Academy Award-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda (“Life of Pi”) transforms acres of forest engulfed in flames into something both frightening and beautiful in “Only the Brave,” the true-life story of a group of firefighters known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
In 2013, 19 members of these Arizonan firefighters lost their lives when battling a massive wildfire near the town of Yarnell. “Only the Brave” tells the stories of these brave men and the risks they took to save the lives of hundreds of people in the area.
During an interview last week, Miranda, 52, spoke to me about working with filmmaker Joseph Kosinski for the third time, the challenges of shooting in the mountains, and how he was able to give the fires in “Only the Brave” a distinct beauty.
This is the third time you’ve worked with filmmaker Joseph Kosinski. What is it about your relationship with him on set that has worked so well?
We started working together a long time ago and saw eye to eye on everything. We always got excited about new ideas and trying new projects and new things together. It’s kind of gone from there. “Tron” was a big challenge in itself that required a lot of LED lighting. We worked together and balanced each other’s ideas. We have a long history together. We do tons of homework and spend a lot of time going over art designs and how the camera can move and how big or small we need to make a certain processes.
Talk about the physical challenges of shooting this movie since much of it is shot in the mountains. What were the conditions like and how did they affect your work?
It was hot and we were in high altitude. It affected a lot of people having to acclimate to the elevation and situations. For camera movement, it was a little trickier because we have mountains to deal with and not flat land. Laying dolly tracks and things like that were not possible. We relied a lot on drone work to get us to places we couldn’t really get to. That was new to us. A lot of people are using that nowadays. Then we had the fire and had to camera test to see how each camera reacted to it, since [the fire] was a main player in the film. That was a big part of the decisions we made on camera.
So, how do you make something as destructive as fire beautiful?
Well, it was important we maintained the details of the fire and its beauty. I wanted to make sure the fire had character. Fire can be extremely bright. It could be brighter than the sun. It was hard to grapple with that detail. It’s tricky to shoot in some ways because you can make the fire as big as you want, but the bigger you make it, the further the action has to be just because no one can be close to it. With a 10-foot fire, people are 50 feet away. With a 20-foot fire, people are 100 feet away. Visual effects did have to step in to a certain extent. You can only image what it’s like to have 50-foot trees on fire around you.
The environments of many of your past films including “Life of Pi” were created with computer generated graphics. How much does this film rely on special effects and which way do you prefer working – with more or less CGI?
On all our sets, we try to ground base all our stuff as much as possible. We try to make it as real as possible for everyone’s sake—for actors and my own lighting’s sake. For this one, the fires could only get so big, so we had to rely on some digital effects. We did have large fires around, so we did get real reactions from actors when they would cower because of the heat. We had these machines that could make 40-foot flames. We were burning three gallons of propane a day. If we wanted to do it accurately, we would’ve been using 20,000 gallons of propane a day. The scale is ridiculous. The fire really envelopes people.
The two times you’ve been nominated for an Oscar, so has cinematographer Roger Deakins. He’s been nominated 13 times and there’s a good chance it could happen again with his work on the “Blade Runner” sequel this year. Do you think it’s about time he comes out on top?
Oh, yeah. No one stands a chance. He’s gonna win. (Laughs) I’m probably going to vote for him. (Laughs) I think he’s awesome. I would be honored to be in the running, but I totally think that it’s Deakins’ year.