Checco Varese, ASC welcomes AC to the Toronto set of director Andy Muschietti’s horror sequel.
Unit photography by Brooke Palmer. All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
At the end of the 2017 horror feature It, the outcast Losers’ Club believed they had finally defeated the child-eating malevolence that assumed the form of Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgård). But in the movie’s new sequel, It Chapter Two, a centuries-old pattern of evil continues, with a hungry “It” returning 27 years later. When Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) — the only Loser who remained in Derry, Maine — recognizes It’s reappearance, he reassembles the gang and pleads for them to honor the oath they made back in 1989, that if the creature ever returned, they would put an end to it together.
It Chapter Two returned the franchise to Pinewood Toronto Studios, with director Andy Muschietti once again at the helm. While It told the story of the Losers as kids in 1989, Chapter Two continues their story as adults in 2016, with flashbacks to the earlier timeframe; taken together, the two features tell the story first presented in Stephen King’s novel It.
Behind the scenes, Checco Varese, ASC served as director of photography for the sequel, after Chung Chung-hoon shot the first feature (AC Oct. ’17). As Varese enjoyed telling the crew, “It was a heartwarming coming-of-age story with an evil clown. In this one, we don’t have the heartwarming part.”
AC visited the production inside Pinewood’s Stage 14, on day 81 of the 86-day shoot — which, appropriately, wrapped last Halloween. As Varese recalls during our time on set, it was February 2018 when Muschietti called and said, “‘We’re starting in Toronto, and I’d like you to come up.’ So I packed, and have spent nine months here.” The cinematographer is no stranger to the city, having worked here with Guillermo del Toro on the pilot for The Strain (AC Aug. ’14), among other projects. Beyond the stage work, It Chapter Two has also incorporated location shooting around Toronto and in the nearby town of Port Hope, which has supplied exteriors for the fictitious Derry.
Given It’s box-office success and, consequently, the lofty expectations for the sequel, Varese admits to some initial nerves. “But then I read the script and convinced myself that this one is a different movie,” he says.
His 12 weeks of preproduction involved “a lot of following Andy around and trying to catch up,” the cinematographer recalls. “We went through the art department’s illustrations and talked about colors. He starts from a painter’s point of view. He didn’t refer to movies other than the first It, but I might show him a still from Seven [AC Oct. ’95] and ask, ‘Is that what you mean?’”
The filmmakers aimed to make Chapter Two’s flashbacks feel like a memory while still maintaining the look of the first movie. “The flashbacks are a little more stylized [than the previous movie],” Muschietti says. “They’re shrouded in a more nostalgic kind of feeling.” To help realize the effect, Varese employed Chocolate 1 lens filters, which enhanced the scenes’ already autumnal tones.
Varese praises the work of costume designer Luis Sequeira and production designer Paul Austerberry, who were both new to the franchise and were tasked with re-creating the physical details of the first film. The cinematographer describes the process of referencing stills and footage that had been previously shot as “painstaking.”
The production is carrying two Arri Alexa SXT cameras, shooting Open Gate ArriRaw — cropped to 3.2K for image stabilization and visual-effects flexibility — and recording to SXR Capture Drives. Alexa Mini cameras are also kept on hand for Steadicam shots — executed by A-camera operator Angelo Colavecchia, a veteran of It — and handheld work in tight spaces. The Minis record ArriRaw to CFast 2.0 Cards. In addition to Colavecchia, Varese praises A-camera 1st AC Dean Stinchcombe and his “wonderful focus pulling and technical support.”
“For Andy, a 15mm is a master, 21mm is a two-shot, and 29mm is a close-up. You get to see a lot of the set — but it makes it challenging to paint a canvas behind the actors, because everything is visible.”
— Checco Varese, ASC
It was primarily shot with Arri’s Alexa XT Plus, and Varese says that the sequel, too, “is an Alexa movie, because of the quality and flexibility of the [camera’s] chip, which is friendly to skin color, darkness and subtle tones — and it’s all about subtleties here. There was a conversation about shooting in large format, but that wouldn’t have been practical because Andy wanted close focus, and the camera to be very low and wide. Wide lenses are not as friendly in large format.
“For Andy, a 15mm is a master, 21mm is a two-shot, and 29mm is a close-up,” the cinematographer continues. “You get to see a lot of the set — but it makes it challenging to paint a canvas behind the actors, because everything is visible.” The director adds that he believes this wide-lens approach “generally brings more life into the shot.”
While the first movie had been shot with anamorphic lenses, Muschietti wanted to go with spherical glass for Chapter Two. “Anamorphic lenses are limiting for me in terms of framing,” the director explains. “With spherical lenses I have more frame at the top and bottom so I can reframe later, which is especially useful since we have so many VFX.”
The switch, however, did pose a challenge to Varese as he strove to match the 1989 look. He found his solution in Vantage Film’s T1.7 MiniHawk Anamorphic Hybrid lenses. “I wanted to maintain the anamorphic bokeh,” he explains. “The MiniHawks have all the spherical advantages of focus and close-focus, but they also provide a facsimile to the anamorphic bokeh and flare.”
For the 2016 scenes, the crew is using Angénieux’s Optimo 15-40mm (T2.6), Optimo 28-76mm (T2.6) and, occasionally, Optimo Ultra 24-290mm (T2.8) zooms, as well as Leitz’s Summilux-C primes. “Since I shot Replicas [in 2016] with the [Summilux-C] lenses, they’ve been my go-to,” Varese says. “They’re sharp but have a painterly quality, with softness around the edges. The flares are very gentle, and the way they envelop the highlights is very attractive. And they match well with the Angénieux zooms.”
For particularly unusual close-focus shots, the filmmakers also employed the Revolution Lens System, which “enhances depth of field,” Varese explains. “It raises the stop to a T7, but by pushing the Alexa to 1280 ASA, the change in lighting is minimal. Andy and I have used it to obtain otherwise unobtainable camera angles — like scratching a wall, or getting into a corner or under a bed. If the closest focus of a lens is 9 inches, with the Revolution, you can have Pennywise’s nose touch the front element of the lens and it will still be in focus.”
“I don’t feel pressure to make a commercial success. It’s just a matter of making a movie that, as an audience member, I would enjoy and not feel was underwhelming compared to the first one. If anything, it’s more exciting.”
— Andy Muschietti
Muschietti favors one-camera setups for his carefully designed shots, although a two-camera setup — with Michael Carella operating B camera — has sometimes proved more efficient for scenes featuring multiple characters. Certain action scenes have called for four cameras, and a car crash required five.
The first setup during our visit, though, is a single-camera night interior. The crew is working in a closed-ceiling set that represents the attic of the library where Mike works; the walls show exposed brick and wooden beams. The set underscores Austerberry’s attention to detail, with cobwebs, books, typewriters, film canisters and more filling every nook and cranny. The translucent windows have been aged heavily, which enhances the old, dirty look and obscures the movie lights positioned outside the set. Atmosphere abounds, and throughout the afternoon Varese will instruct, “10 percent more smoke!”
In the script, this set was presented as just another location in Derry, but the setting evolved when Austerberry joined Muschietti on a scout of Port Hope and was intrigued by the old town hall. “It was very similar to this,” Austerberry recalls, standing inside his set. “We added some dormer windows but otherwise took inspiration from what we saw. We figured visually it would be more interesting if Mike had a crazy place like this where he could go and do his research and crash.”
The sequence will ultimately combine exteriors from the Port Hope town hall, interiors shot in a library at the University of Toronto, and this set. In the scene at hand, Mike brings a skeptical Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) up to the space, where he tries to convince him that It has returned. They ascend a spiral staircase — top-lit by hanging practicals — toward the camera, which then follows them and booms up, without cutting, as they walk into the attic. To realize the shot, the Alexa SXT has been secured to a dolly-mounted Libra remote head and fitted with the 15-40mm zoom.
“The stabilized Libra makes it very smooth,” Varese says. “We can go very low or very high. I don’t think we’ve done a shot with a tripod in the entire movie. All the shots move constantly — they push in, go up, go down. It’s a fluid language. Sometimes the camera follows the action, and sometimes the camera follows a feeling.” The cinematographer credits “Rico [Richard] Emerson, key grip extraordinaire, and all his knowledge, which he applied to every one of these camera moves.”
Like much of the movie, this sequence is dark, with practicals doing the heavy lifting. Lamps and wall sconces are positioned around the room, and a China hat with three bulbs hangs over a center table. The practicals mostly hold standard 3,200K tungsten bulbs for a warm look, and all of them are on dimmers. Sometimes the crew uses reflector bulbs in the hanging fixtures for more directionality.
Quasar Science LED tubes hidden along the floor uplight the walls to show some detail in the back of the room, while three off-camera LiteGear LiteMat fixtures, shaped by egg crates, key the actors from one side of the room. Kino Flo Celebs stand at the ready to be placed on the floor and provide a more fine-tuned key for close-ups.
Throughout the production, gaffers David Lee and Scott Phillips have been “working symbiotically, splitting duties of planning and executing those plans on the floor,” Phillips explains. Lee adds, “There’s plenty of work to go around. In general, [this arrangement] allows one of us to stay with Checco while the other prepares the upcoming sets.”
Five Arri T12s on Genie booms and small scissor lifts are arranged around the outside of the set, along with three Arri SkyPanel S60s that hang from pipe, and two MR16 Sunstrips — rigged on vertical pipes — for each window. All of these external fixtures have been dimmed down to provide no more than a warm glow. The overall effect is of a dingy room that’s largely been neglected over its hundred-year history.
After the fourth take, Muschietti is satisfied, and the cast and crew break for lunch before continuing the scene — which is about to get decidedly trippy. Earlier in the story, Mike learned of a Native American tribe that claims to have fought an incarnation of this evil force centuries ago. When Mike visits them, they give him a hallucinogenic concoction that enables him to see past and present and confront his fear. Now, in the library attic, Mike will slip the potion into an unwitting Bill’s drink.
As the drug kicks in, Bill looks to the table and focuses on an urn from the tribe, decorated with a depiction of the ancient battle. Bill freaks out, falls to the ground and crawls backward, away from the urn — and the camera — as he feels Pennywise’s presence and becomes aware of It’s evil plans. Varese has the room’s lights dimmed 50 percent, and an unnatural flicker on McAvoy’s face is provided by a small ring light made of LED pads positioned around the camera’s matte box and programmed with a chase pattern by dimmer-board operator Desiree Lidon, who works on a grandMA console.
To further the disorienting, topsy-turvy effect, the crew has rigged the Steadicam — fitted with a Betz-Tools Wave1 horizontal stabilizer — on a stand that in turn is positioned on a dolly with an L-bracket. With this arrangement, Colavecchia can sit on an apple box and shake the stand to create a vibrating image that, in post, will be adjusted so that McAvoy’s face will remain stable within the frame while the surrounding environment quivers around him. Muschietti refers to the effect as a “locked face.”
“It was a happy accident,” Colavecchia recalls, lining up a run-through. “Dolly grip Robert [Cochrane] was moving the Steadicam out of the way on the stand, and it created a curious movement that Andy liked. We just shake the crap out of it, and the Wave1 brings it back to center all the time and helps keep things level.”
Varese adds: “It’s simple, but it creates an unsettling and anxiety-inducing effect. It’s handcrafted, almost like a technique from the 1930s — you shake the camera and therefore the image shakes. It’s very analog, and Andy is very analog.”
Next, Muschietti wants to go for an even stranger effect. A wooden plank is placed so as to extend out from the dolly, with wheels underneath it that allow it to move with the dolly; McAvoy will lie down on the plank, facing the camera — which is on the same dolly — for a close-up, with light dancing on his face as he yells in horror and the crew moves the dolly and plank back and forth across the room. They capture variations with a slider and the Steadicam/Wave1, lending additional axes of movement to the image while keeping McAvoy’s close-up centered in frame. Asked later how he would describe the setup, Varese offers, “Imagine a blender on top of a seesaw, with a drill attached — and you have to keep the actor in a decent frame!”
Lidon, Lee and Phillips were tasked with some particularly intricate light programming for a scene in which the adult Losers confront Pennywise in his cavern lair. The scene involved a bright object descending into the dark chamber, another bright object rising, the whole set being bathed in red, and all-out chaos as the action culminates.
“After extensive testing, we wound up hand-crafting approximately 12 different custom LED builds,” Phillips explains. “The builds were a series of RGBW, RGBA and straight bi-color LEDs from LiteGear and Moss LED; they ranged from cylinders, to tubes, to various sizes of boxes. For example, we built a cylinder that could carry 12 Astera PixelTubes, which could chase continuously in varying colors, and one specific box was 5-by-5-by-2-feet deep. Many of the builds were made from revamped and butchered LiteMats and specifically placed ribbon. All these rigs had to be on descenders so the lights could [traverse] a 40-foot drop while functioning.
“The finale scene ran different saturation levels of cyan, with the descender rigs constantly shifting through warmer colors,” he continues. “The set [required] an intricate series of pixel mapping [with] SkyPanel 60s, 120s and 360s — approximately 80 or more [in total]. LED was necessary to shift to a full red wash of the cavern on camera.”
Lee adds that GLP’s Impression X4 Bar 10 RGBW LED fixture also came in handy for the scene. He explains, “It had the ability to tilt up and down remotely, spot and flood — which is unusual for a strip light — and do chase effects.”
Additional console work was required for a frightening night scene at a fair. Bill chases Pennywise into a fun house, where It pursues an innocent boy. For the exteriors, the production hired a real carnival to set up in Port Hope; the fun-house interior — which incorporated swinging clown bags, black light and reflective paint — was shot inside Pinewood’s Stage 2. The scene was top-lit by its ceiling, which comprised an array of Arri SkyPanels fitted with egg crates and Light Grid. A programmed strobe effect added to the scene’s tension.
Holding the camera on a Movi gimbal, Colavecchia ran with McAvoy, carefully weaving through the swinging bags and arriving in a hall of mirrors, which presented a whole new set of complications. Although the filmmakers considered adding the mirrors digitally, Varese suggested that they should be physically built, and Austerberry and art director Nigel Churcher complied. “I cursed myself for that idea,” Varese jokes. “It was a nightmare to figure out how to not see the lights in the mirrors, as well as the camera and ourselves. It was a lot of fun!” Unwanted objects that ended up being reflected in the frame would be digitally removed, but Varese says that thanks to careful preparation, it wasn’t often necessary. “I would say 80 percent of the shots are as we filmed them,” he notes. “We angled the mirrors appropriately, used double mirrors, and had the crew dressed in black.”
At the time of this writing, Chapter Two’s digital grade is being performed by senior colorist Stephen Nakamura, who’s working with linear EXR files in Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve at Company 3 in Santa Monica and EFilm in Los Angeles. A returning veteran of It, Nakamura did an initial pass with Varese, who then had to move on to other projects; Muschietti then came in and has remained actively involved. The director’s concerns have included brightening the pupils of Pennywise’s eyes — which were always shot with a small light reflecting on the lower part of Skarsgård’s eyeball — for maximum creepiness. They’ve also been boosting the red in the signature balloons that appear whenever Pennywise comes around, and pushing blue skies toward a slightly sickly cyan to signify It’s presence.
Additionally, the grade has been used to ramp up the sense of unease in a scene in which Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is welcomed into her childhood apartment by the strange old woman now living there. To convey the sweltering summer day, Nakamura says, “We made the colors warmer, and then we’ve turned some of those colors into a little bit of yellow. There’s no magenta — it’s just orange and yellow. The skin tones are a bit jaundiced, and the blacks are going a little green. The overriding feelings are hot and uncomfortable.”
Varese found himself physically uncomfortable while shooting a sequence in which Pennywise has the adult Beverly inhabit her own traumatic memory — from 2017’s It — of hiding in a bathroom stall while bullies look for her. Once she closes the stall door, the room is suddenly flooded with blood, necessitating the 8'-high tank in which the crew shot to be filled with a reported 4,500 gallons of the fake stuff.
Two cameras captured the action from Technocranes with HydroFlex HydroHead pan-and-tilt heads, and a wet-suit-clad Varese operated a third camera handheld from within the flooding set. “Someone grabbed the camera from me, and my finger was in the wrong place and snapped,” the cinematographer recalls. “I continued operating for another three or four hours until I said, ‘This is really hurting.’ I went to a doctor, and it was a torn ligament — I had to wear a splint for eight weeks.”
It Chapter Two was both physically and mentally taxing, but it was also a project Varese is glad to have taken on. “I wasn’t overwhelmed by the decision to do the movie, but I was overwhelmed every morning on the set,” he reflects. “And I was extremely happy every night because we had climbed Everest in the morning and then climbed down at the end of the day, knowing that the next day there would be another Everest waiting for us. It was a relentless challenge.”
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