"Frantically, between takes, we were trying to figure out what was
wrong," Beebe recalls. Condensation? No. Did someone smudge the lens?
Nope. It turns out that the Collateral crew fell victim to HD camera
design. "We pulled the lens off [and checked it]. We changed the lens.
We finally went through the checklist on the actual camera and found
that a dial had been knocked to the next setting, introducing a
low-contrast filter. I’m not used to having filter dials on cameras.
It’s a small, silly thing, but it can completely ruin a sequence."
Dion Beebe is not just a talented director of photography; he’s a
chameleon. He manipulates the filmed image with great creative
dexterity, mastering everything from the unhappy slice-of-life
aesthetic of director John Curran’s Praise to the very theatrical
lighting schemes and razzle-dazzle demanded by Chicago, which earned
him an Oscar nomination. Last year, he brought an unnerving
impressionistic style to director Jane Campion’s In the Cut, taking
full advantage of shift-and-tilt lens effects and draping the film’s
urban imagery in unusual colors – all in pursuit of revealing more
details about the mindset of the Meg Ryan character, Frannie. ("He has
a narrative brain," mused Campion in a magazine article at the time.)
What’s more, Beebe has achieved these many looks without the advantage
of digital intermediates, which remained uncharted territory for him.
Despite his obviously high comfort level with celluloid, the idea of
digitally lensing the new Michael Mann film – an urban thriller with Tom
Cruise playing an assassin who forces cabbie Jamie Foxx to shuttle him
around a darkened city over the course of one long Los Angeles night -
didn’t actually intimidate him. It just kept him on his toes.
On an HD shoot, Beebe quickly learned, the devil’s in the details – like
the sudden appearance of filter dials on your camera. "With a film
camera, you load the film and you go, and you know that if you’re
running six cameras, you’ve got a standardized system in place so
you’re getting the same results," he explains. "But if you’re running
four HD cameras, you’d better step through each, making sure that the
gain setting is the same, that the matrix settings are all the same-
that there aren’t color shifts within them. You need to switch between
them on the HD monitors and make sure they’re all matching up. There’s
none of this just-pick-it-up-and-roll unless you’ve pre-set everything
beforehand. It’s all very doable, but there’s a whole new set of things
you’ve got to factor in."
Beebe acknowledges that Collateral has spurred "a lot of discussion"
about the continued viability and relevance of the film medium,
concerns that he dismisses as largely irrelevant to the job at hand,
which is storytelling. In the end, he says, both film and HD formats
are just tools used in service of a narrative. The trick is to get out
of the way of technology, rather than stay in thrall to it. "There can
be information overload when you step into the digital domain and the
HD world, in terms of compression and bits and storage- these elements
that, in the end, have nothing to do with what you’re trying to do in
telling the story," he says. "My feeling is that technology will take
care of itself. You will have the expertise around you to solve the
technical challenges you’re going to meet. I’ve always felt happy to
just step over the technology and find a way of creating the image."
Ready, Set, Shoot!
Any DP making a first move into digital cinematography might expect to
have time to study the new format, running tests and experimenting with
different approaches, before actually lighting a scene and rolling
tape. But Beebe landed on Collateral with no ramp-up time. Two weeks of
production had already been completed with cinematographer Paul Cameron
(Swordfish, Man on Fire), whom Beebe was hired to replace. So he hit
the ground running, calmly assessing how Mann’s decision to shoot
digital would complement the story he was trying to tell.
"Certainly when you look at it on screen, the format is different from
film," Beebe notes. "It’s a different result. Because you’re seeing a
night world that is richly illuminated, with an enormous amount of
depth, it’s slightly unsettling. It feels almost otherworldly, and it’s
somehow a little bit alienating. I think that works so well with the
storyline and with the journey of these two characters in this cab,
because it becomes this alien landscape. You’re left with a different
impression, certainly, than if it were shot on film."
The decision to switch between the Grass Valley Viper camera, Sony’s
HDW-F900 camcorder and 35mm film throughout the shoot had more to do
with practical issues than with aesthetics. For example, Beebe says the
production favored the F900s, with their onboard recording, when the
camera needed to be very portable- scenes shot inside the cab, for
instance- and film cameras were used when action scenes needed to be
overcranked, one area where digital cinematography still lags far
behind the curve. The Viper’s main disadvantage was its umbilical-cord
connection to the hefty HDCAM-SR decks that were used to record the
data. ( Sony has since introduced the portable SRW-1, a streamlined
approach to image capture that would have been welcome on Collateral.)
But that inconvenience was outweighed by the Viper’s ability to capture
a widescreen image across the camera’s full vertical resolution, rather
than simply masking the top and bottom of the frame to the desired
aspect ratio. In the end, Beebe says, the Vipers "did the bulk of the
"Michael had a digital projector set up at his production office where
test prints were done. When we had to, we would do film-outs. But the
projector had been set up to closely resemble the look of the film-out.
I remember looking at my first set of digital projections, and then the
same footage being projected on film. I was really surprised how
closely aligned the two of them were. That transition to film was so
good- you expect a certain amount of image alteration or loss with any
transfer from one medium to another, but I was very impressed with how
it filmed out."
If Mann’s decision to shoot HD had a direct bearing on the narrative,
so did his choice of L.A.-area locations, which he documented
thoroughly in a portfolio of digital stills that he handed over to
Beebe. "One of the great things about Michael is he’s very well
prepared," Beebe says. "He had compiled a visual storyboard of the film
with digital stills and stand-ins, walking through the actual locations
and photographing them with a digital still camera. He had
previsualized the film on location. I was able to use a lot of that
information, plus a lot of weekends, to catch up and stay a week ahead
of the game." Beebe did advance scouting work before the production
actually showed up at a given location, counting on Mann’s photography
to give him insight into exactly why a particular place was selected.
Dimming the Digital Glare
When it came time to actually light and shoot a location, Beebe relied
on his understanding of the latitude of different film stocks to give
him ideas of how to cope with the different responses of the digital
cameras. "You’re working in a new realm of sensitivity," he says.
"These cameras have an enormous range at the very low end of the
sensitivity curve. At the bottom end of the curve, where film drops off
or picks up a lot of grain, these cameras sort of kick in."
So Beebe found that he couldn’t light the film in a conventional way.
About 80 percent of Collateral was shot on location after dark, which
meant he was usually dealing with a certain degree of existing
lighting. The aesthetic strategy became to push the digital cameras as
far as they would go in terms of revealing details that would be hidden
back in the darkness shrouding any film-based shoot. "Lighting in that
environment required a lot of subtlety," he recalls. "It was about
supplementing existing lighting and being as transparent with it as
"You can walk into a situation with a lot less impact than you would
have shooting film. Right now, you’re still carrying a lot of weight
with you, but it’s going to become more streamlined. You will have this
lightweight HD camera with an on-board recorder and a small HD monitor
as a reference, and you’ll be a little lighter on your feet. Maybe it
will become like film, where you no longer have to run it through the
big HD screens but reference it on smaller monitors and build up the
same confidence we have in negative. Right now it’s not a quick fix.
But HD is an incredible format, and it’s here to stay- and I feel the
same way about film."
In practical terms, what that meant was that Beebe ended up ditching a
lot of the film’s existing lighting package after he came on board.
Helium balloons, for instance, became troublesome because the cameras
no longer read their ubiquitous glow as diffuse, non-directional
lighting. "On HD, every time we sent a balloon up, I could really feel
the direction of it," Beebe says, recounting his decision to eventually
stop using them altogether. Similarly, the crew stopped pulling heavy
lighting gear like 18Ks or 12K Pars off the truck. "They were too
strong. You pull them up, and by the time you wire them back and add
layers of diffusion, you may as well have used a 4K Par instead of an
Instead, a key lighting tool became the Kino Flo Image 80, a bank of
eight four-foot tube lights that’s typically used for soft lighting on
film sets. For HD, Beebe scaled them way back, using a neutral density
gel to drop the light two stops, then adding several layers of bleached
muslin and finally a layer of bobbinette. On location, four of these
rigged Image 80s, heavily diffused and knocked back, could be placed
around the camera as low-level fill lights to supplement the existing
lighting at a given location. Some scenes, including those that
required 360-degree visibility, had to be lit with bigger and higher
lighting units, but mostly the shoot relied on copious fill lights as
well as authentic sodium vapor and mercury vapor lighting units- the
stuff you’d actually find lighting a city street at night. Those false
streetlights could be placed close to the action or used to fill in
Finally, the Vipers required a little more TLC to keep the brightest
parts of the image from blasting out. "They just couldn’t hold the
highlights as well as the F900s, which was a little bit of a problem,"
he says. "Your on-set scenic artist, the on-set painter, becomes
another key player. If there was a light fitting in the shot, we’d have
to paint the tubes in order to bring it down to an acceptable range.
Obviously, streetlights were just streetlights, but a lot of other
highlights we’d be dulling down, making those adjustments so that we
wouldn’t get those distracting burn-outs.
"It was quite a different package than one would traditionally use on a
night exterior. You’d have the Muscos out, maybe you’d line a street
with 18Ks, and it would be a very big set-up. But we were doing night
streets with nothing but supplemental lighting and getting some
amazing, exciting results out of it."
Living On Video
Working in HD introduces a few new wrinkles to the production
environment, too. For one thing, the video screens on an HD shoot
display crisp, pristine and accurate images that trump the cameras’
tiny viewfinders. "You stop looking through the camera," Beebe says.
"You’ll stand back and look at the scene, at the lighting, but you’re
stepping to the monitor to assess the final result- even to the point
that the focus pullers stand behind the monitors because of the
sharpness of the image. It becomes a more accurate way of ensuring
That’s not to say the system was trouble-free. "The viewing system was
not great," Beebe admits, explaining that removing distortion from the
widescreen image, which was unacceptable to the director, introduced a
lag in live playback, which was an issue for the people actually
running the camera. And the awkward ergonomics of the cameras
themselves meant camera operator Gary Jay had his work cut out for him.
"With the Vipers, all the weight is up front because there’s no
recording deck. They’re difficult to operate handheld," Beebe says. "So
they were busy building counterweights off the back and finding things
to hold onto on the front of the camera. They were holding onto the
matte box, and more than once that came tumbling off during a shoot.
There were a lot of things that, normally, you wouldn’t tolerate. But
this was a technology that was giving us something we were not going to
get anywhere else.
"I think in the end it was well worth it. In some ways, it was just the
right application of this technology- using this unique feature, this
incredible sensitivity, in a film that is set completely at night on
the streets of L.A. "
You Da Mann!
So what was it like working for a notorious perfectionist? "You do take
on a whole new appreciation of the intricacy of constructing shots and
sequences in Michael’s work," Beebe says. "I was always a huge fan, but
he is completely uncompromising. And if he wants a particular
background at a particular moment as we drive by a mural somewhere
downtown for a line of dialogue, that’s what we’re going to get. It’s
not happenstance; it’s by design. It’s an interesting struggle between
creating a feeling constantly of spontaneity and all theseÃ¢Â€Â˜found’
moments. The reality is these are designed and worked out beforehand."
Beebe’s next project will require immersion in an entirely different
milieu. He just returned from a two-week location scout/cultural
exchange in Kyoto, Japan, researching the world of Memoirs of a Geisha,
the project that reunites him with Rob Marshall, the director of
Chicago. "It will be shot on film," he declares. "There’s nothing that
convinces me that it’s not something best achieved on a film format.
That’s how I approach any project- the needs and requirements of that
project. If there is an advantage in one medium over another, that
should be how you reach the decision. I certainly would have no
hesitation shooting again in HD if the project called for it."
Gearheads: Getting it in the Can and Around the Set
At the peak of the shooting schedule, the Collateral production carried
two Grass Valley Viper cameras and two Sony HDW-F900/3 HD camcorders
for principal photography. A third F900/3 was added for second-unit
work in the last three weeks of the shoot. As many as 11 cameras could
be involved in an action sequence, when 35mm film cameras were added to
the mix for off-speed acquisition. Collateral used Panavision
Millennium, Panavision Millennium XL, Pan-Arri 435 and Bell &
Howell Eymo cameras with Panavision Primo zooms and fixed lenses.
At the time, the production decided, recording to the HDCAM SR tape
format was more cost-effective from a post-production standpoint than
disk-based solutions, so two HDCAM SRW-5000 decks were brought on the
scene. Tethered to the SR decks, the Vipers recorded in dual-link
VideoStream mode (10-bit linear 4:4:4 RGB at 24fps), which offered
in-camera image control, rather than the 10-bit log files that are
output, uncorrected, directly from the CCD in FilmStream mode. Two
Leader 5700 4:4:4 scopes were used to monitor the Vipers via the
outputs of the SRW-5000 decks, and two 5700 4:2:2 scopes were used for
monitoring the F900s. When the SR decks were not recording Viper, the
F900s could be recorded to HDCAM SR in 10-bit 4:2:2 mode, but when both
Vipers were rolling, or a scene demanded portability (scenes shot
inside a free-driving taxi, for example), the F900s were used as
camcorders, recording to on-board HDCAM tape in 8-bit 3:1:1 mode.
While the Vipers were used in anamorphic widescreen mode (2.37:1), the
images on the F900s were simply masked top and bottom to get a wider
aspect ratio (2.40:1). Viper images didn’t display correctly on the
small LCD monitors used on camera- pictures from them would appear
"stretched." So the Viper’s 4:2:2 HD-SDI output was fed to an Astro
Systems scan converter, which resampled the image to the proper aspect
ratio for viewing. This processing introduced some delay in the video
image, which bothered some viewers more than others. (The camera
operator notices it more than the director.) A second output from the
Astro went into an Evertz downconverter, which then fed an NTSC signal
to the two Sony DVM-D24 monitors that were used for video assist.
Miranda MDC 700 on-camera HD downconverters fed video assist when using
the F900s. Video assist needed NTSC feeds for the script supervisor’s
monitors, and to be able to record for review and line-up/continuity
purposes. Both Mann and Beebe watched the action on Sony BVM-F24 and
D24 HD monitors.