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The Imitation Game: Óscar Faura Paints a Period Drama

  • October 08, 2014

Mathematician, cryptanalyst and computer science pioneer Alan Turing was tasked by British intelligence during World War II to break the Germans’ nearly impenetrable message coding system – the Enigma machine. His success enabled the Allies to turn the war tide, but tragedy befell Turing and he ultimately committed suicide at the age of 41.

The Weinstein Company brings Turing’s complex story to the screen in The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and featuring Keira Knightley, Mark Strong and Matthew Goode. To capture the visuals, director Morten Tyldum selected Óscar Faura (The Orphanage, Anna) based on his photography of the 2012 Thailand tsunami tale The Impossible.

The Imitation Game won the People’s Choice Award at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Here, Faura explains his approach to making this historical movie:

What was the look you wanted to achieve for The Imitation Game?

The movie structure is not linear. It jumps back and forth between three different moments in the life of the main character, Alan Turing. Our goal was to give those time periods – the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s – distinctive looks. We wanted the 1950s police investigation plot to look gray, rainy and sad. We also decided to avoid the clichéd color palette of some World War II movies for the 1940s scenes, instead using rich colors in costumes and in some elements of the sets. For the 1930s when we learn of young Alan’s story, we tried to achieve an overall brighter and cleaner ambience, appealing to the innocence of the school days.

With this being a period film set during World War II, did you have any photography concerns?

During the War in England, there was a blackout regulation at nighttime. For us, that meant no outdoor light was allowed. Windows were covered, streetlights were off and even car headlights were protected by snoots. That was challenging when we were shooting night scenes outdoors because there was a big restriction in terms of finding any justified light source.

How did you light for night on this movie?

I tried to simulate a moonlight coming from the back using big lights on a crane. For night interiors, I followed the existing practical lamps on set. I discussed in advance with (production designer) Maria Djurkovic which kind of lamps we could have on every set to get different light for creating the appropriate atmospheres.

How did the choice of shooting on KODAK 35mm Film factor into your look and why?

KODAK Film has low-grain size for high-speed stocks, high definition, very good skin tone reproduction, and a superb contrast ratio. Morten and I believed that the movie had to be shot on film. Digital was not an option because we wanted to keep the texture of the negative that has been used for years to shoot most World War II movies. In my opinion, the audience does a visual association when they watch that kind of movie. It is something that unconsciously makes them relate a historic period to a certain kind of image.

Which KODAK Film stocks did you choose?

I chose (KODAK VISION3 Color Negative Film 5219) 500T and (KODAK VISON3 Color Negative Film 5207) 250D. The 500T Film was utilized for night scenes, as well as day scenes shot in the studio. All the scenes at Hut 8, which was built on a stage and was where the cryptologists worked together, were shot with 500T Film and lit with tungsten light. I used the 250D Film for day exteriors, day interior locations at Hut 11, where they built the machine, and the police office in Manchester. The scenes set in the 1950s also were shot mostly with the 250D negative.

What cameras, formats and aspect ratio did you select?

We shot 3-perf and used spherical lenses. The aspect ratio is 2.35:1. We had two cameras, an ARRICAM ST and an ARRICAM LT. We shot most of the dialogue and action scenes with two cameras using a complete set of ARRI/ZEISS Master Primes. We didn’t use any special filters, just neutral density to control the depth of field.

How did certain focal lengths serve your vision for the film?

We used all focal lengths from 21mm to 135mm. We usually followed the rule of doubling the second camera focal length from the first camera lens. So, if we had a 50mm covering a medium shot of an actor in a dialog scene on A camera, the B camera would have a 100mm getting a close up.

A lot of scenes feature lighting motivated by numerous windows. What was your lighting approach for those scenes?

I always try to see the light source of the scene in the wider shots. It is better for getting a realistic light ambience and increasing the contrast and volume of an image.

Did certain actors warrant specific lighting setups?

No, lighting setups were inspired by the space where the action happened. There are numerous choreographed scenes with a lot of actors involved, so it was almost impossible to make actor-specific setups.

With the film set in older time periods, did you do any special processing or fine tuning during color grading?

We didn’t use any special processing. It was processed at i-dailies in London. Every day I received a hard drive with the scanned dailies from the previous workday, and I viewed them on my computer. For the DI, we didn’t want to follow any color cliché. We just emphasized the shots in a natural way. Stefan Sonnenfeld did the color grading, and I was able to follow the whole process at Company 3.

Can you describe a challenging scene, and how you approached shooting it?

On the first day of production, we started with a scene lit by candles. Obviously, candles were not enough to light the whole scene, so we managed to hide tiny halogen bulbs behind the candles for the background and bigger, softer Chinese lanterns to light the actors’ faces. Then, we applied a subtle flicker to the light sources to get the candle effect. It was not difficult, but more of a delicate matter, because if you don’t set it up properly, the scene can look and feel fake. The latitude of the 500T Film was helpful in capturing this scene too. With its inherent color depth and texture, it made it feel more real.