Ace in the Hole: Casino

Director Martin Scorsese recruits a crack production team — including Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson, ASC — to help create his complex Las Vegas crime epic.

Unit photography by Phillip Caruso, courtesy of Universal Pictures

At top, Robert De Niro as eagle-eyed gambling kingpin Sam “Ace” Rothstein. 

In Las Vegas, the only way to win, short of dumb luck, is to lower the odds by any means necessary. Foolish souls seeking three cherries from one-armed bandits will invariably leave town empty-handed, while the seasoned gambler knows that success can only be earned via shrewd betting, skill and perseverance.

This article originally appeared in AC, November 1995. Some images may be additional or alternate.

A period piece set in the flamboyant Seventies, Casino relates the tale of Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), an expert handicapper from Chicago who enters the upper echelons of the Las Vegas crime world when he is selected by the Mafia to head the Tangiers Corporation, a cash-rich gambling concern. Accompanying Rothstein during his rise are his lifelong friend, mob muscleman Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), and the alluring Ginger (Sharon Stone), a hustler for whom Rothstein harbors a libidinous obsession. The trio’s ascension to the plush, privileged realm of Vegas royalty eventually leads to excesses and intrigues that threaten to ruin them all.

Film buffs will note the recurrence of themes — the exhilaration of power and the inevitability of betrayal, fueled by almost fetishistic fixations — that Scorsese has explored in past films such as Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1983) and especially GoodFellas (1990). Casino also encores a few stylistic techniques that were used to great effect in GoodFellas, such as freeze-frames, flashbacks, extremely rapid dolly moves and expansive voiceovers by various characters. 

“This film is different than GoodFellas because we have a much larger canvas this time: it’s America, it’s Vegas, it’s the mob out West!”
— Martin Scorsese

While Scorsese concedes that his new film bears a superficial resemblance to some of his past pictures, he maintains that Casino is a tale with considerably greater scope. “There are certainly some similarities to GoodFellas in the way the story is told,” Scorsese relates. “But then, Nick Pileggi and I also wrote GoodFellas, Pesci and De Niro were in that film, and Casino deals with a comparable subject matter. When you have the same writers, the same actors, and similar themes, you’re quite naturally going to have some parallels in style. Because this film covers a number of years, we used the voice-over narration to carry the viewer through, and there are also a lot of quick cuts in many scenes. But this film is different than GoodFellas because we have a much larger canvas this time: it’s America, it’s Vegas, it’s the mob out West! There are over 289 scenes, so it's a much bigger picture than my previous films.” 

De Niro, Pesci, and director Martin Scorsese.

Asked why he is so drawn to mob-related subject matter, Scorsese muses, “I find these types of stories inherently dramatic. Even the ancient Greek playwrights always said that the antagonist is more interesting than the protagonist. Let’s face it, the bad guy is more interesting than the good guy! My attraction to this material also goes back to where I grew up, and being familiar with a certain kind of lifestyle. When I was 8 or 9, I saw that lifestyle around me in the streets, and I recognized it as another, more rebellious way of living, rather than settling into the norm or the mainstream.

“That's a pretty big subject,” he asserts. “I find these characters and their lives to be almost a microcosm of the outside world of politics, government, and so on. It’s like the old line from The Threepenny Opera, when Mack the Knife makes a speech as he is about to be hanged. He asks the people, ‘Why are you hanging me? Ultimately, what’s the robbing of the bank to the founding of a bank?’”

Pausing to chuckle at the wisdom of this rhetorical query, Scorsese expands, “One man robs legitimately, and the other man robs illegitimately. In a street philosophy, quite often the illegitimate thief is seen as the more honest one. I’m not saying I’m that way, or my family’s that way, but when you grow up in the streets, that’s what it’s like. You tend to look at things a little differently. But of course one has to recognize that such a lifestyle is, at the very least, extremely destructive.”

Director of photography Robert Richardson, ASC

Given the visual opportunities inherent in the gaudy Vegas milieu, Scorsese seems the ideal director to tackle an in-depth examination of the nation’s Gambling Capital. A master film stylist whose groundbreaking techniques have been aped by an entire generation of filmmakers, the director has perfected a kinetic, adrenalized camera style that seems tailored to the amped-up emotions of a crime drama. Citing the key influences in the formation of this style, Scorsese offers, “Ultimately, the thing that inspired me the most was the way Orson Welles combined camera movement and wide lenses in Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai. I was also very influenced by Fellini’s camera style in 8 ½ and Juliet of the Spirits — mainly 8 ½. In the case of Kane, I saw that at an age when I was a film student. So I would say to myself, ‘Gee, I wonder how he got that effect,’ and I would find out which lens he’d used. Then I’d try to get a similar effect in 16mm, and I could figure it out: ‘Well, that lens is equivalent to this lens in 16mm, so I think I’ll try it.’ I’d put the lens on the camera, and run along a wall with it, and realize, ‘Hey, things seem to move faster when I do this. The wall looks like it’s just speeding past me.’ I really have an attraction towards a kind of self-conscious look in terms of camera style. I kind of like that.”

“Tremendous constraints were placed upon us in terms of the time we had to shoot. In order to use an actual working casino, we were forced to work night hours, starting at 10 or 11 p.m. and working until the same hours in the morning.” — Robert Richardson, ASC

De Niro with Scorsese and Richardson (center) shooting on location in Las Vegas at the Riviera.
De Niro with Scorsese and Richardson (center) shooting on location in Las Vegas at the Riviera.

The director found a kindred spirit in Robert Richardson, ASC, who was brought on board when delays in the start date led Scorsese’s usual director of photography — Michael Ballhaus, ASC, BVK — to accept an offer to shoot the thriller Outbreak with director Wolfgang Petersen. Scorsese and Richardson had previously met when the latter interviewed for the cinematographer’s slot on Cape Fear, an assignment that eventually went to Freddie Francis, BSC. The Scorsese/Richardson teaming offers an intriguing collision of visual genius, made all the more fascinating by the fact that Scorsese once taught a New York University film course attended by the cameraman’s close friend and frequent collaborator, Oliver Stone. Explaining his decision to work with Richardson, Scorsese says, “I admire the look of Oliver Stone’s films. When Michael Ballhaus wasn’t available to shoot Cape Fear, I met with Bob, but I later decided to work with Freddie Francis because I wanted a more traditional look. Freddie's photography had that kind of look — a beautiful, almost orthodox view of lighting — and I thought his approach would match perfectly with the material.

“But I remember being very impressed with Bob because he sent me some photographs — fragmented, interesting pieces of images like faces and so forth — that he felt dealt with the subject matter of the film. He wasn’t trying to be literal in suggesting a specific look; he was trying more to convey a theory or a philosophy in terms of the way the film would look. I was impressed with somebody who would go into that sort of detail.”

Detail, of course, is the backbone of any Scorsese film. The director is well-known as an obsessive planner who storyboards nearly every shot, down to the precise movements of actors and corresponding camera moves. On Casino, however, difficult logistics and the sprawling nature of the story forced Scorsese to depart from his plans on more than one occasion. A good portion of the film was shot inside the Riviera casino during off-hours, but the production team was forced to work around the gambling den’s night-owl activity. “Tremendous constraints were placed upon us in terms of the time we had to shoot,” notes Richardson. “In order to use an actual working casino, we were forced to work night hours, starting at 10 or 11 p.m. and working until the same hours in the morning. The graveyard shift was the time when it was easiest on the Rivera, so we wouldn’t distract the casino’s clients.”

“What we got from the real location was a kind of electric energy in the frame. You could feel it, especially in the backgrounds, where people were really moving around and playing the games. The casino scenes have a rather phantasmagorical feeling. The camera movement, combined with the lighting and
the colors, creates a kind of hallucinatory
effect that’s very interesting.”
— Martin Scorsese

The crew sets up in the Riviera. To better control lighting in the gaming areas, extra bulbs and chrome-plated Par cans were added to existing overhead lighting bays, and the entire setup was controlled through a dimmer board. For wide shots of the casino floor, Richardson aimed Dinos and Maxis through muslin. The cinematographer also made extensive use of cutters to keep the reflective glare out of his lens.
The crew sets up in the Riviera. To better control lighting in the gaming areas, extra bulbs and chrome-plated Par cans were added to existing overhead lighting bays, and the entire setup was controlled through a dimmer board. For wide shots of the casino floor, Richardson aimed Dinos and Maxis through muslin. The cinematographer also made extensive use of cutters to keep the reflective glare out of his lens.

Despite the late shooting hours, the filmmakers found themselves cocooned in the casino’s constant clamor, a grating change from the church-like silence that usually reigns on a Scorsese set. Assistant director Joe Reidy, who generally keeps things quiet so the director can concentrate, confirms that the surroundings were less than ideal. “Every assistant director has to adapt to his particular director, and I like to be a calming presence on Marty’s sets,” Reidy comments. “Rather than acting like a dictator, I like to create an atmosphere in which the director, the actors and all the creative people can work in peace. In my opinion, being calm but in control is the best possible tone. Marty likes a very quiet set, whereas some directors, like Oliver Stone, like to have the buzz of work all around them. Normally, there’s no chaos on Marty’s sets. On this film, of course, there was no avoiding it because of the circumstances at the casino. It was a very difficult atmosphere to work in.”

Richardson notes that while he had a substantial amount of prep time — between four and six weeks — Scorsese was often tied up during this period, performing rewrites on the script and firming up the film’s casting. This lack of contact caused the cameraman to worry that he would have trouble anticipating his new director's needs, but that concern began to dissolve when Scorsese met with Richardson to screen several classic films from his private collection.

“I first showed Bob T-Men, a black-and-white film directed by Anthony Mann and shot by John Alton,” Scorsese reveals. “It’s one of the quintessential film noirs, and certainly one of the best photographed. Alton’s photography on that film is the very essence of film noir. Bob and I also watched another film by Mann and Alton called Raw Deal, as well as a Technicolor IB print of an Allan Dwan film called Slightly Scarlet, which was made in the Fifties. It’s kind of a gangster movie, and it was also shot by Alton. It has a certain kind of theatricality about it, and it’s certainly a film noir in color. Alton was doing things like lighting through lampshades — in Technicolor IB! That was the kind of thing we were trying to go for on Casino, but we were also dealing with the real look of Vegas itself, which altered our approach from time to time.”

Ginger (Sharon Stone, who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance) casts a venomous look at Rothstein in one of the film's typically glitzy tableaus. Richardson's use of moody, tabletop source lighting adds emotional tension to the scene.

Says Richardson, “The Alton films we watched together were inspirational in many ways, especially in terms of the quality of the light. But they were primary inspirational because they helped the two of us develop a vocabulary and syntax. By forming a common grammar, we could expand on what we were doing. Knowing what Martin liked or disliked about something allowed me to give him options visually that I might have been more reticent about had we not had those discussions. In any new relationship, you go through certain stages of communication, some successful and some not so successful. At the beginning of this project, I was extremely tentative in my suggestions, but I got a bit bolder as we went along.”

When production was imminent, Richardson and Reidy received special shooting scripts filled with Scorsese's observations about the purpose and perspective of each scene. “Martin’s notes are voluminous and precise,” says Richardson. “His notations detail a shot-by-shot description of each sequence, and also include drawings which express an exact composition that he wants to replicate. If a sequence dealt with gaming, it might tell you shot by shot how he wanted to shoot the sequence — from the cards, to the movements of the players, to the introduction of each of the characters, and so forth. In many instances I relied upon Joe Reidy to translate Martin’s notes. To begin with, for me, trying to figure out Martin’s handwriting was like trying to decipher the Dead Sea Scrolls! Secondly, he devises his shots for the optimal situation — a studio. Unfortunately, we shot primarily on location. Hence, certain angles became nearly impossible to achieve. Joe was crucial in lending insight, in terms of both the language of the notes and his own understanding of Martin. This understanding allowed me to more readily suggest compromises, because I was extremely reluctant to trespass upon the sacred soil of Martin’s textbook of shots.”

One aspect of the project that was settled early on was the format in which the film would be shot. As he had on The Age of Innocence, Scorsese decided to execute his vision in Super 35, which would allow the picture to be reformatted for television broadcast. “I wish I could just shoot straight anamorphic, but the lenses we had in this situation were actually much more diversified,” says the director. “To a certain extent, shooting a film this way can make certain technical aspects more difficult, but to me, anything is better than panning and scanning on TV. We can re-frame just about every shot we did on this picture for video.”

“To me, it was fascinating to show how everyone in a casino watches each other; all of the people in charge have their eye on somebody else.”
— Martin Scorsese

Ginger is on a hot streak at the craps table, the wide frame capturing her amidst the action.
Spotted by the casino’s eye in the sky.

Casino marked the first time that Richardson had worked in Super 35, a format for which he has mixed feelings. “I was a bit hesitant because Super 35 forces you to have a reduced quality negative at the final stage,” he admits. “It’s an entirely optical process — a blow-up from the first frame to the last. From what I’ve seen, I’m happy with what we achieved. [At the time of this interview, Richardson had not yet timed the picture.] Furthermore, the primary reason I didn’t press to use anamorphic was that Martin’s shots often require adjustments on a zoom during the shot. To shoot anamorphic with a zoom was impossible at the lighting levels I wanted to work at — from 2.8 to 4. I also wanted to shoot on Kodak’s 93 or 48 whenever I possibly could because of the blow-up.”

Richardson used 5293 for almost all of his night scenes, both interiors and exteriors. All of the film’s day exteriors, as well as most of the day interiors, were recorded on 5248. Richardson’s camera package was Panavision, and he used both a Platinum and a Gold. He worked primarily with Primo lenses, particularly the 4:1 zoom. In addition to a complete set of prime lenses, he also carried 11:1 and 3:1 zooms. “Using the Primos in Super 35 was strange for me, because I'm so accustomed to seeing [the widescreen 2.35 format] shot with either E- or C-series lenses in anamorphic. The 4:1 was really our workhorse lens; a good three-quarters of the picture was shot on that zoom. Once I started using it as a primary lens, I preferred to stay within its quality range. When you start off with something, it’s wise to stay with it, because the limitations or strengths of the particular lens you’re using become relative throughout the picture. I prefer to stay away from anything that would help you see a difference between lenses unless it's deliberately sought after.”

Richardson notes that in general, Scorsese stays away from long lenses. The director confirms that he prefers a wider field of view, noting, “I really like working at 32mm, and then 24mm. Those lenses are a bit wider, and I like their crispness. Sometimes I work even wider, at 18mm, or 10mm. Those lenses were particularly effective for shooting the situations in this movie — the casino, the desert. I happen to like the sharper, deep-focus look of films from the Forties or Fifties. I very rarely use longer lenses.”

Rothstein's bold sartorial style offered plenty of opportunity for the injection of color.

Once the filmmakers had assembled their photographic arsenal, they began shooting in and around the film’s central location, the Riviera casino. Scorsese points out that the film’s Seventies period did cause a few problems, given that Las Vegas has undergone a major facelift in the years since that era. “We had to be careful where we shot, because certain buildings weren’t there in the time frame of the picture,” the director relates. “To get around that, we did a lot with the production design of the sets themselves, by Dante Ferretti, and the costumes, which were created by Rita Ryack and John Dunn. It’s all very colorful, and it really gave Bob Richardson something to play with — especially De Niro’s wardrobe.”

To simulate the look of the Vegas strip of the Seventies, Scorsese enlisted the aid of famed graphic designer Saul Bass (Psycho, The Age of Innocence) and the effects house Matte World Digital (see below). Computer technology helped the filmmakers take a trip back in time for exteriors, while interiors were shot mainly in the real casino.

“We had pretty much the entire casino at our disposal for six weeks, except for Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights,” Scorsese recounts. “It was still a very difficult thing, because the crew had to wrap in and wrap out every night, so we lost a couple of hours there. We had certain areas to work in. We had a lot of the blackjack tables at our disposal, but when we wanted a craps table or a baccarat table we had to work it out in advance. At one point, when we were ready to shoot the baccarat scenes, we couldn’t do it, because one of the tables had a high roller, and we would have distracted him too much if we were at a nearby table. We did try to distract him from playing so we could start working, but he just kept on winning! And naturally, the casino wanted this guy to keep on playing. That was a typical situation where we’d get to the location, set everything up, get all the actors ready, and be unable to work. In those situations, we had to figure out what other scenes we could shoot. We always had backup scenes ready.

“In many cases,” the director notes, “I had things planned before we got to the locations so the idea of the shot would be something I could keep — whether it was a track-in or track-out, a zoom, a pan left or right, a pan away from a character after a certain line of dialogue, things like that. I think this was something different for Bob, whereas Michael Ballhaus knew about my approach before the first picture we did together, After Hours. He was familiar to the extent that he would memorize or re-write the list of shots and drawings until he had them in his head. He would be able to tell me a few days in advance whether we’d be able to get the shot as I’d outlined it, which shots would give us the most problems, and so on. But my previous films were much more tightly planned than Casino, because this film has a bigger story. I felt on this picture that I was able to have a happy combination of the two approaches — on the one hand, to have as much as possible planned out, and on the other, to have the excitement and tension that came from the nature of Vegas itself, where we were forced to improvise shots and dialogue, or shoot against certain backdrops and keep running with it.

“Vegas speaks in a very loud voice. Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid that voice, and you have to go with a mindset of reason that allows
you to accept the limitations that are drawn for
you instead of fighting them.”
Robert Richardson, ASC

The glitzy show room at the Tangiers, where Ace has a confrontation with staff and stars.

“What we got from the real location was a kind of electric energy in the frame,” Scorsese concludes. “You could feel it, especially in the backgrounds, where people were really moving around and playing the games. The casino scenes have a rather phantasmagorical feeling. The camera movement, combined with the lighting and the colors, creates a kind of hallucinatory effect that’s very interesting.”

Responding to this assessment, Richardson offers, “The colors in the film are quite strong, particularly inside the casino. I took as inspiration Alex Webb’s photographic work from the tropics, especially his book Hot Light/Half-Made Worlds. Alex’s eye for contrast with color is mysterious, seductive and terrifying. I felt that these were appropriate elements for Casino, and when combined with the delusional, almost carnival atmosphere of Vegas, the hallucinogenic effect Martin speaks of came alive.”

The cinematographer’s approach to the casino setting was based on a number of factors. “Not knowing who Martin was and what his feelings were towards lighting, I played it a bit more conservative at first, when we were shooting in the casino,” Richardson admits. “As our vocabulary increased over the course of the production, I found myself extending a bit within his preconceived framework. I think you can see my style in the picture, but my presence is perhaps not as muscular as it’s been in some of the past films I’ve worked on. It may have actually been good that we started with the casino scenes, because the location itself forced many considerations upon me; it was telling me how I had to work. The sheer scale of the location, and the practical light level we had to work at, dictated a great deal of my approach. Vegas speaks in a very loud voice. Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid that voice, and you have to go with a mindset of reason that allows you to accept the limitations that are drawn for you instead of fighting them. By the end of the picture, I was telling myself in my notes that I had to find a simpler approach. I was fighting too strongly to make the locations work to a vision I had rather than working to what the location was asking me to do.”

Pools of light on each table help create depth in the dense gaming room.

Richardson was best able to control his lighting when shooting sequences involving isolated action — gaming tables, or single shots of characters. “We enhanced the lighting over the tables by adding 50 percent more bulbs. In addition, Ian and Dante designed a lighting rig that allowed us to hide over 100 chrome-plated Par cans within the lighting bays. We also added a dimming board for all of this, allowing me to raise or lower the value of a background or foreground zone, thereby drawing or repelling the camera’s eye. One of the major problems with shooting in a casino is scale. There are no easy shots. Even the simplest closeup was complicated by the fact that behind every face, there was a space that stretched 300 feet or more, cluttered with people, lights and gaming facilities. In some situations, the apparently random nature of the background design was to our advantage, but at other times we sought a more precise visual frame. It became our challenge to isolate and control [the elements in the frame.] If the casino had been built on a stage, Dante and Martin would have designed a more cohesive and film-friendly environment. I personally would have preferred working in a studio, not only from the perspective of light but also of sound. At times the casino was a detriment to mental focus. With all of the aberrant soundbells, whistles, loudspeaker announcements and music, I found it extremely difficult to maintain concentration. But, needless to say, the cost of constructing a set that large would have been staggering. Fortunately for me, Barbara DeFina, Martin's longtime producer, understood the inherent problems and supported me in attempting to minimize their damage.”

Floor boss Billy Sherbert (Don Rickles) and Rothstein cast a watchful eye for cheaters and degenerate gamblers.

Gaffer Ian Kincaid recalls, “In the casino itself, our rigging crews crawled through the air-conditioning vents and went through a lot of rigamarole so that we could facilitate what the casino needed. The casino wanted all of the lights out of the way; anything we left overnight had to be virtually invisible. When we were working in the Riviera, we had to bring our cables in and out every night. So we designed a scenic baffle that looked somewhat like a slot machine so we could cover up our dimmer area and leave it in place. That allowed us to just bring in our cables and hook them up every day.” 

Scorsese employed a classic iris effect to single out a cheater at the blackjack table.

For wide scenes that covered the casino floor and left little room to hide fixtures, Richardson generally worked with very large lighting sources — Dinos or Maxis — aimed through muslin, or used in combination with 25' x 25' or 12' x 12' Griffolyns. “I was shooting at 2.8 on 5293. As I said, throughout the picture, I generally tried to work between a 2.8 and a 4.1 didn't want to have too much depth of field. I often couldn't light the entire set, and I was worried about too many areas falling off into pitch black and losing a sense of depth within. I found that the 2.8-4 range provided depth with some semblance of security for [first assistant] Don Thorin, Jr., who pulled focus on the show. It was a very difficult show for Don, because if the actor was off his mark even slightly when we were doing longer lensing on the 4:1 zoom, you could see a difference in focus within half an inch.”

Says Thorin, “We did a lot of zooming on this picture, and the focusing was a primary concern for Bob. He’s very particular about it, and he looks at it carefully. This was certainly a challenging shoot from my perspective, because there was a lot of camera movement throughout, and some of it was very unusual. We executed quite a few shots with the Pegasus crane — zooming and craning at the same time.”

Several precautions were taken to prevent reflections in the heavily mirrored confines of the casino. Richardson made extensive use of cutters to keep bouncing light out of his lens, and also added special non-reflective elements to a series of stainless steel columns around the casino floor. “Because of those columns, the light very often bounced back and forth no matter what angle we were shooting at. To help things, we had false non-reflective elements to place on the columns if we couldn't avoid the reflections. A column might be split into 12 strips, six inches wide and 10 feet high. One strip might be highly reflective, while the one next to it would be more brushed steel. So we'd place our own brushed steel element over the reflective strips to bring them down to the neutral gray zone. If that didn't work, we used painted elements with the feel of brushed steel.”

Other sequences required more drastic measures. One, which took up just an eighth of a page in the script, was an overhead tracking shot that floats above De Niro as he walks through the casino. “Because of the height we needed to achieve it, we had to move to another location, an abandoned casino,” Richardson explains. “The ceilings within the Riviera were so low that we never could have pulled off such a substantial move; we had to carry the width of two tables on either side of the character in the middle of the frame.”

Key grip Chris Centrella expounds, “To get that shot, we had approximately 140 feet of dolly track raised up on beds that were about 14 feet high and 10 feet apart. On top of that we mounted this specially configured Pegasus crane so that Bob could sit about 45 feet in the air. He was jammed right up into the ceiling!”

De Niro and Scorsese confer as Richardson is set up on the Pegasus crane.

The Riviera's low ceilings also led Richardson and his crew to develop the “mus-ball,” a device similar to a Chinese lantern. Crafted from a metal skeleton wrapped in muslin, the mus-ball could be built in several sizes. Most frequently, the device contained three 2K bulbs wired to a dimmer, and it was lightweight enough to be lowered and raised with the help of a line attached to a boom pole. “I could generally get the ball on the opposite side of the actors and get a keylight from the direction I preferred,” says Richardson. “Part of the dilemma in such a situation is that the actors aren’t locked down; they don’t just sit there, so you need to light with something you can hide. Sometimes we would move the mus-ball with the actors. There’s one scene in which Sharon's character walks into a restaurant and joins a friend of hers. It was a practical location at the Riviera, and hanging lamps was difficult because the ceiling was too low. As a result, we could only work with a few hidden bounce sources and the mus-ball. We had to go from a standing position to a sitting position two-shot and then into a close-up of Sharon. So we lowered the ball down and swung it in behind her as we made the corresponding move, which put the light in a more flattering position.

Ace (De Niro) and Ginger (Sharon Stone) as lit inside the casino with its inconveniently low ceilings.

“Clearly, with Sharon, we had to treat her with care, which is not always easy if you consider Martin’s attraction to camera movement. On the other hand, there are several sequences in the film where we deliberately attempted to show her falling apart physically, and we didn’t try to hide anything with makeup or lighting. In those situations I sometimes went with fluorescents, which I'm not generally prone towards. I would use Kino Flos, because I find them icier. Normally I’m drawn towards working with larger sources that are softer, allowing for the shadow areas to fall off.”

The mus-ball also helped the cinematographer in dialogue situations shot with two cameras. Despite the limitations this strategy imposes upon lighting and framing considerations, Scorsese often uses it to elicit electrifying improvisations from his actors. “One thing that’s only become clear to me in the past few years is that in the same way I was affected by Welles’ work, I was affected by the films of John Cassavetes — especially Shadows,” Scorsese reveals. “I guess in a funny way I’m combining their styles, which can cause some problems when you’re on the set! Very often you may have to alter your plans for a camera shot in order to incorporate something happening with the actors’ performances that you feel is really truthful. Often it’s best just to stop moving and shoot the actors’ faces... they might be very expressive, and if the actors are cooking for you, you don't have to worry as much about the look. You want to work out, with the director of photography, a way in which the lighting won’t necessarily have to be compromised. If you do need to compromise, you might be able to use your original ideas for the shot in another scene where the opportunity for improvisation is not as strong.” 

Gamblers of another kind, Scorsese and Richardson sought to infuse the dynamic crime tale with noir elements while "dealing with the real look of Vegas itself," according to the director.

A typical two-camera situation arose while the crew was working in the Vegas desert, shooting a dialogue scene involving Pesci and De Niro. “My initial plan was to use backlight, because I knew we'd have daylight that approximates noon all day, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” Richardson says. “The light is very steep. I was hoping to use backlight as much as I could and then cover the characters for the remainder of the sequences. But by the time we got into this sequence with Bob and Joe, I realized that Martin wanted to cover both actors simultaneously to catch the improvisation. So we went with hard, direct light instead — backlight on Joe and hard top frontal light on Bob. The result was a far more saturated visual look, pulling and using the blues of the desert sky in strong contrast to the almost white, dry-lake feel of the landscape.”

Though rife with such scenes of spontaneous verbal riffing, which viewers have come to expect from Scorsese films, Casino also offers many virtuosic, carefully staged sequences that will thrill film junkies. To convey the atmosphere and mechanics of a working casino, the filmmakers went to elaborate, almost clinical lengths. Scorsese's sharp eye for ambience led him to design several sequences that would capture the very essence of the gambler's environs. In addition to detailed close-up footage of the various casino games themselves (which Richardson compares to the intricate, dazzling billiards sequences in The Color of Money), the director shrewdly included telling shots of incidental activity. “We were really interested in showing how things operated around the tables,” Scorsese says. “To me, it was fascinating to show how everyone in a casino watches each other; all of the people in charge have their eye on somebody else. The casino manager is watching the pit boss, the pit boss is watching the shift boss, the dealers are watching the players, and the electronic eye in the sky is watching everybody. It's a very paranoid environment — and rightly so! That idea fascinated me, so there are lots of shots of people staring at each other, checking each other out, and making sure that everything is going well at the tables. You do see a lot of detail on the tables, but it was more important to me to show the overall view of running a casino back in the Seventies. We show how the female hustlers work the room, and how the wiseguys protect certain people. This movie is all about the way people behave.”

In one sophisticated setpiece, Rothstein demonstrates his eagle-eyed ability to spot a scam in progress. While scanning the room, the casino’s king zeroes in on two seemingly unacquainted players sitting at two different blackjack tables, and soon determines that the pair are communicating with the help of electronic wires hidden beneath their clothing. “One guy taps on his leg, and the other guy receives the tapping on his leg,” Scorsese explains. “The first guy is watching the hole card that the other guy's dealer is looking at. We pan back and forth, and you can see how it works.”

Illustrating Scorsese's directorial brilliance, Richardson elaborates: “This particular cheating sequence was designed as a gradual reveal. The idea was to start from a wide point of view to a closer point of view to the first actor's space and then beneath his pant leg. The last shot in this progression is a bit like an X-ray; we did a cross-dissolve to reveal the device beneath his clothing. The entire sequence was carefully choreographed in terms of where the actors were, how they looked at each other, where Bob De Niro was, and so on.”

More meticulous choreography was required for a documentary-like vignette in which the filmmakers track the path of the casino’s cash profits. Shot with a Steadicam operated by the device’s inventor, Garrett Brown, the sequence begins in a back room as a portion of the money is counted, boxed, and put into a bag. The shot then follows the bag through the main gambling area, out the casino's front doors, and into a cab that heads off toward the airport, where a plane will deliver it to the mob’s coffers in Chicago. “On that particular sequence, I prayed, because we had to move from an interior location to an exterior location, through two lighting color temperatures,” says Richardson. “I was highly dependent upon the exterior matching my interior. It was a nightmare. That was a fairly lengthy shot, but there was nothing in this film as long as the famous Steadicam shot in GoodFellas.”

In fact, the cinematographer says that Scorsese generally avoided the use of Steadicam throughout the shoot, preferring instead to use more traditional dolly and crane moves to achieve similar perspectives. (Centrella attests that the Steadicam was used “only about a half-dozen times.”) Elucidating his preference for classical camera techniques, Scorsese says, “I like the solidity of a conventional camera move; it’s a solid frame that’s moving. You have to be really careful when you’re using a Steadicam. It’s saved me many a time, but those situations have always been very carefully planned shots, such as the more well-known sequences in GoodFellas and Raging Bull. On this film, we had two long takes like that, but they weren’t as long or intricate as the one in GoodFellas. The idea of the Steadicam worked well in those instances, but I try not to overuse it. When you are using it, you have to know precisely what you want to show the audience; it’s as simple as that. The technology should not lead the way when you're telling a story. I feel that you really have to utilize the technology to serve what you want to show, and what you want to say with a scene or with a shot. Very often, you find yourself exploiting a piece of equipment that can do several different things, but then wind up cutting the scenes out of the picture because in the editing room you realize that you were just playing with a new toy.”

Richardson observes, “What Martin doesn’t like about the Steadicam is the way it moves on a set; he feels it has a sense that's it’s floating in a way that is not rigid — that its lines, particularly its horizontal lines, can adjust, however slightly, regardless of how good you are within [the move.] In general, we used the Steadicam for sequences that didn’t require cutting — corridors, or walk areas that required us to get a character across a large space. In a situation like that we would be less prone to use a dolly because it would be almost impossible to hide the track.” 

Quite often, the filmmakers executed complicated shots with the help of a Pegasus crane. “We used that crane in every possible configuration, often in combination with dollies,” confirms Centrella. “We would do intricate, complicated shots that most companies would do once or twice a movie, but in our case we often did them twice a day! Marty’s not a big fan of hotheads, because he likes his operators close to the camera, and that's the way Bob likes to work as well. We only did one hot-head shot in the whole movie, even though it looks as if we were using them all the time.”

One particularly difficult shot, part of a montage that reveals the deaths of various mob members and casino bosses, involved spinning the camera while simultaneously craning up and away from a pair of corpses on a walkway. To achieve the effect, the filmmakers used a Panatate (which Scorsese had utilized to great effect during the climactic sequences of Cape Fear) in combination with a boom arm attached to a Pegasus crane set at full extension on a Chapman dolly. “We were going to use a Technocrane for the move up, but the speed at which the arm retreated wasn't fast enough,” Richardson recalls. “We started at about six feet and went up to over 20 feet. The arc we encountered disappeared in the diagonal of the frame at the tail end due to a corresponding zoom and the simultaneous rotation of the camera. Once an exact frame was nailed, it was difficult to make all of the elements come into synch on a physical level. We ended up doing it a number of times, maybe 15, but we did finally get one that Martin was happy with. In the end, we couldn’t do it electronically, so I wound up doing the whirl manually with the Panatate. I would spin it, but I had to stop it at an exact point without looking through the camera eyepiece. Because of the angle at which the camera was set for the tilt, I couldn't get to position one on the eyepiece and turn my head in a 360-degree move.

Menacing mob enforcer Nicky Santoro, cast in hard light reminiscent of John Alton’s film noir classics.

The Panatate was used again for a nighttime scene in which Pesci’s character is seen pummeling a gambling debtor in an alleyway. “The camera had to race in at ground level from 40 feet away, and Martin wanted it in a very particular position when we started the shot,” Richardson says. “As opposed to having a horizontal frame, it was more of a vertical frame. The image had to move off that vertical starting position into a close-up, and the camera did a full revolution on the way in. To achieve it, we combined the Panatate with a fast dolly move.

“We did a number of similarly complicated moves elsewhere on the picture — a snap move on a dead man in the street as his chalk outline is being laid down, an extremely fast move in on a casino boss as he's shot. In general, Martin does not like to tie in a zoom with these very fast moves. He likes the quality of the move to be that of a camera move, and not hidden within the optics of the lens changing millimeters. He'll set a millimeter he prefers for the tail of the shot, and if it's acceptable, you’ll make that fast move straight on with a dolly, without an adjustment to the zoom. You just do your best to lock it down so you can start and end the shot with the grip working at full speed. Fortunately, the dolly grip on Casino was one of the best in the business, Dave Merrill, who's now key gripping. It was my first experience with him, and he was quite phenomenal, especially in working out some of the problems with the crane.”

Different views of the car-bombing scene were used throughout the film, creating a “gradual reveal.”  The actual outcome of the scene becomes clear only in the latter stages of the story. Here, Scorsese rides the dolly to get the shot as De Niro braves real flames.
Different views of the car-bombing scene were used throughout the film, creating a “gradual reveal.” The actual outcome of the scene becomes clear only in the latter stages of the story. Here, Scorsese rides the dolly to get the shot as De Niro braves real flames.

Richardson’s crew members proved their ingenuity throughout the picture. To help the cinematographer achieve complete flexibility on the Chapman Hybrid dolly, they came up with a device they dubbed the “Bob seat.” Richardson explains, “When you sit on a dolly, the hydraulic arm moves up and down. It works at a diagonal, so when you’re making a certain shot where you have to move 180 degrees around the post, it can be very difficult, because you have to step over the arm; it’s especially tough when you're making a boom up. The ‘Bob seat’ rotates and allows you to sit dead-center post, so you're always moving at the same perspective as the eyepiece. You can swivel 360 degrees from center post without ever having to adjust your body. I work with a fluid head rather than a gear head, simply because I'm more proficient at it, so I’m highly dependent upon a sense of balance. Our seat is on a series of ball bearings, and it rotates around the fluid head. The Panther dolly is based on the same design, but it doesn't allow you to start at a low enough height. The Hybrid and Fisher dollies give you greater flexibility at the low mark and high mark, so we took the basic concept from the Panther and applied it to the Hybrid.”

In addition to unusual camera moves, the filmmakers also executed a number of speed changes during shots to emphasize crucial moments. Richardson relates, “We were using a Panavision Platinum in those situations, and we had two options on speed control: one was set more toward the iris and one was for the shutter control. Both of them have their limitations. With the Panavision T-stop system, if you make too rapid an adjustment, the gearing for the T-stop lags behind the speed, resulting in an oscillating exposure. If you’re going to work the shutter system, you end up with a different quality to the look in terms of where the shutter is sitting — whether it’s sitting at 180 degrees or 90 or whatever. It alters the way in which the viewer sees the action, i.e. strobe. 

“We ran into lag on two separate occasions. In one, De Niro’s character comes to a door and is served with a warrant, and the camera does a fast rush-in on him. The camera had to make an adjustment from slow motion to a normal motion and speed, something like 48fps to 24. But the speed at which we made the shift was so fast that the T-stop itself couldn’t accommodate the movement, and we weren’t able to judge it till later. The same thing happened later that same day when we did a series of very fast moves with the dolly, moving in on a pair of bank-vault keys as Sharon rushes around a house looking for them.”

Given its scope and technical complexity, Casino certainly ranks as one of Scorsese’s most ambitious films to date. According to every member of the crew, the director’s approach to the material was uniquely inspired, and confirmed his status as one of the world’s most creative filmmakers. Says Richardson, “Quite simply, Martin has one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever encountered. I think I could go to extraordinary places if we continued to work together. By the end of the film, I felt we were very much in sync. But Martin has a very long relationship with Michael Ballhaus, and I'm sure they’ll continue that relationship in the future.”

Gaffer Ian Kincaid was equally impressed with Scorsese’s cinematic cerebration. In a fitting summation, he recalls the precise moment when he realized that he was working with a truly original thinker: “One night, Bob, Marty and Chris and I went out to set up a shot for the next night, in which De Niro and Pesci would be driving down the Vegas Strip in this big Cadillac. Chris Centrella and I were sitting in the car in the Riviera parking lot, trying to figure out the camera angle and where we were going to put the lights. It was the first time we'd really had the chance to talk to Marty directly and ask him questions. He and Bob walked around the car for a bit, and we were listening to them as we sat there. Finally, Marty came over and said to us, ‘Well guys, I'm not really sure where the camera should be, but do you remember the Gemini space flights and how the camera was placed on those? I really want that sense of other-worldliness, of being in outer space; I want it to feel as if these guys are all alone in their own universe.’

“Chris and I just looked at each other in amazement, because we both instantly understood what he wanted. He wanted a wide angle, and he wanted these guys to be isolated; he wanted the reflections of Vegas in the window, and the feeling that the characters were far away from the real world. He didn’t want the standard copshow, Adam 12, camera-on-the-hood look. Like everyone else on the film, I’d read all the books about Marty and watched all of his movies, but I really didn’t get a sense of the kind of director he really is until I got to hear him discuss things firsthand. That's when I started to understand that he's in his own world, and that he’s a total genius.”


Following Casino, Richardson and Scorsese collaborated on six subsequent projects: Bringing Out the Dead (1999); The Aviator (2004, earning an Oscar for his camerawork); Shine a Light (2008); Shutter Island (2010); George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011) and Hugo (2011, earning another Oscar).


Scorsese’s period vision of the Vegas Strip — enhanced with visual effects by Matte World Digital.
Scorsese’s period vision of the Vegas Strip — enhanced with visual effects by Matte World Digital.

Visualizing Vintage Vegas

Northern California’s Matte World once specialized in creating latent-image miniature/matte painting hybrid shots for such stylized productions as Batman Returns and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Now firmly entrenched in digital technology, Matte World Digital is blending old concepts with new techniques to stunningly recreate the Las Vegas strip of the 1970s for Martin Scorsese’s Casino.

“Working with Scorsese was a real privilege,” says Craig Barron, who supervised the visual effects that Matte World Digital created for the film. “I attribute the success of our half-dozen matte shots to the fact that Scorsese has such good people working with him, people who really invited us to be part of the creative process. Casinos director of photography, Bob Richardson, was extremely helpful in making sure the VistaVision plates we shot were lit properly, so we had a good foundation to build upon. Production designer Dante Ferretti gave us line drawings establishing the elements and the compositions he wanted to see, and then we made production paintings and worked with him and Scorsese to develop a look. It was just a matter of us executing a good design and adding it to a well-photographed plate.”

Las Vegas has changed significantly since the 1970s, so Scorsese asked Barron to recreate many of the classic landmarks that have sadly been torn down over the years. “We photographed some of the signs that were still in existence, like those for Caesar’s Palace and the Flamingo, as plate elements,” Barron recalls. “The rest we recreated either as 3-D CG elements or digital matte paintings.”

Digital artist Morgan Trotter rebuilt the onion-topped Dunes Hotel sign as a 3-D computer object, replete with sparkling animated letters and that distinctive neon thermometer blazing through its center. By blending the 3-D sign with a 2-D digital painting of the Dunes hotel, Matte World Digital translated their technique of mixing miniatures and mattes, a la Coppola’s Dracula and Batman Returns, into the computer realm.

To create the view of period Las Vegas signs outside the windows in this scene, a digital matte painting was combined with radiosity techniques.

Matte World Digital even created the Tangiers, the fictional casino of the film’s title, by augmenting Howard Hughes’ still-standing Landmark Casino. “The production rented the Landmark, refurbished the front entrance and built the base that the Tangiers marquis would stand on. We built the marquis and sign as 3-D CG objects, as well as a big Sultan's turban over The Landmark’s existing half-domed porte de coachier. The turban feature rose up over the structure, giving the casino the sort of Arabian Nights or Casablanca feel Scorsese wanted.”

But recreating the glitz of the Vegas strip caused some technical headaches as well. Ray-tracing is traditionally used to render a path of light through a digital environment, but it’s not very good at simulating the effect of bounce lighting. “And the Las Vegas strip at night is all about bounce light,” Barron confirms. “We used a new renderer that has never been used on a film before, which uses radiosity algorithms instead of ray-tracing to calculate the bounce light in a scene. The software was designed by Lightscape so that architects could preview how their buildings might affect a given environment. We worked with Lightscape to create the tools necessary to apply this technique to film. While ray-tracing just uses an arbitrary wave to enhance the ambient light level, when we're dealing with architectural objects like buildings at night, radiosity algorithms accurately render the energy dissipated. Radiosity is not a superior alternative to ray-tracing, but a complementary one. In some scenes, we actually used a little of both; we first did our radiosity render to calculate all the bounce light, then we ray-traced over that to create direct light sources and specular reflections.”

But not every element was fabricated in the computer. Matte virtuoso Chris Evans created some traditional matte paintings on glass to transplant the gas station hideout of the East Coast gang to an industrial town in a couple shots. “Chris, with the help of digital compositor Paul Rivera, composited those traditional elements with his digital matte paintings on the computer,” Barron explains.

Casino was shot in Super 35, which meant that any compositing done would have to go another generation for the Super 35 process. “We wanted to make all our images as pristine as possible so they wouldn’t fall apart,” Barron says, “so we worked in Cineon’s 10-bit VistaVision format [100MB per frame], which is the highest resolution possible for film capture. Most of the industry works in 8-bit, but I think the quality of those shots are a little lacking when intercut with original production footage. Even though the size of our images meant they took more time to render at that resolution, we wanted our effects to blend seamlessly into Scorsese’s film.” — Ron Magid

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