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Haris Zambarloukos, BSC, Shares Insights on 'Thor', Cinematography and Panavision

Haris Zambarloukos, BSC grew up in Nicosia, Cyprus, an island outside of Greece. He left Cyprus for London to attend Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, where he discovered a love for cinematography. After college, he was accepted to the graduate program at American Film Institute, where he earned his MFA in cinematography. His thesis film was the short “First Daughter.” A meeting with legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall, ASC, resulted in an internship on “A Civil Action.”

He and Conrad spent time together outside of the set seeing movies. During this time, Conrad introduced him to Phil Radin, Executive Vice President, Worldwide Marketing, at Panavision. Haris pitched the project “Camera Obscura,” a feature film that he wanted to make with director Hamlet Sarkissian, and Panavision was able to supply equipment for the shoot through the New Filmmakers Program. Haris then shot several shorts including “Tunnel Vision, “The Birthday, “Enchantment,” “School of Life” and “Terrible Kisses.” Haris’s second feature was in 2001, “Mr. In-Between,” directed by Paul Sarossy. His first pairing with director Kenneth Branagh was on “Sleuth,” starring Michael Caine. In 2006, he was named one of Variety’s “10 Cinematographers to Watch.”  Two years later, Haris photographed the wildly successful musical feature “Mamma Mia!” starring Meryl Streep. With his career on the rise, Haris spoke to Panavision about his path to success and the recently released epic feature “Thor,” which reteamed him with director Kenneth Branagh. 

When and where were you when you were first introduced to Panavision?
HZ: I was in London studying at St. Martins School of the Arts and I was about to shoot a short film called “The Docket Box.” It was a very ambitious film for a student project, but the director had managed to get a 16mm camera package from Panavision. This must have been 1991 or 1992 and it was the first time I met Hugh Whittaker and Adrian Waterlow. Adrian was running Panavision Shepperton at the time and he was supplying the cameras. Since that day, Hugh and I have become very close friends.

What was the first project you used Panavision on?
HZ: On “The Docket Box,” we used a Panavised ARRI SR2 and Zeiss lenses, so I was introduced to the camera prep and approach of Panavision. When I finished that short and went on to graduate, Hugh suggested I should learn about “real” cameras, and told me I could spend as much time as I wanted at Panavision. I went to Panavision every day from the time I graduated, unless I had work, and I would help with camera prep. At Panavision Shepperton, the facility was on a lot, and at about 10-11 a.m. every morning, I would take lenses and equipment for delivery to various stages on a milk cart. Kenneth Branagh was shooting “Frankenstein” at the time, and my treat was to sit quietly in a corner for 15 minutes and watch Roger Pratt, BSC shoot “Frankenstein.” That’s when I learned a lot more about the technical aspects of setting up cameras. We would set up old Mitchells, and Panavision Golds and Platinums, which had just come out. It was the first time I ever looked at Primo lenses. Adrian was very generous about allowing me the ability to shoot and test any time I wanted to.

What was it that influenced your decision to become a cinematographer?
HZ: I went to St. Martins to study painting. If you want to study fine arts, you are required to take a year-long foundation course first: they offer a variety of classes with choices such as film, costume, etc. I liked painting and photography and had no idea about film. In two weeks of the film class, we studied “Un Chien Andalou” (1929) directed by Luis Buneul, and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920) directed by Robert Wiene and I thought, “Oh my God, you can make films like paintings.” Weirdly enough, I didn’t want to be a director, I wanted to create those images: I wanted to be a cinematographer. You couldn’t really specialize in cinematography, but when I went to school everyone wanted to be a director, so I ended up shooting a lot of films. Then I was accepted into the graduate program at AFI, and I got an MFA in cinematography.

How long have you been using the same crew in terms of gaffer, AC, key grip, operator and assistant?
HZ: I try to use the same people as long as I can. Due to geography and the fact that I work with a really great crew, they are often busy. I would say my key people are Simon Baker, who has operated on 7-8 films, Denis Moran who has operated on films as early as “First Daughter,” “Camera Obscura” up until the most recent “Thor,” and Ashley Bond and Brad Liner who have been my ACs in London for the last 4-5 years. Before that it was Hamish Doyne-Ditmas, who was my AC for the last nine years on every film and probably every single commercial and music video. He’s a DP and operator now, he shot second unit for me on “The Other Man.” I have also used Julian White as the gaffer on most of my films. I hope to make as many films as possible with the crew I had on “Thor”: Pete Cavitiuti, Bill Coe, Patrick McCurdle, Chuck Whelan, Cory Geryak and Al LaVerde.

Do you find that is it harder to crew up when you are shooting internationally?  
HZ: It is harder with commercials, but in feature films, I’ve shot mostly in London and then with “Thor” we shot in Los Angeles, and the crews in these locations are so phenomenal that you don’t have a problem. When I go off for commercials, it’s different, and I enjoy the fact that I get to meet new people. I often get advice from people at Panavision, because during the test process and the prep process, the feedback you get is pretty important. I think it is part of Panavision’s strongpoint that they can help out with advice.

As someone who shoots internationally, what are the benefits of using the Panavision system?
HZ: Well, it’s two-fold. First, and most important, I love Panavision lenses, it’s the only place I get can them. Secondly, Panavision has created many specialty lenses that create a very specific look. Working with Panavision allows me access to those specialty items. I like to research and find out why someone used a certain tool. I also love that at Panavision you can get any kind of camera system. You can mix and match and adapt to each project, which I think is really valuable. It gives you a broader toolbox. I’ve grown accustomed to the standard of delivery of the product: the conversations I’ve had and the ease of getting things, changing things and adapting things. I kind of miss it when I don’t get it. Some of that came out of projects, but the open invitation to go in and try anything whether it’s for a project or not, was the most valuable thing to me. I remember when I went back to London, I was shooting a lot of commercials and music videos, and I would go into Panavision Greenford and try things out. I had a library of ideas; for example, if I wanted to do cross-processing, I would try it there. I would then go to a meeting for a music video and tell them about a certain test, and ask them if they wanted to try it. Panavision gave me that extended film school. I have always been in that learning mode, and Panavision allowed me to do that.

It seems that with successful cinematographers, they all have a sense of the technology of making movies. They understand how far they can push the tools they use. Do you agree?
HZ: You have to keep that from the beginning to the end of your career. Unlike a painter or a sculptor, you can’t do this craft in your living room. That is one thing Panavision offers that is beneficial to both the DPs and the ACs, and it benefits Panavision as well. We have to run off and do our work, but there are the few times we get to experiment and practice in a rental facility environment. At Panavision Greenford, the junior techs would come in and want to have a look, and Chris Ross (a former Panavision employee) who has now become such a great DP, would come in and look and say “Ooh, that’s interesting.” I think that’s why the friendship with Panavision has lasted in such a strong way. You meet people who are just as keenly interested as you are.  I had such a great time with Dan Sasaki figuring things out on “Thor.” It was such a pleasure to work with him.

What is your decision-making process between shooting spherical or anamorphic?
HZ: I have to admit, that yes, people say both types of lenses are tools, and we all say there are tools for different types of films, but I think my eye likes the anamorphic rather than spherical frame. I love the portraiture of it. As much as I like the spherical Primo lenses and their technical excellence, I am drawn to more of the individually crafted lenses. I love the C-series, they seem to have a bit more character, or a look, for example. With anamorphic, I find it’s individual even in the same series, and lens to lens. You really can pick a lens, and this started from day one, when I was a young apprentice, I would look at the lens and the characteristics of each lens. It’s a real way of evaluating the fall-off, the tone. I am always drawn to anamorphic as opposed to spherical lenses because they have more personality. But then you find a project that you want more crystal clarity and you can shoot the Primos. I shot Primo spherical and then Primo anamorphic on “Sleuth,” in which Michael Caine’s face had such a story, and I didn’t want to detract from that, I wanted it to be crystal clear. It is always portraiture on a film that leads me to a decision of the lenses I want to choose. What kind of faces am I going to photograph? How do I want to photograph them? The human connection, I believe, comes through the portraiture, the faces.

You obviously have a love for anamorphic lenses. Do you let the script determine what format the film should be shot in?
HZ: I do like 1:85 and I have kind of missed it because I haven’t shot it for so long. But, if I want to alternate between anamorphic and go back to 1:85, then yes, the script would be one reason for doing it. If the story screams to be told in that way, the landscape dictates that. The only time I shot Super 35 with 2.40 framing was on a film called “Enduring Love,” with director Roger Michel. The beginning of the film is a hot-air balloon accident, and because I had to shoot in the wicker basket of the balloon with extreme minimum focus shots, I knew I had to do that spherically. I couldn’t shoot a wide-angle close-up for the sequence. It was a decision made by the climate of the film.

How much of your format decision is related to your artistic take on the script versus that of the director?
HZ: I’ve been in very fortunate situations where we came to that conclusion together. The directors hired me to advise them, and I’ve never had a conflict. I don’t take that for granted, and I respect that. I usually go into pretty extensive testing and if I have a strong opinion about something, I feel I need to demonstrate it even more. You can talk about it, but the one way to do it is to test and show them. Initially, while I am talking to a director, my brain is ticking over what kind of test I am going to do, or thinking about an example of what is already out there that I can show him/her.

Your most recent film “Thor,” was shot in anamorphic. Do you find that with the increasing use of digital, it is easier, or harder, to shoot widescreen?
HZ: There was a decision to have a 2:40 aspect ratio from the beginning. That was decided by the director [Kenneth Branagh]. Ken is a big fan of the biggest format he can get. He’s one of the few people who has shot 65mm. We did discuss shooting “Thor” in 65mm, and Marvel Entertainment, to my great surprise, was quite enthusiastic about that. But it was Ken, who had experience with it, who felt it wasn’t the wisest thing to do, because he was very ambitious in the camera movements he hoped to achieve. Because of the size of the equipment, the crane moves, and the amount of cameras we were going to use, including multiple units, we stayed away from shooting 65mm. Digital was discussed, but I was very much opposed to it, and so was Ken, so that battle we won very quickly. The discussion was about spherical versus anamorphic, but the discussion mainly stemmed from a request from the VFX supervisor, Wesley Sewel. He was concerned that a lot of films with special effects have such a narrow depth of field: if the focus falls off just behind the ears, for example, how are they going to create what’s real behind it? I have noticed the trend is to shoot wide open, and although it’s an interesting look, I didn’t feel that was the right look for “Thor.” We did all kinds of tests and even got into a very elaborate discussion about depth of field, to where we had schematics about it. But we came to the conclusion that we could do it anamorphically, and I am really glad we did. Wes loves the anamorphic look of the film, and he could completely see how it was great for portraiture as well, and how it had an epic look to it. We shot a bunch of scenes with flares, and with a CG background environment, he wanted to include some of those flares in 2 or 3 shots that existed. Wes came on board, but only after he agreed with what we were doing. I shoot at a T4 anyway, and I knew I had to shoot up to 360 frames per second. We designed and built our lighting for that and it had the added benefit that if I wanted to shoot at T11, we could also get more depth of field. We used the PhotoSonics camera, in conjunction with the anamorphic lenses we used on the main camera.

How did you design the lighting for this film, especially since you were lighting for two different planets, or worlds?
HZ: I started with stills portraits with each actor and then moved onto film. I wanted a plan that had a more divine look to Asgard, since it is a more mythical place. Even in the real mythology, it was always set in space and quite extra-terrestrial, with an ethereal feel to it. It was inspired partly by the comic book, and partly from paintings. The earliest paintings we have from Nordic mythology is pre-Christian, and much of it has been destroyed. What we have is pretty much what the illustrator used for the comic: the costumes, the armor, etc. What felt right to me was to mystify it with a nondescript source of light. This look would not be like Earth and the use of practicals, but rather have an Edward Hopper painting look, a sort of small town look. One of the things Edward Hopper did is that he mixed up the sources and the colors. I wanted Asgard to be gigantic sources of soft light from one direction; this creates a really pleasing portraiture. We used two mega-ton generators per stage. Because the sources surrounded the stage completely, what I found is that if we turned all the soft boxes on, it looked like a very soft light all the way around, and I could shoot at 365 frames per second. I could also shoot from far away, but if I just used one of the soft boxes, it created a harder light. We designed and built this tool in a way that it was flexible and I had control over the various looks. The softboxes were made out of four 12-lights, which gave us the most agility.

What kind of material did you use on the softbox?
HZ: These were a 12-foot by 4-foot cube, with four 12-lights and duvetyn wrap, and 1/2 soft-frost in front. We used widgets and chains so they were totally flexible, and because they were DMX-controlled we could control a chase or a flicker. We would take them down really low in terms of height, and they would look like a massive firelight. We had about 50-60 made.

How big was the set for Asgard?
HZ: We had to break Asgard down into four stages. The throne room was gigantic. We took one stage and adapted it and would move on to another stage. We would adapt that, and come back to the first stage. The stages at Raleigh Studios in Manhattan Beach were small, so we were working right up against the wall.

Are there any particular scenes in “Thor” you can talk about where you really pushed the envelope on lighting?
HZ: The most difficult by far was the conservatory. It’s a dome, so we had to create a dome and then we had to light it. I don’t know if you have ever had to light a dome, but there are not a lot of places to put a light. We couldn’t use the great big softboxes on this set so I had to work with the production designer to find gaps and holes for lighting. The amount of movement varied, so we wanted to have an interactive light that had an intensity or volume. That was the most difficult lighting plan. Ken also likes to shoot 360 degree crane shots, which make it more difficult, so there was a lot head-scratching, and a lot of pacing up and down. In the end, I was fortunate that we ran out of stage, so we couldn’t create the whole dome, we had to slice part of it out, which opened up some opportunity. I asked that the floor have circular gaps in it and I put circles of par cans underneath the floor and around the perimeter. Wherever there was a wall that joined the floor, we put par cans. And, we could uplight. Having this kind of invisible recessed lighting, on steroids, created a look that was really unusual, and it worked really well with a reflective paint.

The film has some anamorphic flares (blue streaks across the frame), was that an artistic choice?
HZ: It was. I like flares, so I try to get them in there as much as I can. Sometimes I try to figure out which scenes I would like to get more of them in, and other times, you just see flares coming in. My instructions to my ACs and operators are that if you can get more flares, do it. I like the blue streak flares more, which is what I look for. You can design your set and lighting to accommodate it.

 “Thor” was shot in 2D, but was released in 3D. Can you explain how that decision was made?
HZ: It happened just before we started production. We knew there was going to be a 3D release. We discussed it and definitely said there was no need to shoot 3D in camera because we didn’t feel it was conducive to the kind of filmmaking we wanted to do. We wanted to create depth in our shooting, so that when we went to a 3D conversion it was there. If there is no depth in 2D, there will be no depth in 3D. We were already making small adjustments in 2D. For example, if we were shooting someone holding a sword, we wouldn’t have them raise it; we would have them point it more toward the audience, rather than above it.

What can you tell us about the difference between shooting 3D in camera or doing a post production conversion to 3D, specifically for “Thor”?
HZ: I like to use the tools in good taste and at the right time for the script. We were conservative in some parts of shooting and quite daring in others. If we did something most other people don’t do, it was during conversion: we were actively involved in the conversion. We wrapped and tested. We produced a ComiCon trailer as soon as we wrapped, because we thought that was a great testing ground. Stereo D did the conversion; they were marvelous. We were very happy with them, even though it was a very long and ongoing process. I was involved as much as I could be, especially during the final bit. Every time I did reshoots I would go and have a look. When we did the DI, it became about the sequences and reels, rather than just a frame. Then, I became very involved. It was a very interesting process. If I had a choice of shooting some things in 3D, there would be elements like fire I would shoot 3D in camera, because it would be easier than doing a conversion. But things like mist and snow and rain, looked great in the conversion. We shot those elements, so it would help with direction. A particular wide dolly shot was the trickiest to convert because of the amount of rotoscoping involved. I had done a 360-degree Steadicam shot, which I was surprised to hear that it was relatively easy to convert, even though I thought it might be the most difficult.

I’ve heard that it is not a good idea to use lenses longer than 100mm when shooting 3D in camera, does that also apply when you do a conversion?
HZ: I haven’t really heard that. During the conversion, most of those rules don’t apply. You can be free in your lens choice, free in your method of coverage, and the reason is that you can make changes in your conversion shot to shot, and even in one shot; you can change the volume or the depth. When you shoot 3D in camera with a certain depth, you can’t do that. There is a large amount of footage shot in a film that has been photographed in 3D because it’s very difficult to cut; they take one eye and convert it. It’s practically impossible that any kind of contemporary film shot in 3D uses all of its 3D footage. In my opinion, if I were to do a 3D shoot, I would have a stereographer on board, and I would want that same person to be involved in the conversion.

Do you have any favorite Panavision lenses? If so, why?
HZ: That’s a very difficult question, because I love all of them for various reasons, and I’ve used all of them on all my films. Really, my love of anamorphic was what started me shooting on the C-series lenses, and I always have a few in my set, even if I am shooting with G-series like I did on “Thor.” But I shot the E-series for “Death Defying Act.” In the 40, 50, 75mm range, I like the G-series. The E-135 and the E-180, I really love, and again, and they are very portrait-like lenses. It’s not an exact match to the other ones, but I see the difference. Unlike most cinematographers, I’m a really big fan of the zooms in the anamorphic lenses; you could shoot a whole film on those lenses. They are as good as the Panavision Primes. I love the anamorphics, and they all have their own characteristics. I recently discovered the Panavision SP lenses, designed in the 1960s, which I think I am going to use for a digital project. The SP lenses happen to be really small as well, very lightweight and very compact.

What are some of your most favorite photographed films?
HZ: I love Conrad Hall’s photography in “Day of the Locust” and “In Cold Blood,” and James Wong Howe for “Sweet Smell of Success.” I would be very remiss if I didn’t mention Freddie Young for “Lawrence of Arabia.” Then there are films like “Oliver Twist,” and The Third Man,” which have that very graphic, film-noir, British cinematography. The other cinematographer whose work I admire is Peter Bizou, especially for the film “Mississippi Burning.”