On the set of the upcoming major motion picture The Commuter, starring Liam Neeson and Vera Farmiga and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, award-winning director of photography Paul Cameron, ASC had to tap into his innovative and creative resources to deliver breathtaking shots.
The film takes place predominantly on a moving train, and all train interiors were shot on stage with blue screens. There was also a Grand Central Station practical stage for shots where the train was pulling into the station. Cameron’s work on the film is a compelling exploration of the nexus of filmmaking, technology, and innovative design.
Paul talked to us about his work on the film in our latest interview.
PH: How has your work changed over the past year?
Paul Cameron: During the pandemic, I was able to work on a script I am writing and develop a couple of projects. Everything has fallen back into place now. I’ve been shooting some commercials and music videos, also finishing up a lengthy R+D project for Amazon and new technologies.
I’m about to direct another episode of Westworld and then begin prep on another project with Jonathan Nolan/Kilter Films that shoots next year in NYC
PH: When did you know you wanted to become a DP? Can you talk about some of your early work?
Paul Cameron: I started shooting while I was at SUNY Purchase in the late 70’s basically because I couldn’t afford to make my own films. My first project was filming B-52’s “Rock Lobster.” This was before MTV. I could see it all coming along with rise of commercials. It was a great time in NYC. I got into the union as a DP right out of school based on my reel. I didn’t have any mentors or contacts in the business. I just knew I wanted to shoot.
PH: What drew you to your latest project, Reminiscence?
Paul Cameron: I worked with Lisa Joy when she and her husband Jonathan Nolan started Westworld. I was just finishing an episode they put me on as director when Lisa sent me the script. It was one of the best scripts I’d read in a long time. An analogue futuristic noir romantic thriller. Not a genre I’ve seen before, but it felt familiar. We met with Howard Cummings/Production Designer and put together some concept art establishing the look and feel of the nostalgia machine. Lisa put calls into Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson and Thandiwe Newton. Aaron Ryder and Film Nation jumped on to produce. Before you know it, I was shooting drone footage of Miami via FaceTime and helping Lisa put together a teaser for the film. Lisa brought the teaser to the Berlin Festival and secured a deal with Warner Bros. A few months later, we were scouting in Miami and New Orleans.
PH: How did you approach the project from a visual standpoint? Can you share a bit about your process?
Paul Cameron: After initial discussions with Lisa, I knew we weren’t chasing any visual path to create a traditional Film Noir. She wanted a contemporary film with a noir backbone. We discussed her vision of Miami 2050. A city flooded where the heat is too extreme to be in during the day. Where people travel by boat and wooden walkways. Areas that land barons keep dry to live and work in. We discussed “Body Heat” and the overwhelming reality of humidity and intense heat. I gravitated towards warmer tones, especially in skin tones. Also, in lighting and color balance. I started doing some basic camera tests and built an extreme show LUT with Dave Cole at FotoKem. I do have to tip my hat to Ed Lachman and his film “Carol.” I built the LUT emulating that Super 16mm reversal feel. If not for the challenge shooting low light levels for projection, I would have begged Lisa to shoot Super 16mm film.
PH: What challenges did you encounter and how did you approach them?
Paul Cameron: One of the greatest challenges was creating the illusion for Jackman’s nostalgia machine. I wanted to create a real illusion for Hugh to walk up to and interact with. The image was supposed to feel like an image emanating from strings. Semitransparent. Illusive. I had used a projection material called Hologauze before. It’s a shark tooth like scrim with threads of silver woven in to catch the projection. The projection mapping was challenging, as the material was stretched on a 180-degree circle, 20 feet in diameter. All the images that are projected had to be pre-vised and carefully shot on location to match lenses, distances and heights to maintain the projection frustum. It’s all very complicated until Hugh walked onto stage and saw a projection of Rebecca Ferguson singing a torch song. He was mesmerized at the illusion. I felt at that moment I pulled off something special and unique.
The other challenge for the film was working in water. We flooded a section of the old Six Flags park outside New Orleans. It was turned into a mini South Beach, Miami. The water was about 4 feet high. There were many scenes shot in and around that area including projection shots. A lot of nights in that park and water surrounded by alligator and wild boar. We also flooded warehouses, streets and even a school to maintain the water level reality. I learned to love to wear waders.
PH: What is some of your equipment of choice? Does it vary depending on the types of shots you’re looking to achieve?
Paul Cameron: When Lisa and I started meeting we discussed the desire to shoot film. Due to the need of shooting at a higher ISO and lower light levels for live projection, I turned to the SONY VENICE once again. I knew it was the right camera for the film. The 2500 ISO base is extraordinary.
I went with Cooke Anamorphic Full Frame lenses. They have a timeless character to them, favoring a vintage look. I love the way they render faces in big close ups. We used quite a bit of Steadicam with Chris Haarhoff. Chris and I have done a few films together. His demeanor, sensibility, and craftsmanship are astounding. I also used a fair amount of drones and techno cranes.
PH: Can you share some of your favorite shots from the film? Maybe something about them we wouldn’t know just by watching (as a viewer).
Paul Cameron: One of my favorite shots is when Hugh Jackman is running and chasing this younger girl for information. They are at this outdoor water market in an abandoned amusement park. We shot that at the old Six Flags outside of New Orleans. Hugh comes around a corner and behind him is this massive broken Merry Go Round. I remember scouting and thinking that it would be great to rewire the ride and have the lights on and flashing behind Hugh for the scene. The riggers got on it and battled wild boar and 12ft alligators to get in there and get the job done. The shots are brief, but I love the background.
PH: As a DP, how do you constantly reinvent yourself and build your skills?
Paul Cameron: It’s important creatively and professionally to be aware where you are and where you are going. Tony Scott encouraged me to maintain two things in my life and career. Be interested and be interesting. That really sums it up. I spend a lot of time staying in front of the curve of my craft and surrounding technologies. Also surrounding myself with inspiration. Discipline also plays a big part. I believe in dedicating myself to the work and time needed to grow.
PH: Can you talk about any other upcoming projects you have?
Paul Cameron: I am about to direct another episode of Westworld, in addition to just completing an Amazon R+D Project involving new technologies. I’ve also started scouting another Amazon project with Director Jonathan Nolan that shoots January 2022 NYC.