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Matthew Libatique, ASC Frames Money Monster in Anamorphic

Jodie Foster directs George Clooney and Julia Roberts in Money Monster, in which a glib TV financial advisor is taken hostage on the air by an irate investor. Foster tapped Matthew Libatique, ASC to bring her vision to the screen. The two previously worked together on Spike Lee’s Inside Man which starred Foster, but this was their first collaboration behind the camera.

About 75% of Money Monster unfolds in a television studio. Libatique notes that to some extent, the surroundings dictated the lighting and look of the film. The production built a set at the historic Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, New York, designed by Kevin Thompson.

Another key aspect of the prep was the discussion of aspect ratio and lensing. Libatique had shot three of his four previous films primarily on a RED Epic camera, but for parts of Money Monster he used the ARRI ALEXA combined with Panavision C anamorphic lenses.

“I’ve always loved working with C Series lenses,” he says. “Panavision’s Marni Zimmerman pulled from all over the world to create a set, which I pretty much used for two cameras, with a couple duplicates.

Getting those lenses was a big deal for me because they had a lot to do with maintaining a cinematic quality.

“Honestly, I credit much of the look of the film to the Panavision C Series lenses,” the cinematographer adds. “Getting those lenses was a big deal for me because they had a lot to do with maintaining a cinematic quality. There’s something to be said for a genre movie that is reminiscent at times of an Alan Pakula film. I knew we would get something interesting out of those lenses.”

The filmmakers toured television news studios, like Bloomberg News, to get a feel for the lighting. Libatique says that lighting on actual financial news sets is surprisingly simple, mostly frontal and almost completely LED.

“We wanted to find techniques for adding atmosphere to the film without being too stylistic,” he says. “The quality of LED light, in combination with the lenses and the way the camera accepts light, would essentially be the look of the movie. We found that by putting the camera to the side of the set gave the actors a nice backlight. A visual language emerged depending on the camera placement and how we jumped the line. When he is connecting to his audience, we used the broadcast cameras with our cinema cameras in the periphery.”

Clooney’s character also has an important relationship with Julia Roberts’ character, who is the director in the adjacent control room. “We tried to match the eyeline, so that when there is an interaction from the control room to the set, we had that juxtaposition. She’d be looking left and he’d be looking right, and we’d maintain that grammar and give the audience their bearings. It’s tricky, but in the finished film it really helps.”

The majority of the film was lit with Kino Flo Celebs. In addition to LED studio lights, Libatique had fixtures adapted for practical lamps in the control room. He wanted a somewhat consistent and cooler quality of light to connect the set, where Clooney is, and the control room, where Roberts mostly works. Unlike the main set, the control room was a practical location. There, because of the tighter space, he switched to a RED camera, sometimes paired with a MōVI rig.

Libatique says that Foster’s steadiness as a person and as a storyteller is apparent in the imagery. Focal lengths, for example, were mostly limited to two medium choices in the studio portion of the shoot.

“In any given scene, there’s a consistency to the framing and the visual language,” Libatique notes. “Anamorphic lends itself to that, whereas in spherical, you’re switching from a 21 to a 50 to 100 at times. Focus starts to get a little distracting as you go along with coverage. You tend to get more wide in masters. Because of the nature and the falloff of anamorphic, you don’t have that problem. With the relationship of the point of focus to the foreground and to the background, you always have that atmospheric quality.”

When shots representing TV angles were required – in the monitors, for example – they used Sony F900 cameras. The subconscious differences in the way television and cinema images are perceived were a major consideration.

“The shots of Clooney’s character doing his show have a certain crispness, but never lose that cinematic feel, and I think that is due to the lenses, the framing, and the slightly different angles than you would have with TV cameras,” says Libatique.

The film takes on a new look in the third act, when the characters exit the studio and walk downtown to confront the antagonist. “Suddenly, after the claustrophobia of the studio, we’re outside,” Libatique explains. “The lenses really do the work there, but in a different way, just as powerfully cinematic.”

Money Monster is currently in theaters.