Matthew Fox and Eriko Hatsune. (Photos by Kirsty Griffin ©2013 Roadside Attractions. All rights reserved.)
At the end of World War II, General Douglas MacArthur made a difficult decision to spare the life of Japanese Emperor Hirohito. That is the historical setting of Emperor, a new feature film directed by Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and photographed by Stuart Dryburgh, NCZS, ASC (The Piano, Aeon Flux, Amelia).
Of equal importance in the film is the smaller, human story of General Bonner Fellers, the man MacArthur assigns to investigate the matter, and Fellers’ relationship with Aya Shimada, a Japanese woman he met years earlier. Fellers eventually risks his career in his search for Aya. Matthew Fox plays Fellers, and Eriko Hatsune is Aya. Tommy Lee Jones is entertainingly gruff as MacArthur.
The film was made mostly in Auckland, New Zealand. Major locations included the Old National Gallery building in Wellington, and a burnt out abattoir complex in Auckland. All stage work was executed at the “cold stores” stages in West Auckland. Another big set-piece depicts the bombed-out devastation of post-war Tokyo, requiring a 50,000 square foot landscape of rubble with set extensions done with visual effects. Only one major scene, with the Imperial Palace in Tokyo in the background, was filmed in Japan. The reverse angles, away from the untouched palace, show a devastated Tokyo courtesy of visual effects.
Dryburgh let the time periods cue him when it came to the right look. The main part of the story takes place in Tokyo in 1945. There are flashbacks to 1930s Japan, and scenes in an even older setting, when Fellers and Aya met in college. Dryburgh imbued these older scenes with a more colorful vibrancy.
Dryburgh and Webber chose to frame the story in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Dryburgh used the HAWK V-Lite 1.3x lenses, which “squeeze” the image by a factor of 1.3 rather than the standard anamorphic 2:1 squeeze. This allowed him to shoot 3-perf, saving money and extending time between reloads.
“I like the widescreen format,” says Dryburgh. “I think it has scope, but also can create very personal frames.”
The film stocks were mainly KODAK VISION3 50D Color Negative Film 5203 for day scenes, with occasional use of KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207 in situations in which daylight was fading to dusk. KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 was used for nights and stage interiors. Dryburgh says he’s especially fond of the 50D Film’s daylight-balanced emulsion.
“There’s a lot I like about it,” he says. “I like the slow speed of it. I like the fact that I’m not stacking up NDs to get a more open stop on the camera. The older 50D was very, very contrast-y, which I also liked in a certain way. My observation is that the newer VISION3 50D Film is even more forgiving than the old one. I’ve certainly found that in the transfer to the digital medium, the 50D Film behaves very nicely.
“Beauty was another important element in this film,” the DP adds, “and another argument in our decision for choosing film. I do think that film as an origination medium is much kinder to faces than any of the digital cameras I’ve worked with — much more flattering on people. Aya is mostly in General Fellers’ memory, so there’s a dreamlike quality to all those scenes. Our intent was to make those memories of her face very evocative.”
That dreamlike quality is perhaps strongest in a scene where Fellers and Aya are playfully chasing each other through a swaying grove of green bamboo. Another visually arresting sequence takes place at Aya’s father’s house. Production designer Grant Major built the house on location to facilitate moving in and out of the house and showing the surroundings through the windows.
In the sequences that take place at military headquarters, Webber was clear about avoiding scenes in which a character sits at a desk and talks. Whenever possible, conversations were shot on the move, adding some urgency. Long, winding corridors were incorporated into the set to stage these walk-and-talk moments, mostly covered with STEADICAM.
Dryburgh concludes that shooting film effortlessly helped sell the era. “Peter and I both felt that the texture of film was completely right for the period, and we didn’t have to be heavy handed about it as long as we were shooting on film.”