Page 1:  From First Cameraman to Director of Photography

Page 2:  Film vs. Digital Video

Page 3:  Oliver Stapleton: So You Wanna Work in Movies?

Page 4:  What It Took to Create 'Collateral'

Page 5:  Bleach Bypass  -  Digital Intermediate  -  Steadicam  -  Louma Crane

Page 6:  Cinematographers-Turned-Director:  A - F

Page 7:  Cinematographers-Turned-Director:  G - Q

Page 8:  Cinematographers-Turned-Director:  R - Z

Page 9:  A History of Aerial Cinematography


By Matt Hurwitz

[From the website, Oct 20, 2004]

"Michael [Mann] wanted a look for the film that would be unlike any other," explains cinematographer Paul Cameron. "He specifically wanted a film that would include night time Los Angeles as a character, much like your eye sees L.A. glowing at night. It's something he wanted to pervade the whole film."

Most of the movie takes place at night: Jamie Foxx, on the graveyard shift, inadvertently picks up a hit man [Tom Cruise] who forces him to take him from job to job. With existing film technology unable to bring the night into the picture, Mann turned to another medium, high definition video, to help capture his third character.

Mann had used HD for several scenes in his 2001 film, 'Ali', utilizing the Panavision HD-900F (the "Panavised" Sony HDW-F900), according to Dave Canning, who has been the director's digital imaging technician since 2000. Full study of the equipment came during a long-form Mercedes commercial Mann shot shortly thereafter, followed by the short-lived USA Network series 'Robbery Homicide Division', also filmed with a pair of F900s.

But it was during prep for another film, 'Worcester Cold Storage', which never made it to the screen, that Mann first tested Thomson Grass Valley's Viper camera system. The Viper, operating in its "FilmStream" mode, captures uncorrected CCD data at 4:4:4 RGB and outputs it as 10-bit log data, which requires post-process color correction, as opposed to a processed video image signal, which results when operating the camera in its "VideoStream" mode. VideoStream also permits adjustments to white balance and other video image parameters. "We realized the Viper, particularly in FilmStream mode, held great promise, especially for a film-style production where you just want to go out and acquire and not have to make image decisions up front," says Canning. "But I also knew Michael would want to see the final image on set."

When the 'Collateral' project came up, however, Canning suggested using the new version of the Sony camera, the F900/3. "It was our same old friend but with a huge improvement in the dynamic range and a color viewfinder." Canning and associate producer Bryan Carroll took the camera for a test drive, shooting test footage one night at locations Mann expected to use in the film. Canning then pulled frames from the shoot and adjusted the color balance in Adobe Photoshop, to reduce the red in the images, before showing them to Mann. "HD cameras tend to capture sodium vapor lights as very red because of the broken spectrum lighting sources." The result of the reduction in red leaves actors' faces looking cyan or greenish-a look Mann actually liked.

Testing continued, at this point with cinematographer Paul Cameron, who was brought on board three weeks before principal photography was to begin. Mann, Cameron and their team decided to shoot tests on location using the real actors [Cruise and Foxx], though the battery of equipment now included not only the F900 but the Thomson Viper, Sony F950 and a variety of film stocks. "We tested [Kodak] 5218, 5279 and 5284, along with the video cameras; we shot the same material, with the same framing, with two video cameras and one film camera with the various stocks," explains Cameron. Digital intermediates were created at LaserPacific by colorist Mike Sowa, and the results were printed to film and compared.

From the tests, it was determined that the F950 tended to produce a softer image than the F900, which removed the F950 from consideration. The Viper, which was tested in its FilmStream mode, required color correction to compensate for its capture of the tests' raw image. "We found that the noise level on the Viper emulated film grain in a way much better than the F900 did. It had a certain quality that was both unlike the F900 and unlike film," explains Cameron. "We decided to go with a combination of the Viper, the F900 and film."

While the F900 and film cameras were ready to roll at the start of production in September 2003, the Viper was not. "It was not well-designed ergonomically," says Cameron. Modifications were made to a number of components by equipment supplier Plus8 Digital, including base plates, matte boxes and eyepiece levelers, based on suggestions from Cameron and A-camera operator Gary Jay.

Production, in the meantime, started, using both the Panavision 900F [the "Panaversion," as Canning calls it] and stock Sony models and film cameras. The basic camera and film setup was the Panavision Millennium using Kodak 5218 stock. Canning made adjustments to the 900F's color matrix and gamma, carefully matching its look, as closely as possible, to that of the Viper. "Michael liked the look of the Viper," he notes. "Thankfully, the control system on the 900F is much more accessible than on the Viper."

For lenses, Cameron used the Panavision DigiPrimes; however, particularly after the arrival of the Viper cameras two weeks into production, he made a change. "We switched to Zeiss primes pretty quickly. We wanted to have zooms on the cameras, the but Zeiss primes were just infinitely sharper and had better resolution," he says.

Recording video signals at full 4:4:4 RGB meant lots of storage would be required. The team tested a hard disk recorder and S.two disk recorders; though fast, the latter posed a problem. "We ran into a glitch early on," says Cameron. "There was a 72-hour period when we couldn't retrieve the material off the recorder's drive, which didn't make the studio too happy."

Canning opted to set the team up with a pair of Sony HDCAM-SR SRW-5000 digital videotape recording decks. While the SR would have recorded the Viper's output if operating in FilmStream mode, the camera was actually run in its VideoStream mode, even though the Viper had been tested initially using FilmStream. As noted above, VideoStream outputs a corrected or processed video signal output, as opposed to the uncorrected CCD data that the FilmStream mode outputs. The SR deck, then, recorded the video signal slightly compressed, in 10-bit linear 4:4:4 [as opposed to 10-bit log 4:4:4, as would have been recorded for FilmStream data].

During testing, the team found that it was difficult to view the image correctly on many HD monitors when shooting with Viper in widescreen mode, especially when trying to compare with footage shot on the F900. While the F900 produces the desired 2.40:1 widescreen image simply by masking off the top and bottom of the image, the Viper creates native widescreen by using triple the usual number of vertical rows for HD [1920x3240 instead of 1920x1080] sensors in its CCD, using data from two of the rows [thus oversampling] and ignoring data from the top and bottom areas. When sent to a monitor, the image would appear stretched, necessitating the use of an Astro Systems scan converter to reshape the image to proper aspect ratio. Unfortunately, the Astro system introduced a delay of several frames, which was frustrating to camera operators trying to capture fast action while viewing on their on-set monitor.

Even then, due to the high gain used on the camera to pull in the dark images, the monitor image didn't give a true view of what the final picture would look like-that was visible only after the film's colorist made adjustments. Operating in VideoStream mode allowed real-time image control by permitting Canning to make adjustments in camera, so the image Michael Mann wanted could be accomplished on set.

The SR decks were also used to record signals from the F900 cameras, at 10-bit 4:2:2, as long as they weren't busy recording Viper signals. When the latter was the case, the F900's on-board recording deck was utilized, recording to tape at 8-bit 3:1:1.

With three types of cameras available, some general rules of thumb were developed to help decide which-or how many-cameras would be used in any given situation. The movie was, for the most part, filmed in continuity, from autumn 2003 through early February 2004, starting with afternoon and early evening parts of the story and then throughout the night's cab journey into daybreak.

Paul Cameron left the production three weeks into filming and cinematography duties were taken over by Dion Beebe. Beebe's first task was shooting the exciting Fever nightclub scene, which took two weeks and was captured almost entirely on film. "The sequence gave me the opportunity to get up to speed on the video equipment, which we ran side by side with the film cameras," he says. Dave Canning helped the cinematographer become familiar with the video gear during filming. "We ran some tests in the cab at night during this same two-week period."

Beebe says, "We typically would use film whenever we were working in a controlled environment," such as the film's three nightclub sequences, which the cinematographer was able to light himself. Daylight shots were typically shot on film. "But these are rules that were constantly broken."

The less obvious choices were between the Viper and the F900, though the Viper was used for about 80 percent of the images captured digitally, which comprise about 80 percent of the movie. [In the first two weeks of shooting, before the Vipers arrived, Cameron did use F900s for night time shooting, since that was what was available, and, he notes, they performed admirably.]

While the Viper was the HD camera of choice for the film, there were occasions when the F900 was preferred. To draw in the night time detail, the cameras were all typically operated at a gain of +3dB, though this level was often pushed to +6 or +12dB. "The differences were subtle between the two cameras, but when you went to the telecine and film out, they became more apparent," says Cameron. "Under certain circumstances, when we pushed the F900 to +6 or +12, we had more exposure. We could push the Viper, but it just wasn't the same kind of gain in exposure as with the F900. We wanted to be able to take the risk of shooting +12dB when there was very little atmosphere in the air and still capture whatever night time glow existed, sacrificing a little noise in the film out."

The Viper, on the other hand, tended to be free from video-type artefacts, particularly on lights, says Canning. "The Sony camera tended to produce starring-type artefacts around small speculars, mostly because of the way the CCDs are designed. It's something you don't see with film, and it's something the Viper doesn't have."

The F900s were always used for Steadicam shots and were recorded, whenever possible, on the SR decks [connected through lightweight fibre optic cable] rather than the onboard HDCAM devices, to record at the highest bit depth possible. "We also used them inside the cab, when photographing Jamie from the back seat to capture him when he was actually driving the car," explains Beebe. This cab footage was captured on the camera's onboard HDCAM tape drive. When the cab was on a process trailer [any of a variety of cab configurations built by Cameron], the Viper could be used, tethered to its SR5000 deck.

With a majority of the interaction between the two lead characters taking place inside Foxx's cab, a system had to be devised to light the actors in a way that would avoid the "incandescent light in your face" look while still drawing in the surrounding nightscape. "Michael wanted this sort of wraparound, non-directional light," says Beebe. "He wanted it to feel like there was no real source, to make it appear that everything was lit from the street by the street's own ambience."

To accomplish this illusion, Paul Cameron early on developed a system using electro-luminescent panels, such as those used to illuminate digital watches. Having noticed the material illuminating transit bus shelter advertising, Cameron located a local manufacturer, Novatech Electro-Luminescent in Santa Ana, and commissioned the company to make dozens of the panels for use in the cab [and 16 other vehicles]. Roughly 5" x 15" in size, approximately 30 of the panels were placed inside the cab, attached with Velcro and controlled by individual dimmers, allowing the units to be shut off or removed, depending on the requirements of the shot.

The panels lent an eerie, greenish look to the actors' faces, which was further amplified by the production process. "To pull in the night time environment outside the cab, we always had the cameras wide open, with the gain at +6dB," explains Beebe. The resultant image was extremely overexposed, says Cameron, "to the point that it was a little freaky." To remedy the situation, the footage was then brought to colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3 in Los Angeles, who, using Power Windows [sometimes as many as 10 or 12] on a digital intermediate, brought the levels of the faces back down to an acceptable level, leaving natural looking faces surrounded by the L.A. nightscape.

While depth of field is often an issue when using HD, the large depth worked to the cinematographer's advantage in many instances by helping to include the night time environment as part of the shot; however, a few tricks had to be used to capture the actors in close-up with the background slightly out of focus, to create footage that would cut well with longer shots. Cameron applied some know-how from his anamorphic experience. "I would pull the focus as far forward as we could, so that it would appear sharp on the monitor. I'd have the camera five feet from Tom's face but have the assistant pull the focus for two and a half feet, in order to get the background a little softer. It made the assistants a little uneasy, but it worked well."

The Viper also offered the advantage of deep focus, evident in the climactic scene in which Cruise stalks Jada Pinkett Smith in the dark in her 14th floor office while Foxx attempts to alert her from his cell phone from the roof of a nearby parking garage. Beebe's camera focuses on Cruise's face, a few feet from the camera, and then does a rapid focus pull to Foxx, who's several hundred feet away. "Michael has a great sense of cinema geography. He's a master at creating tension in the frame," says the DP. "The fact that these cameras go from one foot to infinity really quickly, because of the chip size and the optics, means you can make that throw with just the slightest turn."

Michael Mann's full coverage style - he used as many as a dozen cameras to film an exciting crash sequence, for example - meant that a multitude of formats had to be able to be cut together and appear to have been filmed in a single format. A digital intermediate process was, of course, invaluable. "Some angles within a scene" - such as the above-mentioned rooftop scene - "had some shots taken with the Viper and some with the Sony," says colorist Stefan Sonnefeld. "If the cameras are side by side, shooting the same thing, the footage won't look the same. If you throw in film as well, like in the Fever nightclub scene, it gets a little tricky."

Working, essentially, with HD footage to produce a film output that didn't look like film was another challenge, particularly with telecine equipment designed to create a film look. "Michael wasn't trying to emulate film," says Sonnenfeld. "He was using the HD medium to create a different environment, one that fit this story." To further complicate things, the film was also mastered and timed for digital cinema projection, which has a look of its own.

With 'Collateral', Michael Mann made the most of both the technical expertise and cutting-edge equipment available to create a film with a look that's made for both. "Michael is totally proficient with all of the latest equipment, and his knowledge is up to date," says Sonnenfeld. Adds Cameron, "I don't think anybody has gone through the testing process as much as we went through it - ripping the HD medium apart and finding the true core of what makes it tick."