I connected with Bill Pope, ASC, as he was eating lunch near the set of his current project, The Jungle Book. He was shooting on a motion-capture stage on the former site of Digital Domain in Venice, Calif., where he will be working until Christmas. He accepted the assignment after another, the Marvel feature Ant-Man, came apart. (That film was originally to be directed by Edgar Wright, with whom Bill worked on The World’s End and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but is now being revived with a different director.)
Bill’s work can also be seen in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a 13-part science documentary that has aired on more than a hundred TV stations around the world and was recently released on DVD. Bill photographed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the narrator, at a variety of locations and on a greenscreen stage featuring a set called the Ship of the Imagination. CG-animation projections depicting deep space and subatomic settings were often composited into the background. Bill shot the 13 episodes over the course of four months last year.
“The material basically divides into three spaces,” Bill says of Cosmos. “There’s the world as you and I know it — the Earth and things we can understand with our senses. For that we went all over the planet, shooting different places. We also faked some of them, like locations in Iraq and Egypt, in environments near Santa Fe. Then, there’s the world in space. We had to work closely with the visual-effects people regarding what goes on outside the window. Finally, there’s the microscopic world.”
The main task was integrating the live action with the CGI while covering 800 pages in four months using a fraction of the budget-per-minute of the average feature film. “The same level of quality was expected,” says Bill. “It was a real test, and we cheated in every way possible. The way to do it is through planning. Doing things off the cuff is expensive. We had to pre-think everything and consider all the options; that’s how you save money.”
Bill’s work on The Jungle Book is taking to him to even more virtual worlds. Based on the Rudyard Kipling stories, the feature is being directed by Jon Favreau, with whom Bill had previously worked on commercials. Another crew traveled to India to collect data that is being used by production designer Christopher Glass to create a fictional jungle. On the set, Bill uses those environments as he captures the motions of actual humans. “When I’m onstage and see it with my own eyes, I see a man covered with white dots in a white room,” he says. “When I look at my screen, I see the character in a jungle in India. I’m lighting entirely in the computer. You’ve entered ‘the matrix,’ and because you can change reality all you want, you have to bring the logic of the real world to it. We have to come up with a verisimilitude so that the audience relaxes into it and perceives it as reality.”
Bill feels strongly that cinematographers who help to create CG worlds should be accepted as full members of the cinematography community. “I’ve heard some discussion saying that they are not really cinematographers, and that sort of narrow-minded thinking annoys me. These are people making the same decisions that every other cinematographer makes. Just because they’re not sitting on a dolly and being pushed by a grip doesn’t mean they’re not cinematographers. They should have all the rights of a director of photography, they should be called cinematographers, and they should get all the awards cinematographers get.
“We should definitely be inclusive, not exclusive. I’ve got a crew of 75. There are jobs here. If virtual cinema is a way to keep jobs in Los Angeles, then we should damn well support it.”