'Downsizing': How the Cinematography Got the Right Proportions
November 13, 2017

The Hollywood Reporter, November 13, 2017 by Carolyn Giardina

Director of photography Phedon Papamichael reteamed with Alexander Payne to create a miniature world for the Matt Damon-starrer.

This past weekend, Alexander Payne’s Downsizing helped open international cinematography festival Camerimage in Bydgoszcz in Poland, where director of photography Phedon Papamichael was on-hand to introduce the film.

In the new comedy/drama from Payne — the director of such films as Sideways and Nebraska — Norwegian scientists have discovered how to shrink humans to 5 inches tall, which is proposed as a solution to overcrowding and comes with the promise of a better life in a miniature world. That meant focusing on size — and more visual effects than is typical in Payne's character-driven films.

“In scenes where the ‘regular’-sized characters and the downsized characters interact, they are in the environment of the actual-sized world,” explains Phedon Papamichael, a longtime collaborator with Payne and an Oscar nominee for photographing Nebraska. “We’d shoot mattes and then we'd shoot a plate. And then on a stage, we’d size everything up to get the correct proportions [for the downsized character]. For instance, if you are lighting the shot with a 4x4-foot bounce light, when you are on stage, that light source has to increase. And if it's 5 feet from a table, it has to be 50 feet away."

Once in the downsized world, Papamichael shot as he normally would. "We have elements that every once in a while remind the audience that they are small, but we didn’t really want to drive that home as a visual gag all the time,” he explains.

Downsizing was shot with Arri Alexa cameras with a variety of vintage Panavision lenses. “Alexander really likes the feel of ‘70s cinema. We tend to use older lenses. When we did the [digital color grading] we added film grain to make it feel more like a '70s movie. His shots are unusually kept pretty simple and efficient and just tell the story without being too distracting. In comedy, there's a lot of humor that can come out of composition [i.e. the camera pointed straight at a group of characters in a reaction shot]."

But Papamichael says the team did have to “learn how to make an Alexander Payne movie but that’s actually a VFX movie. I told him, ‘we’ll just operate the way we normal do [with the actors], and then things will later be created. We tried to keep it as familiar as possible, working with visual effects supervisor Jaime Price and our production designer Stefania Cella.

Industrial Light & Magic was the lead VFX house on the Paramount film, which opens Dec. 22.