Peter Pau, Acadamy Award Winning Cinematographer
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
March 24, 2001
Page 2 of 5
You were the cinematographer on a favorite film of mine "The Bride with White Hair," which was the best historic China/Kung Fu/Fantasy/Love Story before "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Did your involvement in that production help you get the Crouching Tiger job?
Honestly, I am probably the Number 10 Cinematographer that was picked for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” He didn't know me to begin with, and he contacted some cinematographers from Mainland China and Hong Kong. Also, he considered using Fred Elms from "Ice Storm," but none of them had shot action films before. The production side strongly recommended a cinematographer with experience in action films, so I was recommended. I was told they were trying to make a love story instead of an epic story, so I proposed the idea of a Chinese watercolor painting, and I was hired for the project. I don't think the film will look like "The Bride with White Hair" - it's a different approach, because when we were shooting "The Bride with White Hair," we were trying to do things unconventionally, and it's a very different project to me.
Mr. Pau, I was curious if you could elaborate on how the color of the desert scenes was created.
The desert, of course, involves lots of yellow tones. When we go to the Gobi Desert, it is very hot with strong daylight, and we were on a tight schedule, because the whole desert scene only had nine shooting days, so we had to run a thousand miles of geography in the area, in the west of China, and the traveling time took more than the shooting time. I wasn't using any filter for the shooting, I just shot straight with a daylight type of negative. I used Kodak 5245, the finest grain film possible in the market, in order to capture the richness of the sand tones, and also the detail of the shadow. On the color timing, I did put more red and golden in it. We were trying not to see anything vibrant in blue, so we avoided that in costumes and accessories as well, because the blue would fade out if we added too much color.
What is your favorite film that you have worked on?
You know, my favorite is from 1991, "Savior of the Soul." I have three favorite films - this one, "Bride with White Hair," and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." On the first, we started with a concept, and we were not bound by the story itself. We were changing as long as we were shooting for the fantasy look of the film. When we go to "Bride with White Hair," it is a period film with fantasy again. This was my second fantasy film, and we used very strong color and stylized lighting to portray the situation unconventionally. I really enjoyed working with Ronnie Yu on the film. It is a film that will let audiences know me in the West for the first time. And of course, number three would be "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon".
I'm a big fan of "The Killer," "The Bride with White Hair" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Which do you prefer photographing, period pieces like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or films set in modern day, like "The Killer"?
Actually, I like to shoot all different kinds of film. I don't have a particular film I'd rather not shoot. Working on "The Killer" was a very different experience for me. John Wu is such a disciplined director, and he planned very well by putting up all the shots. Unfortunately, at the time he was directing "The Killer", the budget was too low for him and he didn't have the chance to shoot the days he wanted, and have the money he would like to spend. He would prepare 60 shots in a day, and when I looked at the list, I noticed he had 40 dolly shots in his 60 shots and asked him how we'd have time. He said "Peter, do as much as you can!" We finally ended up doing it in two days. Working with John Wu is very challenging in that you need an 85mm lens to do a very fast dolly, crossing over diagonally with Chow Yun-Fat walking directly to the camera. And we're shooting 100 frames per second. That almost killed my focus guy! I had to put a t-stop 5.6 or 8 at 100 frames per second to give him depth of field to make him in focus.
The fight between Chow Yun-Fat and Zhang Ziyi through the bamboo forest was one of the most beautifully shot sequences I've seen in a long time. How were the cameras positioned, mounted and moved during that fight?
The bamboo forest was one of the most difficult scenes in the film. The first thing was that Ang didn't know what to shoot first, so he didn't lay out a plan for shooting the bamboo forest. I had ordered the production company to build a 30x30 foot platform to put some live bamboo trees on for shooting close-ups of the actors. Because of the nature of the bamboo forest, the trees are about 40-80 feet tall, and I had to order an industrial crane to mount the remote control head on the crane for me to operate the camera down below. Also, I had to frequently use the crane (it was 32 feet high) to move along with our action. With very limited space, we had to stay together with four other industrial cranes for the wires, so that everybody jammed together. We were shooting 2-4 shots per day, very slowly. And one thing I'd like to say is that it looks like there were many visual effects in the scene, but we had only one shot of visual effect during the bamboo sequence. Everything else is on human labor. Everything is on wires, and we just did wire removals.
This may be a stupid question, but what exactly is cinematography?
Cinematography is a big word! First, as far as I'm concerned as a cinematographer, it is a pure visual translation to the story itself. For me, it's to do something as beautiful as I wanted. I would rather do it as accurately as the script says. So I have been transforming myself, not only to deliver beauty shots for the film, but also to tell the story in a more accurate visual way. In a way, we are the left and right hand of the director. We are the commander on the set for telling people exactly what to do to fulfill the visual need. We have to plan well and organize and manage. This is a very, very important job on the set. We will be affecting all the money issues to the company, and we will save the production money also. We have to guarantee the shooting schedule that's been agreed to. So the director of photography is very important to a film.
Would you share your opinions on the digital/film debate?
You know, I started to work on my computer seven years ago because I felt that some day, some time, that the digital era would be here. For my opinion, I do not object to the digital technology. The only debate for now is how good the digital quality is, compared to film, for now. I still think the digital resolution needs time to develop better, compared to film. There are lots of things concerning the look of the picture. It's not only resolution, but also contrast and the subtleties of the color gradation; also, the softness or the hardness on the film. This affects the images. To me, the digital resolution in 1K or 2K is not good enough. I think when the digital goes to 4K for the original we'll be quite close to film look. Before that, I will stick negatives and I will run to the computer for post-production. That's what I'm going to do with my next film, so I can do more manipulation of the colors and the look I would like to have when I go out to film again.
Page 2 of 5