Hall loves the idea of shooting tapeless

An experienced horror-film professional, Robert Hall owns a special effects/makeup company called Almost Human, and recently shot his first digital feature (and second film project), called Laid to Rest. The full-length horror feature was shot in April in Annapolis, MD, and is being finished by Hall himself on a Final Cut Pro system.
Along with DP Scott Winig, he used two Panasonic AJ-HPX3000 P2 HD cameras (with two Fujinon DigiZoom HD lenses for each) shooting at 1080p HD and a HVX200 for B-roll (at 720p). They continually rotated a dozen 16 GB P2 cards. Panavision, in Hollywood, supplied the complete package.

Hall projected some test footage on a large screen at post house Moving Pixels (Santa Monica, CA) and said it looks great. “Just knowing that I have so much information in every frame and that I can affordably tweak it lighter or darker as needed is very empowering.”

With the backing of Anchor Bay Entertainment (a division of STARZ Entertainment), the images will be output to film and see a limited release in theaters. A trailer of the movie will also be screened in digital (from a D-5 master) at the upcoming Comic-Con International 2008 convention in San Diego this month.

The film tells the story of a young girl who wakes up in a casket with a traumatic head injury and no memory of her identity. She quickly realizes she was abducted by a deranged serial murderer and, in an isolated rural town, she must survive the night and outsmart the technologically inclined killer, who is hell-bent on finishing what he started.

Q: Why did you choose the Panasonic AJ-HPX3000 camera?
A: I like the workflow of P2 and Final Cut Pro. It allows me to minimize a lot of the traditional post-production steps and costs. I shot my first movie [an autobiographical drama called Lightning Bug] on Super 16mm. During production I wound up spending so much time and money-that I really didn’t have-just waiting for the film to be processed and telecined. Then when I was done with the offline, I’d have to do an online session, which is hugely expensive.

With this film we were cutting the movie as we were shooting, in full 1080p HD. We shot in 100 Mbps 24p mode using AVC-Intra compression within the Apple ProRes 422 codec. I could see the footage immediately and figure out exactly what I needed and reshoot scenes when necessary. It was such as pleasure doing it this way. We never had anything less than a HD assembly at all times. It was pretty insane.

Q: How did the cameras help achieve the look you wanted for Laid To Rest?
A: I was going for a European horror-film look, with lots of low-light situations. The cameras really allowed us to shoot with minimal lighting and still maintain detail and subtleties in the frame. I had previously shot a music video with the AJ-HVX200 and saw what it could do. I was a bit concerned about how the blacks would translate onto the screen with the HVX200, so I looked into Panasonic’s higher-end models and came to the HPX3000, with its higher sensitively. It worked perfectly and allowed DP Scott Winig to get what we were after.

Q: Describe your P2 workflow.
A: We had a P2 card reader/recorder (AJ-HPM110 P2 Mobile) on set at all times, so we could dump material off as we shot it. We didn’t wait very long to do that. Our P2 tech would transfer the footage then sit down with our editor and log scenes and transcode the files, using the ProRes codec, so they could be read by the Final Cut Pro software. All raw files were also backed up to portable hard drives, so we always had the original to refer back to if needed. They then created rough cuts each day for me to review. That’s the true value of solid-state recording. I would shoot in the morning and have a sense of where the film was in post by the afternoon.

Q: You’ve said that organization was critical to your production. Why?
A: It was extremely important. The amount of footage we shot with the two AJ-HPX3000s was massive, so organization was key. It was critical that we had a person dedicated to handling the P2 cards and dumping the material off. I couldn’t have done it myself and recommend that anyone using P2 not try to do it all themselves. You’ll spend a lot of time doing things other than capturing the images you want. We did have an issue with trying to name files beforehand, so that it made sense to our film, but we couldn’t figure it out. So we stuck to the numbering system on the camera and kept good records.

Q: What’s the biggest misconception about HD production?
A: The biggest misconception is that HD productions look cheap. We shot our film for not a lot of money that rivals any $5-10 million production you’ll see on the big screen anywhere. I love the idea of shooting tapeless. It just makes so much sense. It holds up so well. If you have someone who knows how to light a scene and a good DP who knows the camera, you can make a great-looking film with digital. I’m so happy with how Laid To Rest came out that I would never direct a movie for less than $2 million on anything but P2 HD. It just doesn’t make sense.

For more information on Laid To Rest, visit www.laidtorestmovie.com.
For more on Hall’s company, visit www.almosthuman.net.