“Spielberg is the Master of Layering Multiple Actors Within a Frame”: DP Jeff Cutter on Prey
1987 was a good year to be a young action movie fan. RoboCop, Lethal Weapon and Predator all hit theaters within five months of each other before landing on VHS, where they could be watched again and again provided you or a friend had parents with an appropriately laissez faire attitude toward R ratings.
That cycle of action films made a deep impression on a teenaged Jeff Cutter. Predator, in particular, brought forth an unexpected revelation about the nature of moviemaking.
“I saw Predator in the theater when it came out and absolutely loved it,” said Cutter. “The Terminator was one of my all-time favorite movies and I didn’t really understand why it was so good, but I sort of equated it to Arnold Schwarzenegger. After The Terminator, I saw two not-very-good Schwarzenegger movies in a row. Then I saw Predator and realized, ‘Oh, it’s not just about the actors. It’s also about who is making these movies.’”
Cutter is among the “who” responsible for the latest installment in the franchise, serving as the director of photography on the new Predator prequel, Prey. Set in 1719, the film traces the predator’s first hunting trip to Earth, where the creature does battle with a young Comanche warrior, Naru (Amber Midthunder).
With Prey now out on Hulu, Cutter spoke to Filmmaker about tips for avoiding bears, creating the predator’s iconic cloaking and heat vision effects and reuniting with his 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg.
Filmmaker: Do you see any connective tissue or shared DNA between the look of Prey and the original Predator?
Cutter: Not so much in the photography, though Dan has a very visceral sense of the way the camera moves and [a fondness for] rack focuses that, while not necessarily inspired by Predator, is certainly inspired by [the work of Predator and Die Hard director] John McTiernan and his masterful orchestration of action sequences. I think his films had an influence on Dan and me, but for Prey I also took inspiration from a very different set of films than the earlier Predator movies.
Filmmaker: There’s a scene where a hunting party looking for Naru gets taken out by the Predator. Naru is in the background, a body falls into the foreground and the focus racks. That was one shot where I thought, “I could see that being in the first Predator.”
Cutter: Yeah, there’s definitely shots that have that sort of layering. Dan and I both love anamorphic lenses and the way that they breathe when they rack focus.
Filmmaker: The original Predator was shot spherically, but as you just mentioned you went with anamorphic for Prey—specifically, the Cooke Anamorphic/i Full Frame Plus lenses.
Cutter: We tested a bunch of lenses when we got to Calgary. I originally thought I wanted to shoot Alexa 65. I thought I would prefer that because of these beautiful vistas and epic locations. So, I tested the Alexa 65 with some spherical lenses, then tested the Alexa LF Mini with a couple different sets of anamorphics. When you put them up side by side, it was interesting that the anamorphics on the LF felt like they had a shallower depth of field than the sphericals on the 65 and gave us the anamorphic bokeh and flares that we love—specifically, the Cooke SF [Special Flare] lenses, because they have less coating, so they’re a lot more suspectable to flaring.
Filmmaker: And the form factor of the Mini LF is much smaller.
Cutter: Yes. When I was testing and we were lugging that 65 around it was like, “Well, this just isn’t going to go on a Steadicam. It isn’t going to go on a Ronin.” Beyond that, I actually preferred the images of the LF with the Cooke SFs. So, it was a win/win. We got the smaller body and still got an image we really loved.
Filmmaker: You mentioned being up in Calgary for the shoot. How remote were your locations?
Cutter: We actually shot a big chunk of the film—at least 50 percent, I would say—on First Nations land, about 45 minutes outside of Calgary. So, not truly in the middle of nowhere, because there was road access. You could get all the way to the property, then it was only a couple of miles to some of the locations. But that land is unsullied and untouched: You can look 360 degrees, there aren’t really power lines anywhere, there are very few structures. It was an ideal setting. We did have some other locations that were further away and even less accessible. When we were on the river, we had to actually helicopter in a Technocrane to get down in there. We had to be shuttled across the river on these little rafts to get to this peninsula, because you could only access it from one side and we were, of course, shooting on the other side.
Filmmaker: When you’re shooting in the thick of the woods with that heavy tree canopy overhead, how many hours of shootable sunlight do you get each day?
Cutter: Quite a lot in Calgary during the summer. We shot from June to September, something like that. You’re so far north that the daylight is close to 14 or 15 hours a day. Because you’re so far north, you get an extended magic hour at dawn and dusk. There’s quite a lot of ambient light before the sun comes up and after the sun goes down, almost twice as much as if you were shooting in L.A., where you have like a half-hour window. A lot of what we did was plan breaking up scenes that we wanted to have that dawn look for so we could shoot them early and late. Sometimes we would get lucky with cloud cover and could shoot some of those dawn sequences in the middle of the day, then we’d try to shoot in the dense forests to minimize the harsh sun.
Filmmaker: Almost the entirety of your shoot was on location. What required stage work?
Cutter: A few night exteriors. We did the fur trapper camp at night and the scene where Naru cuts off Big Beard’s leg and lures the predator outside, but on our backlot stage. The interior of the beaver dam where Naru is watching the bear fight the Predator, that was in a tank all wrapped in blue screen. That was pretty much it. The whole end fight is all on location.
Filmmaker: I hate spiders, and years ago I worked on this low budget monster movie down in Georgia where these big black-and-yellow spiders would hang down from the trees in the woods at night, right at about eye level. I was terrified I was going to walk face first into one of them. Were there any creatures out there that you really didn’t want to run in to?
Cutter: Definitely bears. We had bear wranglers with us. Just the fact that those wranglers had to be with us, the idea that they could be there [made you worry]. We didn’t have any bears come near us but saw black bears on the sides of roads. Sometimes we’d be making a little move from one section of forest to another, and everyone would still be packing up gear and there would only be a couple of us that would head off to the next spot. We’d be on our own and it would be super quiet. So, if you heard little noises, you got a little bit scared.
Filmmaker: Did the bear wranglers tell you, “If you wander off, don’t take any craft service snacks with you?”
Cutter: (laughs) We definitely had the bear speech every day: “If you see a bear, don’t run.”
Filmmaker: There’s a behind the scenes photo of Dan with a little model of the forest. I’m sure you did some detailed previs for the action scenes and effects. What did you use that model for?
Cutter: That was for the fur trapper battle, which is a big, smokey [setpiece] that we called “the burnt glade” sequence. That [location] was built from scratch by Kara Lindstrom, our production designer. She built roughly a 250’ x 250’ area that had about 100 burnt-out trees. Dan and I had previs’d the sequence while prepping. We had designed all these shots, but then you still have to link them together and figure out how to film it. So, we had a model with the trees and a little Predator guy and little fur trappers, and we’d say, “OK, the decapitation needs to be here, then the Predator is going to jump from this tree to this tree.” That was a very difficult location to find. We were trying to find a bowl of some sort to help contain the smoke in some way. It had a ridge on one side and a tree line on the other side. That certainly helped. We also knew we needed a vantage point where a couple of the fur trappers could be watching from. So, that model was just us trying to map out that whole sequence, which was like eight days of shooting.
Filmmaker: I was reading the American Cinematographer story on the original film, and it talks about how much trouble they had with the effects. What was the most difficult effects component of Prey?
Cutter: The most difficult thing to pull off practically was seeing the predator in daytime. The suit was so much less forgiving than when it’s seen at night or, like in the fur trapper battle, when obscured by smoke. In the daytime, it didn’t read nearly as well. We tried to minimize shooting it in daylight; there’s only a couple of sequences. The head was also problematic, because it actually sat on top of [Predator actor Dane DiLiegro’s] head. His face was in the [costume’s] neck. He had to keep his chin down to get the Predator head in the right position.
Filmmaker: Is the Predator’s “body heat vision” just regular footage altered in post?
Cutter: No, we actually used thermal cameras. The VFX supervisor Ryan Cook was really adamant that he wanted to do it that way. What we ended up using was like a 3D rig, where you have two cameras. So, we had a thermal camera [on top] lined up with one of our motion picture cameras so that we could shoot the same image simultaneously. That way we would have both the thermal version of it, then a plate of it in case they needed to do something different in post.
Filmmaker: How adjustable were the thermal cameras? Do they just have one fixed lens?
Cutter: There were multiple lenses. I think we had three choices. There were multiple modes that Ryan would play around with that adjusted the way the heat vision worked. You could dial in different colors and make certain temperatures go certain colors. It’s just reading temperature so there were issues where—this was a problem they also had on the original—stuff would get too hot and everything would show up red and yellow. We had that problem a few times where the ground was just all red and yellow because it was too shot.
Filmmaker: How did you create the cloaking effect?
Cutter: It was done a few different ways. If he didn’t decloak in the scene, he’s in a mocap suit. If he did decloak, he would be in full costume. For example, the first sequence—where he fights the Comanche and a warrior fires an arrow that goes into his leg and the cloaking goes on the fritz—he was in the Predator outfit. We shot that whole sequence with him in the suit, then [the visual effects team] made him disappear and be cloaked for whatever part they wanted.
Filmmaker: How’d you do the red targeting lasers? Is it literally laser pointers?
Cutter: We did have laser pointers that we used, but only for shots where they weren’t on the actors’ faces.
Filmmaker: Whose job duties does “laser pointer aimer” fall under?
Cutter: The VFX team, because it was just a reference [to be replaced later in post]. If the dots were on someone’s face, we didn’t use [the reference lasers at all]. Those are strictly CG.
Filmmaker: Did you have a show LUT that you used?
Cutter: I basically used one LUT, but I had two or three variations of it. I worked in prep with our colorist Cody Baker, who did 10 Cloverfield Lane with us. It’s not a complicated LUT by any stretch of the imagination. It just does the things that I like it to do, which is mostly open up the shadows and really step on the highlights. I try to get a LUT that is close to the RAW file. The reason is that I want the shadows to be dug out while I’m shooting so that I don’t feel obligated to bring in a bunch of fill light. If I look at an image and go, “Oh, it’s a little dark,” I start lighting it, but only because the LUT is making me light it. I don’t want that. I want a rather flat LUT but one that still has good black levels. I want it to be pleasing. I don’t want to look at Rec709, which I find really contrast-y. So, a big part of my prep is building this LUT. I’ll work with Cody, he’ll send me variations, I’ll go test them and go back to him and he’ll make tweaks. Then I land on one LUT with a few variations that have different levels of contrast, so that if I’m outside during the day with a blazing sun, I can go with the very low contrast version, which I think I only used once or twice.
Filmmaker: For daylight exteriors, did you do light studies at different locations to find the best time of day to shoot there?
Cutter: Definitely. Knowing that I wasn’t going to really use movie lights for most of the day work, the most important thing for me was to track the sun and know every day where it was going to be. I definitely did grip lighting where I would bring in white bounces or silver for a little eyelighting, or sometimes a bit of negative, but I didn’t want to use any artificial lights. Dan made a joke at one point where he said, “Part of your job is like being a meteorologist.” I was always saying, “The sun will be here at four, so let’s shoot this shot then. In the meantime we’ll shoot this scene.” You map it out and try to as much as possible to also block scenes out in terms of the way that the sun is going to be playing. So, you’re like, “OK, I know the sun is going to go from here to here. If the action happens in this general area, that’s going to be better for me, and if the camera stays on this side of the line, then I’m always going to be playing more into the backlight.” You try to figure out all that stuff during prep. You scout the locations. You re-scout them. You shoot reference stills. You SunPath everything. You don’t always get it right. Sometimes you have to shoot something at [a less than ideal] time, but you try to fight for that as much as you can.
Filmmaker: I really love your sense of composition in the film and the way you arrange the actors in the frame.
Cutter: I guess it’s an instinctual thing. Dan and I share the same sense of composition and how we like to layer and stack things. Images are always going to be better with depth. I also don’t really like long lenses. I love wider lenses closer to actors, where you might get a medium close-up of an actor in the foreground but can still get other actors in the frame. Then, maybe instead of cutting, you rack to another actor in the background. That’s a very Spielberg thing Dan and I are both very influenced by. Spielberg is the master of layering multiple actors within a frame and then, rather than cutting to a reaction, he’ll rack from one actor in the foreground to someone else’s coverage, or an actor will move in the shot and bring you to another piece of coverage. We were definitely inspired by that idea—trying to make shots last as long as possible and make pieces of coverage connect in one frame or one shot.
Filmmaker: Prey has two distinct night exterior looks, firelight and moonlight. Tell me about your approach to both.
Cutter: When there was fire, I wanted the firelight to dominate. I didn’t want there to be this sense of competing moonlight crashing into the background. However, I also knew that there were going to be these sequences later that had moonlight, so I didn’t want it to feel like there’s no moonlight present at all early in the film. For the fire scenes, I wanted you to feel the moonlight, but I wanted it to be very, very subtle. I tried to put a little bit of blue into the smoke and sometimes even [put] blue into the shadows so that presence would be there, so that when we did get to the non-firelit scenes that blue moonlight wouldn’t feel like it comes out of nowhere.
Filmmaker: For the firelight scenes, were you augmenting with movie lights?
Cutter: I wanted to use tungsten incandescent lights instead of LED lights. I wanted the light to have a certain quality that I didn’t think LEDs would give me. The only LEDs I used for the firelight were some LED ribbon on the torches for a couple of specific wide shots where they’re running through the forest at night—I wanted the torches to pop a little bit more, because they were such wide shots with these tiny torches.
Filmmaker: Can you feel a distinct difference between those tungsten fixtures and something like a SkyPanel LED fixture, where there’s a preset fire flicker effect?
Cutter: I feel the difference. I’ve done other movies with a lot of firelight and one thing I’ve noticed with the SkyPanels is that their fire flicker programs actually shift colors a little bit and I found that distracting. For scenes with a campfire, we would make a little pyramid of 9 Lights to mimic the shape of a bonfire. There was a very interesting quality that I liked of neither soft not hard. The light itself is hard because it’s just incandescent bulbs in the 9 Lights, but when you use enough of them it wraps the source. So, it doesn’t become this pinpoint source as if it was a single 10K. It becomes broad enough to feel like fire and, for me, had this quality that was much more akin to firelight than I’d gotten from SkyPanels.
Filmmaker: And when you go over into the moonlight look?
Cutter: That was very different. I wanted the moonlight to be very soft and I wanted everything to be side lit. We used balloons for some of it and also built soft boxes with 18 SkyPanel 360s that we put on these 80-foot lifts that they have up in Canada that we don’t really have in the States that can hold more weight. So, we built these soft boxes that were about 10’ x 20’. We started with the lights through a rag, but then we had a lot of problems with wind. So, we ended up just doing the SkyPanels with chimeras and basically butting them up against each other. For the fight at the end, we were so limited with where we could place those big lifts and it was so muddy that once we landed them, we couldn’t really move them. So, if I needed to move a light that was more like a key light closer to the actor, we’d use the balloons.
Filmmaker: How did you get that cyan moonlight color?
Cutter: We had to match the balloons, because that’s where we were fixed. They were anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 Kelvin, which is quite blue, but that’s where they landed. I basically matched the SkyPanels to somewhere in that zone, like 6,500. So, everything was quite cool. Then, in the DI, we pushed much more into the cyan realm. That green didn’t exist when we were shooting it. It was just straight blue.
Filmmaker: What did you rate the Alexa at for those night scenes?
Cutter: Mostly 800 ISO. Sometimes I’d go to 1,000, and every now and then I even had to go to 1,280, because there were some slow-motion shots and some wide shots in the forest where I just couldn’t get the values that I wanted.
Filmmaker: Going back to daylight, tell me about the handheld oner in the fur trapper camp where Naru comes back to rescue her dog. I don’t know if that’s a true oner or stitched takes, but that’s a fun shot.
Cutter: It was stitched, because part of it is with Amber and part of it is with a stunt double. Dan really, really wanted that to be a oner. It was definitely difficult and took us quite a while—probably half a day—to shoot.
Filmmaker: Well, if you had shot that scene with traditional coverage as opposed to a oner, it probably would’ve still taken half a day.
Cutter: For sure. There’s a lot of truth to that. When we were shooting 10 Cloverfield Lane, the very first shot we did was the first shot of Michelle [Mary Elizabeth Winstead] waking up in the bunker and it took us four hours. But that shot tells the audience a whole bunch of information. This was Dan’s first movie, and it was the first time he and I had worked together, and after about the third hour the line producer started freaking out. But that shot, if we had done it as coverage, might have taken half a day to do. Sometimes it might not seem like you’re making progress during a long take, but if you can tell the story in less coverage or less cuts, it’s almost always going to better.
Filmmaker: It’s funny that you said Dan wanted that Prey fight scene to be a oner. When we talked for 10 Cloverfield Lane, you said Dan wanted to have a crazy long oner at the end and you talked him into something a bit more practical. Is that part of your dynamic?
Cutter: Not always, because I like oners a lot too, but I also get worried that sometimes—and I’ve seen this—somebody wants to do a oner just for the sake of doing a oner. I think that’s a mistake. Yes, it might be, technically, a very awesome shot, but if it’s not the right choice for the storytelling, then it’s a mistake. I think Dan has great instincts and that Prey shot as a oner is incredible. I was lucky enough to see the film in the theater at the premiere with a whole crowd and they were hooting and hollering at the end of that shot when she gets the axe back and we do a little push in. Part of that was because it was a oner and, as an audience, you haven’t had a chance to breathe because there’s no cuts. Part of my dynamic with Dan is the freedom to throw out those types of ideas. Dan is such a collaborative guy and there’s no such thing as a bad idea. It’s a safe space, because if an idea doesn’t work you move on, but when it’s a good idea Dan embraces it. It’s a great environment to work in.