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Capturing “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty”: An Interview With Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh


When cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh was approached about lensing “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” he was intregued.  Appreciative of the previous films Ben Stiller simultaneously starred in and directed, Dryburgh felt at ease with Stiller at the helm.  With a script written by Steve Conrad loosely based on the 1947 Danny Kaye film, Dryburgh found the Walter character Stiller crafted, as a director as well as an actor, to be a likable, relatable individual the audience would embrace and cheer for.  It was the basis of Walter’s career and his vivid daydreams that fully ignited Dryburgh’s imagination.

“The main character is a photographic custodian at ‘Life’ magazine. He has incredible fantasies, and later in the film he has real adventures,” said Dryburgh.  “With the subject matter, it clearly was going to be a visual event.”

In the first stages of preparation, Dryburgh knew a clear separation between Walter’s work life and fantasies had to be established.  Working closely with the art department, a workspace with a 60s design and cool color palette employing a variety of grey hues was crafted.  The fantasies and adventures Walter embarks on contained more filtration, color saturation and contrast.  The majority of the adventures were shot on location in Iceland, a country Dryburgh appreciated for its naturally strong colors including rich greens, dark browns and bright, clear blue sky.

To make the most of the film’s photographic elements, Dryburgh chose Kodak film and shot on  Arricam SP and LT camers with Hawk V-Lite lenses.  He had no trouble convincing the producers of his equipment choice.

“The main character loves photography and works with photographs; it was totally written to shoot on film,” said Dryburgh.  “Every film I have done through last year has been shot on film, and in the past year I only shot one digital feature.  I’ve found that now studios have less concern on how the source is captured because there isn’t a huge financial weight in either direction.  It’s still close enough so you can make the choice.”

While the interior scenes were all light with standard lighting set-ups, all exterior scenes were shot with natural light.  The New York City scenes were shot during the summer, then the crew relocated to Iceland in September when the weather was reportedly most favorable.  All Walter’s global destinations were shot in Iceland:  the northern region doubled for Afghanistan, the southern region doubled for the Himalayas.  Working with a smaller crew, Dryburgh would hold nightly meetings to discuss the next day’s set-ups.  Despite preparation, the day’s shot list was always kept flexible pending inclement weather.   Actor/crew safety was always a primary concern, especially with Stiller performing the bulk of his own stunts on skateboard, mountaintops, and in the Atlantic Ocean.

“Sometimes you have to make hard choices.  If there is bad weather, you have to be concerned with safety,” said Dryburgh.  “A case in point is the scene where the biplane is flying into an eruption.  The wind gusts were too strong, and we determined the plane couldn’t make it over the mountain.  VFX took a photo of the plane and utilized texture mapping for the scene.  It was it was one of the few things that was captured.”

With secondary shots not always an option, the camera crew did shoot in some unfavorable conditions.  On an ocean sequence requiring choppy swells, the wind speed reached 40 mph.  The camera crew, shooting from a helicopter, managed to capture clear, sharp footage despite the trying circumstances.

In addition to the biplane sequence and a green screen sequence with a helicopter, VFX elements were also used during an ocean sequence when Walter encounters a shark.  While Dryburgh enjoyed the process of merging a mechanical shark with visual effects enhancements, providing camera work for an editable sequence on open water is always tricky.  Water is constantly in motion and uncontrollable.  Dryburgh and his crew chose to shoot the scene in a documentary style, deliberately eliminating expectations and enabling all the action required in the scene to be captured.

Dryburgh cites amassing an amazing camera team and second unit DPs around him that successfully enabled every shot in the film to be captured.  Due to the three month delay between the NYC and Iceland shoots, many of the team departed for other projects, requiring Dryburgh to obtain new crew members in Iceland.  Some invaluable members of the camera team include John S. Moyer on steadicam, Otto Guonason who jumped between teams, the Icleand  team members Andy Harris and Fred North, Pete Romano, the underwater DP/camera man, Alen Purwin the aerial coordinator and helicoptor pilot, and Dave Nowel, the aerial cameraman.

“All the crew members deserve to be recognized and their names deserve to be shared,” said Dryburgh.

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