When director Gore Verbinski pitched his plan for The Lone Ranger to Bojan Bazelli, ASC, the cinematographer was intrigued by the prospect of reuniting with the director, his collaborator on The Ring (AC Nov. ’02), but most of all, he was thrilled to have an opportunity to pay tribute to the Western, perhaps the most American of all film genres. “Coming from another country [Montenegro], and being aware of the rich history of Westerns, I was especially excited to be offered this movie, and I knew immediately I had to do it,” says Bazelli. “There is also the fact that whatever we do in this business, we repeat ourselves occasionally, and a totally different genre opens up an entirely new palette. A Western is a rare opportunity for a cinematographer, and I was thankful Gore offered it to me.”
The Lone Ranger presents the title character, a.k.a. John Reid (Armie Hammer), as a reluctant partner to Tonto (Johnny Depp), the Native American who saves Reid’s life after his Texas Ranger unit is ambushed by the Cavendish gang. The two men instantly dislike each other, but join forces to hunt down Cavendish (William Fichtner), whose gang has murdered Reid’s brother (James Badge Dale) and slaughtered most of Tonto’s tribe.
The filmmakers ventured across the American Southwest for 150 days of principal photography that commenced in March 2012. When Bazelli sat down with AC to discuss the project, he was putting the finishing touches on the picture at Company 3 in Santa Monica.
American Cinematographer: This movie got a lot of attention when Disney brought prep to a stop in the fall of 2011 because of budget concerns. When it wasn’t clear what would happen next, did you consider moving on?
Bojan Bazelli, ASC: No. I told Gore I would wait a year, if necessary. I was determined not to take another job. The postponement actually worked to our benefit in a few ways, and one was that we were able to get the Arri Alexa Studio with a 4:3 sensor and rotating-mirror shutter. When we originally started prep, Roger Deakins [ASC, BSC] was using the only prototype on Skyfall, and Arri didn’t know when more would become available. That camera enabled us to shoot night exteriors in anamorphic with minimal lighting. We wanted to see the depth of the prairie at night in a faint pictorial way, and when our prep was brought to a halt, we were weighing whether to shoot spherical instead of anamorphic so we could go digital for night, or shoot anamorphic and use high-speed negative and a lot of lights for night — what we Europeans call ‘American night’ [laughs]. Either that, or we could be more selective and do smaller shots.
When the movie got postponed, we were thinking we’d go with film and do our best, but we let Arri know we were very interested in testing the new Alexa, and when our prep started to gear up again, in November, Arri sent a prototype to L.A. I spent three days testing it side-by-side with Kodak [Vision3 50D] 5203 rated at 25 ISO, which is how I planned to shoot our day exteriors. Capturing in ArriRaw, I tested every possible scenario, using 800 ISO for night scenes and 500 ISO for day interiors, and the results looked fantastic. The 4:3 chip integrated with Panavision’s C Series anamorphic lenses created a look we just loved, and the rotating-mirror shutter gave the image a very film-like feel. We knew we’d be cutting from interiors to exteriors and night scenes to day scenes, and we didn’t see any noticeable jump in image quality when we cut from 5203 to Alexa; it was like cutting from a low-speed fine-grain film stock to an 800-ISO super-fine-grain film stock. That’s what really sold us. We decided the Alexa would be best not only for all our night scenes, but also for interiors. Then the question became, how many could we get, and when? For production to make a decision based on ‘maybe’ was tough, but Disney, [executive producer] Jerry Bruckheimer and Arri pushed to make it happen, and we were able to get four Alexas in addition to our seven Panavision film cameras. Carrying both systems was more expensive, but Panavision gave us a deal on the whole package that made it possible.
Did using digital make a big difference in your lighting budget?
Bazelli: We shot night exteriors at a T4, and it would have doubled our lighting budget to duplicate the same scenario on film. The Alexa also gave us a faster shooting ratio. You might think that on a big movie like this, you’d run three or four cameras and do maybe five setups a day, but it was not uncommon for us to do 30 setups a day on interiors. Gore knows what he wants, he likes to have a lot of options, he likes to get it all quickly, and he prepares very thoroughly. Each morning, I’d get together with [1st AD] Simon Warnock, [A-camera operator] Martin Schaer, [A-camera 1st AC] Trevor Loomis, [B-camera/Steadicam operator] Dave Luckenbach, [gaffer] Raffi Sanchez and [key grip] Mike Popovich, and we’d gather around the storyboard to plan our day of shooting. On some days, we’d have three or four 4-by-4 boards that Gore had filled in with shots.
What made you choose anamorphic?
Bazelli: I suggested it when I came aboard. I hadn’t used it since Body Snatchers  and was always looking for a place to use it again, and Gore had never used it. Using the full negative gives you the best image possible, and we also wanted to take advantage of anamorphic lenses’ unique qualities, particularly the flares. We chose the C Series for their softer, more flare-y image quality, and we added some G Series when we had multiple-camera setups for action scenes. Also, anamorphic just seemed the obvious choice for all our iconic Western landscapes. We wanted to emphasize strong, symmetrical compositions that made full use of the 2.40 frame. In that respect, our main inspiration was Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, even though that film was shot in Techniscope.
How does Gore like to get coverage?
Bazelli: It’s usually a tighter version of the same shot that’s achieved by getting closer with the camera and using the same lens or going one size up. He doesn’t like the long-lens feel, the blurry out-of-focus background. We did most of our wide shots with a 40mm, occasionally a 35mm; medium coverage on a 50mm; and close-ups on a 50mm, 60mm or 75mm. We kept a Primo [AWZ2 T2.8] 40-80mm zoom on the crane so we could find the best focal length for those shots quickly, and many times they were just a few millimeters over 40mm. We actually shot many scenes single camera. It’s tricky to use a second camera with Gore because he likes the actor’s eyeline to be very close to the lens, so the other actor is right next to the matte box.
More than half the movie involves day exteriors, which have a hot, contrasty look. How did you achieve that?
Bazelli: We wanted to embrace the raw brightness of the sun and the sand, and strive for color that had the washed-out feel of watercolors. The basic idea was a bleach-bypass look, but we wanted it to look raw and not grainy. We decided early in prep that we would not use artificial lighting on day exteriors unless we absolutely had to in order to save the day. We used the sand as a huge bounce, and we laid sheets of unbleached muslin on the ground to help fill faces under the cowboy hats. I didn’t use any lens filtration because rating 5203 at 25 ISO and pull processing it by 1 stop gave us a midday exposure of T5.6, perfect for anamorphic lenses. I didn’t even use a meter; we just used that stop all day, occasionally opening up half a stop when necessary. In prep, we also worked with Deluxe and Company 3 to create a LUT for the dailies and the final grade that resembled a 30-percent bleach bypass. For the first month of the shoot, we had Deluxe print a few takes or outtakes and send them to [dailies colorist] David Lee at Company 3 for additional reference. We didn’t use a [viewing] LUT on set.