Yes, it’s a small world, but he enjoys filming it
The big-screen cinematic adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” bears the unmistakable stamp of its director Spike Jonze, but Steve Newman played an integral role in helping the hipster auteur realize his creative vision.
The Australian Cinematographers Society member was tasked with filming the miniatures created for the movie -- specifically, a detailed cityscape constructed on a tabletop that depicted one character’s idealized vision of an alternate land where he lived with his fellow furry “wild things.” It was also up to Newman to figure out a way to share that world with the audience from the point of view of one imaginative boy, played by young actor Max Records.
“It’s a miniature city, but instead of roads, it has canals running between the buildings, which look like snow-capped mountains,” Newman says. “In the canals are little, tiny boats with little, tiny figures, which are the characters made in miniature. There’s a table with the big model on it, and Max sticks his head up through [a hole in the middle of] the table and looks, and we see what he sees.”
Born in England and raised mostly in Australia, Newman’s fascination with photographing interesting objects began early -- he used to take pictures of airplanes as a boy with a Box Brownie camera. After high school, he continued his large-scale pursuits, studying architecture for seven years. But he found himself incorporating so much film into his design projects that he decided to apply to the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney.
For his first miniatures job, he filmed the most massive creatures ever to walk the Earth -- dinosaurs -- in a stop-motion animation sequence for a documentary. He subsequently worked as miniatures director of photography for films including 2004’s “Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid,” 2005’s “House of Wax” and 2006’s “Superman Returns.”
“The thing that’s interesting about the job is that it’s always full of incredibly complex challenges and problem solving,” he says. “I just love cinematography, but I’m interested in visual effects because I find it a greater challenge.”
Thinking small: “Usually on films, I’m shooting miniatures that are supposed to look like the full-sized things,” he says. “This particular job was quite different because the miniatures in the film are actually supposed to be small. All the miniatures are a model built by Carol, one of the main characters. It was great to see Spike Jonze sit down with the model makers at a table full of Plasticine and actually start making some of the tiny figures himself.”
Size matters: “The problem is, when you film something very small, you don’t have a lot of depth of focus,” explains Newman, who is currently working as studio director of photography on the long-running Australian soap opera “Neighbours.” “So to get enough depth of focus, you have to light up to an incredibly high level. Producers often think, ‘Oh, miniatures. That’ll be a small unit.’ But in fact, the miniature unit has a larger lighting component often than the main unit does. You need bigger lights and more of them.”
On the waterfront: Sometimes, Jonze’s dictates placed unusual demands on Newman and his team. “Because the boy is putting his head up through a hole in the table, his eye height is very, very low,” says Newman. “So Spike wanted the camera to be virtually at water level in these canals, and the whole miniature was built on a table that only had about 4 or 5 inches of water in it. So we hung the camera on a crane and used the snorkel lens. This is a bit like a periscope, but it’s like an upside-down periscope. Instead of going up with it, we were going down into the water with it.
“The snorkel lens comes with its own waterproof housing, but the housing was so big that it stopped us getting the lens down into the water. So I got the model makers to make up a little splash box that we could put the lens into so that we could lower the lens right down to the water level.”
When worlds collide: Charged with giving each locale a unique feel, Newman often found himself trying to visually distinguish one fantastic setting from another.
“The table with the model on it was inside a cave, but we wanted to try to separate the cave backgrounds a little bit from the actual miniature city,” he says. “We used a very large, 20-foot-by-40-foot-wide net. [It was] a bit like stocking material, a white gauze, so that we could diffuse the background and make it feel like it was slightly removed from the world of the miniatures. It makes the things outside the miniature world have less contrast.
“The challenge was creating a world within a world, because the world of the film is a fantasy world anyway. But this is another little fantasy inside that fantasy.”