Behind The Lens With Cinematographer Claudio Miranda

We recently sat down with Oscar-winning cinematographer and friend of One76, Claudio Miranda, while he was on the Gold Coast filming Joseph Kosinski’s upcoming movie Escape From Spiderhead. Claudio discusses the techniques behind his well-known movies Life of Pi and Top Gun, and the experiences that lead him to find the success he has today.

For those who are unfamiliar, could you outline the role a cinematographer plays in filmmaking?

A cinematographer, also known as a Director of Photography, is in charge of the camera and the lighting crew. They’re the person responsible for creating the look, colour, lighting and framing of every single shot in a film.

You have become known for your collaborations with director, Joseph Kosinski, as the cinematographer for all his films. What is the relationship like between cinematographer and film directors and the rest of the crew?

I have a very close relationship with Joe. We are always trying to do something new. Trying to bounce in a different direction than before. We have a short hand now. 

The look of the film is done in prep, so shooting of the film is more of an execution. Some directors require different approaches. Most have an understanding of cameras, but many do not understand lighting, colour, depth of field or movement to create a mood or story point.

Before becoming the cinematographer behind famous films like Life of Pi and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, you worked as a gaffer, electrician and lighting engineer on a number of feature films. How did these roles lead you to becoming a cinematographer? And what lessons did you learn from them that have assisted you in your cinematography career?

I was never the boy with a camera in his hands at an early age creating films in the backyard. I started in the business as a stage manager. The stage I was working at was where many music videos were made. 

I met [director, David] Fincher there shooting one of his early music videos. I then moved up to electrician, then best boy (in charge of the electrical crew and equipment) then gaffer – also known as Chief Lighting Technician. 

I did so many music videos, working with Prince, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Aerosmith, Tom Waits, Tom Petty, U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Talking Heads to name a few.  

As a gaffer, I gaffed many movies: The Crow, The Game, The Fan, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State and my last was Fight Club. Many people thought that these movies looked good and some up-and-coming directors thought I could give them that look. I told them that I was not the cinematographer, but they did not care. So I started shooting music videos. And I shot a bunch.

[David] Fincher knew that I was very technical and gave me a couple of commercials to shoot. I guess I did ok. He offered me The Curious Case of Benjamin Button after working together on a commercial. I remember him saying that he hated needy people. So I never asked for the job, he just asked me if I would, and I said “yes”.

While filming Life of Pi, what were some of the challenges of filming not only in 3D but in 3D, in water?

My first 3D movie was Tron, so I did have some idea of 3D and what to expect. 

What Ang (Lee) wanted to do was use 3D to tell a story. He really wanted to explore 3D. 

So I worked with him to test different ways to shoot, we played with staging, and wide and narrow interocular. 

Water was a challenge because if water got on the lens the audience would be very uncomfortable. We worked very hard to make sure water did not get on the lens by the use of Air Knives. We had two air compressors custom built, each was 15’ tall. 

We also decided to shoot the film in order, this was challenging because that meant the first time we were in the tank would be the “Storm of God”. The first day in the tank was not successful – not one usable shot that day. 

[We had] problems with fogging, cameras, wave machines, actors, the spider cam rig – it would have been nice to ease into the tank.

I did however have my biggest reward, we had this huge area of water that we wanted lit with candles. We wanted candles everywhere at a certain frequency. My lighting order for the night was 120,000 candles. What a magical night.

“There are a million people out there that can do average. Do not be one of them.”

What are some of the misconceptions or preconceptions of 3D filming?

Depth of Field (DOF) could be one. I was told that you should have a large DOF always.

Maybe when you are exploring the space in a wide shot it would be important to have a large DOF. Things out of focus are much more uncomfortable, but if you are in a close up and the actor/actress is giving an immersive performance, shallow DOF can be used.

Strobing is more apparent in a normal movie FPS [frames per second] (24 FPS). This problem is compounded in HDR. Some people try to solve the problem by shooting at higher frame rates and playing back at the higher frame rate. It can be 120 FPS, at 120 FPS playback or 60 at 60. 

For me this gives what has been called the “Soap Opera Effect”. While this solves the strobing issue, I feel the soul of the movie is robbed.

Back when we shot film, 24 FPS sounded like a purr from a cat and 120 FPS sounded like a blender. For me 30 FPS is too soapy. Most iPhones default to that, in 4K you can achieve 24 or 23.98. 

23.98 is the frame rate for commercials and 24 FPS is more geared towards theatrical.

Top Gun: Maverick is the first feature film shot on the Sony VENICE, what were your reasons for deciding on the camera?

I was part of the design team that designed the Venice. My contributions are:

  • Built in NDs that do not skip steps. 3,6,9,12,15,18,21,24. Most other cameras have 3 and skip stops along the way.
  • Status Window for the operator.
  • Easier window navigation.
  • The Rialto – this was an idea to get the camera into the nose of an aerial remote head. But this became a very useful tool to put the camera anywhere we wanted to on the jet. Now people use it as a handheld camera, car rigs, and tight places.
  • Highlight roll off behaviour.
  • Lowlight roll off behaviour.
  • Colour rendering.
  • Built like a tank and can take more extreme temperatures.
  • Can fully use anamorphic lenses. They built a sensor that can take any lens. They outdid the request and built a Full Frame sensor. They also added dual ISO.

You have done many visual-effects heavy films, what are the challenges of working on these types of films?

I am really good at solving complicated issues. Every job has its own challenges and sometimes new technology can help. I try to stay away from blue screen and get it in camera. Blue screen is used if I have exhausted all other possibilities. Top Gun is very much in camera and that took a tonne of work.

One of my biggest challenges was on Oblivion … Joe and I spoke about creating a large LED volume to shoot in. When I drew it up, the screen needed to be 500’x45’ tall. Obviously LED was not going to be cost effective, so I decided to use projection instead. 

I did a ton of testing with different projectors and settled on 26 massive projectors. Nobody has ever strung this many projectors together before. Producers wanted me to use green or blue screens and were always questioning me and doubting me, but I stood firm (on the outside), inside I also started having doubts. There was so much chrome, polished surfaces and glass that a blue or green screen would have made the set disappear in those sections. 

I had a crew shoot a three camera array on top of a mountain that created 15K content that played on the screens. To put it together required ten projectionists working for just under three weeks. A seamless muslin screen was brought in from Germany. During the build I would come in after work looking at the progress. So much was riding on this, my gut was churning. Day one shooting was beautiful, the actors loved shooting in the volume. Victory!!!

I stay very current with tech. Which is why I help the design teams at companies like Sony, Apple, Blackmagic, Fuji and some others.

You worked on the Robert Rodriguez film, 100 years which won’t be seen until November 2115. Why did you commit to filming 100 Years, knowing you won’t be around to witness the response to it?

Oh boy. I loved working with him and this project. 

I wanted to work with the director (Robert Rodriguez) and he wanted to work with me. I was going to shoot Battle Angel with him, but I had some personal issues that prevented me from doing it.

While the film is being kept in a high-tech safe behind bullet-proof glass, do you actually believe that it won’t be released until November, 2115?

People might forget . . . who knows?

Who is your mentor or inspiration?

I worked as a gaffer for two really amazing cinematographers, Darius Wolski and Harris Savides. I learned so much from them, they were both so supportive.

If Claudio’s industry insights have inspired you to pick up a camera, we asked for his top tactics to propel your cinematography career forward, from right now, to the next 12 months. Read it and take the leap!

What is something an aspiring cinematographer can do right now to propel their career forward?

People don’t like to hear too much about my path, I was not in a hurry and I did not have an agenda. I was just happy to be in the business in any form.

I started in the business in 1984 and I did not start shooting till 2000, 16 years. 

If you are looking for a faster approach, I would find any work that gets you close. Camera department, camera house, work in any department.

What about in one year?

These are harder questions, but if you are going to shoot some spec spots, have a point of view.  Question everything, look at everything. 

How can colour or absence of colour create a mood? Look at your frame. What catches your eye? What distracts? What do you want the audience to look at? How much light can I remove? 

Many over-light the scene. [Consider the] direction of light. Light quality. Many wiggle the camera too much. 

Take the attention away from the camera and put it in the scene. It takes more work, dolly track, and stabilised heads. Understand the emotional effects of shutter angle, and camera speed. 

My movies are mainly shot 24 FPS at 180 shutter. 

I do not get bogged down with LUTs on set, I am super basic. I will be at the DI or telecine where I will do my colour pass.

Test, test, test, I test everything. Wardrobe, set colours, cameras, lights, fire, anything to do with the job you are about to shoot. 

Some books tell you about three point lighting. Backlight, key and fill… Ekkk!!! Do not make this your go to.

“It is a trap to become average and not creative. There are a million people out there that can do average … do not be one of them.”

Ready to be more than average? Explore your creative potential and join us at One76.

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