Bringing THE BFG to life

THE BFG, directed by Steven Spielberg and shot by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, is a whimsical family-friendly movie based on a 1989 book by the celebrated author Roald Dahl (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Peach,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox”). It’s also the first time that longtime collaborators Spielberg and Kaminski chose to use a digital camera, the ARRI ALEXA, in large part because of the ubiquity of computer-generated imagery, especially to create the character of the Big Friendly Giant. “Every frame was altered for THE BFG, so it was just more convenient,” explains Kaminski.

Bringing THE BFG to Life

A behind the scenes look on the set of THE BFG, directed by Steven Spielberg and shot by Janusz Kaminski on ALEXA.

For Kaminski, the motivation for shooting THE BFG was, first and foremost, because Spielberg was directing. “I also liked the story and I have young kids and they loved it,” he adds. “And I found the story to be challenging and charming.” Kaminski says pre-production consisted in part of “a lot of conversations based on very detailed illustrations.” “In establishing a look, the beginning of the story was easy because the girl, Sophie (played by Ruby Barnhill), is in an orphanage, a rather dark and foreboding place,” he says. “She is then kidnapped by a giant (a CG creation voiced by Mark Rylance), but you don’t want children to be scared, so it’s a delicate balance. I looked at some of the classic children’s films of England and also OLIVER TWIST -- shot by Pawel Edelman and directed by Roman Polanski -- which is brilliant!”

Most of the movie’s scenes were a combination of live action, motion capture and CGI. The production worked with two well-known visual effects facilities: WETA and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). “ILM is becoming very good at creating realistic environments,” says Kaminski. “They were also able to produce Mark Rylance’s facial expressions to a degree that you never would have been able to a few years ago. It was truly a technological marvel.”

Among the most challenging scenes were those that captured Sophie’s dreams. She chases a light as she walks through a forest, which, says Kaminski, was a set. “There, we had a light attached to a motorized dolly,” he recounts. “She would chase the light and, at the proper moment, when she caught the light, we used a handheld light hanging from a pole, which an electrician would pull across the set to create the sense of a dream, moving around and illuminating her. We moved the light like it was the dreams floating.”

With regard to digital lighting in the computer, Kaminski was “super interested in following the logic to place the lights.” “But occasionally, I would have to say to the VFX team – don’t follow the logic,” he says. “Just because the sun is coming from the right doesn’t mean that it looks good. It’s about making a good image. And, over seven to eight months, they were good about collaborating with me.”

Every time Sophie interacts with the giant, it’s a skillful blend of real photography and CGI. On the set, actor Barnhill interacted with Rylance, who stood on a platform in full motion capture gear. WETA had developed a system that enabled Spielberg to see Rylance’s facial expressions animate the CG giant in real-time. “[Ruby] could see this, and the two would play off each other that way," says Kaminski.  "As far as we were concerned, this was live photography. The set was there, and Mark was there."

In the end, having completed a film that was not simply shot digitally but involved thousands of CG elements, Kaminski concludes that, "the whole film was not as difficult as it would seem." "Technically," he adds, "the movie was pretty seamless."

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