Creating the Viscous, Hallucinatory World of ‘Infinity Pool’ with Analog Techniques in a Digital Format

Cinematographer Karim Hussain and writer-director Brandon Cronenberg explain how homemade experiments in Hussain's living room led to the hallucinatory imagery of "Infinity Pool."
Infinity Pool
"Infinity Pool"
courtesy of Sundance Institute

Many cinematographers have close relationships with directors, but the bond forged between director of photography Karim Hussain and filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg is particularly intimate. “We’re friends and neighbors, so the visual style for ‘Infinity Pool’ was literally developed in my living room,” Hussain told IndieWire. Hussain and Cronenberg have been working together since Cronenberg’s 2012 debut “Antiviral,” and “Infinity Pool” represents the full fruition of the experiments that began with that film — experiments in disorientation, subjective point of view, and finding a way to create an analog mood using digital technology.

In “Infinity Pool,” married American tourists James (Alexander Skarsgård) and Em (Cleopatra Coleman) are staying at a posh resort in an unnamed foreign country when James is involved in a car accident and discovers the local justice system: Anyone found guilty of a crime is either executed or can pay a hefty fee to watch their double created in a lab and then executed in their place. Thus begins a series of increasingly disturbing and impenetrable situations for James, whose sense of terror, confusion, and ultimately excitement is shared by the audience thanks to Cronenberg’s highly subjective visual style and sound design.

In keeping with their usual practice, Cronenberg and Hussain shot-listed the entire movie in detail to make sure that each composition and lens choice would be directed toward the specific emotional effect of viscerally conveying the unease and anxiety that James experiences. “We start with a kind of theoretical shot list that ends up being much longer and more complicated than what we actually have time for,” Cronenberg said. “It ends up changing substantially as we get the locations [the movie was primarily shot in Šibenik, Croatia] and the sets and the cast, but it’s a good way to go scene by scene and talk about the visual language of the film.”

The unconventional shot structure Hussain and Cronenberg conceptualized is essential to the qualities of dislocation and confusion that characterize most of James’ adventures. “In traditional cinema language you show the wide shot, see where the characters are, and then cut to the close-ups,” Hussain said. “This movie works opposite to that. We start mostly on close objects and slowly widen out so that you’re wondering, ‘Where the hell are we? What is the geography?’ Then we cut to a wide shot to show you where everything is. It’s a meticulously timed and planned effect to express the disorientation and basic anxiety of the character.”

Lenses play a key role here as well, with Hussain relying on extremely shallow depths of field to limit both James’ and the viewers’ perspectives. “The depth of field is used to add to the mystery because the blur you see behind James could be anything,” Hussain said, noting that at significant moments he used a tool called the Cinefade to alter the depth of focus within one shot. “It’s a mechanical neutral density filter that’s synchronized to the iris of the lens, so you can change the depth of field without the lighting being affected.” The effect is particularly expressive in a scene depicting James’ disintegrating marriage, which begins with James and Em in sharp detail but gradually renders her out of focus, illustrating the chasm that has opened between them.

Infinity Pool
“Infinity Pool”Neon

One of the most striking visual motifs in “Infinity Pool” is the surrealistic, hallucinatory imagery that comes into play during provocative sequences in which sex mixes with dread and violence; even more so than in the rest of the film, we’re not always sure what we’re looking at, or if it’s supposed to be real or imagined. These sequences are comprised of gorgeous smears of color mixed with distorted body parts and flashes of light that recall the work of Stan Brakhage and other experimental filmmakers, and they’re the culmination of the work Cronenberg and Hussain began in Hussain’s living room over the last 10 years. “There’s zero CGI in those hallucination sequences,” Hussain said, explaining that he and Cronenberg manipulated the images they captured on set with a split diopter that had dichroic film wrapped around it. “Dichroic film changes the color depending on the angle when you bend it, so we wrap that over the diopter and put it in front of a long lens while Brandon moves around it with a flashlight.”

The effect is essentially that of Cronenberg serving as a puppeteer of light and color, changing the properties of the image and sending it in and out of focus as he moves his flashlight. Some of that work was done on set, but then Cronenberg and Hussain took the footage to Hussain’s living room and projected it, rephotographing it with a diopter, dichroic film, and the flashlight yet again. “It’s a very rudimentary set-up, and there’s usually a 15- or 16-hour marathon where I operate the camera while Brandon paints over and over the image,” Hussain said. “And then there were some stop-motion shots and specialty inserts provided to us that we rephotographed once again.”

The collage effect and organic approach give “Infinity Pool” a handmade quality that Hussain hopes takes full advantage of the strengths of both digital and analog technologies. “I love the look and feel of a filmic image, but you can get it on digital if you know what you’re doing,” Hussain said. “This film is the sum of all these weird homemade experiments we’ve been doing where we use analog techniques in a digital format. If movies were projected on film, I’d be all about doing everything photochemically, but that’s not the reality. But you can do a lot with digital that’s amazing in a practical, analog manner that can be more than just a filter placed over something. I think you can tell the difference between that and when things are done in a more organic manner. We just did our best to give people a wild ride.”

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