Conversations with Oren Soffer: On the challenges and charms of shooting “The Creator”.

Oren Soffer is the co-Director of Photography on the new film, The Creator. He grew up between the United States and Israel nurturing hobbies in painting and photography, building LEGOs, and voraciously watching movies. These activities laid the groundwork for what would eventually become a love of cinematography and a passion for crafting bold, cinematic imagery. Oren recently shot the feature film The Creator, directed by Gareth Edwards, along with cinematographer Greig Fraser ASC ACS.

The Creator tells the story of a future war between the human race and the forces of artificial intelligence, Joshua, a hardened ex-special forces agent grieving the disappearance of his wife, is recruited to hunt down and kill the Creator, the elusive architect of advanced AI who has developed a mysterious weapon with the power to end the war… and mankind itself. Joshua and his team of elite operatives journey across enemy lines, into the dark heart of AI-occupied territory… only to discover the world-ending weapon he’s been instructed to destroy is an AI in the form of a young child.

Oren Soffer set aside some time to discuss shooting The Creator.

Describe your role as Director of Photography in this film in this project and how you collaborated with the director.

The role of the cinematographer, or the Director of Photography, is fundamentally to translate the director’s vision and the script visually, utilizing camera lensing and lighting. Thus, we oversee those departments on set and supervise the camera, lighting, and what is termed the grip department—responsible for dollies, cranes, etc. Essentially, our task is to collaborate with the director to visually translate their vision, employing visual language, lighting, lensing, and camera movement to narrate the story.

The process for this film was notably unique, as it featured two cinematographers, a rarity in movie production. Having a strong collaborator substantially eases our job, as we are not left to extract a vision from someone; instead, our director has a clear, communicable vision, providing us with ample material to work with. This scenario promoted genuine collaboration amongst the three of us: myself, Greg—the co-cinematographer, and Gareth Edwards—our director.

What was the vision that he communicated?

Gareth, more than anything, aimed to create a film that serves as a love letter to science fiction, especially honoring the films he, and many others, grew up with. I am a bit younger than Gareth; thus, for me, these influential films were experienced on VHS rather than in the theater. They’ve had as much impact on my generation, and on Gareth and Greg, the other cinematographer, as they had on those who experienced them in their original releases. This influence spans films from “Alien” and “Blade Runner” to non-science fiction films of the same era, like “Apocalypse Now,” which is referenced in this film as well.

Above all, this film is Gareth’s rendition of “A New Hope.” It’s his “Star Wars,” his 1977—encompassing all the films and stories that have fascinated him since childhood and translating them into a fresh science fiction universe. Given that Gareth directed “Rogue One,” this film is somewhat his attempt at crafting his original science fiction vision. The essence of the vision is deeply inspired by 1970s cinema and the history of science fiction, drawing from the works of Asimov and Philip K. Dick. It prominently showcases its influences.

Gareth sought to create a believable, lived-in, and tactile universe. It has been a product of years of contemplation, and rigorous collaboration with the design team and his production designer to bring this world to life, creating a palpable reality for us to capture on camera. The film, in its entirety, stands as a testimony to Gareth’s commitment to rendering a world that is as immersive and real as it is a tribute to the classics of science fiction.

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It’s quite revealing that you mentioned the film in the way you did because the “Apocalypse Now” aspect is resonating in my mind. While watching, I found it familiar in certain ways—particularly in scenes where characters were on boats, and so forth. It’s gratifying to hear you say that.

Another big one was Akira, that’s also a big influence as well.

John David Washington as Joshua on the set of 20th Century Studios’ THE CREATOR. Photo by Oren Soffer. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Considering all those elements, and acknowledging that many such films possess iconic shots, how did having those kinds of films serve—not as templates, but as references—as you moved forward with your own work? How did they influence your choices regarding lighting, color palette, camera selection, and camera movements, among other things?

That’s an insightful question. Ever since the digital revolution in filmmaking, the choice of camera has become a less crucial decision regarding the visual look of a project. This is because digital cameras fundamentally act as data gathering devices, capturing raw image data that can subsequently be manipulated and color-graded in various ways. This concept, familiar to those with experience in still photography, revolves around capturing as much data as possible and then adapting that data through software like Photoshop or Lightroom for photography, and color grading software for filmmaking. In our instance, the film was color-graded on DaVinci Resolve.

The camera serves more as a tool to capture the image, rather than a medium that infuses the image with any inherent look and quality. In this film, our choice of camera was influenced more by logistical needs than by visual needs. We required a compact, lightweight camera capable of handheld operation for extended takes in remote locations, offering utmost flexibility and freedom. This allowed Gareth to capture the necessary images seamlessly.

Achieving the desired look involved a combination of color grading, implying much of the look is applied in post-production concerning colors and texture. We incorporated film grain to invoke the 1970s aesthetic and used lenses from the 1970s—specifically, anamorphic lenses, which bestow films with that distinctive widescreen quality. Iconic films like the original Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner all utilized anamorphic lenses, enabling us to mirror the format and employ lenses from that era that exhibit certain optical characteristics and perceived “flaws,” which actually contribute to a specific look and feel reminiscent of that time period.

Thus, our creative process in establishing the film’s visual aesthetic was a meticulous blend of post-production enhancements, careful selection of lenses with historical and visual significance, and logistical adaptations, all harmonizing to evoke a distinct period feel.

A still on the set of 20th Century Studios’ THE CREATOR. Photo by Glen Milner. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Absolutely, let’s delve a bit more into the post-production process as it often goes unnoticed. Many people see directors at work in videos or on sets, especially in North America, but the extensive post-production work, including color correction, significantly shapes the final film. Could you elaborate more on this aspect, perhaps providing specific instances of how this process influences the film in a unique way?

Absolutely, the post-production process of a film is indeed fascinating and pivotal, and it’s great to delve into this often under-discussed phase. Particularly for this film, post-production was emphasized since much of the design work, pertaining to visual effects, was undertaken during this phase—a methodology that is rather untypical. Generally, films finalize their design work ahead, shooting specifically to align with predetermined designs. This manifests through pre-visualization and other preparatory artwork. However, for this project, our initial goal was to shoot tangible, authentic scenes predominantly on location, eschewing the prevalent use of green screens and soundstages, to infuse the film with a real sense of place, mostly drawing from Thailand and other Southeast Asian locales.

This approach meant the integration of the science fiction elements and world-building was led by the footage captured, rather than directing it. Visual effects were meticulously crafted to resonate with the natural lighting and environments we filmed in, showcasing diverse, beautiful lighting conditions.

Gareth elucidates this approach with an apt metaphor: usually, films set their targets during pre-production, with shooting attempting to hit those predefined targets. However, in this film, we threw darts first, and then drew targets around where they landed in post-production. This means every shot was meticulously designed around the actual footage captured, resulting in a film where every frame feels intentionally crafted and harmoniously aligned.

This concept also extended to our color correction, film grain addition, and other processes. We collaborated with PhotoCam in Los Angeles, a company with a legacy in film development, still operational in developing traditional 35mm and 16mm films. They were integral in merging classical filmmaking aesthetics with modern digital tools, encapsulating a fusion that symbolizes the thematic essence of the entire film—leveraging modern resources to manifest a vision deeply rooted in a timeless, cinematic feel. The synergy between innovative filming techniques and venerable filmmaking traditions culminated in a balanced synthesis, offering a glimpse into both worlds.

Director Gareth Edwards on the set of 20th Century Studios’ THE CREATOR. Photo by Glen Milner. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Great! So, I have two final questions. Firstly, what was the most rewarding aspect for you while working on this project? Secondly, are there any specific scenes or sequences of which you are particularly proud?

The essence of filmmaking, to me, is rooted in collaboration and the communion of creative minds, be it crew or actors. The collaboration on this film, shot predominantly in Thailand, held a unique resonance, turning it into an immersive cultural and human experience. Living in Thailand for seven months allowed me to dive deep into its rich tapestry, meeting diverse individuals and absorbing the local ethos. This journey wasn’t just about shooting in exotic locales but was a process of cultural assimilation, where we were the guests, welcomed and embraced by the Thai crew. The working approach was predominantly led by them, setting a tone of harmonious integration and shared vision. Their spirit of generosity and professional acumen showcased the latent talent and incredible filmmaking capabilities within Thailand.

Moreover, this cultural excursion expanded my gastronomical horizons, challenging my spice tolerance through the myriad of flavors that Thai cuisine offers—a delightful perk to the overall experience.

Talking about the film, a sequence we refer to as the “tank battle” stands out. A glimpse of this complex sequence, imbued with multifaceted elements, stunts, and a panoramic setting reminiscent of the iconic “Bridge on the River Kwai”, can be seen in the released clip and trailers. This sequence epitomized the eclectic mix of filmmaking tools and techniques. Drones soared, cranes pivoted, handheld cameras captured the raw essence, and dollies sketched the flowing dynamics, all converging to create a cinematic tapestry in a serene location in western Thailand.

This sequence, though demanding and intricate, turned out to be exceptionally rewarding. Witnessing its metamorphosis, enriched with sound design, visual effects, and meticulous editing, was a testament to the collective creative endeavor. The seamless amalgamation of elements in this sequence, and indeed, the entire film, reflects a harmonious balance between cultural insights, technical prowess, and artistic vision, rendering it a deeply satisfying and memorable venture.

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