Prey cinematographer Jeff Cutter on the challenges of shooting a Predator movie [Spoiler Interview]

We really feel the beauty of these landscapes. Did you use a lot of natural light to make this film?

The approach we were talking about was to be as ultra-naturalistic as possible. Not to sound too weird, but to respect nature and the landscapes in which we were allowed to shoot. Instead of trying to over-stylize things or over-complicate things, let this beauty speak for itself. The less we could affect it the less artificial light there would be, I think it’s just a general approach of not putting anything between the audience and the film. If you start to get overly aware of the lighting or things that don’t look realistic, then I think you’re sucked into the movie. In the end, it was really something that was for contrast – here’s the futuristic technology and weaponry of the Predator against the primitive, bare-bones nature of Naru’s character and his journey.

What about night photography? Are torches usually the main source of light?

When we did the night stuff with the torches, there were a few things. For the most part, I definitely tried lighting them with the torches. The two things we did are for some of the night stuff, because we had other night footage where there would be no torches – I really wanted torches in the dark, but the more I thought about it and I was thinking at the end fight and those other sequences where there’s no torch light, there must be some kind of source. At that time, it will obviously be moonlit. I still wanted to hint at that, but I didn’t want great beams of blue moonlight crashing through the trees.

I tried to put in very soft, minimally underexposed amounts of blue, and then we always had atmosphere in all of our exteriors whenever we could. I was just trying to get this smoke to be lightly lit in the background so there was a bit of contrast between the heat and the moonlight. And then also, when you got to the strict moonlight scenes, you’re not like, “Oh, where is this all of a sudden coming from?”

This goes back to what you were saying earlier about being a naturalist, but with the night you can only be so naturalistic without adding too much artifice, right?

Yes, it’s funny. I think you’ll talk to a lot of cinematographers, and it’s that struggle. Night can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, but yeah, as naturalistic as all the outdoor stuff of the day is and can be because you can embrace daylight and you can really work with that. You are starting from scratch when it comes to night work. So yes, you end up with softboxes and Condors. You think back to “Well, what’s the motivation and why is everything supposed to be naturalistic and what are you trying to do?”

With digital and film, how have you found the two compare when trying to capture both naturalistic beauty and nighttime footage?

I think you can do the same. You could have done the same thing on film, you can rate film, and maybe not as much as some of these sensors that can go up to 2500 and dig into that, but you could take your average stock of 500, you could push it to a stop so you can shoot at 1000 ISO. You could have done the same thing, but I think digitally it allows you to do it and it allows you to not be afraid to do it. I think that’s always what’s held me back is the fear that “Oh, this isn’t going to read”, you know what I mean?

Digital, yes, you can see it immediately. I think it lets you say “I don’t need a backlight here” or “All I need is to let me light up the smoke in the background instead of backlight – illuminate everything and it will give me the depth that I need.” Digital I think allows you to do that because what you see is what you get, and you can really, really push things and push how far you can go. You will find these beautiful images much faster than you could on film.

For me, it was always the fear of knowing if I was underexposing and or if there was too much black in the frame? Now you are looking at an image. Some of my favorite images of the people with the torches, I think you might have feared before on film, “Well, all you see is that tiny bit.” Any number of things. In the end, you can very quickly sign something beautiful and be like, “That’s awesome, let’s shoot it.”

When digital cameras started to dominate movies, there were still a lot of problems to solve, but do you remember when you first thought, “This is finally working perfectly”?

I remember shooting a movie in 2011. It was just when the ALEXA had just come out and it was the first time I was like “Oh wow, those are really beautiful pictures” that didn’t lack that cinematic quality of earlier Sony cameras. I forget what came out before that, maybe the RED came out.

With that yellow tint?

Yeah. For me, this was the first iteration of the ALEXA where I was like, “Oh.” That said, when I put this digital negative to color, it was like, “Oh.” It didn’t quite hold up too, because it was only 2K at the time, I think. It didn’t hold either. Still, it was amazing, but I think it probably wasn’t for a few years that ALEXA was finally able to do raw 2.8K and all. And then it was like, “Okay, it’s kinda there.” Then as soon as – basically when Roger Deakins said, ‘Okay, I’m shooting everything on the ALEXA’, I said, ‘Well, if it’s good enough for Roger, it’s good enough for everything the world.”