American Cinematographer - July 2018 - 18

Quick Tip
To maximize the fire's color,
Crothers most often shoots with the
camera's white balance set to 4,300K. "I
think 5,600K makes the fire too orange
and 3,200K makes it too white," he notes.
"Somewhere around 3,800K to 4,300K
seems good to me."

The crew
always wears
protective
gear when
working on
the Burn
Stage. "For
obvious
reasons, we
take safety
very
seriously,"
says Crothers.

in the ceiling. Since it doesn't have
anywhere to go, it ends up crawling along
the ceiling in a beautiful rolling pattern. But,
depending on how the other flame bars are
affecting the oxygen flow, the brain fire can
be a bit unpredictable. The heat from the
wall might push the air around, and
suddenly that slow, rolling brain fire is whipping all over the place and becomes a safety
hazard.
"After a few years of doing this,
we've gotten used to these variables," the
cinematographer offers. "We know if
there's a big wall fire that requires several
pipes, the pipe that's closest to camera
should be brighter and hotter, and the

From the Archive
Mikael Salomon, ASC
on Backdraft
"It's easy to get seduced by the
possibilities of using the fire as your main
source of light, but then you would get
white rather than warmer-colored flames,"
cinematographer Mikael Salomon, ASC
told AC (May '91). "We built up very high
levels of ambient light, using HMI units and
arcs balanced for daylight exposure."
Without the high ambient light level,
Salomon noted, actors would have silhouetted against fires, and he'd have had to
print down to get the fire colors right,
which would make the characters go
darker still. "Two of the big fires were in
daylight," he said. "In the real world, you
18

July 2018

subsequent pipes should be set lower so as
not to compete for as much oxygen or fuel.
Still, there isn't any formula. We have to
turn everything on, see how it looks, and
adjust the levels accordingly - and it can
still be unpredictable.
"After we set all the fire levels for a
sequence, we then discuss each shot, and
what needs to be on and what can be off,"
Crothers continues. "An entire room might
be on fire in a sequence, but for a single
shot we might not see the wall behind us.
Sometimes I'll still have fire active behind
camera because it will show up in the reflection of a character's facemask or it will give
me the right base of light or color in the

would be able to see details in faces. People
don't turn into black silhouettes just
because there's a bright fire behind them."
The set for a rooftop fire scene was
built in a parking lot, where Salomon used
heavy diffusion to create a strong feeling of
heat. He also wetted down the tar paper on
the roof set, making it look like the tar was
melting and, as an added benefit, reflecting
the fire.
"Most people think of fires as red,
but they are really white and yellow," the
cinematographer noted. "Use of the
daylight-balanced film helped because [the
fire] records warmer, and when that is
combined with the heavy diffusion, the
audience can see the yellow tones in the
flames."

American Cinematographer

room, but mostly we turn off fire behind
camera and bring in Maxi-Brutes to
compensate for the missing firelight. We do
this to keep the overall temperature down
and keep things safer - but nothing looks
as good as actual fire."
In addition to the walkthrough to set
fire levels, Crothers conducts a separate
walkthrough to set smoke levels. "We don't
see all the elements together until we actually do a take," he says. "We don't do
rehearsals with fire; we do a dry-run
rehearsal with no fire. I joke that shooting on
the Burn Stage is like shooting film: You
don't get to see what you've actually got
until after the fact."
The production uses standard glycolbased fog machines for smoke in the fire
sequences, as approved by the studio. "Over
the years we've tried some different mixes
for smoke," Crothers notes, "but for the
most part we stick to the tried-and-true
foggers. Mostly this is because they work,
and because what it takes to test something
new is way too much of a liability on
production. You can't re-create the Burn
Stage somewhere else to test new things. It
has to be done in the literal heat of the
moment - and if it doesn't work, that can
be a loss of a half hour or more of production time. It's not a luxury we can afford."
The fog machines use heated highpressure nozzles to spray glycol particulates
into the air, where they adhere to create fog.
However, the heat of fire almost instantly
evaporates the particulates, causing the fog
to disappear. "We always have to oversmoke the set to get the look we want,"
says Crothers. "Sometimes a new director
will come in, we'll start smoking [the set] for
a shot, and they'll yell, 'That's too much
smoke!' because they can't see anything.
But we'll be yelling, 'More smoke!' because
we know as soon as the fire comes on, most
of it will burn off nearly instantly."
To compete with both the smoke



Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of American Cinematographer - July 2018

Contents
American Cinematographer - July 2018 - Cover1
American Cinematographer - July 2018 - Cover2
American Cinematographer - July 2018 - 1
American Cinematographer - July 2018 - 2
American Cinematographer - July 2018 - Contents
American Cinematographer - July 2018 - 4
American Cinematographer - July 2018 - 5
American Cinematographer - July 2018 - 6
American Cinematographer - July 2018 - 7
American Cinematographer - July 2018 - 8
American Cinematographer - July 2018 - 9
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American Cinematographer - July 2018 - 18
American Cinematographer - July 2018 - 19
American Cinematographer - July 2018 - 20
American Cinematographer - July 2018 - 21
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