Interview with gaffer Jim Plannette

Contre-Champ AFC n°325

[English] [français]

In a career spanning over five decades, gaffer Jim Plannette has participated in crafting the lighting of such iconic films as Young Frankenstein (1974), E.T. (1982), The Fisher King (1991), and Magnolia (1999). Apart from collaborating multiple times with influential cinematographers like John A. Alonzo, Sven Nykvist, László Kovács, and John Toll, Plannette has been a key creative partner to Steven Soderbergh ever since the director began serving as his own DP, from 2000’s Traffic up to his latest movie, KIMI. Fresh from wrapping Lisa Azuelos’s I Love America, shot by Léo Hinstin, AFC, the 81-year-old gaffer reflects here on his cinematic journey and the technological advances that have accompanied it. (YT)

You’ve described your father, Old Hollywood gaffer Homer Plannette, as your mentor. How did he influence your approach to lighting ?

Jim Plannette : My father fought in the First World War, and when he came back home, some friends of his were working at the Selig Studio in Glendale, Los Angeles. They got him a job in the camera department, and he made $25 a week. His brother Paul was working as an electrician, and they had a union, so he made $50 a week. He said to my father : “Come where the money is.” That’s how my father became a gaffer instead of a DP, which he certainly had the ability to be. In the early days, a gaffer didn’t get screen credit. So my father’s credits on IMDb are very short—they’re the only ones he told me about that I put in for him. But he has an amazing filmography that includes Shanghai Express (1932), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), High Noon (1952), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).

I used to visit my father on set, and he gave me the best advice I ever received about lighting when I asked him : “How do you know where to put all the lights ?” He replied : “You just need to learn to look at light and what it does. Then when you have to recreate it, there’s an image in your mind.” Though our careers only overlapped a few years, I was able to work with my father a little bit. He was a very demanding gaffer, but he knew what he was doing. I was running an arc light for him once on the scaffold, and he pointed his finger at me and said : “If that light flickers, no dinner !” So it didn’t flicker. [Laughter]

Homer Plannette (chemise blanche à manches longues en arrière-plan) avec le chef opérateur Floyd Crosby (debout à gauche de la caméra) et l’acteur Gary Cooper sur le tournage du "Train sifflera trois fois", en 1952
Homer Plannette (chemise blanche à manches longues en arrière-plan) avec le chef opérateur Floyd Crosby (debout à gauche de la caméra) et l’acteur Gary Cooper sur le tournage du "Train sifflera trois fois", en 1952

My father always tried to light naturally in order to help tell the story without distracting the audience, which I think is really the way to go. I dislike movies where I can see the DP saying : “Hey, look at me !” That to me isn’t right, and it’s not what the director wants, either.

Despite immersing you in the filmmaking world from a young age, your father advised you against following in his footsteps.

JP : When I was 18 or 19, I said to my father : “You know, maybe I’ll get into the movie business.” He said : “You don’t want to do that because there’s no security.” Which is really true. My oldest friend was going to become a lawyer, so I majored in political science and intended to go to law school. But then I dropped out for a semester to earn some money. The quickest way was in the movie business, and I never looked back. Being a gaffer’s son was helpful in the beginning, but unless you can deliver, who cares who your parents are ? That’ll get you in the door, but it won’t keep you inside.

When I started out as an electrician, I would ask the gaffer or the cinematographer if I could watch dailies, and they always said : “Of course.” Back then, we saw dailies the following day at lunchtime. I could remember what we had done the day before, and I’d see whether it worked or not ; that’s the way I learned. But today, with digital cinematography, we have instant dailies. All you have to do is look at the monitor, and that’s your education. A lot of people on my crew are enthusiastic and want to learn. They make suggestions, which I think about, and if they’re good, I say : “Yeah, let’s do it that way.”

You’ve talked about how you parted company with the first director of photography who hired you, Richard H. Kline, because he kept ordering you around on set and didn’t give you any creative freedom.

JP : Richard had worked with my father as an assistant cameraman on Cover Girl (1944), and he hired me as an electrician on The Andromeda Strain (1971). A friend of mine, Colin Campbell, and I were the youngest on the crew and did most of the work. The gaffer, Everett Lehman—who was a very experienced gaffer from Universal—didn’t do anything, because Richard didn’t want him to do anything. His M.O. was : “Hire a young gaffer who’ll just do as I say.”

I was the best boy on the following film Richard shot, Kotch (1971), and the gaffer on the one after that, Hammersmith Is Out (1972). But Richard did not collaborate. He just said : “Put this here, put that there.” When he called me the next time, he said : “I’m doing a movie at Fox. I have to use a Fox gaffer, but I want you to be the best boy.” I saw that as my way to get out and said : “I’m a gaffer now. I’m not going to be a best boy.” I stayed friends with Richard, but that’s not the kind of DP I want to work with. I want to work with somebody who could do it without me, and I could do it without them, but together we’ll do it better. Now of course, I get to pick and choose. So I’ve been able to work with cinematographers who were true collaborators.

It’s a complicated job to make a movie. Nobody does it by themselves. I don’t agree with the “auteur” theory. That’s ego : “I made that film.” No, you didn’t. We made that film. I’m way down the list, but still I was involved, I contributed. When a production designer wins an Oscar, so do the art director and set decorator, which shows they made a contribution. That’s the fun—collaborating.

In the ’70s, you went on to work with major cinematographers like John A. Alonzo and Sven Nykvist. What did you take away from those collaborations ?

JP : John was an actor before becoming a cinematographer, and he taught me to have empathy for actors. He said : “Never ask an actor to do something to make your job easier.” On The Cheap Detective (1978), we had to light five middle-aged actresses. Each one had a net with her name, and when we did their close-ups, John would put the nets in front of the lens to soften the image. I’d set up the light on the side of the camera to which the women were looking, at a height that put a little shadow under their chins to hide the wrinkles in their necks, and I’d shine the light through a 4’ x 4’ frame of heavy diffusion. Then John would burn a little hole with his cigarette in the diffusion, right where the actresses’ eyes were, and he’d cover the hole with scotch tape so that their eyes got slightly more light than the rest of their face. They looked beautiful. But more importantly, they didn’t have to think about how they looked because they knew John cared, so all they had to think about was playing the scene.

Working with Sven Nykvist was a pleasure because we thought along the same lines of making the lighting invisible. Our second movie together, Cannery Row (1982), was one of the biggest productions I’ve ever done, with a set that covered all of Stage 30 at MGM. After a few days of shooting camera tests, Sven and I were coming back from the lab, and he said : “It’s going to work.” I said : “Of course it’s going to work.” He declared : “To tell you the truth, when I saw the size of that stage set, I would have gone back to Stockholm if I hadn’t signed a contract. I’m used to photographing two faces and a teacup.”

Sven Nykvist et Jim Plannette sur le tournage de "Rue de la sardine", en 1982
Sven Nykvist et Jim Plannette sur le tournage de "Rue de la sardine", en 1982
Photo Bruce McBroom

On Cannery Row, I suggested covering the ceiling of a room in the whorehouse with muslin, putting a light through it, then blacking out the border so the walls wouldn’t be lit. Sven was a very quiet, soft-spoken man, and he said : “Yes, let’s do that.” When we were shooting, I kind of stuck out my chest and asked : “It’s working pretty well, isn’t it, Sven ?” He replied : “Yes, the first time I did that was in 1946.” [Laughter]

You followed up Cannery Row with Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982). How did you get involved with that project ?

JP : Allen Daviau [E.T.’s cinematographer] came over to the set of Cannery Row to ask me and the key grip, Gene Kearney, about working on E.T., which was initially called A Boy’s Life. I’d met Steven when he was in postproduction of Jaws (1975), and Allen had done a short film with him, Amblin’ (1968). E.T. was Allen’s first feature, so we kind of played good cop, bad cop. If we had to tell Steven something he wanted to hear, Allen would tell him. If it was something he didn’t want to hear, I would tell him. Steven is a very visual director, and he operated about 99% of E.T. himself. If it was a very difficult shot, he would do one take ; the camera operator, John Connor, would do one ; and Allen would do one. Every single time, Steven’s was the best.

Jim Plannette, Allen Daviau et Steven Spielberg sur le tournage d’"E.T.", en 1982
Jim Plannette, Allen Daviau et Steven Spielberg sur le tournage d’"E.T.", en 1982
Photo Bruce McBroom

I think a lot of us realized we were making something special. Those kids were so terrific to work with ; so was Allen. I stayed friends with him forever. Shortly before Allen died, Henry Thomas—who played Elliott in E.T.—sent me a commercial that he’d done based on the film. I showed it to Allen on my iPad, and it made him smile.

Spielberg wanted E.T. to be backlit as a silhouette but his eyes to remain visible. How did you accomplish that ?

JP : We used lights like the Obie, a light designed in the ’40s by DP Lucien Ballard for his wife at the time, actress Merle Oberon. She had some scars on her face, so he built this light that went right above the lens and filled in her scars. The Obie works great as an eye light. It puts a little glow in the eyes so you can have a silhouette and still see the eyes.

"E.T."
"E.T."
Capture d’écran - Universal Pictures

When I look at E.T., so much of it is three-quarter backlight. What that does is make the side of the face that the camera sees the most the fill side, which is where you determine the mood of a scene. If there’s a lot of fill, it’s a happy scene. If there’s no fill, it’s a serious, mysterious scene.

Is there a particular order in which you set up the lights ?

JP : In the mid-’60s, I was the best boy of a very good gaffer, Joe Edesa. He would start lighting from the back and work his way to the front, which is what I still do today. I start with the lights outside coming through the windows, then I move on to the fill or ambient light inside. My father taught me that something has to win. There should be areas that are underexposed as well as areas that are overexposed, because that’s reality.

DP Steven Poster and I took over The Boy Who Could Fly (1986) from another cinematographer and gaffer. We were shown some of the footage they had shot, and it was beautiful. When we came out of the screening room, Steven looked at me and asked : “What are we going to do ?” I said : “I think it was too beautiful. There was nothing winning—no highlights, no kicks. What we should do is make sure something wins.”

Film students run around with their light meters and take readings everywhere. I don’t do that. I light the scene. Then I balance with my eye or contrast filter that I hold up to my eye, and I determine where the correct exposure should be.

In Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991)—which you’ve mentioned as your favorite gaffing experience—the lighting reflects the idiosyncratic psyche of Robin Williams’s character, Parry. A sequence that stands out is the dreamlike musical interlude in Grand Central Station, in which Parry follows Lydia [Amanda Plummer], the woman he’s infatuated with, through a waltzing crowd.

JP : The Fisher King was such a wonderful collaboration with Terry Gilliam ; the cinematographer, Roger Pratt ; and the actors, Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges. The Grand Central Station scene took place at 5PM in the script, but we could only shoot there from 10PM until 6AM. When we scouted Grand Central, Terry said : “It would be great if everyone started waltzing around the information booths when Robin and Amanda reach the main floor.” The producers’ jaws just dropped because that wasn’t in the script. But we ended up doing it anyway.

When we were scouting, Roger mentioned that he wanted to put lights on the roof. His reference was Hal Morey’s famous still photograph of Grand Central, with shafts of light coming in through the windows above. During our prep in New York, I would go back to Grand Central whenever I had a moment to think about how we were going to light the scene. Each time, the place looked bigger and bigger. There was a fairly new light back then called a Musco, which consisted of a big truck, a generator, and a 110-ft boom arm that had 15 6K HMIs on it. I thought we would shine the Musco through the door and the windows on the South side, when Robin and Amanda came in, then we’d move it around to the West side to light the main floor. I told Roger about the Musco, and he asked how long it would take to move it. I said 10 minutes, which in fact it did.

"Fisher King : Le Roi pêcheur"
"Fisher King : Le Roi pêcheur"
Capture d’écran - Tri-Star Pictures

The light inside Grand Central Station is very warm during the day. So I put a half CTO gel on the Musco to warm it up and reduce the color difference. In addition to the Musco, there were lights everywhere on the main floor, hidden behind pillars, as well as a mirror ball on top of the information booths and two Xenons hitting it. When we rehearsed with Amanda Plummer, I noticed that she was often out of light. So I asked the electrician who was up by the Xenons to follow Amanda with one of them. It worked really well and didn’t look like she was in a spotlight. It just looked like she was in the daylight coming from the windows.

You’ve been one of Steven Soderbergh’s closest collaborators since Traffic (2000), his first film as his own director of photography. What makes you two such compatible partners ?

JP : Production manager Georgia Kacandes had recommended me to Steven for Traffic, and I was called for an interview. Steven and I seemed to be getting along, and he asked : “Do you have a style ?” It was something I’d never thought about before. It popped into my head that a friend of mine had taught a class at the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College called “Cinema Minima,” about shooting low-budget movies. So I said, “Yes, Cinema Minima,” and Steven replied : “You’re my guy.”

I recently read an interview with Steven about Traffic, in which he said we didn’t use any lights, and I joked with him about it. We had two trucks full of lights : a Daylight one and a Tungsten one. The idea wasn’t to not use lights—it was to make the film look real and the lighting truly invisible. But there were some sequences in which we didn’t need to use any lights, like the introduction of Michael Douglas’s character in a huge courtroom in Cincinnati. There was a wall of windows on the North side, so the daylight was soft and didn’t change. I know some people would have used Condors there, but that wouldn’t have made the scene any better. In fact, it probably would have made it worse, at a huge cost of time and money.

"Traffic"
"Traffic"
Capture d’écran - USA Films

I like to scout locations by asking myself “do we need to use any lights ?”, rather than “where are we going to put the lights ?” Because often, we don’t need any. My equipment lists are very small. On 8MM (1999), I had asked for a 60-ft Condor for a big night scene we were going to shoot, and when I arrived, there was an 80-ft Condor. So I said to the rigging gaffer, “Didn’t I order a 60 ?” and he replied : “Yes, but I got an 80 just in case.” I said, “No, never order anything just in case. If I ask for a 60, I want a 60,” to which he replied : “Well, this is a $50 million movie.” I said : “Pretend it’s a $5 million movie, because there might be some expenses at the end that we hadn’t anticipated, and no budget left.” He never worked with me again. [Laughter]

If you have all the equipment in the world, anybody could do it. The challenge is doing it without all the equipment in the world and still making it look good. I don’t order anything just for fun, and that’s probably why I was recommended to Steven Soderbergh for Traffic.

Unlike Traffic, Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), which takes place in a space station, must have required a significant number of lights.

JP : Solaris’s production designer, Philip Messina, with whom I’ve done several movies, called me two months before the shoot and asked me to come and talk to him about designing the lighting into the space station. When I went to his office, he showed me these really modern-looking fixtures as examples of what he was thinking about. I said : “You know, it might work better if we just cut holes on the side of the space station, and I put lights behind them.” Which he agreed to do. As you said, a lot of lights : 400 Nooks, and Phil had some fluorescents, too. But since there were no movie lights inside, Steven—who operated the camera himself—and the actors could move through the space station without any difficulty whatsoever. That was the goal—to give the director full flexibility.

"Solaris"
"Solaris"
Capture d’écran - 20th Century Fox

When we were pre-lighting, Steven said : “I want to shoot Solaris at [a] 2.8 [aperture] because you told me Gordon Willis did that once.” I replied : “That was Spherical, this is Anamorphic. I think we need a little more stop than that.” But he insisted, because Gordon Willis was his hero. So we shot at 2.8, and sometimes the assistant cameraman would ask : “Which eye do you want in focus ?” [Laughter] I had an old-fashioned dimmer board for the Nook lights. When they were on camera, they looked really warm, because they were so far down in the dimmer. But they photographed white, because they were still three stops overexposed.

While we’re on that subject, I wanted to ask about your habit of adjusting the stop during the take. Is that something you still do today ?

JP : Absolutely. The last movie I worked on was Lisa Azuelos’s I Love America, with DP Léo Hinstin in LA, and we adjusted the stop all the time. When the camera follows somebody from outside to inside, or the opposite, you have to open up or close down a stop to maintain the exposure. The key to making the stop change invisible is doing it at the speed that the camera and actors are moving at.

John Alonzo was the world’s best handheld operator, and I used to walk behind him and adjust the shutter to change the stop on the Panaflex camera. But that was just guesswork, and I wouldn’t know if it worked until the next day, when we saw dailies. Now it’s so simple, because there are tools like the [remote] iris control.

To what extent do you use new equipment ?

JP : I don’t use equipment just because it’s new. I wait to make sure that it works and is helpful. I recently did a movie called KIMI with Steven Soderbergh, which we shot on a soundstage in Santa Clarita with LED screens out the windows. I’d never done that before, nor had Steven. He was producing the Oscars at the same time, so he wasn’t around for the prep. I knew that he wanted to be able to look in every direction inside the apartment. So that’s the way I lit it, with SkyPanels on a dimmer board above the LED screens, whose color temperature and intensity I could control with just a dial.

I can’t imagine how we would have done KIMI in the olden days. Steven shoots everything at 4,400 degrees Kelvin, so I would have had to have Daylight and Tungsten lights up there, and alternate between them, which would have been a nightmare. I think LED screens are going to revolutionize the movie business. When I saw KIMI on the big screen, I couldn’t believe it was done on a soundstage and was really impressed with how real it looked. In one scene, the protagonist even interacts through her apartment window with her boyfriend across the street.

On I Love America, we had an important late afternoon scene at the beach. I had planned to use a Tungsten 10K, but I was told we had no place for a generator. So I ordered a Mole-Richardson LED 10K that pulls about 8 Amps and puts out as much light as a 10,000 Watt Tungsten. We ran it on a Putt Putt generator that I put behind a sand mound, and you couldn’t hear the noise at all with the ocean coming in. That LED saved us at the beach, and I wouldn’t have known about it if I hadn’t taught a workshop at AFI about night lighting. Mole-Richardson had provided 10K and 20K LEDs for the class to learn about, and as it turned out, for me to learn about as well.

You’ve worked with AFC members Guillaume Schiffman, David Chizallet, and most recently, Léo Hinstin. Did you collaborate differently with them than with American directors of photography ?

JP : No, it was just the same. Guillaume, David, and Léo are all wonderful collaborators. The Artist (2011) was unlike anything either Guillaume or I had ever done. It was good to be reminded that [the black and white of] silent movies looked different than [that of] film noir. We used a Glimmer Glass filter on the lens to recreate that soft feel.

"The Artist"
"The Artist"
Capture d’écran - Warner Bros. France

I Love America was also a great experience, and I really enjoyed working with Léo. He told me early on that Lisa Azuelos, the director, changes her mind often. Not a surprise—she’s not the only one. On any film, I tell my crew : “There’s only one thing you can count on—change, so think on your feet and don’t get locked into something because it can change.”

Even now, after all these years, every movie is challenging. I enjoy encountering problems I’ve never encountered before. That’s why I continue working. Luckily, it’s not for the money. I don’t do more than a few films a year anymore, which gives me a lot of time with my family. But some people can’t afford that. They have to take every job offered, which could destroy their family life.

As film and television crew members, we’re about to vote on a strike as part of contract negotiations with producers.* What they don’t seem to understand is that some of the things we want in our contract are not to make money. They’re to make our jobs more reasonable. Instead of working 70 or 80 hours a week, we want to work 60.

Saturdays and Sundays used to be double-time days, so we were able to spend some time with our families. But now, they’re just normal days, which means that sometimes your weekend is Tuesday and Wednesday. Your wife or husband is at work, your children are in school, and you’re dead tired from working all those hours. Streaming services make billions of dollars, while we struggle to have a life. It doesn’t seem fair. That’s why I think there’s going to be an overwhelming vote to authorize a strike. Things have to change. They really do.

* “Change That Is Long Overdue” : Why IATSE May Call for a Strike

(Interview conducted in English by Yonca Talu, for the AFC)

The thumbnail image of this article shows Jim Plannette on the set of KIMI - Photo by Peter Iovino.