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The Taking of Pelham: Then and Now

The Taking of Pelham: Then and Now

Articles - Cinematography

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s not a bad subtext for a conversation with Owen Roizman, ASC and Tobias Schliessler, ASC about The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Roizman shot the original movie in 1974; Schliessler lensed Tony Scott’s contemporary version (actually titled The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3), which opens on June 12, 2009.

The stories and visual grammars are basically the same: Hijackers take control of a New York City subway train and demand a hefty ransom in exchange for the safety of the passengers. Both films were shot in widescreen 2.4:1 aspect ratio, mainly in dark and narrow spaces on subway trains, station platforms and tunnels. The subjective point of view augments the feelings of rising tension as the story unfolds.

One difference: Roizman shot the 1974 version in 35mm anamorphic format, primarily with a single camera loaded with a 100-speed color negative film. Schliessler shot the contemporary version in Super 35 format, primarily with four cameras, loaded with a 500-speed color negative film. Roizman put finishing touches on the look during traditional optical timing at a film lab. The contemporary release was timed in a DI suite.

Roizman brought special insights to The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. He lived in Brooklyn and had ridden the subway countless times. The film was his first collaboration with director Joseph Sargent, though he had admired the visuals on films he directed. Before Roizman came on the scene, Sargent and producer Edgar Scherick were planning to produce the film in 35mm format composed in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

Roizman went to the station where they were going to shoot. He rode trains and walked around the platform. “I noticed that the dimensions of the subway car was an almost perfect 2.4:1 aspect ratio, and decided that anamorphic lenses would allow us to get more interesting compositions, close-ups and more information into shots,” he says.

That was a counterculture suggestion. The anamorphic format was generally reserved for films produced at exterior locations with vistas in backgrounds used to establish a sense of place and time. Scherick and Sargent were “incredulous” at first, but Roizman volunteered to shoot a test in both 1.85:1 and anamorphic formats at the primary locations, including a train packed with passengers. After seeing the tests projected side-by-side, they agreed with Roizman.

How did he record artful images in relatively dimly lit spaces with a 100-speed film, a speed that normally requires greater exposure to light? Roizman asked the lab to use an optical printer to pre-flash the negative 20 percent, exposing it to a certain amount of light prior to filming. That gave him more flexibility for shooting in dimly lit spaces.

Pre-flashing was an exotic technique. Roizman explains that Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC and a few other cinematographers had shot films where they post-flashed negative after it was exposed. Roizman decided pre-flashing was a safer approach.

Roizman was primarily shooting in available light wherever possible. He replaced the bulbs in subway tunnels with 500-watt photoflood lights, which he sprayed to avoid hot spots, and then augmented that light with a small assortment of traditional movie lights.

There was no video village when they produced The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Sargent and Roizman discussed ideas for blocking shots at the beginning of each work day. They were side-by-side during production while the camera was on a dolly that was tracking with the actors and executing pans and tilts. Roizman occasionally used a small modeling light that was designed to unobtrusively draw attention to a face or something else in a shot.

Scherick, Sargent, Roizman and members of his crew watched film dailies together every day to get a sense of how the visual grammar was working.

Schliessler was contacted about shooting The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 by producer-director Tony Scott. They had collaborated on a number of commercials, but this was their first co-venture on a narrative feature. They shot side-by-side tests with various digital and 35mm film cameras. After comparing the results, Scott decided to produce the movie in Super 35 film format coupled with DI timing.

“It was clear that film was superior in both the look that it rendered and the flexibility it gave us to shoot in the most demanding light environments,” Schliessler observes. “Tony chose the Super 35 format, primarily because he wanted to use spherical Panavision Primo 10:1 and 11:1 zoom and T5.6 lenses.”

Schliessler watched the original version of the movie a number of times to verify his impressions of why it was so visually compelling. “I am still absolutely amazed at what Owen accomplished,” he says. “We had the advantage of shooting with faster lenses and [Kodak Vision3 500T] 5219 film, which has amazing latitude. It was [production designer] Chris Seagers’ idea to replace the lights on the train, station and tunnels with fluorescent tubes.”

Scott drew storyboards right on the script each morning and gave everyone copies. One of the cameras was usually on a 360-degree dolly track that went around the set. The other cameras were usually static, covering scenes from different angles, but they were mounted on dollies, so quick moves could be made.
Scott was in a video village speaking individually to the four operators and first assistants through earphones. It was like a conductor leading a symphony orchestra, except Scott was orchestrating camera movement, composition and focus. Schliessler had a keylight overhead, which enabled him to take a painterly approach to lighting close-ups during dramatic moments.

“We had a hot top light right above people’s heads that fell off at the lower part of the frame,” he explains. “We were a stop and a half overexposed at the top of the frame, and about two stops underexposed at the bottom.”

Technicolor processed the negative and Company 3 provided HD dailies, however Schliessler visited the lab every day to look at the film on the scanner to make sure that cuts from different camera angles were seamless matches. Scott put finishing touches on the look when he timed the DI at Company 3.

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