helping create the feeling that there’s this spaceship which was designed for 5,000 passengers but just these two people are in it. That was the aspect ratio that helped that sensation of them being alone in this big spaceship.”

This film seems very different from what you’ve worked on — Argo, The Wolf of Wall Street, Water for Elephants — can you talk about that?

“It’s radically different and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do it. When you see the other movie I did right before, Silence with Martin Scorsese, which is coming out practically the same day, it was shot in Taiwan and the story takes place in 17th century Japan. So, the two films are dramatically different and hundreds and hundreds of years apart. I find that very interesting. It’s something I feel I’ve been very fortunate enough to have done a lot of in my career. If you look at almost every film, with the one I did before, say Brokeback Mountain was before Alexander and those are radically different. Frida and 8 Mile are also radically different. When I got the call from Morten, I was still shooting Silence in Taiwan. I read the script and loved it and just thought it was so perfect to make that leap, to change completely that style from Silence in 17th century Japan to the future.”

Anything different or unique about this film in the shooting style or approach?

“Sure, many things, starting with just the practicals of shooting in the studio for 95 percent of the film. It was a movie where every shot has designed lighting that I created, so that was exciting for me. Conceptually, we decided this was a smart space ship in the sense that it kind of reacts to what the characters were doing. So, for something as simple as them walking into a room, the lights automatically turn on. In the same vein, the space ship has a day mode and a night mode to give the passengers the feeling that a day has passed, so the light changes that way. There’s also emergency mode when things start going wrong. So, I had to build in all these different looks on each set that transition from one to another. And, a lot of the lighting was also built into the set. You would think that a movie like this would call for a lot of actors against green screen, but we decided it was better for the actors to feel like they were in an actual space ship, so that’s why Guy built some amazing sets that were 360 degrees, even with ceilings. They were completely self-contained. You really felt like once you were in there, you were in a space ship. A lot of the lighting had to be built into those sets, and that took a lot of work, design and figuring out. We used a lot of LEDs — either RGB, daylight, tungsten or hybrid. And it was really very challenging and interesting during the prep to design that, along with the art department, and figure out all of the practicals. We ended up using miles and miles of LED lighting.

“It was also really interesting to design with visual effects because there were things that weren’t physical. For example, there’s a scene where characters look out this big window as a space ship is going right past the giant sun. I needed to create a directive lighting of the sun, lighting them and lighting the set, to match a visual effect that didn’t exist yet. So, I had to go to visual effects and ask them to create this image of the sun way back in pre-production when I would normally do it in post production and then I used huge video walls, like the ones that are used in concerts behind rock stars. I hung these huge LED screens outside this huge window and there were other sets where I did the same thing. Then, we fed the image of the sun and that’s what’s lighting the scene, actually. So, it blends seamlessly with the visual effects. It moves in the same rhythm, has the same color, the same flicker, all of that. There’s another moment in the film where there’s this sort of nuclear reactor that’s having issues, malfunctioning, and again, it’s a big window that looks into a nuclear reactor. It’s a fiery thing that’s happening and same thing, we use these huge LED panels, video panels, and fed the image that was relatively close to what visual effects would end up doing and that’s what led the actors. We did that several times, actually. That was an important way of making the visual effects seem as if they were really on the set.” 

Where there any major technical advancements here?

“I would say more so here than in any movie I’ve done before. We used the LED lighting technology — we were the first ones to use them on that big a scale because we had some very big sets.

“Something else that’s always a challenge in a science fiction movie is how to light the actors’ faces when they’re wearing a space suite. Especially in our film, where the characters were not close to a sun or anything. They were in the middle of deep space — there’s no real light source except for the space suit itself and we have a few space walks. I tried to do something that would light the face of the actors but would really feel like something that was designed to light in front of them, and also, I wanted it to glow as opposed to a harsh light. So, again, we used LED lights that were inside the helmets. They were placed all around the face plates so it actually created a soft, light on the actors. In this movie, the lighting of the two actors’ faces was really important. Their faces become the landscapes of the movie besides the space ship. While it’s really a big story, it’s also very intimate. So the lighting of their helmets was a very big deal.

“Also, it’s my understanding that we were the first film that was completely done with the Alexa 65. Also, I’m sure we were the first one to use the Panavision Primo 70 lenses, which are designed for bigger formats. I really like the results of that combination.”

Thoughts on how the film turned out?

“I’m pretty excited about it — I really like the result of all this process. It’s such a long process from your first thoughts and imagination to the results and I’m pretty happy with the way it came out and I think it’s an attractive movie. It’s different from other science fiction movies in a sense that most of them are in the future and are apocalyptic or the space ships are mining ships going on an expedition. They are usually technical ships and aren’t meant to be comfortable or pretty. But this one is like a cruise liner; it’s designed for passengers. It didn’t make sense to make a gritty, hard movie in terms of the look. It had to look comfortable for the people and yet, look dramatic. It was interesting to follow the arc of what the characters were feeling and I use the notion of this intelligent space ship to be able to change the mood with the lighting.

“It’s been a really great experience for me working on this genre and with these collaborators — with Eric Nordby, [the production visual effects supervisor]. That was a crucial relationship. We worked in pre-production and during production and we did an extensive previs of the space walk, visual effects intensive scenes and a zero-gravity scene which was extremely complicated and complex in every single way. This was the closest I’ve worked with visual effects on a movie. 

"With [editor] Maryann [Brandon], she has a big presence in the sense that she is also very meticulous about the film and she has even gone to some of our color grading sessions and has had some very accurate and constructive notes. Maryann has been great and every time she’s been right. I really enjoyed collaborating with her.”


How early were you involved in the film?

“When I was doing Star Wars, I was so tired after working on that film for a year and a half. I told my assistant, ‘I’m not doing anything next, unless a film comes up with a really good script and it had a director like, I don’t know, Morten Tyldum, who did Headhunters and The Imitation Game, and it had a really interesting cast … I mean, I’m not joking! I didn’t even know Passengers existed. And I get this call from Sony, ‘we have this film and we need an editor right away. It’s Morten Tyldum and it’s Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, do you want to do it?’ And I was like, “Oh my God, yeah …” Watch out what we put out there in the universe (laughs). That’s an entirely true story. It was like two or three weeks before the Academy Award nominations came out and I really did not think we’d be up for an Academy Award. And then when they announced my name, I was like, “Oh my God, I just took this job.” It was crazy! (laughs).

“I joined about halfway through the shoot and then just had a mountain of work to get through. The footage was so good and it was so beautifully shot. It was interesting. You know, when I read the script I loved it so much. I already had this vision of what I wanted to do with it. But it’s incredible, the studio said to me, ‘It’s only a couple of characters and it’s not that hard a film,’ and I looked at them and said, ‘No, this is a really hard film.’ This is a much harder film…I don’t think the studio realized how big this film was.”

How would you describe the style of edit? 

“Obviously, it’s a big visual effects film and I don’t think anyone realized how big or intricate the visual effects were going to turn out to be. But because I have a lot of experience with visual effects, I’m incredibly picky, so I think I brought to it that approach of, ‘No, this isn’t good enough,’ and ‘This isn’t good enough…’ When I approach a film, I think that anything is possible to do, visually. I think I tried very hard to bring a sense of humor to the film because Chris Pratt is that kind of actor. He gives you so many things. When I first started, I thought, Chris Pratt is known as this comic guy, and he was amazing. His performance…there was this dark side to him I never saw before and it was fascinating. It kind of gets you. And so, I really tried hard to approach the editing like, I knew on the surface I could just tell this story, but I wanted to tell this story as a moral tale and get underneath how people react. It’s really important to me to convey humanity in all of this.” 

How much direction did you get from Morten Tilden?

“Morten hadn’t done a big visual effects film, so I think thankfully he was open to ideas and he definitely brought his own sensibility to it. We worked together every day on it. The shoot was overwhelming, there were so many units going, the space units, and starship units and he was covering all that. I wasn’t on location with them because of the overlap with Star Wars, so he pretty much left me to it. But when he came in, I said, ‘Look, let’s not watch a first cut, let’s avoid that and let’s start shaping the scenes. And then when we have all the scenes shaped, let’s watch it. Because at least that’s a starting point where I can understand you and you can understand me. We’ve already set the groundwork.’ And I believe that’s a really good way to work, especially with a director you haven’t worked with before, because, if I did present my version, there’s all this crazy head stuff that goes on. With a director, the way they thought they wanted it, what they wanted, but if you start to work with them scene by scene before that, you develop a language and you can talk about that and it’s not a shocking experience. I am thankful that it worked out well.”

How did the relationship work between you and Rodrigo?

“Actually, we had a few reshoot days and I was on the set for those every day and it was great talking to him, because he could talk about story and to me why he shot something a certain way and when we were reshooting some of this space stuff, he was incredibly collaborative about it. I enjoyed working with him so much and I spent a lot of time with him in DI doing color correction. He has a lot of attention to detail and why he wants something a certain color. I take my hat off to him. After he saw the film for the first time, he came to me and said, ‘I was just blown away. I didn’t realize the amazing film we ended up making.’”

When I spoke with Rodrigo, we talked about the expansiveness of the scenes and showing how huge the ship is…did that a play a role in your editing?

“Oh my god, yes, the realization that they are alone and just these two people. Yes, that came through in the dailies loud and clear and I definitely used their smallness to show bigness. It’s funny, it’s the same thing you use when you show a starship in space. The biggest problem is, it’s dark and you have to show something small to show how big the space ship is. Space is so big, so what do you do? And that applies to how Rodrigo shot it. He shot these beautiful wide shots, so I had to figure out a way to use them at certain points in the film to say they’re really small. To show how big it is, I had to show how small they were.”

What system did you cut the film on?

“I’m always on an Avid — it’s a hard enough job, I’m like, don’t take my thing away.” (laughs)

Was there anything on this film that you thought was more challenging than other projects?

“One of the big challenges was deciding what to take out. There were so many great scenes that were funny, well written, well acted, but the film as a whole couldn’t sustain them. The film was telling me it wanted to move on …it wanted to get to the next bit. It was hard to fiure out what I needed to lose and if I was losing a great moment for the sake of moving the film along quicker and not losing my audience. It’s in every film that you cut, but it was very particular to this film. 

“On a technical level, the really difficult things are obviously to get everything to look great and integrate with visual effects but with a very human story. You can get away with Star Wars like, ‘Hey, they went into warp speed’ because you say that in that world there’s warp speed. But there’s no warp speed in a film that’s based in reality, but still a fantasy. So, trying to keep it real is hard and not breaking the rules. You ask, how far can you go before you break rules? I made up a lot of things and I’m hoping I get away with it because I think it’s awesome and cool, but it’s a fine line between that and when you lose your audience and they go, ‘No way, I don’t believe it.’”

Overall thoughts about the film?

“I’m so proud of it. I think Morten did a fantastic job…Rodrigo…Eric Nordby…everyone stepped up their game. I’m really proud of this film. As exhausted as I am, I’m so happy I said yes.”