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Lighting "Terminator: Dark Fate"

Gaffer Brian Bartolini shares his lighting techniques, collaborations, and challenges on the latest Terminator movie.

How was working with DP Ken Seng? 

I met Ken at Columbia College Chicago film school. We were both born and raised in Chicago, and we very much fit right in to the Chicago stereotype: we can both be loud and smart asses, big personalities at times, and we very much like poking fun at each other, as most friends do. 

That helps when we're bouncing ideas off of each other. Having the same interests and personality, everything becomes very shorthand. At this point in our working relationship, after the scene is blocked we pretty much already know what we're going to do, lighting-wise, and most times don't even need to talk about it--I just get to work. We both have the same lighting interests, we have the same 'eye,' and lighting style, and like the same looks, so that makes everything easier as well. 

Brian and Arnold

An on-set monitor shows gaffer Brian Bartolini with Arnold Schwarznegger

Please describe how you prepared for "Terminator: Dark Fate."

Prep on this job was very long: 10 weeks! Mostly because we were in two different countries, Spain and Hungary. It was my first movie in Europe, so there were many questions. Also, I don't speak a lick of Spanish or Hungarian. For this reason, I hired my friend Felix Rivera, who speaks fluent Spanish, as my rigging gaffer. When I arrived in Budapest, I was very happy to learn that most of my crew spoke English, including my wonderful matching gaffer, Krisztián Paluch. 

Ken and I wanted a more natural and soft lighting style, or at least as natural as a 'killing machine robot from the future' movie can look. Of course, some of it will always be stylized, but Ken and I usually lean towards a more muted, less saturated color scheme, with a more soft than hard lighting style, if the script calls for it. 

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You used around 800 SkyPanel S60s, 30 SkyPanel S360s, and 100 ARRI Rental space lights, over eight stages. How were you using these fixtures, and why did you choose them?

We used them mostly in soft boxes, direct through a very heavy diffusion, or even with the space light attachments. Or we put a large Chimera or DoPchoice on an S360 and rolled with that for a more directional light or back light.   

In my opinion, SkyPanels are just the best light to use when it comes to color and output, power needs, and speed. Especially if you like soft light, as Ken and I do. Besides being able to get any color that you want, you also get X, Y values, and forgo the use of gels. Not gelling the light saves time, and time saves money. I would've used more S60s and S360s if I could have, but there were no more left in Europe at the time--I tried! 

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Did the Hungarian electricians work differently to your US crew?

In most of Europe, the electricians do the same electric work that we do in the US. But in Europe, the electricians also do what the grips would do in the US, which is to shape the light as well. The grips in Europe are there for camera support. The grips in the US do camera support, but also shape the lighting once us electricians have set it. We ran the European system on "Terminator: Dark Fate." 

But we had the most amazing key grip, Guy Micheletti, who I begged to help us with some of the shaping of the light. He said okay, and so we had a hybrid US-European system for certain times and sets.

Besides that, though, both my Hungarian and Spanish electricians worked exactly the way we do in the US, and both of those crews would be among the very top crews in Los Angeles if they were all to move there. They saved my ass so many times, in so many ways.

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What was the most difficult setup?   
  
The riverbed in Spain, by far. And the most difficult to light. It's a scene that takes place and shoots at night, where our main characters are being chased by the bad guys and have to cross a river at the Mexican border into the US. 

We shot on a great lake. It's one of those locations that production had to pave roads for just to get our equipment and people to set. It was once a Roman Empire bath house, you could still see the ruins, and the gods most definitely did not want us shooting there, that became obvious.     

It took us a month to rig. The first night we got there to shoot--after the scene was blocked and rehearsal was over, but before we even started shooting--a thunder storm came upon us before anyone knew what was going on. It all happened so fast.  
 

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What did you do?

I told my crew to turn off all the generators and bring everything out of the air. We had two 200-ton cranes holding the Dino soft boxes, and all 18 of the S360s full-stick on stands, as backlights. Along with several Manitou soft boxes with S60s and even a couple of balloons in the air. We had about 10 minutes to do all of this, and we did the best we could under the circumstances. Everyone took cover as the lightning and thunder storm came through for around an hour or so. 

When it was over, production had to call off the shoot there, and they sent us home. The entire set was completely destroyed. I had never seen a lightning and thunder storm that powerful before. Everyone was just happy that no-one got seriously injured.

In the end, around 12 S60s and 13 S360s were destroyed. Some had fallen over and completely busted, but mostly it was because of all that water. The set was underwater. It was miserable. No 'smart light' ever manufactured would've made it out of that brutal beatdown.

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When were you able to do the shoot? 

We were supposed to shoot there for two or three days. Instead, we went to our 'rain cover' set for the rest of that week, while the location got cleaned up and re-established. My poor rigging crew had to re-do almost everything of what they had already done for the entire month beforehand.

Eventually, we went back there to finish the scene and what happened? The exact same thing happened again. No joke. This time we got through about half of what we wanted to shoot at this location, but on the second or third night there, another thunder storm came out of nowhere and washed the set out again! What did we do to these Roman gods to deserve this? Obviously, they didn't want us on their land...

In the end, we had to recreate and shoot the rest of that scene on the backlot and on stage at Origo Studios in Hungary, because we never finished it in Spain.
 

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What was your favorite scene in the movie?

When our main characters go to visit Dani's relative and they're eating lunch at a dinner table, talking about how to get the crew into the US. It's a very simple scene and nothing happens but dialogue, but I like the lighting. It's soft and natural, and doesn't distract from anything. Simple but beautiful; not at all stylized. The wide master shot could almost be a painting.

How did you relax at the end of a shooting day?

My crew and I would wrap and then meet up at the local restaurant or bar, and have some bread, cheese, and wine. I most definitely put on at least 10 pounds during my three months in Spain, it was a lovely time. Except for the riverbed location.  

While in Budapest, I would hang out with the camera crew during our free time, which wasn't much. Once, I worked 19 days/nights in a row, and then another 17 days/nights in a row later on.

But I would hang out with the operators, Chris McGuire and Mick Froehlich, and also with Ken. And I met a friend for life on this job: A-camera 1st AC Adam Coles. He was my 'ride or die' partner. If I was ever to get into trouble, it was always with him. He's a bad influence! I miss those guys and those times together in Budapest tremendously, for sure.
 

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What memory will you take with you?

Well, not so much memories, but lessons. I learned that I will never take another job in Spain unless I have Jose Luis Rodriguez, Charlie Bujedo, Kike Martinez, and Alex Narvaez with me. And I will never do another job in Hungary unless I have Andras Hamori, Lazlo Angyal, Antal Berger and Zoltan Bok with me. That Krisztián Paluch is the best gaffer in the world. And I would have been nothing at all without Guy Micheletti. He is my brother, and the true backbone of this film.