At The Mercy Of The Sun: Cinematographer Fan Chao On Shooting An Elephant Sitting Still
There’s an elephant at a circus in Manzhouli that sits and won’t move.“Perhaps some people keep stabbing it with forks,” Yu Cheng muses to his close friend’s wife, but the elephant still won’t budge. This is one of four characters whose lives eventually intersect en route to the seated behemoth. In the bleak mining city of the late writer/director Hu Bo’s slow epic An Elephant Sitting Still, people tend to linger as they’re being hurt too, in spite of the obvious exits that beckon them.
Somewhere in the time it takes to endure this 230 minute trial of misanthropy, you may start to wonder if Hu Bo means for you to get up and head for the exit doors. If you sit through its agony to the end haven’t you willed it just the same? If you left, wouldn’t you leave victorious, in the way Hu Bo wished his characters might? In my screening, two audience members in front of me stood up and left more than two hours into the film, heroes; who missed out. Fortunately, in the end, Elephant proffers a wealth of hard-earned wisdom from the dark side, And Hu Bo and his Cinematographer Fan Chao, guide us there distinctively through nearly four hours of long, unbroken takes. One shot per scene. They shot no other coverage.
For a film of such breadth and intentional length, their shoot days, and Fan Chao’s manner of speaking, were shockingly succinct. As Fan Chao and Hu Bo chose to shoot the film in available light, without any artificial light to supplement it, they never shot more than four hours in a day. They filmed from morning to the afternoon, foregoing sunrise and sunset as it cast unwanted color and contrast. While location scouting, their schedule was cut shorter than was originally expected and budgetary restrictions prevented them from shooting some scenes the way they originally planned. But, by some good fortune, those obstacles drew them to better choices than their initial instincts And so the film was made at the mercy of all these limitations: the light, the schedule, the budget, the absence of coverage to cut away to, the way Hu Bo always intended. The interview was translated by Mengyin Lin.
Filmmaker: Can you provide an exhaustive checklist of the camera body, lenses, filters, and lights that you used to create the look of An Elephant Sitting Still?
Fan Chao: We used an Arri Alexa Mini with Zeiss Ultra primes. No filters. All natural light.
Filmmaker: Why the Zeiss Ultra Primes?
Fan: The Ultra Primes are compact and small, so it was appropriate considering the limited spaces we were often working in. And they don’t have the sharpness of the Master Primes, which are too sharp and commercial for the tone of this film. They were also cheaper to rent…
Filmmaker: Were all of these long oners, which play out entirely without cuts, the only coverage you and Hu Bo ever shot for most of these scenes?
Fan: Yes, the only coverage we got for the scenes are the long shots that you see in the film.
Filmmaker: How did you and Hu Bo come to the intricate blocking of all these shots?
Fan: We planned everything when we were scouting locations. On set we made some adjustments with the blocking of the actors. But for camera, the blocking was basically set in pre-production.
Filmmaker: Was shooting minimal coverage also something your schedule dictated?
Fan: We didn’t always plan to shoot the film this way. Hu Bo’s previous work had shorter, poetic shots that were not as realistic as the style we developed for An Elephant Sitting Still. When Hu Bo and I initially sat with the script and discussed our approach to camera, we also talked about a more static approach that was consistent with the way he shot his other films. But then, sometime while we were scouting, we learned that our 30 day shoot had been cut down to 25. So it was while we were looking at locations that we decided we’d shoot one shot for each scene.
Filmmaker: But you and Hu Bo had some justification for why these long takes worked in favor of the film?
Fan: So we had two plans from the beginning, and the long takes idea was just one of those original plans. We wanted to shoot it this way so that the audience developed an empathy for the characters in an immersive way. You’re always seeing what the characters are going through and so always experiencing that with them.
Filmmaker: The four main characters are the only things that are ever in focus in the film. All of the other characters they interact with (several which boast significant screen time) are relegated to audible blurs on the peripheries. Even action that is critical to the plot is left out of focus. Bold. Why?
Fan: This is another thing we decided before we started the shoot. There are four characters and four storylines. We only wanted to keep the focus on these four characters, literally. We wanted everything else, every other supporting character and event, to represent a homogenized form of external pressure — applied from society onto our main characters. We chose to focus on the reactions of our four main characters to the side characters and plots surrounding them — which should remain relatively un-specific.
Filmmaker: Some of those external actions are shot shallower than others, what was your approach to setting your aperture?
Fan: We did change aperture sometimes when moving between an interior to an exterior. That’s when it would change most dramatically.
Filmmaker: Since you were using available light, how did you maneuver the steep shifts in exposure over the course of a long take?
Fan: Because I was at the mercy of available light, I basically had to make deliberate choices about when characters would fall into silhouette.
Filmmaker: Are you really only using available light? Most films that claim to use available light are still using something to supplement it.
Fan: Yes, just bouncing sources and using negative fill to make the contrast less obvious and more “natural” than the natural light appears. We didn’t use any other light.
Filmmaker: Was the use of natural light a budgetary need? Why was its use important to this story?
Fan: It wasn’t entirely because of budget reasons. We wanted the image of the film to have a realistic sensibility. The silhouettes we created by shooting against the light are already stylistic. If we had used more artificial lighting, it would have diminished the realism that we were going for. Plus, we had blocking that required 360 degree camera movements, so it was impossible to set up lights in the scene. We decided not to use any lights at all for the entire film in order to maintain a consistent visual tone.
Filmmaker: With less control, did you ever run into any trouble with clipping highlights or shadows? Your highlights always roll off nicely here.
Fan: We chose to use soft light, so the contrast was never too dramatic. I set my exposure according to the brightest highlight in the shot, so, as a result, the darkest parts of the image sometimes fell off into total black. In post, during the color grade, we pushed a faint diffusion effect into those clipped blacks. The visual style of some films are decided by the design of artificial lights; others are decided by working with the angles of the existing light. This film belongs to the latter category.
Filmmaker: The camera leads or follows our four main characters for the vast majority of the film. But there are a handful of exceptions where the camera lingers elsewhere, like when it hovers past Wu Bei in the kitchen to reveal his father’s broken leg and the pills spilled on the ground. It also tilts up when Wu Bei throws a match up to the ceiling where the flame sticks and dies.
Fan: We originally had two plans for how we were going to shoot the film, like I mentioned earlier. One plan was to shoot with these long unbroken takes and the other was to mix in the sort of static-poetic frames that Hu Bo used in his other films. The shot of the match is a good example of the way he liked to use objects as a representation for other poetic notions in the film. So these are instances where we were able to preserve that other approach within the long takes we were limited to. Also, there’s an absurdity to the content of the story. Because the long takes lend a very realistic feeling, these wandering shots helped usher in a little of that absurdity stylistically.
Filmmaker: On that note, can you talk about the kitchen fire scene that pans over a wall [while the fire is being extinguished] to the aftermath of the fire going out? It’s the most overtly expressionistic scene in the movie. I think the absurdity becomes pretty apparent at this point.
Fan: Storywise, this was meant to be a small redemption for the character Yu Cheng. He did terrible things to his friend and is basically immoral up to this point, so this was a way for Hu Bo to provide him some level of redemption and responsibility. We did actually talk about showing him put out the fire, but we didn’t end up having enough money in the budget to do that. Ultimately, we were happier that we shot it this way. At this point in the story everything has already been elevated and is no longer realistic, so if we had showed it and shot it real time like we planned, it wouldn’t have felt in tune with where the story was at that point.
Filmmaker: When the four characters get together, why do you allow them to share the frame in what ends up being the film’s first and only wide shots?
Fan: Before the four characters come together at the end of the story, we mostly use close-ups and medium shots in the first two thirds. We wanted a sort of strain and pressure to fill the frame until the end. When the four characters come together we wanted a release from that pressure that we had built up for so long in the film. We wanted these group shots to show how they looked together. Ultimately, it’s a release of that tension.
Filmmaker: What was monitoring like on set? Was Hu Bo keen on watching the performances in the monitor or off of it?
Fan: We had a lot of exteriors with long tracking shots, often too long for our wireless transmitter on camera to connect to our village monitor. So Hu Bo was usually right behind me on a small director’s monitor for the exteriors, and for the interiors he mostly stayed at village. We did a lot of rehearsals with the actors and camera, though, and when he was confident that we had the movement locked down in camera, he’d work more closely with the actors.
Filmmaker: How much did you guys rehearse?
Fan: As you can tell, the natural light we’re using in the film is pretty constant. There’s not a lot of change in the light because we only shot in the morning and afternoon, never during magic hour or sunset and obviously not when it got dark. So we had a lot of time on set to block and rehearse. Other than an hour for lunch, we rehearsed whenever we weren’t shooting.
Filmmaker: How did your days look compared to a traditional 12 hour one?
Fan: We probably shot 4 hours at the most each day because of the light. We had to wrap when it got dark. The days were pretty short because there were never any night scenes. Thinking back on it, I feel lucky because we did finish what we planned to every day of the shoot. And there weren’t a lot of critical mistakes in the takes we got, so we could finish the film with what we got.
Filmmaker: You often pull the camera back from the characters near the end of a take.
Fan: There’s not too much to read into it. I tried it out on set and we both felt it was appropriate to those moments and characters. A lot of the camera ideas were Hu Bo’s, though. I raised a few suggestions, but he knew what he wanted from the beginning and throughout. I actually used this receding technique on a short that I shot around the same time, now that I think of it. Interesting.
Filmmaker: Do you have any inclination or philosophy about shooting in natural light? Or do you prefer to remain open to all ways of shooting?
Fan: This was the first time I shot a film with all natural light. My style depends on the content and style of the movie.
Filmmaker: Was there a specific approach to timing these oners, and were you more sensitive to their relation to other shots considering there was less leeway in the edit?
Fan: For as early as when he wrote the script, Bu Ho didn’t leave a lot of room for editing. That was built in from the beginning, and was another reason we chose to do the long takes. He felt that An Elephant Sitting Still should not be a film that was “re-created” or “re-written” in the editing room.