Tripods Weren't Welcome On This Independent Blockbuster Set

In their effort to keep movie audiences captivated, directors and DPs are doing some unusual things with the high-definition digital-cinema tools at hand. The latest trick is to use studio cameras run-and-gun style.
Take, for example, Paramount’s hit Cloverfield. Shot for three months, from May to September 2007, the movie cost $25 million and used Grass Valley Viper and Sony F23 cameras handheld. They also gave the on-screen actors some Panasonic HVX200s and even a consumer style Panasonic FD1 AVC HD camcorder, but not a single tripod or dolly shot was employed.

Told from a first-person point of view, complete with shaky camera moves purportedly shot with a handheld consumer camcorder (a la The Blair Witch Project), the movie tells the story of a group of kids who start out at a party thrown for a friend and spend most of the movie trying to escape a monster that is destroying New York City. Even the Statue of Liberty gets beheaded!

The use of the Viper and F23 cameras was critical to get the depth of colors necessary to match the digital composites used extensively throughout the feature. No film was used either.

The opening three scenes of the movie are shot with the little FD1, to establish that the movie is told from the camera operator’s point of view. Every other scene was shot either with the HVX200 (interiors and exteriors), Viper (interiors), or the F23 (mostly New York City exteriors at night). Some scenes include both Viper composites and F23 footage, and it’s hard to tell the difference.

Nick Theodorakis, digital imaging supervisor for Cloverfield, developed the digital workflow for the production, coming up with a “post-production bible” that instructed the camera operators and director that “if you start a scene shooting with one particular camera, you must finish the scene with that same camera.” This helped immensely in the edit room when matching scenes.

“We had a little bit of latitude in the film because it’s supposed to emulate a handycam camera,” Theodorakis said. “What we discovered as we went along was that little lighting shifts and noise (chroma shifts) helped sell the gag of the film. It gave the images a roughness that worked for this film.”

He set up a look-up table (LUT) management system on set that allowed the director Matt Reeves and DP Michael Bonvillain to see what they were getting immediately, color grade the shots as DPX files, and save the settings from the three different cameras as a LUT file. Stills were then grabbed and matched on an HD monitor, which helped the colorist (at Company 3, in Santa Monica, CA) to match corresponding scenes later in post.

Theodorakis said the Viper dailies looked “green,” the F23 dailies had a “warm tint”, and the HVX200 looked “sharp and a bit extreme.” The crew even set up an output from the consumer FD1 camera for monitoring.

Images from the Viper and F23 were recorded to an HDCAM SRW-1 VTR, the HVX200 to P2 cards, and an SDHC card using AVCI compression for the FD1.

“We needed the best fidelity for our effects work, so we had to use studio cameras,” Theodorakis said. “You can’t track an HCX200 or a Handycam for visual effects. You have to use a camera with a much higher color space and one with better resolution. The tough part was trying to emulate a small-format camera and shaky images with a much heavier Viper or F23. We had several camera operators get hurt on this project because it was incredibly labor-intensive. One guy tore his rotator cuff, another one injured his knee. It was not an easy job on any of the operators, trying to do 100 percent hand-held work.”

He said sometimes the actors with the HVX200 captured the shot that made the movie because it portrayed the feel of the scene in the most natural way.

“Part of this project was to see if we could do it,” Theodorakis said, “[Studio executives] were terrified of the data workflow that we were proposing, but we made it work.”

Indeed, the movie has already made its initial investment back in the first week of release.