"It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive." That saying certainly reflects the adventure that is Prometheus, director Ridley Scott's return to the universe he first put on film with 1979's Alien. Only tangentially connected with that sci-fi/horror classic, Scott's newest takes place decades prior to the freighter Nostromo's lethal encounter with a nearly unstoppable xenomorph. The film dares to ask some big questions about man's origins and the value of spirituality, subsequently demonstrating why such questions should perhaps go unanswered.
Director of photography Dariusz Wolski, ASC, was shooting the latest Pirates of the Caribbean feature when Scott asked him about stereoscopic 3D. With that film, shot in native 3D, and his previous feature, Alice in Wonderland, a postconversion job, Wolski was uniquely experienced with the pros and cons of each approach.
"We were using RED's Mysterium [sensor] and the Vince Pace system," he recalls. "With the newer RED developments, I thought the Epic would be the way to go for Ridley. It's a 5K chip camera that's only a bit bigger than a Hasselblad, so that took weight off the rig." Adopting 3ality Technica's new Atom 3D rig meant freedom from dependence on convergence cards. "We could do things manually instead of getting on a walkie-talkie to tell a convergence guy who can't tell if it's 20mm or 25mm that you want to zoom. And if anything goes wrong, it all shuts down. The Atom simplified things and proved very reliable."
With a lean, mean 82-day shooting schedule that spanned distant locations, as well as extensive studio work, the production wouldn't be able to slow down to accommodate physical delays, owing to the use of 3D. Wolski utilized five rigs for the shoot—two with the Angénieux Optimo 15-40mm zooms, two with their 28-76mm lenses and a special prime lens rig for Steadicam. "I chose Optimos because they were the smallest and still had great quality. These 2.8 lenses lose a stop for the mirror when I rated the camera for 800 ASA, so in film terms, we wound up at 400 ASA. The zooms let us line up shots quickly, while others checked the alignment."
Like Pirates, Prometheus' 3D shoot was done with the cameras shooting in parallel so that convergence could be set in post. "With Epic's 5K chip, you have room on either side of the frame," says Wolski. "That helped two ways. VFX gets unconverged images for CG set extensions and bluescreen plates, so they can converge the images after compositing. The other advantage is flexibility in setting convergence after cutting the film. You can orchestrate a flow from shot to shot, whereas if you commit on set, it becomes guesswork that's baked into the image—and you might be wrong. With this approach, you can focus on making the film during shooting instead of having a science club discussion."
Director Scott's visual approach to fantasy filmmaking has long involved the use of Ridleygrams—small detailed sketches he fashions to illustrate his ideas for framing and environments—and the employment of a variety of artists for conceptualizing specific aspects. The latter continued on Prometheus, with production designer Arthur Max working in concert with several concept artists months prior to preproduction.