Dariusz Wolski, ASC attended film school in Lodz, Poland. Then he went to New York, tried to get a job, worked as a camera assistant and moved to L.A. where he started in music videos, commercials, and movies.
JON FAUER: Tell me a little bit about your current job, “The Martian.”
DARIUS WOLSKI: It is directed by Ridley Scott. We describe it as Robinson Crusoe on Mars: an astronaut stranded on Mars struggles to survive. It stars Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, and Matt Damon. It’s not Sci-Fi. The story is realistic. It’s very interesting; everything the astronaut does is quite feasible. We have consultants from NASA and they say, “You can’t do this; yes, you can do that.” So our character grows potatoes on Mars and there are attempts to rescue him and so forth.
And you’re shooting this in 3-D?
It’s 3-D, yes.
What equipment are you using?
Panavision equipment and 3ality. Since my early 3-D days, we used RED cameras because of the size. Now we’re using RED Dragons. Our lenses are small Angénieux Optimo zoom lenses, so we don’t have to change lenses to change focal lengths. The biggest problem in 3D is changing lenses, because that takes forever. Basically we devised a system with lots of multiple cameras. This movie has four rigs. On “Exodus” we had five rigs. We have two wide rigs and two tight rigs. That’s why those little Angénieux Optimo zooms are basically indispensible. They are the best thing that could happen for us. We have 15-40 mm T2.6 Optimo zooms for the wide rigs and 28-76 mm T2.6 Optimos for the tight rigs. With that range, we don’t change lenses, which is great. We line up the shot and adjust the focal length. On “Exodus” we actually went a little bit longer because it was just really a big landscape movie and so we also had a fifth rig that had another set of small Angénieux Optimo zoom: 45-120 T2.8. I was afraid to use longer lenses at first, but when you deal with big landscapes, they actually work pretty well.
Are the lenses in PL or PV mount?
There should be one universal mount for all cameras.
That would be nice. Hah!
And one electrical connector, like the Apple MacBook charger.
Hmm. That may happen when there’s just one RAW format for all cameras.
It’ll never happen.
Back to lenses: on your regular movies, not 3-D, are you also using zooms more than primes? And especially on digital shows?
Not just in the digital world. Using a zoom is just simpler. Even in the film world, I use Optimo short zooms all the time. Why not have a zoom lens that is as small, or smaller, than many primes? Some people have to have a lot of big, heavy equipment, but for me it’s not necessary. When it comes to the quality of the Optimo lenses, they are wonderful. Of course, you can debate that certain primes made your shot or gave it a look, but, as you know, everything is so sharp these days. Film stocks are sharp, the digital images are sharp, and as long as you treat these zooms well, they’re absolutely beautiful.
It’s surprising we don’t use zooms more often as “variable primes.”
There is a stigma that goes way back to the 1970s, when the earlier zoom lenses came. Some of them breathed, they were not that sharp, not that fast, and during a zoom, they could go out of focus. There were all those issues. It was a very complicated optical thing. Actually there were two stigmas—the first was technical, that the image was not good enough. The other was artistic. The idea of zooming in and out made people think of television. But when you look at all the great movies, people used zooms. Billy Fraker and Vilmos Zsigmond used zooms in the ‘70s. That’s how it was.
Vilmos was talking with me about using zooms on “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971).
Of course. And then there was this weird notion that you shouldn’t use them. But you can look at it both ways. For example, you can be on the roof of the building, following a car way down below, and zoom out to establish the scene, as Billy Friedken did in the “French Connection,” and many films. You can make a statement out of it and make the zoom noticeable. Or you can just do it gently. If we watch various movies, most of us won’t even notice whether a zoom was used or not. Using a zoom has become a classic way of telling a story.
Right now you’re using zooms as variable primes?
Yes. Basically it’s a variable prime. But you can a zoom in and adjust the frame slightly during the shot. You can sneak in or out. It holds up, even in 3-D And it totally works.
Do you remember the first time you used an Angénieux zoom?
The first time was probably as a camera assistant, in the ‘80s. I remember putting them into blimps with all those little strips and gears. In those days, of course, using primes was beneficial: sharper, faster, smaller. But there were certain situations, like, when you went outside, where zooms were indispensable.
What about matching the two lenses on your 3-D rigs?
Well, that takes a little work. I don’t do that personally, but we have a great crew. We prepped at Panavision in LA. And we are supported by Panavision here in Budapest. The reason I use Panavision is that I appreciate their vast network, with their excellent service. When it comes to making movies all over the world, I find that Panavision still has the best service system in the world. They’ll do anything for us. You go to England, you go
to Budapest, you go to Australia, you go anywhere, and you’re talking to the same people.
Other rental houses can buy a bunch of cameras. But can they deliver? You can buy 10 cameras and be a rental house, but can you really service a big movie with a lot of equipment changes and additional stuff? That’s why, for me, Panavision is still the best place in the world.
Do you see continued interest in 3-D? What’s the next phase?
I think 3-D’s going to fade out. I initially had to learn how to deal with it, and I love it. Ridley Scott loves it because he enjoys shooting big movies and epics. I think what we do with 3-D is pretty seamless and good. But at the same time, you can show the same film in 2-D and 3-D. I don’t know how really advantageous it is in the end.
On this show, are you shooting full 6K?
No, it’s actually 5K. And the Angénieux zooms cover that image circle.
For you, what’s the difference between film and digital?
Lately we’re seeing a film reaction to the digital world. It’s like, “Oh, digital is not pure, so to be pure, we’re going to shoot film.” I’ve shot lots of film. It’s not like I’m some new kid on the block; I’ve shot a lot of movies on film, and I love film. But everyone forgot about bad baths on Monday. And things could go wrong.
Was it the camera? Was it the lab? Or was it Kodak? Was it the wrong batch? Everyone forgot about those details. Remember green dailies? What happened? First, fire the cameraman. But then it was learned that some guy fell asleep at the lab. Everyone has forgotten about those stories.
And the dreaded phone call from the lab at three in the morning.
Yes. Racing to the lab early in the morning. Unfortunately, we are losing people with skills to run a film lab. Nobody who is 30 years old wants to be a lab technician any more; they’re all working on their computers, shooting movies on GoPros. Who’s going to be the guy in the lab at two in the morning making sure the temperature in the bath is okay?
Don’t get me get me started on the film vs digital world. I love those last purists who shoot film and they do such a heavy DI manipulation, you wonder where’s the film? Give me three printing lights like we used to do. Then let’s talk about film. It’s a sentimental notion.
What format will “The Martian” be released in?
Widescreen — 2.35:1
And you’re composing that way? Or leaving extra room for effects?
No. We compose the shot carefully. Ridley is quite precise about composition. He is a visual director.
Is there anything you’d like to add about Angénieux?
It’s a fantastic modern lens right now. I mean, their short zooms are revolutionary. If you have to make a low-budget film, you can take one camera, and you can take those two zooms, and you can shoot the entire film with two short zooms. You can hand-hold, you can use them as variable primes. They are practical. That’s how we do our big 3-D movies. But we are pretty much shooting our whole film with two lenses. The bottom line is that’s pretty much all you need. Unless there’s an effects shot that needs a super long lens or super wide lens. And I think if you talk to every experienced director, that’s what they will tell you.
There’s no mystery to it. I mean, one director will go a little bit longer, some a little wider, but the bottom line is that’s how you tell the story. And those Angénieux zooms have all that range in one or two lenses.