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When the Fungus Catches the Light: DP Karim Hussain on Infinity Pool

May 27, 2023

Infinity Pool

With Antiviral, Possessor and Infinity Pool, filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg has expeditiously carved out a distinct, experimental aesthetic for his work. However, he has followed in the footsteps of his legendary father David in one respect—forging a lasting alliance with his cinematographer. All but three of the elder Cronenberg’s 20 features films were shot by either Mark Irwin or Peter Suschitzky. All of Brandon’s efforts thus far bear the name of Canadian DP Karim Hussain.
Hussain begin writing, directing and shooting low budget genre films while still a teenager, before eventually opting to focus solely on the latter of those roles. He met Brandon Cronenberg during prep for Antiviral, which shared producers with the Hussain-lensed Hobo with a Shotgun. They became fast friends, building a unique working relationship that includes extensive preproduction shotlisting of the entire film and postproduction pickups captured in Cronenberg’s attic or Hussain’s living room.
Hussain recently spoke to Filmmaker about their latest collaboration, Infinity Pool, which finds a vacationing writer (Alexander Skarsgård) discovering his fatal car accident can be atoned for through the creation of a doppelganger that will suffer the punishment in his stead.
Filmmaker: Your reps said you’re in the middle of recording commentary tracks right now. What are you working on?
Hussain: We’re doing releases for both Possessor and Infinity Pool. They haven’t been announced yet so I can’t say who is putting them out, but they’re pretty fancy UHD versions with a lot of extras. The R-rated cut of Infinity Pool recently came out on Blu-ray in the United States, and the unrated version will be coming out in UHD.
Filmmaker: I still buy a lot of Blu-rays. Probably too many. Do you still collect physical media?
Hussain: Absolutely. I’m a huge Blu-ray collector. I’m about 5,000 Blu-rays strong. To be able to have these movies—in pristine condition—that might have been difficult to find as a kid or were completely verboten and to be able to project them in my house, that’s the dream. In fact, the projector above me right now in my living room is the projector we used to re-photograph footage in Infinity Pool [for the “double” creation scene as well as a hallucinatory orgy]. We did all of that right here in this living room.
Filmmaker: Since we’re taking about resolution, you shot Infinity Pool on the Alexa Mini at 2K ProRes.
Hussain: Yes, we shot it at 2K ProRes 4444 at 1280 ISO. We did a lot of tests prior to shooting Possessor to find an image that, when blown up to 4K, would look the most like film and have that softness naturally right out of the gate. We don’t like to overly post-process things because I think you see it. It feels like a layer added on top of the image. It doesn’t feel naturally ingrained in the footage. And something very important to remember in terms of the whole idea of future proofing is that the movies are still delivered in 4K. Whether you shoot it at 2K or 12K, you’re still providing a 4K deliverable.
Filmmaker: So, essentially, shooting at 2K and delivering in 4K is the same to you as when, early in your career, you would shoot something on 16mm and then blow it up to 35mm.
Hussain: One hundred percent. All these tests that we initially did for Possessor were based on seeing what the footage would look like blown up to 4K on a 4K DCP. Basically, the 2K is a way to soften the image as well as using vintage lenses. On Infinity Pool, we used Canon K35s and a zoom lens nicknamed Lucky Pierre, which is an original Angenieux 25-to-250 zoom from 1970. They are pretty soft lenses to begin with; mixed with the 2K blown up to 4K afterwards, we fool a lot of pretty experienced filmmakers into thinking that Infinity Pool was shot on film.
Filmmaker: Were there limitations in the DI because you didn’t capture in RAW or shoot at a higher resolution? 
Hussain: 2K Log C has plenty of information in it. It’s got absolutely a ton of latitude. This whole idea that you have to shoot 4K, 8K or 12K is just Netflix-fueled propaganda as far as I’m concerned. [laughs] Unless you’re doing a very specific effects shot where you really have to zoom deep into the shot, I don’t see why you need all that resolution. I don’t want to count the nose hairs of every performer and the pores on every performer’s face. I know a lot of studios, when you’re shooting something that’s going to have a lot of effects added in post, insist you shoot RAW. But for us, shooting 2K ProRes was the best technique with the Alexa Mini to get the result we wanted.
Filmmaker: Do you try to get pretty close to what you want while on set?
Hussain: I believe in always trying to do that. With Jim Fleming, our colorist, we did the DI at Company 3 in Toronto. I’ve done so many movies with Jim and he knows how I work. The DI is more about balancing stuff between different lenses, because all of these vintage lenses have different coatings on them, so the color rendition is different. There’s no real radical differences or changes done because most of the work is really done on set. I come from film—photochemical film, not shooting on film and then finishing with a DI. [With a photochemical film finish] you had brighter/darker and red/blue/green. That was about it. So, I’m used to getting things as close as I can on set. One of the tools I used to do that on Infinity Pool, especially for balancing exposure, was the [motorized variable ND filter] the Cinefade. I had it all the time on both cameras. A lot of the time our B camera was on our Angenieux zoom. They say that the minimum [stop] of Lucky Pierre is 3.2, but it’s really closer to 4 depending on where you’re at on the barrel. Then we’re shooting wide open on the K35s, which are anywhere between 1.3 to 1.5. I wanted to be wide open on all the lenses, because the language of Infinity Pool is a shallow depth of field.
Filmmaker: That’s almost a three-stop difference between where you’re shooting the primes and the zoom.
Hussain: Yeah, exactly. I always light for the slowest lens, then I balance the exposure of [the camera using the faster lenses] using the Cinefade.
Filmmaker: One of the effects you can get with the Cinefade is to shift the depth of field in the middle of a shot, with the Cinefade compensating to keep the light levels the same as you change the iris. You use that technique in an interesting way in a shot with Alexander Skarsgård’s character and his wife [played by Cleopatra Coleman] lying in bed at the resort. The static shot starts with both of them sharp, but then the depth of field narrows and only he is in focus.
Hussain: That’s the only sort of “Cinefade effect” like that we did in this movie. I’ve done them in a bunch of other movies, but in Infinity Pool, that’s the only one. That one needed a lot of massaging in the grade because we were going from wide open on that K35 lens to, like, a 16. It was a really radical shift. There was some vignetting on the corners of the frame. Because the change is so slow you don’t necessarily see it explicitly, but you do feel it. So, there was a lot of massaging with Jim Fleming in the color grade just for those vignettes.
The “Cinefade effect” is actually something we originally wanted to do on Possessor, even though we weren’t aware of the Cinefade yet. Whenever Andrea Riseborough would come out from being in the machine and controlling someone, we wanted to have that effect of the background starting blurred and then going into focus while her face stayed at the same focal plane and the lighting wasn’t affected. We tried to do it rudimentarily by synchronizing the iris of the camera to a dimmer board and you can imagine how consistent and easy that was. [laughs] After one day of camera tests, we said, “This is just not going to work.” So, we threw the idea out the window, but then the Cinefade came along, and it was like, “That’s exactly the effect we wanted to do!”
Filmmaker: We’re at a moment now where cinematographers aren’t as beholden to the traditional theatrical aspect ratios. Infinity Pool is 1.78, which is the aspect ratio of most televisions. There’s not a huge different between that and the more traditional movie aspect ratio of 1.85. So, why 1.78?
Hussain: The reality is that most people are going to watch this on television or on a computer screen and I never liked those little 1.85 mattes at the top and bottom of the screen. It’s like, why are we even doing this? The aspect ratio difference, while it exists, is very minimal. So, if we’re not going to do a scope aspect ratio, why not just do it at 1.78 simply to use the entire frame and not have these slightly useless mattes the minute it hits [home viewing].
Filmmaker: Tell me about the set of Canon K35s you used for Infinity Pool.
Hussain: They were TLS rehoused K35s. We got them in Budapest, Hungary, where the movie was shot along with Croatia. We had pretty much your standard K35 focal lengths. We had the 18, 24, 35, 55 and the 85. We also had a rehoused Canon FD 135mm that matched pretty well to the look of the K35s. Then of course we had Lucky Pierre, the vintage Angenieux zoom. For a couple shots we used the Laowa 12mm, which was the widest lens we had. It’s a zero distortion lens—well, they call it zero distortion, but there’s really no such thing as a zero distortion 12mm—but it keeps the lines a bit straighter [than other lenses of similar focal lengths]. I like those lenses a lot. Laowa is doing really interesting things at a very competitive price point.
Filmmaker: Do you own Lucky Pierre? 
Hussain: I do own Lucky Pierre. Lucky Pierre was a weird eBay purchase. I wanted to get a vintage Zoom to match up with all these vintage primes I was using. I believe in using zooms. I think they can be a wonderful storytelling tool. And, practically, it’s very useful to be able to have B camera go and pick off things. Lucky Pierre spent a lot of time in Bollywood, and, during his Bollywood stint, he got fungus in his rear element. When I purchased it on eBay there was a very specific note that said, “no fungus.” Then when the lens arrived I discovered Lucky Pierre actually had a lot of fungus in his rear element. [laughs] But it was a really interesting fungus. It created a sort of natural diffusion. You didn’t need to add [additional] diffusion. I tried putting diffusion on Lucky Pierre in a movie once and I’ll never do it again.
Filmmaker: Wait…you kept the fungus? 
Hussain: Oh yeah. I love the fungus. Sometimes it catches the light in a really interesting way. It just adds an absolutely unique flavor to Lucky Pierre. There are a lot of original Angenieux 25 to 250 zooms floating around out there still, but none of them can give you what Lucky Pierre can.
Filmmaker: Give me an example of a shot from Infinity Pool that typifies the Lucky Pierre look.
Hussain: There’s a couple of shots where you get that look. There’s a shot on the beach of Cleopatra Coleman with the water behind her. The way the water feels, that’s all Lucky Pierre. A lot of the closeups on Mia [Goth] are on Lucky Pierre. Any sort of long lens closeup, if it’s not at night, is usually on Lucky Pierre. It just gives a very strange, voyeuristic vibe, particularly when it’s on the 250mm [end of the barrel]. The bokeh has a very odd feeling to it.
Filmmaker: Speaking of unique bokeh, there’s an insert during that beach scene of a buffalo sausage cooking in a pan where the bokeh of the grease spattering is unlike anything I’ve seen before.
Hussain: There’s a fun story about that. That’s done on another lens I own, which is a 90mm Makro-Kilar from the 1960s. I bought it off a film school self in the early 90s. The technician who was working in the film school cage was like, “No one ever uses this lens. How about $120?” And I’m still using it today. It’s a crazy lens and the bokeh is pretty unique. It was Arri Standard [mount] when I bought it, so I bought an adapter from Arri Standard to PL. That lens expands as you change focus, so it’s longer when you’re at minimum [and contracts] when you go to infinity. It has so many elements that almost accordion out when you change the focus. Those inserts were actually done in my kitchen. Our production designer Zosia Mackenzie, who’s wonderful and brilliant, was cooking the sausages while we were setting up the camera. The fat was flying out from the sausages and Zosia jumped back and knocked over my Berkey water filter and the water dripped down onto my neighbor below us, who is also a cinematographer. He’s the DP of the movie BlackBerry and had also worked with Zosia before. One of the fun things about living in a house where two DPs live is we can help each other. My old CRT TV was used for all of the filmed-off-of-TV inserts for BlackBerry. 
Filmmaker: How did you get those early aerial shots when you’re introducing the resort, where the camera spins through the air as it glides? I’m assuming they were done with a drone.
Hussain: Those are actually not a drone. We did those with a 62-foot MovieBird telescopic crane, all shot on Lucky Pierre. There’s a funny story about those shots. Hungary is an interesting place to shoot in —Budapest specifically—because it really is the law of who has the most money. We had reserved a 360-degree Matrix stabilized remote head a couple of months in advance. Just as we were about to go into camera tests, [the rental house] was like, “There’s just one thing…” There was a Marvel TV show shooting in town and [the rental house] was like, “[The Marvel show] wants to hang onto it.” So, they gave us some non-stabilized remote head concoction, almost like a cheap HotHead from like the 90s. It was really rudimentary and it wasn’t stabilized, but we made it work. 
Those shots were all done with the Cinefade as well, so it has a bit of a weird vibe to it. We had to stop down pretty deep on the Cinefade because it was a really bright day. So, there was a little bit of a vignette in the corners, but we liked it. It added a patina to the shots and made it feel a little bit less perfect, which worked because we wanted the resort to feel very sinister and odd. One of the things about those rotating shots that feels strange is that on the MovieBird we were constantly arming out while at the same time we were zooming wide on Lucky Pierre to maintain more or less the same frame while the camera is spinning.
Filmmaker: Where did you shoot the scenes where the doppelgangers are executed in front of their “twins”?
Hussain: That was in Croatia. It was a hangar that was used in World War II, apparently to hide Nazi boats or so I was told. It had this really amazing wooden structure and ceiling. Zosia went in and put the sand in and retooled everything. We just lit it with Par cans overhead and shot everything at 4,000 Kelvin, just to give the Par cans a little bit of a warm vibe.
Filmmaker: You’re using older lenses and lower resolution to try to get a specific look. Did that extend to lighting as well? Were you using more units like Par cans rather than LEDs?
Hussain: It was a mixture. We had 18K Arrimaxes. There were a lot of [Astera] Titan tubes. For some of the night exteriors, we would only light them with Titans tubes. We used a lot of SkyPanels. We used them for the red space [where Skarsgård first meets his double], which was shot in an abandoned nuclear power plant in Budapest that it turns out everybody shoots in. They seduced us to shoot in Budapest by showing us this amazing location. We were like, “Has this been used?” And they said, “Just by a couple people.” Apparently, it’s in every fucking movie that’s shot in Budapest! [laughs] So, we had to find a way to make it look different and went with monochrome red. That was all done with the SkyPanels set to Storaro Red.
Filmmaker: At the beginning of the interview you mentioned reshooting footage off of your living room projector set up, so let’s circle back to how you used that for the “doubling” scene effects. What kind of screen do you have?
Hussain: I have an Elunevision screen, but the most important thing about any screen is that it’s a 1.0 matte white screen and not a silver screen, because that way you won’t get a hotspot on it. My projector is an Epson 5050UB, which is sort of like the poor person’s JVC—very similar to the look of a JVC at a fraction of the price. So, what we did was we projected the footage [we shot during principal photography] onto the screen quite small and put a long lens onto the camera. In this case, we used a 58mm Helios 44. You have to shoot wide open on the Helios because if you stop down it starts to look just like a regular lens. I had a hand-tunable variable ND, just to keep the lens always wide open. Then what Brandon does is hold a split field diopter with a loop of dichroic film taped around it in front of the lens and shine light through it [as we re-photograph the original footage projected onto the screen]. He is quite an amazing puppeteer of color and depth of field in that manner. For the light, we just used a cheap version of a Lume Cube.
Filmmaker: Is dichroic film something that’s normally even a film tool? Isn’t it used on like windows in office buildings? 
Hussain: Yeah, it’s a film that they put on windows so that, depending on where you walk, you’ll see the colors change. It’s sort of like a live effect. We used it all throughout Infinity Pool. We even glazed some windows with it. Brandon went on a trip to Australia and on one of the ferry boats he saw these windows with dichroic film that would change color as you walked by them. Many times we’re inspired just by regular life. The infinity rooms [used for shots during the doubling transformation], which are these huge mirror box rooms, were inspired by art galleries.
Filmmaker: What are some of the other elements besides that projection re-recording that you used in the transformation montage?
Hussain: We have stop motion done by Lee Hardcastle and Dan Martin. We did some cloud tank stuff with a Laowa Macro Probe lens. We also used this weird glass thing called a Nova Scope. Depending on where you shine light on the exterior of the Nova Scope, different fractals and color patterns will appear on it. For that shot of [Alexander Skarsgård] in the infinity room with all the reflections of him, that’s something we built. To shoot in an infinity room you have to shoot through a double-sided mirror. That’s done on a Laowa 12mm with the camera down low and the light coming from below. Because you’re shooting through a double-sided mirror, which cuts a substantial amount of stops, the light from the bottom has to be quite bright, but also we can’t burn Alex’s feet. That’s where LEDs are particularly great. I think we just had an S60 underneath him at one hundred percent.
Filmmaker: There’s another infinity room mirror effect during that sequence where a woman is dancing and there’s these circular rigs of LED tubes spinning around her.
Hussain: We built a very large sort of rotating wheel out of metal for that with Titan tubes ratcheted to the spokes. And because they’re Titan tubes, we could change the colors on them constantly. A lot of that footage was then rephotographed in my living room with Brandon holding the split field diopter and the dichroic films, though sometimes we just used the diopter if we wanted to maintain the color that we had photographed on set.
Filmmaker: I read an interview from very early in your career—when you were still writing and directing features in addition to shooting them—and you talked about the influence of Mario Bava. You can see that a bit in the color of Infinity Pool.
Hussain: Bava is a huge influence and continues to be an influence today. Certainly a huge influence on the movies I’ve made with Brandon is the unfinished Henri-Georges Clouzot movie Inferno. The tests that they did for that movie have been a huge influence on us in terms of saying, “We always have to push the norms and keep pushing them further. Don’t just use what people expect you to use.” It’s sort of like being a musician. We want to make our own sounds and not just use the presets on the synthesizer.

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