Pi: Numerical Delusions – The American Society of Cinematographers

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique and director Darren Aronofsky on the set of their sci-fi fever dream.

At the top, disturbed math genius Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette). This article originally appeared in AC April 1998. Some images are supplemental or alternative.

An artistic hymn to mathematics and the meaning of life, Pi draws viewers into a paranoid and hallucinatory world that might force Kafka himself to check the locks on his doors. Shot on 16mm black-and-white inverted film for a cost of just $ 60,000, this stunning entry offered Sundance audiences a truly cinematic mix of expressionist lighting, blinding white highlights, and subjective camera work. exhilarating.

Much of the story takes place in the cramped Manhattan apartment of brooding and cerebral Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette), who raised the numbers to the level of high art. Obsessed with the quest for numerical order in the universe, Max spends his days leaning over the keyboard of a supercomputer, centering his research on the seemingly random patterns of the stock market. On the rare occasions he emerges from that self-imposed wormhole, Max visits his Go-playing math mentor, Sol (veteran actor Mark Margolis), who has spent his life studying endless transcendental intricacies. of the geometric riddle pi.

Max’s forays into the outside world are fraught with anguish, however, as he is endlessly pursued by a pair of ubiquitous personalities eager to exploit his talents: the sinister representative of a Wall Street conglomerate seeking financial domination of the walked, and the passionate follower of an ultra-religious Jewish sect who hopes Max can help them unlock the secrets of their most sacred text.

This unique narrative is brought to the screen with considerable panache by first-feature director Darren Aronofsky, 28, whose debut earned him the prestigious Sundance Film Director’s Award. Equally impressive is the work of the 29-year-old cinematographer Matthieu Libatique, who has also lent his skills to numerous music videos.

“Darren wanted to shoot Pi in black and white for both aesthetic and budgetary reasons. He wanted the most contrasting black and white possible, with really white whites and really black blacks.

The director of photography and the director with the members of the team on the set.

Originally from Brooklyn, Aronofsky first studied film at Harvard, where he directed the short. Supermarket sweep (also featuring Pi‘s Sean Gullette), a finalist in the 1991 Student Academy Award competition. Libatique, originally from Queens, was intrigued by the creative possibilities of music videos in college, but says he initially cultivated a serious interest in cinematography. when a girlfriend introduced him to the photographic glories of Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC’s work in The conformist. After graduating from their respective alma maters, Aronofsky and Libatique both attended the American Film Institute, where they met just days after arriving at a screening of Supermarket sweep.

While honing their skills at AFI, the duo teamed up to shoot a short film titled Protozoa, an experience that confirmed their creative alchemy. Aronofsky says he and Libatique both admire the films of directors Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Roman Polanski, David Cronenberg and, in particular, Akira Kurosawa. The visual style of Pi was further influenced by the work of still photographer Ralph Gibson, Rod Serling’s television series The twilight zone, Japanese black and white sci-fi movie Tetsuo: the iron man (1992) and also We get lost (1989), a high contrast black and white documentary filmed by Jeff Preiss about jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker.

Said Libatique, “Darren wanted to shoot Pi in black and white for both aesthetic and budgetary reasons. He wanted the most contrasting black and white possible, with really white whites and really black blacks. I tested a number of 16mm stocks during prep, but we decided to go for the reverse stock after watching Let’s get lost. Once we saw what could be done, we did more research on reverse film, and I fell in love with the idea of ​​shooting the film that way.

Aronofsky says he was considering Pi as an intense character study that was partially inspired by his avid consumption of books by “bizarre conspiracy theorists.” He notes: “In film school, we started by making ‘portrait films’ which are essentially little real documentaries centered on a person. I decided to do something similar with Pi, focusing on Max and building the whole movie from his head. ”

By bringing Max’s biased perspective to the screen, the filmmakers established some ground rules. “I wanted to make a purely subjective film, as I never wanted to cut short the villains who plot and plot,” says Aronofsky. “We built our entire visual language from this strategy. For example, Matty and I decided that we would only turn over Max’s shoulder, and never over another character’s. If Max was talking to another character, we would try to shoot them straight away, just off the axis, while we were filming Sean from a more profile angle.

Shooting over the shoulder with Gullette.

“We also used macro lenses – partly because we were dealing with such abstract film, but also because we really wanted to focus on the mathematician’s gaze and what he was looking at. We tried to show as much of his world as possible, like what was at hand. We thought the close-ups would look great with the film we were using, and we tried to tell the story in a very “cute” way with a lot of different images.

Libatique suggests: “To get the look we wanted, I shot an Eastman Kodak 200 ASA Tri-X [7278] and 50 ASA Plus-X [7276]. We only had a 28 day program and we had a lot to shoot because Darren believes in coverage. There are probably 50% more cuts in this movie than in your average 85 minute movie. ”

Although Max’s apartment was a set built in a Brooklyn lighting warehouse, the space was still relatively tight. The Broadway stages in New York City provided filmmakers with a small set of tungsten lighting, but Libatique and production designer Matthew Maraffi also incorporated many handy bulbs (such as the MR-16s and 150 watts) in the very design of the entire apartment. “Max is a renegade mathematician who retired from the world to be able to continue his studies”, underlines the director of photography.

“We wanted him to be a bit like a modern day Dr. Frankenstein. In the decor of the apartment, I shot mainly with Tri-X through a yellow filter. I didn’t test the full range of filters because I knew yellow or green would be the lightest filters I could use without having to bring in more lights – which I didn’t have. I ended up choosing the yellow filter because I liked its effect on the highlights. I ended up filming Sean’s face on a reflective stop, and the yellow filter really blew up his features and made most of the scenes in his apartment look interesting. I knew it probably wouldn’t wash off for the whole movie, though. As Max gets closer to what he’s trying to find, the movie gradually darkens, especially in his apartment. Towards the end of the story, there is almost no light in the room and just shapes of what you have seen before. For these sequences, I pulled on the yellow filter and started exposing her face to the key. With the rollover, I was really playing with the latitude of the Tri-X. I was not afraid of the top or the bottom; I just tried to get his face in that three-stop latitude. If I wanted her face to be warm I would expose it just to favor the high end, but if I wanted it low I would expose it to the key which gave me really good results. Towards the end of the movie, I also rated the movie at 400 and pushed it to a stop. This approach gave us more grain, but neither Darren nor I was afraid of it.

Libatique switched to Plus-X for the outdoor scenes, but occasionally mixed his two actions towards the end of the film “to bridge the gap between Max and reality.”

Libatique’s A camera on the project was an Aaton XTR-Prod, most often fitted with Canon 8-64mm and 11.5-138mm zooms, or an Angénieux 5.9mm wide-angle lens. “The XTR could do simple images, which was amazing,” he says. “The Japanese game of Go was a big part of the movie, and we did stop-motion animation with a game board for transitions. The XTR is really light, so we could use it for handwork as well: ”

The filmmakers also used Aronofsky’s Bolex camera, in conjunction with a special platform attached to Gullette, to achieve beautifully surreal perspectives reminiscent of the work of James Wong Howe, ASC in the John Frankenheimer film. Seconds. “The rig consisted of a Bogen tripod attached to a weight belt; the tripod had a head that could support a camera, but we attached our Bolex to it and added a 10mm lens. Sean was carrying the rig, which was relatively light. When he moved, his head was always in the center of the frame as the background moved beyond him. This technique provided an eerie perspective that really got you into the character’s state of mind. We used it for a photo of him running down the street, as well as for transitional scenes where Max was walking around Chinatown. [For the latter scenes,] I overdrive the camera for shots where he was in the frame, but underestimated all of his POVs at 12fps to emphasize the fact that he was not connected to the world at all. We then used the platform for some key transition scenes in which Max has severe migraines; we attached this vibrating device to the camera and used long lenses to get some really shaky shots of his nose and eyes. This platform gave us the ultimate in subjectivity, but we used it selectively because we didn’t want to overdo it.

Libatique believes that the filmmakers were successful in their quest to obtain the best possible visuals within the logistical and budgetary constraints of the project. “I don’t think it’s fair to try to make a 16mm film look like The conformist, he argues. “On this project, we have embraced our limits. My motto was “low-fi styling”.

“There was an intense focus on this shoot,” he adds. “Sean was really attached to the character he was playing, which intensified our obligation to give each technique a goal. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, but I think it ultimately served the film well. ”


Pi was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998, where Aronofsky received the award for Best Director. The film was chosen for distribution by Live Entertainment and theatrically released in major US cities, becoming an arthouse sensation.

Libatique and Aronofsky continued their collaboration on feature films Requiem for a dream, The fountain, Black Swan, Noah, Mother! and The whale.

The director of photography became a member of the ASC in 2002.


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