It: Fear Itself

AC visits the Toronto set, where director of photography Chung Chung-hoon and director Andrés Muschietti mine the horror of Stephen King’s classic tale. 

Unit photography by Brooke Palmer, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Coulrophobes beware: Pennywise is back to terrify a new generation of moviegoers in the horror feature It. Introduced in Stephen King’s 1986 novel of the same name, and first appearing onscreen in a 1990 miniseries, the ancient shape-shifting spirit that often assumes the form of a clown has re-emerged — as he does every three decades — to murder children in the town of Derry, Maine.

Whereas the book divides timelines between the late ’50s and mid-’80s, the movie transpires entirely in 1989, when Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) rears his scary head in a storm drain, where 7-year-old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) has come to retrieve his paper boat. Georgie subsequently goes missing, and the number of disappearances starts to add up. 

As the evil returns to overtake Derry, Georgie’s older brother Billy (Jaeden Lieberher) finds strength in numbers with his offbeat friends, who together comprise the “Losers’ Club,” including Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stan (Wyatt Oleff) and Mike (Chosen Jacobs) — each an outcast in a different way.

The Losers must ward off bullies led by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), and head into Derry’s dark sewers to confront Pennywise. They begin to realize that the spirit — which they refer to as “It,” and whose presence is signified by a red balloon — feeds on their fears, so overcoming their own anxieties may be the key to defeating the monster.

Director Andrés Muschietti (wearing white t-shirt) and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (right) check the frame with an on-board monitor.

Helmed by Argentinean director Andrés Muschietti — and written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman — the feature contains scenes reminiscent of the 1990 ABC miniseries, which was directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, shot by Richard Leiterman, and featured Tim Curry as Pennywise. But here the filmmakers have made a darker, R-rated version more in keeping with modern horror aesthetics. As currently plotted, It will serve as the first half of King’s story, with a planned sequel to follow up with the Losers 30 years later to fight the evil anew. 

Muschietti turned to South Korean cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon to help realize his vision of King’s tale. The director was an admirer of Chung’s work dating back to 2003’s operatic actioner Oldboy — the cameraman’s first collaboration with director Park Chan-wook, as well as a Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix winner.

Covered by two Arri Alexas, the “Losers’ Club” bands together to find the evil Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) in his muddy underground lair.

“Chung is an artist who goes for a surrealistic element, which is something I wanted to bring to the equation,” Muschietti tells AC, while en route to San Diego to promote It at Comic-Con. “He is very brave in terms of storytelling, and has a wide range of ideas on story and theme. His versatility intrigued me. He doesn’t always go for the same aesthetic. Each movie has a style that is very particular and interesting.” 

Chung refined his storytelling sensibilities while studying directing and acting at South Korea’s Dongguk University. As he talks with AC in a trailer on the set of It at Pinewood Toronto Studios in September 2016, Chung further notes that he can relate to the film's young cast, as he was a child actor himself. 

“I’ve been acting since I was 5,” he says. “Instead of going to kindergarten, I went to acting school. I got my foot in the door through my dad’s television-producer friends. They were looking to make a show, and cast me as the lead character. It got made and it was a huge hit in South Korea.” The series — whose title translates to Naughty Cheol Ee — aired daily for three years, and Chung’s acting career lasted for 15.  

Chung (at eyepiece) frames up a shot.

At university, he directed several shorts that did the festival rounds and won him awards. Desiring to maintain visual control, Chung functioned as cinematographer on his projects as well, and soon other student directors were asking him to shoot their films. At 25, he was approached by director Yang Yun-ho to shoot the 1996 feature Yuri, and he’s remained on the cinematographer path ever since.

Chung’s experience shooting Deus Ex Machina, a sci-fi epic that ceased production halfway through, changed the course of his career. An editor on the film recommended Chung to director Park Chan-wook, who was searching for a director of photography for Oldboy. The resulting partnership has yielded several features, including their 2013 Hollywood breakthrough thriller Stoker and the South Korean period piece The Handmaiden, the latter of which premiered across town at the Toronto International Film Festival two days after this interview.  

Chung, who now resides in Los Angeles, also counts director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s 2015 teen comedy-drama Me and Earl and the Dying Girl among his Hollywood projects. “I wanted to meet more directors and crew, and broaden my spectrum,” the cinematographer says. “In South Korea, filmmakers usually retire young. A 50-year-old cinematographer working there is rare. Most directors are very young and want to use young cinematographers.”

The crew readies a shot in the scene in which Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) innocently floats his paper boat in the rainwater alongside the curb.
The crew readies a shot in the scene in which Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) innocently floats his paper boat in the rainwater alongside the curb.
The ill-fated Georgie encounters Pennywise in a storm drain while chasing after his boat.

Muschietti is one young director who is thrilled to be working with Chung, who had received a ringing endorsement from their mutual friend Natasha Braier, ADF, the Argentinean cinematographer known for The Neon Demon (AC July ’16). 

“Whatever [Chung] contributed would make what I had better,” Muschietti recalls. “Our discussions were about temperature. I wanted a hot summer with everyone sweating all the time. I love characters with shine on their faces. We also discussed the balance of making something realistic, but with that element of intrigue — that something is not right.”

From left: Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) and Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) comprise six of the Losers’ Club’s seven members.

Chung mulled over the notion of a period look, but ultimately the 1980s feel is conveyed chiefly through production designer Claude Paré’s sets and the work of costume designer Janie Bryant. “Trying to make a movie set in the 1980s look like the 1980s can be dangerous,” the cinematographer says. “At first, I thought about shooting with 1980s lighting rules and gear. But we didn’t, and in the end it didn’t matter. We’re just trying to capture a natural look.”

Finding mainstream 1980s lighting too artificial, Muschietti preferred to light through windows and bounce off the floor. “I wanted to convey intimacy with the characters,” he says. “I love backlights and soft lights that are unsettling.”

That jibed well with Chung, who notes that his experience with Stoker taught him how to light quickly using one source. “I feel lucky,” he says, “because some directors will always say, ‘Can you make more light?’ But this movie is very naturalistic. My responsibility is to the audience and to tell the story, and if you want this movie to scare people, a natural look is best.”  

Another period-accurate possibility would have been to capture on motion-picture stock, a format Chung still loves but hasn’t employed for a feature since Stoker. “The changeover to digital is happening too fast,” he opines. “When I’m shooting on film, there’s that intensity where I’m always doubting myself — ‘Did I really get this?’ I like that about film, and the look is good. Of course, digital is good, too.” The It crew shoots primarily with two Arri Alexa XT Plus cameras, paired with a mix of anamorphic and spherical lenses, with Angelo Colavecchia on A camera and Michael Carella on B. The production occasionally pulls out an Alexa Mini for Steadicam shots, which are operated by Colavecchia. Both XT Plus and Mini capture in ArriRaw format in Open Gate mode with no compression. 

Digital-imaging technician Rany Ly reports that with the anamorphic lenses the camera captured a resolution of 2880x2160 and a framed image of 2578x2160. With the spherical lenses, the camera captured 3414x2198, and 3074x1730 within the frame lines with a 10-percent punch-in because of a vignetting 18mm lens. The movie’s final aspect ratio was 2.39:1. The crew records the Alexa XT Plus footage on 512GB Codex XR Capture Drives, and the Arri Mini material on CFast memory cards.  

Muschietti (center) stages scene with his young cast.

Mama was so much about the creature, which is skinny and tall,” Muschietti explains, referring to his 2013 horror feature, which was shot by Antonio Riestra, ASC, ACK, AMC, and framed for the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. “But this story is bigger in scope. It’s not only about Pennywise. It’s also about the spirit of a town, and we have seven child characters who are often together — so I needed a wider format. I remember listening to commentary from the director of the miniseries, and he talked about how difficult it was getting all the characters in a TV frame.”  

The director prefers spherical lenses, in part because he’s familiar with them from his background in directing commercials. “Shooting spherical also gives you a chance in postproduction to reframe or apply effects like shakes,” Muschietti says, “which anamorphic doesn’t because it doesn’t have that extra information on the top and bottom.”   

Chung, meanwhile, likes to combine anamorphic and spherical, as he did on Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. “Optics are so sharp with today’s lenses and digital cameras,” the cinematographer says. “The Alexa XT Plus is great — I think it’s the best camera body in the world — but I need some balance, so I go with lenses that give a more natural look that’s not too sharp. That’s why I like Panavision lenses.” 

He reports that the production uses Panavision G Series Anamorphic Prime lenses, and switches to Primo Primes “when Andy wants to use a wider lens or needs more frame space for visual effects. The look [of the] lenses is nearly the same. I mix them a lot and it works well.” 

The production’s zooms include Panavision’s ATZ 70-200mm (T3.5) and AWZ2 40-80mm (T2.8), and an Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm spherical (T2.8), which were particularly helpful for convenient reframing on B camera. Chung notes that he’s usually “not a filter person” and uses only NDs on the project.  

Muschietti prefers the wide end of the focal-length spectrum. “I like the feeling, even for close-ups,” he explains. “I want to be close to the characters and feel the volume of their faces. It brings me closer to their circumstance, their spirit and soul. But sometimes if a 21mm close-up looked funny, we might go up to a [35mm].” 

AC is on set for the 51st day of shooting, and we are observing the action in Pinewood Toronto’s cavernous 15,000 square-foot Stage 2. This sequence is set in a sewer called the Cistern, which Paré has transformed into a hellish vision of filth and decay. The former reservoir is now Pennywise’s lair, where he will appear and engage the kids in battle. Around the room are various sewer mouths — some with water pouring down and backlit with a variety of small, hidden Kino Flos.

After Pennywise is spotted at the spooky Neibolt house, the Loser’s Club returns to the site to confront the malevolent spirit.

“We used [the Kino Flos] to provide a backlight to the trickles of water,” gaffer Michael Galbraith says. “We started off using 2-foot doubles with daylight bulbs and used only one bulb set to low output, but we started to be very selective with which sewer pipes would have the trickle of water running, so if there was no water we would turn the fixtures off.”

The Cistern floor is muddy and full of puddles — most of the crew wear rubber boots — and in the center, atop an old circus wagon, stands a towering pile of old children’s toys and clothes from Pennywise’s victims, spanning at least a century. A hole in the ceiling ostensibly extends, funnel-like, to the surface above. Greenscreen is in place along the set for digital extension.

Pennywise moves in on the Losers' Club.

In the scene, the Losers emerge from a tunnel into the Cistern. Their flashlight reveals Beverly suspended high off the ground, in the grip of Pennywise’s supernatural powers — and as such, Lillis is held up by cables that will be removed in post. The Losers pull down the catatonic girl, as the crew captures a wide low-angle shot and various close-ups. With each new take, water starts flowing again and Lillis is hoisted back up. 

Though the crew usually runs two cameras — as Muschietti likes coverage of his ensemble cast — today they bring in a third for a while as well. The setup has the A camera on a Technocrane 50 for an angle on the floating Beverly, while two other cameras on dollies cover the action on the ground. 

Though generally not a fan of Steadicam movement, Chung’s use of it on this project has included a chase scene through the curving tunnel system, as well as a shot through the hallway at the protagonists’ school, shot in Ancaster, an hour south of Toronto.

Ideally, the cinematographer prefers shooting with a single camera. “The lighting is faster and more intense,” he explains. “If I want to keep a lighting setup for one camera, I’ll tell Andy and we’ll use one camera. But it’s usually not a problem making a little sacrifice and having the second camera, because directing the actors is also very important. I don’t want a movie that’s just technically great. I want a good balance and I’m happy to compromise.” 

The multiple-camera setup was the impetus behind the placement of permanent lights on the sewer set’s ceiling. Galbraith’s team has clamped 17 Kino Flo Image 85s with daylight tubes to a pipe rigged to the ceiling around the set’s top hole — motivated by daylight coming through — along with tungsten Vari-Lite VL1000s to provide backlight from any angle, and to slightly illuminate the walls and toy tower. Atmospheric smoke gives shape to the light. Sometimes as few as three of the eight tubes in each Image 85 are turned on, in order to keep the ambience down. Andrew Read programs the lights through a GrandMA console. “We would turn on a handful at a time depending on the direction of the shot,” Chung later notes.

At a stopping point, Chung and Galbraith discuss the level of intensity of Kino Flo Celeb LED DMX lights used to scrape the walls. “They allow us to control the color temperature and density pretty quickly,” Galbraith later explains. “And we’re using egg crates with most of them so the light doesn’t spill. We want it dark, but we also want a touch of detail on the walls — ‘movie black,’ if you will.”  

The sewer scene is further lit by a flashlight held by one of the Losers. Chung wanted the kind of flashlights used 30 years ago, but the technology has changed and the props department couldn’t find a manufacturer still making them. As Galbraith explains, “Our props people retrofitted some modern LED-based flashlights into the old-school housing. We then diffused the front glass as needed, and added a gel to get the color temperature we wanted.” The bright glare of the flashlight in the Cistern produces periodic lens flares that the cinematographer is happy to keep. 

Chung sits with Galbraith and Ly on the opposite side of the soundstage, watching takes on Ly’s Flanders Scientific CM250 monitor. He operates a single-channel wireless Preston iris control for each camera. Throughout the production, he keeps his aperture between T2.8 and T4; in this case he is at T3.8, obtaining a darker look in camera than on the set.  

Ly has a Rec 709 curve in the LUT box for the Alexa’s Log C-originated footage, and she uses Pomfort’s LiveGrade Pro for additional custom grading. The DIT copies CDL values into Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve for dailies, which are processed at Deluxe Toronto. The cinematographer wants less contrast for this scene, and notes that his main focus is “making the original source beautiful.” 

Muschietti, meanwhile, is in the middle of the action, and speaks mostly to Colavecchia regarding camera. Though Chung usually operates on the projects he shoots, the director had such a positive production experience on Mama in the same studio, that he wanted to reassemble many of the same crew, including both camera operators, Galbraith and key grip Richard “Rico” Emerson.

On this morning, Muschietti consults Chung only once, seeking technical advice on shooting at 48 fps. “That means Andy likes what I’m doing,” Chung says. “I know what he wants and have been giving him that. There are many movies where the director and cinematographer don’t ever talk, either because they get along well or they hate each other. We get along very well, so we don’t talk much.”  

The director concurs. “That’s the level of trust and confidence we’ve reached,” he says.

Skarsgård, who will appear later in the day, is kept apart from the young actors before his scenes, as Muschietti aims to keep him exclusively as Pennywise in their minds. Chung will jump into the fray when it comes time to light the malevolent jester. 

“I want to always have a shine in the lower part of Pennywise’s eyeball, which makes him creepier,” Muschietti explains. “But it’s not easy, especially when the character is active and jumping around. We [have been] doing that with a flashlight, and many times Chung would come out of nowhere and do it, covering part of the flashlight with his finger. It’s so much fun to watch him work.”

Pennywise’s look was taken further in the grade, owing to the work of veteran colorist Stephen Nakamura of Company 3. “Pennywise’s white face is fantastic because we could crush the shadows and pull up the eyes, making him more contrasty and even creepier,” Nakamura says from Los Angeles. “We had eye mattes for nearly every shot of him.” 

At this point in production, location shooting is now complete, including a week in the quaint town of Port Hope — 70 miles east of Toronto — which provided Derry’s exteriors. Muschietti had scouted King’s hometown of Bangor, Maine, which had inspired Derry, but shooting there was deemed prohibitive and Port Hope a worthy substitute. 

Chung sees special significance in a Port Hope alley, which served as a spot where the Losers hang out. He believes the look there established a visual template for the entire movie. “This small town seems perfect, but the movie focuses on the people there who are not happy,” the cinematographer explains. “From the alley, we look outside and see a beautiful theater, and beautiful cars and trucks. But in the alley the saturation is down — there’s little sun coming in. And that’s what a ‘Loser’ is. Pennywise exists because he feeds on that feeling.”

He employed 12'x12' solids to keep out the sun, and at the end of the alley he bounced an HMI off a gold checkerboard reflector that gave off a small, warm glow for the sense “that when all the Losers are together, they feel a sort of coziness, that they all belong,” Chung relates.

For the remainder of the exteriors, Chung refrained from blocking the sun — and from waiting for any particular sky conditions — instead dealing with natural light via his iris controls. When possible, the production employed diffusion frames for actors’ close-ups. Galbraith notes, “We would fill with 18K HMIs through diffusion if the contrast was too extreme, or use large grip bounces for the same purpose.” 

This minimal approach was intended to cut down on actor wait times — though with more takes than expected, the shoot faced a corresponding number of differing sky conditions. Nonetheless, Chung feels the shots match well, thanks in no small part to Nakamura, who performed the grade at EFilm in Hollywood over the course of a couple of months. 

“They shot a lot in daylight, so we’re dealing with high-key bright sun and skies,” Nakamura says. The director’s instinct was to make those exteriors darker, which, the colorist says, requires “doing a lot with chroma and luminance keys, and trying to manipulate the images a lot harder, yet keeping it organic so that it doesn’t look like CG skies and backgrounds.”

Nakamura notes that Chung nudged them away from too much manipulation. “He explained, ‘It’s most creepy if it’s realistic and the audience doesn’t expect anything,’” Nakamura says. “And we realized that totally works.” 

The colorist came on board for the first trailer — which attracted a record-setting 197 million views in its first 24 hours of release — and then set looks for the film as a whole. He color-corrected DPX files on DaVinci Resolve with a P3 LUT. Chung would sit with him for a preview session and provide feedback, but would otherwise be tied up with shooting responsibilities on the thriller Hotel Artemis, directed by Drew Pearce and starring Jodie Foster. Prior to Hotel Artemis, Chung wrapped his work on the U.K.-based production The Current War, a drama depicting Thomas Edison versus George Westinghouse (Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, respectively), for Gomez-Rejon.

For the final days of the It shoot, Chung enlisted Galbraith — who is also a cinematographer — for photography duties. “Michael is very good,” Chung attests. “He understands what I’m doing and he knows everything technical. I trust him.”

Galbraith continued shooting in the Cistern with the Losers and Pennywise — and “also finished the sewer sequence where Pennywise meets Georgie,” Galbraith relates to AC after production wrapped. “It was really important to me to keep up the look that Chung and Andy had conceived for the film.”

Galbraith was also tasked with three days of additional photography, which included editorial pickups on other sets, as well as a couple of new scenes, including a 19th-century flashback cabin sequence, and a sequence dubbed “the clown funeral.”

Chung acknowledges that King’s saga will be completely new to a younger audience, and that there will also be moviegoers with fond memories of Tim Curry’s take on Pennywise. He counts himself as a fan as well, but feels this new interpretation offers “something a bit deeper,” he says. “A funny but scarier performance by Bill that’s more on the dark side. This movie is about kids, but it is a very adult drama with violence that is more psychological and symbolic. Hopefully, the audience will feel it.” 

Aspect Ratio2.39:1
StockDigital Capture
CamerasArri Alexa XT Plus
Alexa Mini
LensesPanavision G Series Anamorphic Primes
Primo Prime, Anamorphic Zoom
Angenieux Optimo

For more on Pennywise and company, check out our coverage on It: Chapter Two.

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