Jess Hall – Ghost in the Shell

It’s always fraught territory making a big studio, live action remake of a beloved animated classic. Thankfully for Jess Hall, the creative merit of Scarlett Johansson vehicle Ghost in the Shell rests on the shoulders of director Rupert Saunders and screenwriters Ehren Kruger and William Wheeler.

It’s been the subject of considerable chatter about Hollywood’s continued whitewashing (casting western actors in roles synonymous with other races), and the box office performance hasn’t been encouraging.

But like bullet time was to The Matrix, Ghost in the Shell has one unique filmmaking technique developed by Hall specifically for the film representing an exciting new innovation. So however well received the story has been, you can’t deny the power of some of the visuals, so it might something you see a lot more of in future.

How was the color palette for Ghost in the Shell inspired by the original anime?

The color palette in the anime is extremely subtle and complex and I analyzed it extensively. Great thought has been given not only to the choice of color but also to how colors combine in each frame to create a sense of harmony and balance within each composition.

This relates in a broader sense to some of the aesthetics associated with traditional Japanese art. My approach to a film always begins with naturalism so I made extensive photographic studies of Hong Kong (where the film is set) at night and I observed how these intersected with the colors that were present in the anime. I was also influenced by the work of color theorists like Joseph Albers and by my own sensibilities.

Ultimately I chose 28 specific colors that I wanted to see featured in the film and then began designing a way to integrate these into motion picture lighting instruments. In a sense the choices I was making with color were very deliberate and I was executing incredible control over the choice of color in each frame.

This relates very much to the detailed approach to color in anime. The colors I chose were quite complex and unique; I created colors like warm grey and grey violet, these are tones that are very specific to the unique micro environment of Hong Kong where the multitude of practical neon and LED sources are mediated and trapped in the moisture in the air.

Talk about some examples of how you have to light live action differently than you do in animation that people might not notice?

With live action you have to adhere directly to the physics of light itself, in some respects there is no cheating. If a light is placed within the scene it will have an impact on the objects around it and it will fall of in a particular manner which is quite scientific.

With animation you can make the light do whatever you desire, this means the possibilities are infinite and this is partly why anime exudes this intensely graphic nature and the imagery is so rich. In this sense its closer to painting. In animation you could choose to add a very subtle highlight or a secondary color wash to a small part of an image very easily, this approach on my set might take several instruments and any number of people plus time to execute.

Part of my approach on Ghost was to control the light to such a precise extent and to use innovative techniques that would allow me to create images as rich as the anime.

I used a very complex lighting desk where every fixture on the set could be controlled in single percentage points and I could assign any one of my 28 colors to a light instantly.

How do you still adhere to the look of the original even despite those differences?

That wasn’t really my objective. In fact I wanted to create a new language for the live action version of Ghost, I wasn’t trying to simply replicate something I had seen before. By immersing myself to such an extent in the original intellectual property, the anime’s Ghost In The Shell, Innocence the Manga and the two Television series, I knew that I would always carry that imagery in my subconscious, it would be present, it would permeate and it would constantly inform the hundreds of decisions regarding the imagery I made each day.

This liberated me to begin to define an aesthetic that honored the original work but also moved it forward into a live action context.

One of the hallmarks of the original anime seemed to be less about color and more to do with the contrast between light and shade. Was that a particular inspiration and something you wanted to emulate?

Yes I agree the tonal range and depth of contrast is striking in places and it was certainly something I had identified. This is a quality that is often evident in graphic novels partly because, like the manga, they begin without color as black and white images. In order to create strength in the black and white palette it’s natural to add contrast.

However I wasn’t exactly trying to emulate this as a general quality of the photography, it was more something I wanted to use when it was appropriate to the narrative. In Kuze’s lair for example there is a shot where we follow him in silhouette towards a strong white light coming from above and then in a series of shots the character slowly reveals himself.

In this scene the quality of the blacks are dense and the whites are clean and bright with few mid tones. I was aware we would be finishing the film in Dolby HDR (as well as 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D) so I was able to make use of this extended dynamic range in the Dolby HDR finish to really push the contrast into a very dramatic place when I desired.

However it was not always about contrast, I was also interested in creating what I have referred as a watercolor like painterly quality that is present in the anime. This related to the softness that the atmosphere in Hong Kong added to the night exteriors and I designed custom made lenses to accentuate this quality. I also controlled the atmosphere on set to very precise levels, enough to trap the light and for the colors to mix at times but still maintaining rich blacks in the bottom of the curve.

Where there any other influences from more recent films you and director Rupert Wyatt talked about or included?

We looked at a number of significant and relevant films. We were particularly struck by the quality of the in camera work, lighting set design and prosthetics on Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner and Alien.

This chimed with our desire to maintain a real photographic texture and quality to Ghost and to integrate the digital effects to an extent where the boundaries would be difficult to identify.

Directors always say no matter how much money or time they get it’s never enough. What are the differences between being the DP on a $100m film versus a $5K short. Is it just a matter of resources, or is the approach the same no matter the script or equipment available?

The approach is certainly different dependent on scale. However the fundamental questions remain the same; what is the best way to tell this particular story, how do I build a cohesive visual landscape as a vehicle for this narrative, how does the photography adhere or depart from the conventions of the genre within which inhabit etc…

Where did the idea for the 80 camera rig come from?

From the beginning Rupert challenged me to do innovative work on this film. When a director gives me a directive like that I take it very seriously. I knew I wanted to use a photographic process that had never been seen before for certain action sequences.

I’ve always been interested in camera arrays and this is when I started looking at what MIT and Stanford were doing. I began talking with Dayton Taylor at Digital Air (who Rupert and I had first collaborated with 10 years ago on some array photography) about building some custom array rigs but it soon became clear that these would be very time consuming processes and that ultimately they would not be that flexible.

Dayton mentioned that he was in the early stages of developing a Motion Photogrammetry Rig and Guillaume Rocheron (Visual Effects Supervisor) and I looked at some early tests which were pretty crude. However were very excited by what we saw and decided it was worth trying to develop this technique to a resolution and functionality that would yield assets we could work with.

What kind of visual effect does it impose on a scene?

It helped enormously to define our aesthetic. In the end we used the rig for all the ‘Sologram’ elements in the film. These sometimes-immense hologram-like apparitions, appear in almost all the cityscape shots and essentially function as futuristic commercials. A person in these volumetric ads could be as tall as a skyscraper. Unlike holograms, which are reproductions of a subject in a different environment, ‘solograms’ represent these figures but integrate them within the environment they’re projected into.

Describe the workflow from there – do you give the director a sequence where he/she can stage it from any one of the 80 points of view? How is that achieved?

The 80 cameras are housed around a dome structure. We would record the performances inside this dome and the synchronized images allowed us to re-create a perfect moving version of the actors in the computer from any perspective. We captured not only their movement but their volume, face, skin, clothes, and all the details, every frame consists of a completely new 3D model and a completely new texture. Once we have the live performance we can therefore place it within any existing or virtual camera move providing an incredibly valuable 3D asset with real photographic texture.

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