Here's how to make your movie look like a sci-fi masterpiece.
Science fiction films cover a massive spectrum of concepts and include some of our most collectively iconic movies. When I was asked to join the team for Cognition, a sci-fi short directed by Ravi Chopra, as Director of Photography, I wasn’t sure where to start. So, I went back to basics and researched all the science fiction films that I love—in other words, I had an epic movie marathon—including Aliens, Blade Runner, Minority Report, 12 Monkeys, and, of course, Star Wars and Star Trek. All of these films and franchises have memorable visuals and a strong story to tell.
If you watch enough sci-fi films, you’ll notice that there are a few overall lighting and camera styles that are used in almost every film, the most common of these being the use of anamorphic lenses. These lenses give you lovely flares and blue streaks across the screen, a shallow depth to your image, and have other wonderful attributes.
But before we get into lenses and other gear, it’s important that we first ask a question: What is best for the film and how does the director want it to look and feel? Are you looking for a dirty neo-noir sci-fi thriller like Blade Runner, or a modern, super-slick, space-based sci-fi film like most of the Star Trek movies? These are two totally different styles of films and yet both are unquestionably sci-fi. I decided early on that I didn’t need to adhere to one style. This opened me up to inspiration from many styles. Cinema is a creative tool to explore ideas and concepts. Feel free to play around.
Congition is set over 3 distinct periods of time, all of which I wanted to separate in terms of their style and cinematography. We wanted a classic feel and so decided to shoot on an Arri Alexa XT, recording in RAW.
Let’s look at the three main sci-fi styles I worked with, and the camera, lens, and lighting tools I used to recreate them.
Grounded sci-fi (as seen in After Earth)
In the first block of filming, we were shooting scenes that took place 20 years in the past. These scenes juxtapose the rest of the film with a lot of heart-warming moments between a father and son. The film gets a lot darker later on. I was inspired by the film After Earth, as it is set on a planet surface and shows the growing relationship between a father and son.
Straight away I knew I wanted to bring a soft, warmer look to these scenes. I opted to use the new Cooke anamorphic lenses. These lenses give you the "Cooke Look" (warm skin tones, smooth contrast) as well as the anamorphic look, but with hardly any flaring or blue streaks. This was an important factor, as I didn’t want to start the film by screaming "This is is a cliché science fiction film!" Cooke lenses give you a nice roll-off from the point of focus, and are not as sharp or "contrasty" as Arri Zeiss lenses. They really suited the mood for our intro scene.
I used a natural looking lighting setup including a T12 Fresnel as the sunlight and 5K Fresnels as backlights/fill lights. I added a nice yellow-orange gel to the T12; it felt warm but still other-worldly.
Paranoia thriller sci-fi (as seen in Prometheus and Fight Club)
The second section of the film was set during flashback scenes during a dark period in the central character's life characterized by paranoia and distrust. I looked at films like Prometheus and Fight Club, particularly for their use of color that evokes a sense of paranoia and mind-altering states.
There are a million ways to do flashbacks: tilt-shift lens systems, Lens Babies, Vaseline on the lens, slow motion, you name it. Flashbacks need to be distinct, but still work within the movie as a whole. The best thing you can do before you start is to sit down with the director and talk through the scene in order to clearly define its meaning and what it needs to relay to the audience.
Building your lights into a set or location—to become part of the scene—is something that I cannot recommend enough.
We eventually decided to keep the image clean, as though the flashback was as clear to him as reality. We wanted the set and lighting to clearly represent his mood, rather than directly distort the audience's view into his world.
I decided to shoot with spherical lenses, Zeiss Super Speed Mark II. I knew this was a risk, as it wasn’t going to match with the anamorphics, but I wanted the subtle change and something that distinguished these scenes from the rest of the film. It also enabled us to get some more exposure due to a lower F-stop. We were shooting a lot of Steadicam work, and by filming 16×9, it enabled us to move the framing around in post-production.
Our location had fluorescents built into its structure already, so I had decided to simply gel these lights with Plus Green or a Mustard Yellow, inspired by Prometheus and Fight Club. I felt these colors would evoke a similar uncomfortable feeling of unease.
We added haze to the set, which brought things to life, and added another layer to the atmosphere we were trying to create. This represented the cloudiness of his mind in his flashback, but it also helped to make the fluorescents glow and hide any fixture fittings.
Building your lights into a set or location—to become part of the scene—is something that I cannot recommend enough. It reduces your lighting turnaround time in between camera changes and allows for a more 360-degree lighting method.
Neo-noir sci-fi (as seen in Blade Runner)
The third section of the film was set in the future (20 years later). For this, I wanted to reference the style of Blade Runner, not only because it is beautifully shot, but because I felt the script possessed elements of a gritty neo-noir-style sci-fi. I was inspired by the strong backlights, search lights, smoke, and heavy contrast of Blade Runner.
I used six 5K Tungsten lights over three floors, all pointing into the center of the room, creating shafts of light and amazing architectural shadows.
I went back to the Cooke anamorphic lenses for this final block, but this time I wanted to get something specific: that classic blue streak when lights are in the shot or hitting the lens. We used a set of blue streak filters to accomplish this. The lenses were amazing and performed really well wide open at T2.3.
For a strong background light and to give a similar effect to Blade Runner, I used six 5K Tungsten lights over three floors, all pointing into the center of the room, creating shafts of light and amazing architectural shadows. We added a few steam machines in various places to show steaming pipes and bring the set to life. We also added torches behind the steam to backlight it.
The location we chose had built-in fluorescent tubes. Adding aqua/blue gels to the lights changed the environment and feeling of the building to a more slick and modern sci-fi environment. I also added upright encapsulates with a peacock blue gel to accentuate the pillars that surrounded the location.
Gels could be avoided as the color could be accomplished in post, but I love applying the color and lighting levels in camera whenever possible. This is a bold move, but I feel it makes the film more directional (and often the director prefers this).
To conclude…. Do what is right for your story! And by all means, allow yourself to be inspired by previous films and styles to help create your own look and vision. Oh, and Cognition will be coming out later this year.