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Cinematographer Le Sourd Talks Anatomy of ‘The Grandmaster’ Train Fight

Cinematographer Le Sourd Talks Anatomy of 'The Grandmaster' Train Fight

Oscar contender Philippe Le Sourd, who scored an ASC nomination last week for lensing “The Grandmaster,” discusses the standout train platform fight between Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) and her father’s killer and protege (Zhang Jin), which you can watch below. Not only was director Wong Kar-wai’s improvisational style a challenge but they also completed the scene two years later, compelling Le Sourd to keep a journal so he could remember the location of his lights and maintain visual consistency).

The other complication was the fact that Tony Leung (who plays martial arts legend Ip Man) broke both of his arms shooting a fight, which necessitated relocating the scene in the north during winter. And because they had access to the train station solely at night, when it was 30 below zero, they could only do a few setups, so they spent two months on the fight.

Thus, what began as a series of close-ups escalated into a tour-de-force defined by the performances of the two actors and a sense of discovery that informed the blocking, lighting and, camera movement. “We talked about the idea of her revenge,” Le Sourd recounts. “Fights are silent ballets and this one has smoke and snow falling. We watched all the kung fu movies and ‘Raging Bull’ and Muhammad Ali. How can we make this fight scene not only different but also graceful and show the power of these people? We did research and tests and decided to choreograph it as a modern ballet. And the snow brings an element of poetry and light.”

Not surprisingly, this fight became the dramatic highlight for Le Sourd. In contrast to Ip Man’s opening fight in the rain, which was done as a series of striking back lit silhouettes and shot at 500 frames per second, or the more colorful “tango” between Ip Man and Gong Er in the Golden House, the graphic shapes at the train station were reminiscent of Chinese painting.

Wong first suggested that Gong appear ahead of time, so they built a waiting room. But it was too small so they rebuilt it much larger. Then Le Sourd pre-lit the scene, and the next day started shooting alone because Zhang wasn’t available, so they used a stand-in to set the mood. But then the next day Wong changed the setup, including the location of the train track.

“At the train station, I put the smoke and the feeling of how the locomotive itself is a strong, powerful element of the scene. And when the first of the locomotives came on the set, we found that we could play with it. I could only put the light on the floor to hide it and to silhouette all of the shapes, to see the locomotive and to backlight the smoke to give it a different sensation. I used an Arriflex camera with Fuji film. I like the texture and light of shooting on film — there’s mystery, there’s something different on the skin tone and on the colors.”

Meanwhile, Paris-based BUF provided a CG train as well as an extra layer of digital falling snow to make it denser and to enhance the intensity of the fighting.

“It was amazing to see a director writing this everyday, changing it and making it better,” Le Sourd concludes. “So you find something different and more interesting. You have to let yourself go with the light, forget what you’ve learned, and rediscover it with every shot. That was the unique experience of shooting this film.”

(Martin Scorsese interviews Wong here, Anne Thompson interviews him on video here.) 

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