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Thursday, December 07, 2006

`Apocalypto,' Dean Semler, and the Panavision Genesis digital camera

Mel Gibson's `Apocalypto,' out tomorrrow, is the latest high-profile movie to have been shot with a digital camera.

The good news for digital camera makers is that there have been a decent number of movies shot digitally in 2006: `Superman Returns,' `Click,' `Miami Vice,' `Flyboys,' and `Apocalypto' among them. (All were shot with the Panavision Genesis, except for `Vice,' which used the Viper FilmStream Camera from Grass Valley.)

But the bad news is that many of these productions (especially `Apocalypto,' `Superman Returns,' and `Vice') exceeded their original shooting schedule, and overran their original budgets. That means they're not a great advertisment -- yet -- for others who may be considering a switch to digital cinematography.

But the early word about the look of `Apocalypto' is very positive.

In Variety, critic Todd McCarthy has good things to say about the movie in general, with a special shout-out for the digital cinematography. McCarthy writes:

    Dean Semler's camera moves relentlessly through the densest of foliage and over the roughest of terrain on locations near Veracruz and in the rainforests of Catemaco, with some additional shooting done in Costa Rica and the U.K.; Gibson clearly knew the impact the lenser of the second and third "Mad Max" films could deliver. More remarkable still is that pic was shot on the new high definition Genesis camera system. Without a doubt, "Apocalypto" is the best-looking big-budget film yet shot digitally; one can't tell it wasn't shot on film.

Earlier this year, I wrote about digital cinematography in The Hollywood Reporter and the New York Times, and also posted some interview notes here on CinemaTech from a conversation with Semler.

Semler told me, "It's not the same as film, and it's not better than film, but it's a fabulous image. I'm so excited about it. I feel like a Chuck Yeager, with what we've done with this in the field."

(Semler said that one limitation with the Genesis is still frame rate. After the `Apocalypto' shoot began, Panavision delivered a few new camera bodies capable of shooting 50 frames per second... but they still relied on an ARRI 435 film camera for sequences that required a higher frame rate. But he also boasted about being able to adjust the camera's iris during a shot, using a remote control he had in his viewing tent, which Semler calls "the Batcave"... and being able to watch that day's footage at dailies.)

Some additional coverage on digital cinematography in `Apocalypto':

> Movieweb has director Mel Gibson talking about the Genesis
> The LA Times has a piece on a "reinvigorated" Panavision
> Sheigh Crabtree in the LA Times: "Filming took twice as long as scheduled and using high-tech digital cameras in the jungle was no easy matter."


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