Guillermo Navarro, ASC earned an Oscar® for his cinematography on Pan’s Labyrinth, a film that depicted a striking and original fantasy world. His wide-ranging credits also include visual effects showcases like Pacific Rim, Night at the Museum, and Stuart Little, among others. All that experience and more came in handy on his most recent assignment: Dolittle, Universal’s update based on a 1922 novel by Hugh Lofting. This time around, Robert Downey, Jr. portrays the eccentric doctor as a recluse who eventually sets forth on an adventure to save Queen Victoria, restoring his zest for life along the way. The famed menagerie consists of CG animals voiced by an all-star cast.
“The goal of the visual concept for the movie was to engage the audience, so they would feel as though they are entering a new world and be taken aback by it, but then transition into it,” says Navarro. “It began as a compelling story discovered through the eyes of a kid, which is like a vehicle to get into the fantasy. Suddenly, that world becomes normal, and we needed to help the audience accept that world. The lighting and framing, and how they connect the dots and tell the story, are always very important in my films.”
Navarro was an early adopter of RED Digital Cinema cameras, and he chose to shoot Dolittle with RED’s DSMC2 brain with a HELIUM sensor capturing 8K resolution with a Super 35 gate.
“I wanted to do it in 8K because of the amount of visual effects with digital animals throughout the movie,” he says. “So that had an effect on our procedure on the set, and also in terms of workflow and visual effects. The decision to use the HELIUM in 8K turned out to be very positive. We compressed a bit, I think 8:1, and there were no issues on the entire project.”
Navarro’s sensor choice was also driven in part because he wanted to use 35mm-format lenses, as opposed to a larger format. The lenses were ARRI Ultra Primes augmented by Angenieux Optimo zooms.
“Working in a very big format has an effect of your focus,” he says. “Your focal lengths are longer, and when focus becomes shallow and objects in the frame are in different frames, the visual effects can suffer. In this movie, we were dealing with a space that is not just a plane. It’s not enough to have one plane of focus. You have to incorporate everything, and allow all the animals to exist no matter where they are in relation to the lens. So I was preoccupied with getting depth of field to play in our favor and protect the visual effects work. Treating all the animals and finding space on our canvas where they belong was a very important part of our work.”
Navarro spent eight months in London on the shoot. At his side was long-time gaffer David Lee, whom he calls “an extraordinary collaborator.” The crew worked with green-suited actors and other objects that Downey and other human actors could interact with while maintaining believable spatial interactions.
Production design had to be integrated carefully. All lighting information was gathered and used by visual effects to help maintain the color, character and direction of Navarro’s lighting. That information came in handy for the eventual reshoots. The DI was handled at Company 3 with Stephen Nakamura.
Navarro is currently working on an untitled project for Netflix with Sandra Bullock. Although the story is different in almost every way from Dolittle, he’s using the same combination of RED HELIUM and Ultra Prime glass.
“I believe that the equipment is at your service,” he says. “You are not the servant of the equipment. For me, the HELIUM is a very reliable chip, and I have learned to understand it so I’m comfortable with it. It’s like when you’re comfortable with your film stock – you know where you can go. In some ways, I still work like we did in the film days – the intention is to put all of our attention on lighting and framing and telling the story with images.”
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
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