Director Michael Mann is well-known as a perfectionist, so it’s not surprising that when he started planning the shoot for Collateral, he opted to use fairly new HD camera systems, the only technology that would allow him to translate the images in his head onto the big screen. That artistic decision necessitated radically new technical approaches in post-production.
F&V: What was the appeal of shooting Collateral in HD?
A few things. I really wanted to work in a very new way and I wanted to shoot a digital film, and this is the first full-length big-budget studio one. George Lucas shot Star Wars digitally, but that was for visual effects. This was conceived from the start as a digital project, and we shot about 50 percent entirely digitally in the end. I wanted to shoot the whole film at night, and right away I knew I’d never be able to get what I wanted by shooting 35mm. It just doesn’t pick up all the little details and gradations of color and tone that the naked eye picks up at night. And L.A. at night is this whole other character, and the only way to be able to see it the way I’d pictured it was to go digital video- HD. That method also suited the subject matter perfectly. It’s a thriller, but it’s also about characters in conflict. It’s not just a genre thing. It’s a character-driven drama, and I was really attracted to the idea of Tom playing this complex, rather tragic character. And I also loved the way the story compresses everything into just one night, so that it’s almost like you come in at the end of the story. All this stuff’s gone on before, which you gradually become aware of as the events unfold.
F&V: Break down the workflow in terms of shooting.
We shot about half the movie on film, and then 20 percent with the Sony CineAlta HD camera, and the rest with the Viper FilmStream. The CineAlta has two more stops of range at the high end, so before whites clip and burn out, I’ll see details. So if I’m shooting in front of a car, I’ll see the outline of the car’s headlight with the Sony camera, but I won’t with the Viper camera. That’s the strength of the CineAlta camera.
F&V: What’s the strength of the Viper camera and how did that mesh with the workflow?
It’s got this glorious, lustrous mid-range, particularly in the records it makes of reds, yellows, oranges and blues. I love that look. Basically it’s a different chip. The Sony uses a Japanese chip while the Viper’s is made in Northern Europe, and I don’t know why but it has this totally different palette of rich Rembrandt-style colors. Maybe it’s the Dutch chip [a 9.2 million pixel frame-transfer CCD]. Go figure, but that’s the way it is. That was a big issue to us- how it looks on video- but now I’ve got to film the thing out, get a [Kodak] Vision release print and put it up on a 60-foot-wide screen. Now what’s it look like? And the heightened resolution, meaning more information, is there in the Viper, so that was really our camera of choice. Then we recorded to HDCAM-SR tape using Sony SRW-5000 machines. That was the best format available to us, and that way we could get compressed images made and then work on them and tweak them later in post. The drawback with the Viper was that you’re hooked to a bunch of recorders by these umbilical cords, so when I had to be freewheeling with the camera I’d go with the Sony camera, which uses cassettes instead.
F&V: How did your post process break down?
It was very demanding because of how we shot and all the different formats. We had two editors, Paul Rubell, who edited The Insider for me, and Jim Miller, who’s done a lot of films with Barry Sonnenfeld, and I also worked closely with Company 3 down in Santa Monica. I’ve worked quite a lot in the past with colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld [at Company 3], so he came on the set right at the start to do some tests and help me get the look I wanted from all the HD stuff. We did a lot of back-to-film tests, to make sure, and then Laser Pacific was also involved. They helped us get a rough HD version of what I wanted, and then we did the DI at Company 3. They scanned the film stuff at 2K on the Spirit, and then we combined that material with the HDCAM footage. Then we did our color-correction on the da Vinci 2K and it was all recorded out to film over at Efilm in Hollywood. We also did some HD previews and tweaked stuff as we went along. So it was definitely a pretty different way of posting a film and pretty complicated, but I was very happy with the way it all turned out.
F&V: So just how new was this way of working?
Totally new. Look, the HD cameras weren’t even ready for prime time, and to be honest, they were a pain in the butt to use half the time. But they worked, and the technology is improving very quickly.
F&V: Would you shoot another film like this?
Absolutely, because the problems we had were because these systems were still in their development stage. We weren’t even the guinea pigs. We were like mad scientists experimenting on the guinea pigs.
F&V: You’ve had a busy year as you’re also producing The Aviator for Scorsese.
I developed it originally for myself to do, but I decided I was the wrong director. I’d just done Ali and I didn’t want to do another real historical figure, so I went to Marty, and I’m glad I did. It’s turned out great. Would I have used the same process I used on Collateral if I’d directed? I don’t think so. It’s a more conventional story and, as a filmmaker, you have to match the process to the story. But the future is digital, without a doubt.