This article originally appeared in IF Magazine (#147) June-July 2012.
There’s something about Snow White that Hollywood just can’t seem to get enough of: this year, for example, there are two interpretations. First there was Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror, which was colourful and tongue-in-cheek, followed by Snow White and the Huntsman from Universal Pictures, a dark epic in which the stakes are life and death, not just for a pale-skinned princess, but also for an entire kingdom.
At the 2011 Comic-Con, the film’s director Rupert Sanders and producer Joe Roth told the audience that they wanted their adaptation of the fairytale to be a definitive version, on the scale of The Lord of the Rings. In the iconic 1937 Disney version, Snow White is under threat from her wicked stepmother and takes up housekeeping for the seven dwarves; in this adaptation the young heroine (played by Twilight’s Kristen Stewart) wields a sword from the back of a horse and saves herself, rather than waiting for a handsome prince.
Sanders and cinematographer Greig Fraser have worked together on several commercials, charity spots and music videos, but this is their first feature-length collaboration.
“At its core, working together was the same,” says Fraser, who won the prestigious Milli Award from the Australian Cinematographers Society for his work on Jane Campion’s Bright Star. “We bounced ideas off each other and we talked about the way the film should be and we always do that. The only difference is it was over a longer period of time and it involved a lot more money.”
Taking a big-budget gamble on a first-time feature director was a risk for Universal. The studio approved the project in early-2011 after the Brit and a skeleton cast and crew produced a reel that acted as a tonal guide for the look of the finished movie.
And indeed, Snow White and the Huntsmen has a very distinctive look. The magic mirror is a hooded figure made of liquid gold that oozes from the castle wall, the evil queen can dissolve into an unkindness of ravens and the dark creatures that lurk within the forest blend eerily into the trees. According to Fraser, the film’s visual style was not something that was evident in the screenplay.
“A lot of the time you read the script and the writer has infused a very particular visual style into it,” he says. “In this case it wasn’t. This was a case of the director, the DP and the production designer all getting together and designing the way the world looks and feels. The script was good and informative of the narrative, but we then had to go ahead and figure out what these forests looked like, what the castles looked like, what the land looked like.”
The kingdom was fertile and prosperous before it came under the rule of the evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron): “The queen came in and then an evilness spread throughout the soil. Everything dies and the dark forest is born. But this is all subtext not necessarily found in the narrative.”
The dark forest in question was a set built just outside the UK’s Pinewood Studios: the crew traveled to Iceland, Germany, Wales, Sweden and New Zealand to gather location inspiration, but most of the film was shot at Pinewood.
“We could have gone and found the most amazing forest in the world and moved everyone there to shoot for three or four weeks, but because of restrictions we built the forest outside near Pinewood, so it was quite handy,” Fraser says. “We obviously couldn’t control the weather – because it’s England and no-one can control the weather, but we had a field for the exterior forest, so it felt like it was in the real world. It was very ethereal.”
Snow White is a tough woman in the film but there are still dwarves, brought to life by Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Brian Gleeson and Johnny Harris. While none of the actors are overly tall (Gleeson is the tallest at five foot eleven), making them appear realistically and significantly shorter than the rest of the cast required a great deal of camera trickery.
Shots were framed so that the dwarves’ feet were hidden, making it appear they were walking on ground level when they were actually walking two feet below the other actors. On other occasions, in wide shots, shorter stunt doubles were filmed instead, with the faces of the leading men painted in digitally for close ups.
The biggest challenges of the 90-day shoot for Fraser were during the final battle scenes, filmed on a beach called Marloes Sands in Pembrokeshire, Wales. Snow White and the titular Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) have to rally their troops to take on Ravenna’s army in the ultimate showdown.
The fight took a week to film, with the cast and crew following the rhythm of the tide in order to fit in six hours of filming per day. “We only had a few hours a day to film with the tide going in and out and we had to make sure we got onto the beach very quickly, shot very quickly and got off the beach very quickly,” says Fraser.
It didn’t help that the battle also involved about 100 horses, which made packing up and moving along the beach less than ideal. (“There were lots of them and they smelled very bad.”)
Snow White and the Huntsman was shot on Panavision XL 35mm cameras and Panavision 65mm cameras. “We tested all the digital formats and found that we preferred the 35mm anamorphic,” says Fraser. “The 65mm looks amazing. The dimensions are four or five times the size of 35mm and it looks absolutely beautiful.”
Although looking forward to a well-earned rest (Fraser went straight from Snow White to Katherine Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty), the cinematographer has nothing but positive things to say about the experience.
“We had a great director and a fantastic leader in Rupert and that’s a very, very important thing,” he says. “If you’re able to include all the crew and make them feel important, then everyone gets in and gets behind the project.”
Snow White and the Huntsmen was released by Universal in cinemas on June 21.