PHIL MEHEUX, BSC, ILLUMINATES "THE SMURFS"

Phil Méheux, BSC, grew up in North Kent, England, in a small town called Sidcup. At 16, he was determined to become a cinematographer, but there were no reputable film schools operating in London at that time. It was also the time when there was a “catch-22” situation: you either had to be a member of the union to get a job on a film set, or you had to be working on a film set to become a member of the union.

Phil looked at alternatives, and applied to the BBC Television Service training for television cameramen, but because he wasn’t yet 21 and had not completed mandatory National Military Service, they wouldn’t accept him. He landed a job as a junior clerk at the MGM British Sales office and after hours, started to make 16mm black and white short films with some friends. He eventually ended up as a projectionist at the BBC Film Studios in Ealing, London, which gave him access to the assistant film cameraman training course.

He went on to become a documentary cameraman, and was offered his first feature, “Black Joy,” because of his unique style, and took the chance to become a freelance feature DP. The line producer on that film was Martin Campbell, who later moved into directing and hired Phil on several films including: “Criminal Law,” “Defenseless,” “No Escape,” “Goldeneye,” “The Mask of Zorro,” “Beyond Borders,” “The Legend of Zorro,” “Casino Royale” and “Edge of Darkness.” He also teamed up with director John Mackenzie, who he had worked with at the BBC, with films such as “The Long Good Friday,” “Beyond the Limit,” “Act of Vengeance,” “The Fourth Protocol” and “Ruby.”

Phil’s work also includes such diverse films as “The Saint,” directed by Phillip Noyce, “Entrapment,” directed by Jon Amiel, “Bicentennial Man,” directed by Chris Columbus, and two films with Frank Coraci, “Around the World in 80 Days,” and “Here Comes the Broom,” slated for a 2012 release.  His most recent release, “The Smurfs,” was directed by Raja Gosnell, who Phil worked with in 2008 on “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.” Phil was nominated for a BAFTA award for best cinematography and won the British Society of Cinematographers award for best cinematography in 2006 for “Casino Royale.” Phil has been a member of the British Society of Cinematographers since 1979, and served as president of the organization from 2002-2006. Phil explains his creative process and work on “The Smurfs.”

Q: What path did you take to become a cinematographer?
PM: I got a job as a clerk grade III with MGM British sales office in London and met a similar-minded young man who introduced me to his other friends. Together we would screen 16mm prints of feature films in his house every Sunday. This eventually led us to making our own films on 16mm black and white using a second-hand Bolex H16 camera. Realizing that feature film sales would not get me the job I craved, I joined an advertising agency as their in-house projectionist and cutting room assistant and was taken as a production assistant on commercial shoots. The preview cinema and cutting equipment proved extremely useful as we made our ‘amateur’ films. It was during this period that we attempted to make our own low-budget feature, having been inspired by John Cassavettes’ “Shadows.” We all left our jobs, but the financing dropped out before we started shooting. I took a temporary job in a West End cinema as a projectionist and was alerted to an advertisement for a trainee assistant film cameraman for BBC Television in a Sunday newspaper. The trainee course was full but I was encouraged to join the BBC as a studio projectionist since they were expanding, and it put me in the right place for the next trainee course in 1964. I successfully completed that and assisted several accomplished cinematographers. By 1968, I was promoted to documentary cameraman, shooting mostly 16mm color and gradually moved into shooting all-film drama plays. On the strength of one of my documentary-style drama shoots, I was asked to photograph my first 35mm feature “Black Joy,” which was the official British entry for the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. The line producer was Martin Campbell, who became influential in my later career.

Q: When and where were you when you were first introduced to Panavision?
PM: Panavision was always known as the doyen of film cameras and was ubiquitous on many American feature shoots. Unfortunately, for Britain the book price -- which Panavision insisted the British distributors adhere to -- was too expensive for European-style low budget films, an area in which I was beginning to find employment. It wasn’t until my first anamorphic shoot in 1980 that I was able to use Panavision equipment. However, I had some issues with the variable quality of the lenses available in Britain. Later on, Panavision opened up a wholly-owned rental facility and realized the importance of negotiating their fees if they were to make inroads into European productions. But it wasn’t until the arrival of the “Z” series lenses (Zeiss optics within Panavision housings) – which coincided with me shooting in North America -- that I became more of a fan, reinforced by terrific customer service from the good offices of Hugh Whittaker in London and Bob Harvey and Phil Radin in Los Angeles.

Q: What was your first project you used Panavision on?
PM: In 1980 I shot “Omen III: The Final Conflict,” in anamorphic.

Q: What was it that influenced your decision to become a cinematographer?
PM: When I was very young, the only family entertainment easily available was cinema.  Television didn’t gain strength in Britain until I was 8 years old, and then it was slightly intellectual (at least in Britain): mostly documentary, news or live plays. From the first film I saw, “Bambi,” when I was probably 3 or 4, I was hooked on the images and sounds of cinema and collected books and photographs of film sets. By the time I was 10 or 11, I had decided that I wanted to be the man who sat on the camera crane, although I had no real knowledge of how a film crew was put together. I used to keep a notebook of every cinematographer I had viewed in the local cinema.

Q: How long have you been using the same crew in terms of gaffer, key grip, operator and assistant?
PM: This is a vexed question. Working in Britain, I was able to keep a crew together in the early days and following “Goldeneye” in 1995, I worked with the same crew on seven features. When I started working in the US, I had favorites, but it proved more difficult to keep them together. They had other DPs they worked with and they had not developed alongside me as had the UK crew. Coupled with that, most productions now ask you to use local crew from whichever town you are based in. However, I have been lucky enough to find good crew in most places.

Q: What is your decision-making process between shooting spherical or anamorphic?
PM: This has a lot to do with the scope of the script as well as the director’s vision. For instance, an intense emotional or dialogue-based story that involves many close-ups might work best in normal 1:85; whereas an action movie in an exotic location seems to cry out for anamorphic.

Q: Do you have a different approach in how you shoot anamorphic vs. spherical?
PM: Not really. Obviously you would want vistas and space to use anamorphic well but that’s not essential. The lighting usually is the same, although I find it makes a more pleasing visual effect if you keep the depth of field fairly extended with a higher aperture as often as possible, given that anamorphic lenses are effectively twice the focal length for the same width of a spherical lens. And let’s face it, the ceiling and the floor can be superfluous in a wide interior shot.

Q: The last film you shot, “The Smurfs,” used the Genesis camera and Primo spherical lenses.  Was the decision to shoot in that format made between you and the director or were there other influences?
PM: It was considered more effective to shoot digitally so that the data could be transferred into the animator’s hands with expediency and thereby streamline the post process. We also captured the images using Panavision’s Solid State Recorders and their Digital Transfer Station, which allows for transcoding the material into a wide range of different file formats for post-production, viewing, and archival purposes - on demand.

Q: How do you think the 3D effect worked with this film?
PM: The problem for me with 3D is that it is principally an effect that needs imagery designed for the 3D effect and this can sometimes get in the way of telling a story.  Although I have to say, I thought the Smurfs looked more believable as “real” figures in 3D than in 2D.

Q: When shooting “Smurfs,” what can you tell us about how you designed your lighting to photograph key actors?
PM: My prime approach always is to make the actors look as good as I can by incorporating their film characters into the lighting and imagery that best suits the story. Often, I design lighting set-ups which not only create the mood for the scene but will also work well with each artiste.

Q: Are there any particular scenes in “The Smurfs” you can talk about where you really pushed the envelope on lighting?

PM: Pushing the envelope often happens when you are shooting on film because the end result can be up in the air until the following day – or a swift call from the editor! You rely totally on your experience and knowledge and sometimes you are the only person on set who knows what you are doing. I remember one shoot on a commercial for Singapore Airlines. At the last minute, we were granted permission to shoot in an underground vault under the Palais du Justice in Paris that had these amazing pillars and vaulted ceilings, with our tame stewardess walking amongst them. All I had was a box of 100w tungsten light bulbs, which I distributed around as best I could. I chose the lens with the widest aperture, which was T1.1 and asked the stewardess to walk slowly and I would under-crank the camera at 16 frames. I was a little nervous about the end result and overnight worked out a few excuses I could use if it didn’t work! At the end of the following day, we sat down to view the dailies and even I was surprised at how good it looked. Naturally, I was the director’s best mate and magician from then on. Working with digital capture, a lot of that angst is removed because you can see exactly what you are shooting. And, with an experienced DI technician who will make sure you don’t go too far, you can go home with the knowledge that the scene will look exactly as you saw it recorded.

Q: With the Smurf characters, how did you adapt your lighting for the visual effects shot?
PM: The only real adaptation for shots involving only Smurfs was to create as much depth of field as one could on the set so that as many of the Smurf characters in the shot would be sharp when added, without it looking unreal.

Q: Do you have any favorite Panavision lenses? If so, why?
PM: One often uses different lenses for different looks. However, I do like the Primos, particularly their close-focus brothers.

Q: Out of all the projects that you have shot, what was your favorite? And why?
PM: That’s always a difficult question to answer. They are all my children and therefore I like them all in one way or another. Some of my best work can be on a film that does no business and vice-versa. However, I am very fond of “The Mask of Zorro” because I felt we were able to capture the period as well as the action well and we had fun making it.

Q: Any advice you could give to a young cinematographer today?
PM: Yes. Become a chef! Everyone has to eat! Seriously, the business is so different now. In my youth, I made amateur films with two other guys and it took a fair chunk of our combined week’s salary just to buy 100 feet of 16mm film, let alone process and print it. With still photography, I processed and printed my own stills and made enlargements, which proved useful as it gave me a good grounding in how light affects light-sensitive materials and how printing techniques can enhance the effect. But maybe that is anachronistic now. Also, we had to edit our films manually using editing machines; it can be done successfully on computers these days. Now, you can make films and shoot stills on mobile phones at very little cost.  My advice is to shoot as much as you can for yourself as well as other people. Learn by shooting in different light situations, study films that have won cinematography awards to learn about composition, cutting and how that affects the camera angles and size of lens. Legend has it that Orson Welles watched John Ford’s “Stagecoach” one hundred times before making “Citizen Kane.” Also, visit galleries with displays of photography by the world’s masters and learn from them. I often sit on juries judging non-professional short films and the thing that depresses me is that the ‘man-with-the-camera’ just sets his camera to the highest rating he can, and shoots with available light whether it’s good or not. This is not cinematography! Cinematography is about choosing the light, the lens size and the composition to tell a story.