“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 work.”
“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 possible.”
“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 18.”
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 dark areas.
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 focus.”
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 these ‘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.
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