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Ten Minutes With: Cinematographer Jo Willems

Imagine seeing the world through the eyes of someone utilizing 100% of their mental capacity.  Would that world look different?  Cinematographer Jo Willems had to wrestle with this concept when he agreed to shoot Neil Burger’s thriller “Limitless.”

Since wrapping the shoot Willems has maintained an extraordinarily full schedule.  411 Publishing was able to speak with him briefly to speak with him about his work on “Limitless.”

411 Publishing:  What inspired you to work on “Limitless?”

Jo Willems:  “Limitless” gave me the possibility to visually explore and express the physical and mental change of the main character. It’s not the usual gradual arc of change; it was a very aggressive change since he takes a super drug that brings him ‘limitless’ brain power.

411:  “Limitless” was shot on film.  Was film always the first consideration, or was there a discussion to shoot on digital?  Why was film the chosen medium for the film?

JW:  We shot on film with a few scenes on digital. We knew from the start film was the right choice. I wanted to be able to use different film stocks and different processing methods to help create the two visual worlds: on the drugs and off the drugs. I wanted to use film grain and texture to push the two worlds as far apart as possible.

411:  What film stock did you choose to shoot on, and did you manipulate the stock in any way during the filming process, by adding stops, choice of lenses, filters, etc?

JW:  I used FUJI Eterna 500T for the scenes where he is off the drug. I pull-processed the stock one stop and rated the film at about 160 asa. The film looks very rich that way but has a slight softness in the blacks. It is phenomenal how much detail the film holds in the highlights as well. We used extreme high light in certain parts of the film. The film stock is very light hungry and shines when it gets light.  The scenes where he is on the drug we shot mostly on Kodak 5217, processed normally. We wanted that part of the film to be more clinical, more luminous, almost synthetic.

411:  What were some of the considerations and creative choices behind shooting the look of how the world was perceived by a man who’s able to use 100% of his brain power?

JW:  The questions that came up where: what if you could see everything and nothing was unclear?  What if you had the processing power to analyze everything you see? How do you visualize that?  We wanted to give the audience the feeling that they were in the story with him. Give him a feeling of control. We thought of 360 degree shots with multiple cameras, we framed everything with slightly wider lenses and had more depth of field when he is not on the drug. The lighting was much more controlled and even than the other scenes. We framed everything from a lower perspective to give a sense of control and power. The rest of the film is told with hand held framing in contrast to the dolly and track method of the on the drug world. We tried to work within a code for each world.

411:  When you were shooting “Limitless” where there particular color schemes and camera angles you specifically incorporated to help define the characters and storyline?

JW:  When Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is off the drug I wanted the film to have a grittier, cold grey feeling. We shot with longer lenses and almost unflattering light to contrast with the drug world where the lighting and the feel of the film is much glossier. When he is on the drug the film is much warmer and golden in tones.

411:  How closely did you work with the director in defining the look of the film?  Did you have a great deal of flexibility in finding the best kinds of shots to use, or where shots primarily planned and determined during pre-production?

JW:  Everything on this film was a collaborative effort as it should be. You keep working towards the right style and ideas to tell the character’s story. Neil and I did figure out our style and lens choices for each of our worlds before we started shooting. We had color codes and lens codes for each part of the story, but once on set we were able to be flexible in our choices.

411:  What was your greatest challenge as a cinematographer on this film?

JW:  The biggest challenge was to keep us on schedule. We had 200 scenes, 50 locations and only 44 days to shoot it. We had to go fast but still make it look good. You have to be flexible and have a great crew or it all falls apart.

411:  Is there a particular sequence, or a particular look to this you feel was either especially difficult to achieve, or that you feel especially proud of achieving?

JW:  I am particularly proud of the day scenes in Eddie’s apartment in Chinatown. The apartment was built on stage so we had the freedom to light it the way I wanted.  I was inspired by some of the great documentary photographers like Robert Frank, Nan Goldin and Garry Winogrand. They turn up with a camera and shoot some of the most beautiful pictures by being in the right place at the right time. They don’t turn up with a whole crew and it still looks fantastic. I wanted to emulate that raw lighting on stage. Of course I did bring a crew of about 50 people on a sound stage!

411:  What comes next for you professionally?

JW:  I am shooting a TV pilot for FOX TV at the moment with David Slade directing and written by Kyle Killen. It’s been a couple of years since David and I worked on “Hard Candy” and “30 Days of Night” together, so I am excited to do another project with him.