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Friday, June 16, 2006

Dion Beebe, Dean Semler, Tom Sigel, and others on Digital Cinematography

A piece I wrote ran this past Tuesday in the Hollywood Reporter, noting that three big summer releases (`Click,' `Superman Returns,' and `Miami Vice') were shot with digital cameras. I wanted to share a few extra snippets of info from my interviews with the cinematographers involved in making that trio of digital movies.

But first, here's the gist of the piece:

    Digital cinematography, during its formative years, had much in common with kryptonite: It was mysterious and dangerous, as far as most mainstream directors and cinematographers were concerned. And digital cameras, like the Superman-sapping rock, might as well have come from outer space because many early prototypes were developed for television, not feature films.

    But after an early wave of big-budget movies shot digitally -- including 2002's "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones," directed by George Lucas; 2003's "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," helmed by Robert Rodriguez, and 2004's "Collateral," from director Michael Mann -- were dismissed as interesting experiments conducted by directors eager to tinker with the newest camera gear, this summer is bringing another trio of high-profile studio releases made without film. Their arrival could make digital cinematography more difficult to brush off.

So, some story out-takes:

I asked Newton Thomas Sigel, who used a Panavision Genesis to shoot much of `Superman Returns,' whether he could imagine going back to shooting film. He said:

"If I was starting another movie today, I’d probably be more likely to shoot the Genesis than shoot film. Since this is the direction it's going, I’d like to work on making digital image capture the best it can be. For future projects, I’d ask, `Is there any reason to shoot this on film? But I’m not quite sure what the reason would be."

He says he used digital because he and director Bryan Singer were "trying to find some format that would celebrate the iconic, hyper-real feeling of Superman" -- and they couldn't shoot in 65 mm for budget reasons (and there was also no way to develop 65 mm dailies in Australia, Sigel said.)

Dean Semler told me that Mel Gibson was the one who initially suggested to him the idea of shooting `Apocalypto' digitally. "Mel is really curious about new technology," Semler said. "As a producer, he's very much aware of the costs." Semler wound up shooting the Adam Sandler movie `Click' before `Apocalypto,' also using the Genesis. He told me that each high-def tape they used was "roughly $7000 cheaper than shooting [the same amount of footage] on film." Semler also said that before he shot `Stealth,' he'd looked at the Sony F900 and F950 (two earlier generations of digital cameras), but found the dynamic range lacking.

Semler said they battle-tested the Genesis on the set of `Apocalypto' in Mexico.

"We had a Spydercam shot from the top of 150-foot waterfall, looking over an actor's shoulder and then plunging over the edge –- literally in the waterfall. I thought we’d be doing it on film, but we put the Genesis up there in a light-weight water housing. The temperatures were beyond 100 degrees at top, and about 60 degrees at the bottom, with the water and the mist. We shot two fifty-minute tapes without any problems – though we [did get] water in there once and fogged up."

Semler said, "I love film, and I'll probably shoot film again -- but this has really been a revelation to me."

Dion Beebe, who just won the Best Cinematography Oscar this year for `Memoirs of a Geisha,' shot much of `Collateral' digitally, and even more of `Miami Vice.' He said that shooting digitally "is not a no-turn-back situation for me. For me, it's really about which format best suits the project and the story -- and [high-definition] brings another tool to the filmmaker. That's really how I see it. Of course, the introduction of HD has produced some great new film stocks from Kodak in response. It has sort of pushed them."

Beebe isn't wild about the umbilical cables that connect digital cameras to tapedecks, and the ability to keep rolling for nearly an hour before the tape runs out. "Me, I like stopping and reloading so you can make adjustments." He added that digital cameras "change some of the dynamics on the set...Cameras tend to roll a little more freely in HD, and you're so used to that `roll cameras and sound and slate' model. You're also so much more reliant on the monitor. You light through the monitor, and set your aperture through the monitor. I find I'm hardly using my [light] meter at all."

For `Vice,' he used a mix of the Viper FilmStream camera from Thomson and the Sony F900 and F950. "We'd use the 900s and 950s when we needed an on-board record system, for get-up-and-go -- in the passenger seat of a Ferrari, or in a small boat or airplane. We occasionally shot on film...only when we required ramping or off-speed work."


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