Exclusive Interview : Allan Daviau

Celebrated cinematographer Allan Daviau shot Spielberg’s "E.T", "Empire of the Sun" and "Harry and the Hendersons". His latest venture is "Van Helsing" and Clint Morris caught up with him to discuss.

How did the VAN HELSING shoot go? What can we expect?

Well, it was a very large-scale picture to make and when I first met Steve Sommers and Bob Ducsay, it was something that I understood was going to be an homage to the horror films that Universal made in the 30’s and 40’s which I grew up with, watching them on television and 16mm prints. But, Nonetheless, it was very exciting to me because I love the genre and I knew that Steve was out to make a movie that was both an homage to the films of the past and also a very contemporary picture – And, it certainly turned out to be that way. We were given the opportunity to use a relatively new technique called Digital Intermediate that was fantastic. Bob Ducsay, the producer, who was also the editor, asked me in the beginning what I thought about using Digital Intermediate for the whole picture. It’s something I have used in the past for certain sequences. But, this picture has so many special effects, the sequences in it, that it made it possible to blend them together as they finish. When you work on a special effects movie, you find that things happen late in the game. It’s really nice to have the ability, as Digital Intermediate gives you, to adjust not just the brightness and the color, but also contrast, areas of the frame that you want to lighten or darken, sharpness, being able to do digital filtration… These are very exciting things that we have an opportunity to use now in doing the entire film.

Tell me about some of the creative decisions you made on the film’s look.

Well, we looked at a lot of these films from that golden era of horror films at Universal. We really enjoyed studying the techniques that they used in the 30’s and 40’s to make these films very compelling. They weren’t big budget pictures that were being made back then and they relied upon the photographic look to maintain the mood and the suspense and to keep the audience into the picture. So, it was, what areas of the photography and the design did we want to emulate, and what did we want to modernize and what did we want to do in a different manner to convey the suspense that Steve wanted to keep in the picture. The nice thing about Steve as a writer/director is that he can make a horror film that is scary and compelling, and at the same time he can make you laugh. He has humor buried throughout the picture. But, it isn’t a satire on the genre, rather, it’s a praise of it. We really enjoyed those pictures and we want to convey to a new audience, the kind of feelings we have for them.

Is it any different working on a fast-paced, fx heavy flick like Van Helsing than any other film?

It is different in that you are always in communication with people who are working subsequently on the special effects. They are going to be the people compositing them and so on, and you want them on the set. You want a representative from whatever organization is finishing the effect to be there so you make sure you provide them with what they need to bring off the effect later on. Thus, you are sort of working at levels where you are photographing a scene in one month, and six months or a year later you are talking to people at the effects house about how they are finishing it, and what you want to do to complete the look of your original photography. So, we find ourselves photographing scenes over long periods of time when you are dealing with effects work. It’s the communication with the people that are all involved in different stages of making these shots work.

How was your working relationship with Stephen Sommers? Do you hope to do a sequel with him?

Stephen Sommers was an absolute delight throughout. In fact, Sam Mercer who was the executive producer on the film and with whom I have worked with before, called me up and he said, ‘I think you should meet Steve Sommers. I think you would get along real well with him.’ Boy was he right! It was terrific from the very first meeting. The communication was there. I liked the way Steve prepares for his films. As the writer and director, he has a really good concept going in, yet, he has an open mind. He’ll listen to suggestions and he is a pleasure to work with because he has a very open attitude about what his picture is going to be. I would love to work with him again anytime on any project. I haven’t heard anything about a sequel. I think he’s open as to what his next project will be.

When and How did you get started in the industry?

When I was 12 years old, I saw color television for the first time. It was a brand new thing and I said I have to find out how that works. It led me into a whole series of studies—reading, going to the library and then gate crashing at television studios and then movie studios. The more I learned, the more I realized I had to learn more about photography. The more I learned about photography, the more fascinated I was with the cinematographer, the director of photography and what that job was. I figured, by the time I was 16 years old, that it was the best job in the world. I never stopped thinking that, and it’s been one of those things that has been a delight to accomplish.

E.T must have been great to work on. How was it?

Never dull! E.T. was never dull for a minute because you were challenged to do something every day. In addition, just the concept of the film, of making a mechanical creature come alive and exist for a vast audience. Steven had committed to make this film for very low budget. We made E.T. for $10 million in 1981/82. So this was a real challenge. Every day was a challenge to be able to complete the work. Steven, while he always had a strong concept of what he wanted to do, would discover things, particularly as to how E.T. worked, and the relationship E.T. had with the other characters in the film. This was something that never stopped. I think that everybody who worked on the picture had this sense of collaboration to produce what Steven wanted. It was fantastic. At one time, E.T. had eleven operators to articulate his movements, the direction of his eyes, his smile and all of these things that could be done to produce different emotions in different scenes. To see that happen and be able to find a way to capture it and to be able to light E.T. in a way that, in the beginning, we didn’t see him very well. You discover him throughout the course of the movie a little bit at a time. From the beginning, he had to be kept very much in darkness, and as a mysterious figure until Steven was ready for the audience to really get to know him.

You did some work on "The Polar Express". What is it you did on that?

I shot some tests. It’s not even worth discussing because the only reason I shot those tests was that the regular cinematographer who worked for Bob was not available. He was finishing up another picture. So I shot some digital camera tests simply so that Steve Starky, Bob’s producer, and Bob, could basically see what they wanted to do and what techniques they wanted to use for the finishing film. But what I did was not at all important, and what they did later on was the real work for the picture. Some of it is quite new and amazing things they are doing in terms of motion capture and facial capture. I don’t think anybody has ever pushed it as far as they were intending to do. I’m very anxious to see the film. I think the work that Don Burgess did is what really counts in terms of the look of that picture. But, I know it was very, very challenging what they were going to do, and some very new things and some real innovations are going to be in that picture.

How was your job changed in the last decade. If, at all?

I think the most important thing is that we are still doing the same thing we have always done in terms of making the look of a film. But, we have a greater variety of tools both in film and in digital that give us a greater range of control over the images. That’s very exciting because I think we will see both film and digital continue to develop, and we will be able to have a broader platform on which to base our work.

What’s next for you filmwise?

I’m waiting to hear about a project that I can’t discuss because it does not have its “green light” yet, but I am very optimistic. It’s something that I have wanted to do for a long time.


VAN HELSING is now showing

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