Using Natural Conditions To Make A “Wild” Reality

Cannes Film Festival

Warner Bros. Pictures


Cinematographer Lance Acord has been working with Spike Jonze since the two men met as skateboarders. Together, they’ve worked on commercials, music videos and features including "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," and most recently, "Where the Wild Things Are."

Jonze and Acord had begun developing "Harold and the Purple Crayon" before receiving the support of "Wild Things" author Maurice Sendak to adapt his story.  Jonze and Acord worked together in transcribing the limited prose into a feature length film.


"I don’t know if it is so much of a personal vision brought to adapting the book," said Acord.  "I feel we reinterpreted that story.  We collectively made it a completely different version, we created something new, and something above and beyond what was in the book.  That was always Maurice Sendak’s reason for choosing Spike; he’s someone who would take that material and not be beholden to the author; he would make it his own."

Acord has come to know Jonze as a director who’s focused on working with the actors and building their connectivity with the dialogue.  Both men realized that the visuals would play a larger roll in bridging "Where the Wild Things Are" story arc and themes due to lighter dialogue than the other features they worked on.

"Spike knows what he likes in terms of filmmaking," said Acord.  "Spike was improving upon the script thematically and emotionally.  In ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ you want to be able to tell this story as conceptually visually as possible.  We weren’t just setting up dialogue."

Roughly a year was spent refining a storyboard of the movie prior to shooting.   When shooting began, a distinct effort was made to differentiate the "real world" from the land of the “Wild Things.” 

"I used a larger focus and lots of practicals when the home life was portrayed," said Acord.  "We also kept it very intimate.  The camera always moves with Max, the main character."

The outdoor shoots were kept as unaltered as possible; making the most of natural light, weather conditions, and any other unpredictable circumstance. 

"Because a lot of the film involved natural light," said Acord, "we were scouting locations to choosing the best time to shoot.  We were shooting in Australia where the weather would change a lot.  We accepted that less controllable element and embraced it.  It gave us a feeling of a wildlife documentary: for instance, there were scenes we shot in the rain because it started raining."

In addition to using the natural environments in developing the look, some scenes were built around light flares and other elements cinematographers generally try to avoid.

"There were a couple of scenes we wanted to feel like war photography, where the camera is trying to see around somebody and fight for a position," said Acord.  "In scenes like the dirt fight scene, we include the flares and backlit smoke, underexposure and grain, we really wanted to loosen up the photographic control, especially where we couldn’t control the environment." 

Combining his desire to work with actors and maintain a natural environment, Jonze chose to have “suit performers” embody each of the Wild Things instead of relying on CG characters.  Vocal recordings were supplied to each actor, or suit performer, who would be wearing the Wild Thing costumes.  The suit performers then studied the tapes and matched their gestures and performance to the recordings.


Working with the suits and the natural lighting situations provided a number of challenges for Acord.


“It was definitely a learning curve,” said Acord.  “My challenge as the cinematographer was to obtain a life-like feeling.   It was very difficult for the guys in the suits to work within the natural elements.  We had them watch wildlife documentaries and movies like ‘The Black Stallion’ to help them understand the sense of naturalism we were going for.  We worked with them to achieve the best hand and body gestures.” 


Jonze also avoided CG environments by having elaborate sets built, such as the stomach of one of the Wild Things.  Acord found that lighting these environments helped enhance their believability.


“As we were building these set pieces, and as we were shooting them, we realized there were lots of ways to create the look,” said Acord.  “For the stomach scene, we referenced a cow’s stomach and asked ‘What would it look like?’  We used a furry black fabric that, once lit, appeared purple.  Exposing the brightest highlights helped with making this fur look just right.”


Much of the film was shot in the evening.  As dawn came and lighting conditions changed, continuity problems arose during many scenes.  Acord dealt with retouching these scenes digitally through the digital intermediate process.  


“I’d been using telecine up to this point, so I was excited to try out the DI process,” said Acord.  “Eighty percent of the shots were touched up in post, so it made sense to back everything with a DI.”


When “Where the Wild Things Are” was released, people had strong reactions to the feature.  Acord, who chooses the projects he works on primarily by his emotional connection to the script, felt “Where the Wild Things Are” captured his feelings at a precise moment in time.  He feels many people that viewed the movie were able to relate to their own personal feelings as well.  

"The thing I find interesting about that story is that when people see it, and for us as creating it, you connect with that story on a very deep emotional level,” said Acord. “I read and cherished that book at a certain time in my life.  It strikes a chord because it brings you back to that time in your life.    That’s one of the things that’s amazing about the film, everyone connects with it emotionally.  It makes them think of different things at certain times in their life.” 



For a continuation of this article, see the video interview: