While a spate of recent big-budget features has redefined the boundaries of what's technically possible in moving pictures, any number of Hollywood "action" blockbusters provide ample evidence that visual trickery and pyrotechnics don't necessarily guarantee a riveting film experience. In Hero, a Chinese made film recently released in the U.S., light, color, human movement (and yes, some elegantly applied CG work), are used instead to deliver a truly stunning example of raw cinematic power. Creativity was compelled to check in with one of the men responsible, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who, working with director Zhang Zimou, served up one of the most jaw droppingly beautiful pieces of film in years.
"If the journey is the destination, I'll never go home-I'd rather be on the road," says Doyle, 51, who didn't become a cinematographer until age 30. Instead, he navigated the globe and worked every job imaginable-a sailor in Norway, a Chinese quack-medicine doctor in Thailand and even a well-digger in the Indian desert-before falling into film. His colorful life has been a far cry from postwar Sydney, his place of birth. "It was through traveling that I found film," says Doyle. "Now I wake up with a camera on my shoulder and a desire to take it from there."
Doyle discovered film while studying Mandarin and Cantonese at the University of Hong Kong in the late 1970s. His language teacher recognized his penchant for perusing the globe, naming him Du Ke Feng meaning Like the Wind-an apt moniker as Doyle's attention shifted once more. "I was studying Chinese and discovered that film was also a language," he says. "I understood how film could give color to words and form to ideas. I started making my own films to better understand that truth. I was hooked the moment I picked up a camera."
Doyle has since teamed with an extensive list of directors from Australasia to Americana including Gus van Sant (Psycho), Barry Levinson (Liberty Heights), Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American) and frequent collaborator Wong Kar-Wai (Days of Being Wild, Happy Together, In the Mood for Love). There's also been a number of music videos including "Six Days" for DJ Shadow, directed by Wong Kar-wai. Commercials outings include stints with Jake Scott for clients such as Nike and Reuters. Whether the sanctity of the Scotts or the neophyte neuroses of first-time directors, Doyle welcomes them all. "New directors are wonderful," he says. "They ask all the wrong questions, meaning you reappraise all the so-called right answers. It stops you getting old. You show them what's possible and make them trust what you can do." Another aspect of the process that keeps Doyle fresh is improvisation. "It gives energy to the work, not just to the finished work but to the process itself. You see how audiences are engaged on a more intimate level. Why put film in the camera if ideas don't evolve through the intercourse of acting and space, light and movement? Leave the words on the page, because that's where they belong."
Light and movement are used to devastating effect in Hero, an epic saga of martial arts ballet set 2,000 years ago in China. The film centers on a nameless assassin played by Jet Li whose story of vanquishing three warriors is told and retold in an array of mind-blowing scenes, accompanied by several distinct color palettes. The film succeeded in capturing the imagination of audiences worldwide, as well as an Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Cinematography-his fifth such award. The movie was a labor of love for Doyle, an experience he describes as "excruciating" from a technical perspective. Taking much of 2001 and 2002 to shoot, Doyle chose to achieve the film's vibrant colors through photochemical means. Although the picture mandated a certain amount of digital post work, Doyle deliberately used the texture of film stocks to capture specific palettes-essentially "gestures" that would represent allegories of truth and perception (in the Chinese tradition, color is associated with elements, objects, parts of the body and sound).
Doyle tested numerous stocks to see how each would respond to force processing techniques and filtration. Once decisions were made and stocks chosen, Olivier Fontenay (senior colorist at Australia's Atlab) helped augment specific scenes. Fontenay had previously worked on The Quiet American and part of Wong Kar-Wai's 2046, resulting in a strong bond between cinematographer and colorist. Doyle explains that the mise-en-scene and texture of the film led the adventure: "It was the inherent qualities of each location and the film stock itself that allowed an organic 'style' to emerge. This allowed the results to be more consistent and reliable than using a priori intentions and postproduction techniques. We put what we wanted into the film stock before Olivier processed the way we felt worked best."
Apart from his cinematography career, Doyle has exhibited his photography around the world and more than 10 books of his film-related writing and photography have been published in Chinese, English and Japanese. He is also a contributing photographer and columnist for Vogue in Taiwan. How does Doyle continually raise the stakes and create art in different media? "Like any artist you must challenge convention," he answers. "You must be driven by life experiences, be objective and see from the outside-yet experience from within. The balance between objectivity and subjectivity, between engagement and removal, between being up close and retaining a distance is what art is all about."