Working on a film like Everything Everywhere All At Once isn’t an easy task. It’s an ambitious movie, and one that consistently changes its visual scope and scale with every universe it explores. And for cinematographer Larkin Seiple, one has to approach it slowly to fully unravel all of its layers:
“I remember reading the script for the first time and being daunted by it. I didn’t even process how layered and detailed it ultimately was. The Daniels always want to tell a big-hearted story, but through a lens of humor and absurdity. So my job is to try to find a way to create the balance between keeping it funny and light, but also compelling and touching. It’s a challenge to maintain that visual balance throughout the different universes, so my approach was to slowly start figuring out the big universes, the ones that we’re going to live in and really get to know, and focusing on how to separate those and make those stand out on their own, and then, slowly, we get to have fun with the smaller universes.”
Seiple has previously collaborated with the Daniels (Daniel Scheinert & Daniel Kwan) on Swiss Army Man, and on several music videos with them. This time around, the most integral part of their collaboration was figuring out to craft the scenes as they are playing the characters of the film before shooting:
“Every time we’d go on location, and block it out. And you know, they would play Evelyn, Waymond, I would play Jobu, our production designers would both play other characters and we would just dance it out. The Daniels also like to use sound effects to describe shots, so they’ll use a certain sound for a whip pan, or for a snap zoom. It’s very lyrical, and it’s very playful. I think they were really confident of how they were going to do it and why they wanted to do it, compared to when we made Swiss Army Man.”
The cinematographer also revealed that the Daniels allowed him to have fun with the smaller universes of the movie:
“In the smaller areas, they would let me have fun with and pitch ideas. They obviously had the final call and they had definitely big influences on how everything should look like. But they also want to see what the collaborators see in the script that they don’t see and would like to bring in. For example, in the Racaccoonie universe, we stumbled upon late ’90s, Paul Thomas Anderson. That became an influence, even though that wasn’t directly in their head. And then there are, of course, smaller details. They wanted to reference 2001: A Space Odyssey for the monkey universe. Initially, we were referencing that film very strictly. And then we wondered if it would be less perfect than the original film because it’s a very different look. And so we ended up using much older lenses and making it funkier now. The Daniels are wonderful collaborators, and they also like everyone’s ideas. If you have an idea for blocking or a funny insert, or even a different line, sometimes they’re all game. They like to believe that it takes a village to make something.”
One of the most vibrant aspects of Everything Everywhere All At Once is how it plays with aspect ratios throughout its different universes and action sequences. And one of the most impressive aspects of the movie is how they weave different aspect ratios naturally, especially when seen in IMAX. In fact, the conversation between two rocks near the end of the movie was initially planned to be shot on IMAX 15/70mm film. However, due to restrictions brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic, among other factors, it wasn’t made possible:
“Initially, we had wanted to shoot the rock universe in IMAX film. We did that more because we thought it was really funny and absurd to shoot an actual IMAX sequence for this film, let alone it just being two rocks. Normally, you would shoot something on IMAX for an action sequence, like in The Dark Knight or Avatar. But we were like, “No. We’ll just shoot a wide shot of two rocks.”
However, time and money became an issue, and we ended up shooting it during COVID, in the middle of a desert with a crew of six or seven people. So the idea of hauling an IMAX camera out there and shooting that in five hours became impossible. It was also 115 degrees in the desert and the idea of trying to like work with that equipment was terrifying. But we had always planned on the theatrical concept of it with the aspect ratio changes.
The first time it actually changes aspect ratios is in the elevator. And it’s framed by the elevator doors, which is something I think we just stumbled upon while we were shooting it. We knew we always wanted the flashbacks to be presented in 4:3 to feel like a memory and not like a perfect image. But then we’re in the elevator and we’re like “Oh, what if the doors just open up and it just perfectly frames it.” And then the first real fun one is when Waymond eats the chapstick and becomes kung fu Waymond. And then the aspect ratio slowly shifts from 16:9 to 2:35:1 to let you know that you’re in the action universe. It’s supposed to be subtle, and you’re just supposed to feel it as opposed to seeing it. If I had known we were going to be in more IMAX cinemas, I would have opted to do more IMAX work easily, and we would have pushed to find a way to do more IMAX. At the time, we were just happy to get it done.”
All of the aspect ratio changes were thought of in advance by the Daniels:
“We worked all of the in-camera aspect ratio changes in advance. Like the very first one of Waymond, when the ceiling starts to close in and goes to 2:35:1, we knew that was going to happen. So we wanted to start on his face and do this dramatic pullback, as the world compresses and you realize something is different. The big thing in prep was talking about like how the aspect ratios were going to be cut between all these universes that are 4:3, 2,35:1, or 16:9. Is that going to be disorienting? But the Daniels wanted that. They wanted you to feel like you’re seeing these different versions and that it’s not smooth. Their favorite part is actually towards the end when there are like 200 shots of Michelle Yeoh’s face, but her face stays centered the whole time, even though the aspect ratios are dramatically changing. And it’s like this unifying moment where even though all the worlds are different, it’s still the same Evelyn. So we did talk about it in advance. In general, surprisingly, a lot of this was thought out or lived in the Daniels’ heads for years.”
On shooting the Wong Kar-wai-inspired sequence, one of the trickier aspects of getting it done was finding the right location:
“It was tricky because we had to find that location based around it. We shot in the LA Hollywood Theater. So, that theater is Evelyn’s action star universe. When she walks in, all the photographs are taken, and she meets Waymond on the stairs. The back alley was the only location we could do the scene. We had to figure out how to contrast that with how elegant she was previously. And so we talked with our production designer, and we just hung practicals and staged neon signs. There was actually another production that was parked across the street from us, that you can see. But we opted to not really do as much lighting and let it be natural. The big thing with that was basically picking the color of the neons and letting that do a lot of the work. And then we would dim them down so that there’s just a touch of green on their face. And then we would turn on some warmer gold and practicals. We also use some softer and more elegant glass that would be different than the rest of the film. That would mean when they open wide up, there’s something nostalgic to them. There’s just a sense of whimsy or dreamlike quality to them that kind of gives those scenes more of a touch of tenderness.”
On shooting the film’s numerous action sequences, Seiple explained that they wanted the aesthetic to change throughout the movie:
“We wanted the aesthetic and feeling to change between the scenes. We go from brightly lit to a dark hallway to a scene lit only by desk lamps to a stairwell lit by fluorescence. For the action, we wanted to play with the different styles of it. The fanny pack one is more like a classic Kung Fu Hustle-style meets Jackie Chan. It’s playful, loud, and very wide. You see all the action. But the Jobu one is kind of a reflection of her character and we’re going for more Looney Tunes.
It’s more of these very specific shots. It’s less about coverage and making it kinetic, it’s about her controlling everything. So for all of the photography on that one, there’s not actually a lot of camera movement. We let her dictate the action so the camera moves are either pushing away from her or supplementing what she does. We’re having a lot of fun with visual effects. She’s changing costumes and turning people into wrestlers or into salsa dancers. There are a couple of different things for that one.
We chose to step back and let the blocking do the work as opposed to getting really fancy with the camera moves but then you have scenes like the sign spinner fight where the camera is much more dynamic and moving with Michelle through the space and that one we wanted to be connected with her and fluid to make it seem graceful even though she’s just spinning a police shield. As you can see, no fight is ever designed to be the same.”
Everything Everywhere All At Once is now available to rent or buy on video on demand and on physical media.