“Contrast is the Toughest Thing to Shift”: DP Nigel Bluck on the Two Nicolas Cages of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
One of New Zealand cinematographer Nigel Bluck’s first breaks as a young DP came shooting 2nd unit on the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. He had one feature film under his belt and little visual effects experience, but Bluck learned on the job and persevered through nine months of bluescreen-draped soundstage work.
Two decades later, the now-seasoned Bluck faced another new challenge with The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. “I’m not a comedy guy, normally,” said Bluck. “This is the warmest and funniest movie I’ve ever shot.”
It’s definitely the Nicolas Cage-iest movie anyone has ever shot. The Oscar winner plays a fictionalized version of himself—a financially strapped, egocentric, aging star on the downslope of his career who agrees to a million dollar payday to attend the birthday party of a superfan (Pedro Pascal) in Spain. If that concept wasn’t meta enough, a Wild at Heart-era version of Cage (called “Nicky” in the film) periodically appears to goad Cage into his more self-destructive instincts like a scenery-chewing devil on the shoulder.
With the movie still in theaters, Bluck spoke to Filmmaker about bluescreen and practical action as different languages, his love of large format and why the simplest way is often the better way.
Filmmaker: The Lord of the Rings films are actually one of your first credits. How did you land that job so early in your career?
Bluck: It was a strange set of circumstances. I was about 26 at the time. I had just shot my first feature film in Wellington, New Zealand, called Stickmen. My wife, who was my partner then, was a camera assistant on Lord of the Rings and through her I met [the trilogy’s cinematographer] Andrew Lesnie. He came to my premiere for Stickmen and hired me after seeing that film, which was surprising because it had no special effects in it. We talked and got along really well. I think he was looking for someone who wasn’t a visual effects person, just a DP. It was a huge learning curve and I learned a lot about lighting bluesceeens and visual effects in its nascence. I got to work with a lot of very good visual effects people and learned by doing, really, for about nine months—all bluescreen, all the time, all on stages.
Filmmaker: Massive Talent has quite a few action set pieces. Did you learn anything during all those months of 2nd unit that’s still applicable for shooting action?
Bluck: They’re very different worlds, really. Everything for Lord of the Rings was on bluescreen and almost everything on (The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent) was practical. It’s almost a different language.
Filmmaker: One visual effect you did have to contend with on Massive Talent is the dual Nick Cage scenes, where current-day Cage interacts with “Nicky.” What are some of the tricks you used when both Cages were in the same shot together?
Bluck: It was a really interesting process, because there were a few films around at the time that used versions of cloning and all did it in different ways. We experimented with all of them. For one scene we rebuilt the hallway of a hotel so we could use a motion control rig, but only ended up using Nick’s side of the shot—Nicky’s side didn’t make it into the final cut. That’s the most complicated way of doing it, using motion control and running separate passes with Nick and Nicky after wardrobe and make-up changes and some prosthetic work. So, we did everything from that down to the simplest way, which is just lock off the camera and do splitscreen. In some ways those splitscreens were as good as the very tricky shots with a lot of special effects. What we found was that the simplest way is often the better way, especially with the tone of what we were doing with this movie. It’s a comedy and it’s about performance, not as much about what the camera is doing. So, the emphasis comes off of the visual, I think, and goes back on how to curate an environment that allows the performances to flourish and flow. That was always the priority. How are we going to get Nick comfortable and in a place where he can play a little and experiment with both sides of the character, instead of (using a more complicated process where we have to say), “OK, Nick, your head needs to be right here and we need your elbow to be right here.”
Filmmaker: The Nicky de-aging looks good, especially considering the budget you’re working with. I’ve seen some pretty horrific examples of de-aging lately. What are some things you can do on set to make that process easier for the VFX folks?
Bluck: I think you have to be generous with the lighting. I need to create the shape I want, but I also need to have enough exposure throughout the negative so that any part of the negative can be dealt with. If I underexpose any part of his face, then that piece of information is more difficult to work with later on. So, it was just about being a bit more protective about exposure and consistency in lighting, because it has to match between side A and side B [of the Cage interactions]. There were some daylight situations with Nicky in the original cuts that aren’t in the final cut and those were the trickiest parts, matching the sun when it’s moving. We worked very closely with the visual effects supervisor to make sure that we were all on the same page all the time and that I was giving them exactly what they needed. And also, again, just trying to keep things simple and performance based. Nick is so good with his face and his physical performance that half the battle is already won, really.
Filmmaker: Tell me a bit about the logistics of the shoot.
Bluck: The bulk of the shoot was in Hungary, either on location or on stage. We started out in Columbia we had a false start where, two weeks out from shooting, we shut down because of COVID. So, we all went home, then rebooted again in Hungary. We shot in the studios in Budapest and also went to Dubrovnik and did the beautiful, Mediterranean-style exteriors of [Pascal’s] mansion and the little village.
Filmmaker: I read an interview where Tom Gormican talked about directing the film’s final scene remotely because he caught COVID). What was it like to work around the director not being physically on set that day?
Bluck: Yeah, we were shooting in deep COVID. It shut us down to start with, then I got it and was off set for a week. Then Tom got it separately and he was off set for a week. It wasn’t that bad for me. We had a really good DIT set-up where I had an A and B monitor, both calibrated, in my hotel room, with no lag. I had a Zoom link to Tom and a link to my grip, gaffer and camera team. I also had a witness camera on a wide angle lens on the DIT cart just so I could see what was going on and how the set-ups were progressing. Luckily, it was weeks and weeks into the shoot—we’d already developed a language with the crew, I had a very good B-camera operator and he ran things just fine. Tom struggled more, I think, because it’s much harder to not be there for the actors and not be there talking to Nick.
Filmmaker: How long was the shoot?
Bluck: About eight weeks. Even though we had a decent budget, there were challenges. We were trying to create sunny Spain in the middle of a gloomy Eastern European winter. The crew there was fantastic, though, and I had a great experience with Panavision as usual. We had some great glass and were really supported by them.
Filmmaker: You shot with Panavision T Series anamorphics?
Bluck: T Series, yes. I had some spherical lenses as well, which we worked with for some stuff, but it was 90 percent T Series.
Filmmaker: I’ve done a few interviews lately where the DPs have shot on T Series but had Panavision work their detuning magic to give them some of the characteristics of older Panavision glass. Did you have your set tweaked?
Bluck: Yes, [Panavision VP of Optical Engineering] Dan [Sasaki] always has his hands on the lenses for me. For this movie, it wasn’t radical compared to a lot of the stuff I do on anamorphic. I didn’t want anything too overcontrasty. We added a slight desaturation to it, so we just tuned them down a little.
Filmmaker: And you shot on the Alexa LF?
Bluck: Yeah, the Mini LF.
Filmmaker: Just anecdotally, when I’ve been doing interviews in the last year or so, it seems like large format has surpassed Super35-sized digital sensors in terms of frequency of use. What’s the appeal for you?
Bluck: For me, I shoot a lot of anamorphic and think large format anamorphic is super exciting. When you’re working with somebody like Dan [Sasaki], he can really have a lot of room to play and expand and change the lenses. So, it gives him a bit of a bigger playing field optically, which I’m really attracted to. It also gives me a bigger playing field optically, more resolution. I feel like I can push the lenses more with the larger format. I also love it in spherical terms. I love large format still photography. It gives you the ability to use that language, to shoot wider without distortion, which is really attractive, and that applies to the anamorphic side of things as well. It’s just a bigger sensor in the same sized camera, so I don’t see why you shouldn’t profit from that.
I’m definitely sold on large format. I think it’s a great way forward. The image is phenomenal in what it gives you, what you can do in post with it and how clean it is. We’re getting so much into using film grain in the digital world, which I use on every project now to different degrees. I feel like the cleaner the digital image you start with, the truer application of the film grain you can get. When you’re trying to put film grain over digital noise, you get two things going on that are kind of butting up against each other. With large format, I get a cleaner digital negative that I can then put a more unadulterated film grain treatment over.
Filmmaker: You did a video interview for Indy Mogul that I really enjoyed, where you broke down your approach to shooting overcast day exteriors on The Peanut Butter Falcon. Your advice was that the worst thing you can do is add light. You want to use negative fill and shape the existing light. Here, you’re dealing with a different type of day exterior as you’re trying to, as you mentioned earlier, make Hungary in winter look like Spain in the summer.
Bluck: It’s just about careful scheduling, then being flexible and consistent. I’m very careful deciding on my approach at the beginning of a scene and not changing it, so that Alex Bickel, our colorist, can have a fighting chance later on. If I shoot a whole scene flat, he can uniformly do something later on. But if I shoot one part of a scene flat and another part high contrast, he has to match all that, then find a place for the scene to live. Color is the easiest thing to shift [in the grade]. The contrast is the toughest thing to shift. So, the contrast is what you need to look at. You almost need to look at it in black and white and create contrast on the actor’s face, or the building or whatever you’re shooting, either using negative [fill] or by adding backlight.
Filmmaker: You say that color is the easy part to change, and I’m sure it is for a professional colorist, but any time I try to adjust a shot from a drab day to look warm and sunny, it always just looks like I slathered a tobacco filter on there.
Bluck: You have to go easy on the effect when you add it. People have gone crazy with affected photography since Instagram has come about with all these filters. It’s created this thirst for that. I think cinematographers have to push their image around more than they did before just to be accepted within this world we’re living in. But yeah, just go easy on the dials.
Filmmaker: You see the hashtag #nofilter, almost as if without that label you just assume there’s been some level of manipulation in every image you see.
Bluck: (laughs) I try to steer away from filters, because you can just get lost. You should visualize the image you want to make before you make it [rather than creating too much of that look in the grade]. That’s how you move forward and improve your skill and craft. You see the image in your head, then try to make that shot. If you just put the camera up and start fishing for things, you might well catch a good fish, but that’s not a great way to improve.
Filmmaker: There are action elements and dramatic elements to Massive Talent—Cage is so great in this movie—but at heart it feels like a comedy.
Bluck: One thing I really learned—and [that] I really respect about comedy—is that you have to be ready, because lightning in a bottle often happens in comedy in half a take. You need to be ready to capture it every time, hopefully from two or three different angles, so that moment of inspiration from the actor can live on its own from just that one take. That’s especially true with Nick. Tom has a very clear idea of what he wants, but with Nick he’s going to give you what you want, then seven other variations too. So, you really have to be really to capture that lightning in a bottle.
Filmmaker: His generation of actors—like Sean Penn and Tom Cruise—is really the generation whose entire careers have overlapped with my life as a movie fan. I remember watching Raising Arizona over and over again as a kid when it came out. What was the first Nick Cage movie that impacted you?
Bluck: Raising Arizona for sure, then absolutely Wild at Heart. His controlled craziness, there’s nothing like it. We had a good time making this film. I learned a lot, I enjoyed working with Tom and working with Nick was incredible. It’s just a joy to have him in front of the camera.