Pi: Numerical Delusions

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique and director Darren Aronofsky on shooting their sci-fi fever dream.

At top, disturbed math genius Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette). This article was originally published in AC April 1998. Some images are additional or alternate.

An artful paean to mathematics and the Meaning of Life, Pi draws viewers into a paranoid and hallucinatory world that could make Kafka himself check the locks on his doors. Shot on 16mm black-and-white reversal film at a cost of just $60,000, this mind-blowing entry offered Sundance audiences a truly cinematic blend of expressionistic lighting, blinding white highlights and exhilarating subjective camerawork.

A good deal of the tale transpires in the cramped Manhattan apartment of the sullen and cerebral Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette), who has raised numbers-crunching to the level of high art. Obsessed with a quest for numerical order in the universe, Max spends his days hunched over the keyboard of a supercomputer, centering his search around the seemingly random patterns of the stock market. On the rare occasions when he emerges from this self-imposed wormhole, Max pays visits to his Go-playing mathematical mentor, Sol (veteran character actor Mark Margolis), who has spent a lifetime studying the infinite transcendental intricacies of the geometric conundrum pi. 

Max’s forays into the outside world are fraught with angst, however, as he is incessantly pursued by a pair of ubiquitous figures intent on tapping his talents: the sinister representative of a Wall Street conglomerate seeking financial domination of the marketplace, and the impassioned disciple of an ultra-religious Jewish sect which hopes that Max can help them unlock the secrets of their holiest text. 

This unique narrative is brought to the screen with considerable panache by first-time feature director Darren Aronofsky, 28, whose debut earned him the Sundance Festival’s prestigious Directing Award. Equally impressive is the work of 29-year-old director of photography Matthew Libatique, who has also lent his skills to numerous music videos. 

“Darren wanted to shoot Pi in black-and-white for both aesthetic and budgetary reasons. He wanted the most contrasty black-and-white possible, with really white whites and really black blacks.”

The cinematographer and director with crew members on the set.

A Brooklyn native, Aronofsky first studied filmmaking at Harvard, where he made the short Supermarket Sweep (also starring Pi’s Sean Gullette), a finalist in the 1991 Student Academy Award competition. Libatique, a native of Queens, became intrigued with the creative possibilities of music videos during college, but says that he first cultivated a serious interest in cinematography when a girlfriend introduced him to the photographic glories of Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC’s work in The Conformist. After graduating from their respective alma maters, Aronofsky and Libatique both attended the American Film Institute, where they met just days after their arrival during a screening of Supermarket Sweep.

While honing their skills at AFI, the pair teamed up to shoot a short film called Protozoa, an experience which confirmed their creative chemistry. Aronofsky says that he and Libatique both admire the films of directors Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Roman Polanski, David Cronenberg and, particularly, Akira Kurosawa. The visual style of Pi was further influenced by the work of still photographer Ralph Gibson, Rod Serling’s television series The Twilight Zone, the black-and-white Japanese sci-fi film Tetsuo: The Iron Man ( 1992) and also Let’s Get Lost ( 1989), a high-contrast black-and-white documentary shot by Jeff Preiss about jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker. 

Says Libatique, “Darren wanted to shoot Pi in black-and-white for both aesthetic and budgetary reasons. He wanted the most contrasty black-and-white possible, with really white whites and really black blacks. I tested a number of 16mm stocks during prep, but we decided to go with reversal stock after watching Let’s Get Lost. Once we saw what could be done, we did more research into reversal film, and I fell in love with the idea of shooting the film that way.” 

Aronofsky says that he envisioned Pi as an intense character study that was partially inspired by his avid consumption of books by “freaky conspiracy theorists.” He notes, “In film school, we started off doing ‘portrait films’ which are basically little verite documentaries focusing on one person. I decided to do something similar with Pi, homing in on Max and building the entire movie out of his head.” 

In bringing Max’s skewed perspective to the screen, the filmmakers set up some ground rules. “I wanted to make a purely subjective movie, in that I never wanted to cut away to the bad guys scheming and plotting,” Aronofsky explains. “We constructed our whole visual language from that strategy. For example, Matty and I decided that we would only shoot over Max’s shoulder, and never over another character’s. If Max was talking to another character, we tried to shoot them straight on, right off the axis, whereas we’d shoot Sean from more of a profile angle.

Setting an over-the-shoulder shot with Gullette.

“We also used macro lenses — partly because we were dealing with such an abstract film stock, but also because we really wanted to focus on the mathematician’s gaze and what he was looking at. We tried to show the details of his universe as much as possible, like what was at his finger­tips. We thought that close-ups would look great with the film stock we were using, and we tried to tell the story in a very ‘cutty’ way with lots of different images.” 

Libatique offers, “To get the look we wanted, I shot on Eastman Kodak 200 ASA Tri-X [7278] and 50 ASA Plus-X [7276]. We had a schedule of just 28 days, and we had a lot to shoot because Darren believes in coverage. There are probably 50 percent more cuts in this film than in your average 85-minute film.” 

Although Max’s apartment was a set built in a Brooklyn lighting warehouse, the space was still relatively cramped. New York’s Broadway Stages provided the filmmakers with a small tungsten lighting package, but Libatique and production designer Matthew Maraffi also incorporated many practical bulbs (such as MR-16s and 150-watt flood lights) into the actual design of the apartment set. “Max is a renegade mathematician who has retreated from the world so he can pursue his studies,” the cinematographer points out. 

“We wanted him to be a bit like a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein. In the apartment set, I shot mainly with Tri-X through a yellow filter. I didn’t do tests throughout the whole gamut of filters, because I knew that yellow or green would be the lightest filters I could use without having to bring in more lights — which I didn’t have. I eventually chose the yellow filter because I liked its effect on the highlights. I wound up shooting Sean’s face at a reflective stop over, and the yellow filter really blew out his features and lent an interesting look to most of the scenes in his apartment. I knew that it probably wouldn’t wash for the whole film, though. As Max gets closer to what he’s trying to find, the film gets progressively darker, especially in his apartment. Toward the end of the story, there’s barely any light in the room, and just shapes of what you’ve seen before. For those sequences, I pulled the yellow filter and began exposing his face at key. With the reversal, I was really playing with the latitude of the Tri-X. I wasn’t scared of the high or low ends; I just tried to place his face within that three-stop latitude. If I wanted his face to be hot, I just exposed it to favor the high end, but if I wanted it down, I’d expose it at key, which gave me really great results. Toward the end of the film, I also rated the film at 400 and pushed it a stop. That approach did give us more grain, but neither Darren nor I were afraid of that.”

Libatique switched to Plus-X for exterior scenes, but occasionally mixed his two stocks near the end of the film “to bridge the gap between Max and reality.”

Libatique’s A-camera on the project was an Aaton XTR-Prod, most often equipped with Canon 8 - 64mm and 11.5-138mm zooms, or an Angénieux 5.9mm wide lens. “The XTR could do single frames, which was amazing,” he submits. “The Japanese game of Go was a big part of the film, and we did some stop-motion animation with a game board for transitions. The XTR is really light, so we could use it for handheld work as well:’ 

The filmmakers also used Aronofsky’s Bolex camera, in conjunction with a special rig attached to Gullette, to achieve some beautifully surreal perspectives that recall the work of James Wong Howe, ASC in the John Frankenheimer film Seconds. “The rig consisted of a Bogen tripod attached to a weight belt; the tripod had a head that could support a still camera, but we attached our Bolex to it and added a 10mm lens. Sean wore the rig, which was relatively light. As he moved, his head was always in the center of the frame as the background moved beyond him. That technique provided a weird perspective that really brought you into the charac­ter’s mindset. We used it for a shot of him running down the street, and also for transitional scenes in which Max was walking through Chinatown. [For the latter scenes,] I overcranked the camera for shots where he was in the frame, but undercranked all of his POVs at 12 fps to emphasize the fact that he wasn’t relating to the world at all. We later used the rig for some key transitional scenes in which Max is having severe migraines; we attached this vibrating device to the camera and used long lenses to get really shaky shots of his nose and eyes. That rig gave us the ultimate in subjectivity, but we used it selectively because we didn’t want to overdo it.”

Libatique feels that the filmmakers were successful in their quest to achieve the best possible visuals within the project’s logistical and budgetary constraints. “I don’t think it’s right to try to make a 16mm film look like The Conformist,” he maintains. “On this project, we embraced our limitations. My motto through­out was ‘low-fi stylization.’

“There was an intense focus on this shoot,” he adds. “Sean was really committed the character he was playing, which intensified our obligation to give every technique a purpose. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, but I think it ultimately served the film well.’’

Pi was a hit at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, where Aronofsky was honored with the Best Directing Award. The film was picked up for distribution by Live Entertainment, and released theatrically in major U.S. cities, becoming an art-house sensation.

Libatique and Aronofsky continued their collaboration on the features Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, Black Swan, Noah, Mother! and The Whale. 

The cinematographer became a member of the ASC in 2002.


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