This film doesn’t aspire to inform audiences of the complex inner workings of the human heart, nor does it claim to elevate society’s awareness of the fragile balance of the human condition. Indeed, the key attribute of this summer popcorn flick has been eloquently expressed by its lead actor, Samuel L. Jackson: “Snakes on a muthaf***in’ plane!”
At first glance, it might not be clear why cinematographer Adam Greenberg, ASC (Terminator 2, Eraser, Inspector Gadget) would seek out a project such as Snakes on a Plane. He explains, “I have a daughter living in Seattle, and I often fly there to see her. On one of those flights, it occurred to me that with today’s lenses and negative emulsions, I could shoot a film that took place entirely on a plane and have the lighting come from the plane itself. I felt I could shoot such a film almost entirely without any movie lights. So when New Line approached me with Snakes on a Plane, I jumped on it, because I already had this visual concept in my head.”
Directed by David R. Ellis (Cellular), Snakes on a Plane centers on FBI agent Nelville Flynn (Jackson), who is escorting a key witness from Hawaii to Los Angeles so he can testify against a nefarious crime boss. Things go very wrong when the passengers aboard the flight discover that hundreds of deadly snakes have been released on the aircraft in a unique attempt to eliminate this key witness.
With almost 90 percent of the story set aboard the ill-fated flight, the filmmakers decided to shoot on stages in Vancouver, British Columbia. Production designer Jaymes Hinkle and his crew built a 140'-long airplane-interior set, which was positioned 12' off the floor on a pneumatic gimbal designed by special-effects coordinator Matt Kutcher. Intent on executing his self-contained lighting concept, Greenberg worked with gaffer John Dekker to devise a game plan for the plane. “When you see a film done in an airplane, you don’t often see the ceiling,” notes Greenberg. “That’s because the ceiling is where cinematographers would usually light from. However, from the beginning I told David Ellis I could incorporate my lighting into the set to make it look like it was all just practical available light. Throughout the film, I’m always trying to convince the audience of that idea by showing the floor and the ceiling in the frame. I also chose to never remove any of the airplane’s walls [to execute a shot].” Dekker adds, “The art department basically brought us the inside of a 747, and we proceeded to replace all of the overhead practicals with our own bulbs and tie everything to a dimmer.”
In choosing the bulbs to be rigged into the set, Greenberg and Dekker had to consider not only whether they would appear to be realistic sources when they were in shot, but also whether they could withstand the rigors of being thrashed about on the gimbal set. Greenberg explains, “When the plane really starts to have trouble, the lights flicker on and off quickly and the plane shakes violently. We tested many bulbs with different types of filaments, from different halogens and MR16s to assorted Pars. Because I wanted to be able to turn the lights on and off quickly, I felt we didn’t want to use fluorescents, but I wanted the lighting of the coved walls of the set to have the look of fluorescents. So the art department built the set in such a way that the coves were recessed in the ceiling; that way, the bulbs lighting the coves aren’t seen on camera.”
Working from the outside in, the first lighting element built into the set was the “shell” of the airplane’s interior illumination. Greenberg wanted the curved “cove” of the walls to have a soft glow emanating from a recessed trough in the ceiling. Fluorescent tubes would normally be used to provide such an even glow, but Greenberg had Dekker’s lighting crew build up “long batten strips with normal 75-watt 30-degree Par30s shining directly through 216 for both sides of the interior walls, as well as for the large, recessed, rectangular overhead panels above the center aisle,” says Dekker. “The overhead panels almost look like 4-foot fluorescent units aimed through a typical diffuser, but there weren’t any actual lights overhead. There again, we had the batten strips coming in through 216 from the recessed sides illuminating each rectangular area.”
After establishing a general ambient level this way, Greenberg turned to the large areas of the set that were in darkness. By redesigning the overhead lighting panels above the seats and installing some additional practicals down the center aisle, Greenberg was able to give ample light to the rest of the set practically. “With all of the individual seats’ lighting panels and the cove lighting, we ended up incorporating more than 3,000 bulbs that not only illuminated the plane, but also lit most of the actors and actions,” says the cinematographer. “To light the seated areas, John found a bulb from Japan that was similar to an MR16 but much harder. Of all the bulbs we tested, they proved to be the best for the film. They looked good on camera and created a very strong beam of light.”
“The ‘Japan lights,’ as Adam called them, were 10-degree spotted MR16-type bulbs from Ushio that we originally found in Japan,” explains Dekker. “We were able to find them locally in time for this shoot and used them extensively in the airplane set. [The item number is JDR Q75 MR16EM.] The top end of the JDR is like an MR16, but there’s a normal medium-base socket on the bottom, and they’re very spotty. If there was an area or object we needed to pick out or highlight, we’d just use a Japan light [already rigged in the set] to do it. Then, over the rest of the seats, we used some standard mini Par16s for a general wash of light.”
With the vast majority of the lighting prerigged into the airplane set, Greenberg and Dekker then plotted out different dimmer-cue combinations and variations to give the narrative a visual arc. “Because most of the film takes place on the plane, I wanted to create some different looks for the different stages of the story,” says Greenberg. “I was very afraid of not having a variety of lighting situations. I didn’t want to give the entire movie the same look, but I wanted to create realistic and believable looks — nothing futuristic. The audience really has to believe this is taking place aboard a normal flight. David and I worked it out so that more and more circuits go down as the passengers’ peril increases. I believe we actually have seven different looks in all. Fortunately, during the prerig, John and I were able to spend time programming all of our various looks into the dimmer board. As we were shooting, I was able to say, ‘Go to stage two,’ and John knew exactly which lights and cues that involved.”
The first of these settings represented a “normal,” brighter state when “the passengers are boarding the plane and everything seems pleasant and fine,” says the cinematographer. This dimmer cue served as a base look. For the second look, Greenberg modified this setting, lowering the brightness of the cove lights, utilizing more of the overhead Par units rigged above the seats, and rendering a slightly darker look; this look applied to scenes set at night, before the snakes invade the cabin.
“As the story gets darker,” says Greenberg, “the lighting also changes. First, I started using the Japan lights more and more as the danger increased. They were so spotted that the light coming from them was almost 10 stops overexposed. I think it looked good when the characters would run through that light; they just glow under it. Then, as the plane’s circuits go down, there are sparks and fires, and that motivated a steady increase of smoke levels on the set, which worked well with the Japan lights. It’s surprising, but with the negative films we have today, you can use very small sources to expose. In fact, I shot most of the film close to a T4. I never shoot wide open; that way, if I need to shoot high speed or use a slower zoom lens, I don’t have to relight.