No DIT, No Digital Dailies - Just Digital Images

Cinematographer Claudio Miranda has created memorable – and award-winning – images for big-name products and splashy music stars, from Missy Elliot to Xelebri, Backstreet Boys to Heineken. More recently, Miranda has turned his eye to long-form, as director of photography for A Thousand Roads (a special screening at 2005 Sundance Film Festival) and Failure to Launch. F&V caught up with Miranda as he wrapped up photography on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a David Fincher film starring Brad Pitt as a man who ages in reverse. Miranda talks about Fincher, the Viper workflow and digital dailies.
F&V: Your relationship with David Fincher goes back some time. How did you end up as DP on this project?

CLAUDIO MIRANDA: Originally I was an electrician for him, and I was his gaffer on Fight Club and The Game. I was David’s Viper guinea pig on a commercial, Xelebri [which won the 2004 Clio Award Bronze for Best Cinematography]. I was a little skeptical, but we liked the results. The highlights were good. That experience was interesting.

David uses commercials to experiment with possible things he might do on films. After Xelebri, we did other commercials with the Viper: Nike’s “Game Breakers,” where we shot elements for CG, and “Beer Run” for Heineken [which won the 2005 AICP award for Best Cinematography].

Harris Savides was the original DP on Zodiac [which was shot with the Viper], but I shot two weeks of some additional scenes, such as a jailhouse scene. It was pretty simple. It went well enough that David asked me to do Benjamin Button, which is a huge movie to undertake. It’s a 145-day shooting schedule and a period movie that takes place from 1918 to almost present day. There’s a lot involved with the look of each period.

Why was the Viper chosen for this particular project?

David loves the workflow of the Viper. He likes seeing what he gets. He asked me once, “Don’t you sleep better knowing it’s all good, all in the can, with no scratches?” I’m looking at the answer print and I’m happy with what I see. He also raved about how much time they saved on reloads on Zodiac.

Zodiac has its own look, whether you like it or not. We’re not trying to make the Viper look like film. The Viper has its own look. It’s not HD ‘ it’s its own thing.

Were you concerned that there might be holes in the workflow since feature film production with the Viper is so new?

Not really, since it had been successfully used on Zodiac. I did extensive tests with the Viper – durability tests to make sure it could survive.

Did you shoot 4:4:4 or 4:2:2 for Benjamin Button? And what lenses did you use?

We shot in 4:4:4 both for Zodiac and Benjamin.

There wasn’t anything too special with lenses or accessories. We used Zeiss DigiPrimes and DigiZooms. Zeiss DigiPrimes are what we’ve been using all along, [also] on Zodiac.

How did you light Benjamin? The Viper has shown that it can do well in dark lighting situations. Is it being used that way?

It’s really amazing ‘ some scenes, I’ll put a light bulb in the middle of the frame and it looks fine. Some scenes are really beautiful. The way Viper reacts, the image looks like a painting in a way. One of my favorite scenes is a whorehouse scene, and the textures and colors that were produced looked really beautiful.

To say the Viper does well in low lighting situations ‘ I think you can underexpose film beautifully, and Harris is the master of that. We’re not letting it go as dark as you can see in Zodiac. You start losing color detail. I’d rather step on it. You can print it down so much easier ‘ I don’t think it looks good when you bring it up. We’re aiming at printing down.

But still, there are actually very dark moments in this movie ‘ it is David, after all, he can’t let that go. The Viper does shine in those moments. There are advantages: if we go dark and we need more light, the Viper can go to a 315-degree shutter. Sometimes, if I need light on a slow-moving scene, I’ll go to a 270-degree shutter.

Can you describe the workflow? What are you recording to? Do you have a video village? What is your relationship with the Digital Imaging Technician?

We’re recording to S.two hard drives. Everything is recorded straight to hard drive. I can get a little thumb drive of selected images – DPX image files that I can manipulate later.

There is no DIT on this job. There is a job we call a Data Capture Manager, which is really a very glorified video assist. David wants to keep it as minimal as possible. Since we’re not color-balancing but data capturing, all this guy does is data capture.

How has being able to see the result of the takes instantly changed how Fincher works?

He can pretty much see right away if he’s happy with it. If not, we’ll move a light or change something with art direction. It’s pretty instantaneous. David used to go to the DP and ask, "Are we exposed? Is it fine?" Those questions aren’t asked any more. It’s a shortcut.

How are you doing dailies?

There are no true dailies. We don’t watch dailies. They have a LUT I made up in the beginning of the show that takes out the green and the contrast. It gets put up on my site where David and a couple of crew members can watch scene cuts run together. It’s not timed, but it has the whole look of the movie – how I personally think it should look. It makes me feel good. I go home, look at it, and I can totally tell what I’ve got. The darks, the blacks, the sharpness, the focus ‘ I’m looking at dailies as I go on an HD monitor.

I color-grade stills from each day’s shoot at night. I use Photoshop and Aperture ‘ if it gets tricky, I’ll use Shake – and post them on a secure FTP site for David. He’ll look at them and we’ll talk about it, and sometimes the look changes. That’s been great ‘ I can grade the negative. With film, you’re always relying on a dialogue with the dailies colorist. Now I’m the dailies colorist.

How are you standardizing color throughout the process?

David and I have the same computer ‘ I color-grade for his Power Book, to make sure that what he sees on his screen is what I have. There’s no real color calibration between the two of us. If I can make it look good on a $2,000 machine, I know I can make it look good later down the pipeline.

Was the entire movie shot with the Viper?

When we needed to shoot at high speed, such as a war sequence, we shot on film. We went to the Caribbean, and to be nimble on our feet we shot film.

What is the “look” for Benjamin Button and how did the Viper help achieve that look? Are there qualities to the camera that get you part way there?

One thing about the Viper is that it allows you to you feel more secure in pushing the “dark” envelope.

As far as the look of the film, it’s really quite striking. It looks very different from Zodiac, because it’s a different era and place. This isn’t a big city movie, but 1918 New Orleans.

The sets that [production designer] Don Burgess built are beautiful. I have an excellent operator, Kim Mark. We all collaborate very well together, with David figuring out the looks. It’s a good little team we have.

Have you invented any processes or workarounds on the production?

The only thing I put together was my workflow to get things up to the site. With auto-batch on, I can customize looks on the fly and it’s quick for me, not laborious at all. I can make looks in 30 to 45 minutes and post it on the internet.

Any surprises during production with the Viper?

The Viper gives you no surprises. You’re not surprised about focus, or if it’s in focus. You know it. You see it. You’re not surprised if it’s too red or orange. There’s a surprising lack of surprise.