Tobias Schliessler, ASC, spoke with me during a break from his 11-week prep for Beauty and the Beast, a live-action musical based on Disney’s 1991 movie, which won two Oscars and became the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture. The live-action version is being directed by Bill Condon and will include extensive CGI for dancing candlesticks and the like. Careful planning in framing, blocking and choreography, all timed to the music, is required. The 17th century setting means a lot of candlelight and torchlight, and Tobias is reteaming with Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, the theatrical lighting designers he worked with on Condon’s Dreamgirls (2006).
“I love the collaboration, and I learn so much,” says Tobias. “If I wanted to work alone, maybe I’d be an architect. But I wouldn’t want to be in a room by myself creating things. I like creating things with other people.”
Next month we’ll be able to see Tobias’ work in another feature directed by Condon, Mr. Holmes, which stars Ian McKellen as Sherlock. (The film is set for release July 17.)
A recent side project Tobias undertook in England for a friend was quite a departure. Director Malcolm Venville, with whom Tobias works on commercials, called about a short film he was making for the website Nowness. The assignment featured the ballerina Sarah Lamb performing solo at the London Opera House; she would be photographed in black and white. Tobias mentioned the one-day shoot to his daughter, who confirmed that Nowness is “extremely hip and inspiring,” he recalls.
His gaffer, Lee Walters, brought along new Arri LED soft lights and helped acquire a dimmable balloon light for a simple, controllable, overhead source. “It all came together beautifully,” says Tobias. “We dimmed the light up and down, and the ballerina is illuminated and then she fades to blackness. It was just magical. It worked perfectly for her choreography. And it was fun — a great experience.”
Tobias appreciates the support and camaraderie he felt with the crew. “My crew from Beauty and the Beast came out and helped me for free on a Saturday,” he says. “It really made me feel at home, to be in a different country with a new crew that was willing to back me 100 percent. Hollywood filmmaking is more and more an international business; everyone depends on other people’s recommendations to assemble a crew.”
The ballerina film, Lamb, was shot with an Arri Alexa XT B+W camera and framed in 16:9. Digital-imaging technician Mark Kozcowski suggested setting the color temperature at 2,000K and setting the exposure index at 800. “I do like the quality of the Alexa image — it feels a little smoother, with a bit more latitude,” says Tobias. “We only used one lighting setup. The Alexa gave us beautiful blacks that you would not get from shooting color and converting it to monochrome in post. I’ve done that on commercials, and it doesn’t give you the same kind of deep, deep blacks.”
Tobias says he enjoys helping the younger generation “go after their passions,” and one instance of this occurred on the feature film Battleship. Director Peter Berg, a frequent collaborator, asked Tobias to hire a camera PA named Coy Aune. “They had met in Texas on [the feature] Friday Night Lights, when Coy was a teenager,” says Tobias. “Coy was a football player Peter worked with while researching high-school football. He spent months with Coy’s family and stayed close with them after the project. Coy was interested in photography, so Peter asked him to come out and PA on Battleship.
“He was an enthusiastic young man who loved photography and images, and he was so much help that I started hiring him on all the commercials I was doing,” Tobias continues. “A few months later, we needed an extra camera operator, and he did his one shot perfectly. I could see right away that he had a tremendous instinct for camera operating. Now, after four years, Coy is 28 years old and a fully established camera operator. He will be on B camera for Peter’s next movie. The cinematographer on his last project said he was the best operator she’s ever worked with.
“I love the energy and the spirit of the younger generation. It helps me stay current, in a way. I feel like now, more than ever, I’m in a position to help them achieve their dreams, and it’s a great feeling.”