Cinematographers turn to new cameras, experimental formats in pursuit of better storytelling

Playing it fast and loose

The film format may be the gold standard for features, but some lensers are experimenting with advances made in digital formats. Daily Variety asked four cinematographers to share their experiences and impressions on recent high-profile projects shot in digital formats.

Dion Beebe (ASC, ACS) earned an Oscar and American Society of Cinematographers Award for his 35 mm film “Memoirs of a Geisha.” He sandwiched that cinematic achievement between “Collateral” and “Miami Vice.”

Both of those Michael Mann endeavors were shot with Grass Valley Viper FilmStream digital cameras, with the common denominator being many large, dark exterior locations.

“It’s never really been my interest to pursue a film look with a digital camera,” Beebe says. “I’m more interested in creating a look unique to the system. Digital video is a developing tool that is still in its infancy.

“The story and the director are the main considerations for me. Everything else is ultimately the means to an end. Whether you choose to use a digital or a Super 8 film camera, what remains most important is the integrity of the story. I would happily shoot a movie on Super 8 film tomorrow if I thought it could help me tell the story.”

Beebe notes that both “Collateral” and “Miami Vice” were urban, contemporary pictures. “When I’ve used digital cameras, the images feel very immediate. I think the emotional response is something that comes from television and electronic images. I couldn’t have visualized ‘Geisha’ in HD or any other digital format.

“Sometimes you hear people pushing HD as a quicker, easier, cheaper medium,” he adds. “I certainly don’t think it is at this point. It’s improving all the time, but it’s not a simple, quick solution to anything. The decision has to be about the story you are trying to tell and whether the camera system serves that.”

Newton Thomas Sigel (ASC) began his career in the documentary field and moved into drama on Haskell Wexler’s “Latino.” His credits range from the visually striking “Three Kings” to the effects-heavy blockbusters “X-Men” and “The Brothers Grimm.”

He also shot “Superman Returns,” which was billed as the first major feature shot with the Panavision Genesis digital video camera. Sigel and director Bryan Singer envisioned images with a vibrancy that pushed the envelope of reality. He has since finished a yet-to-be-titled project with director Alan Ball using the Genesis.

“I’ve been very pleased with the images,” Sigel says. “The Genesis has a chip the size of a Super 35 mm frame, a log curve that emulates film, and a depth-of-field characteristic that is similar to what we have come to appreciate with film cameras. It’s the first time I’ve seen digital images look like something that appealed to me, rather than like some kind of video.”

Sigel notes that on “Superman Returns,” there was no significant advantage over film in terms of time and money saved. “It was a very difficult movie, involving a lot of rigging and effects,” he recalls. “I insisted on timed dailies since no one had used the camera before. It wasn’t the cheapest way to do the movie, but it was right for this project.”

Dean Semler (ASC, ACS) has more than 50 feature film credits, with Oscar, ASC and BAFTA awards for his cinematography on “Dances With Wolves.” He shot “Apocalypto” with the Genesis camera.

Semler says that during pre-production, he anticipated difficult lighting conditions in the jungles of southern Mexico. “There was no way I could have lit the jungle and had it look natural,” Semler says. “The low-light capabilities of the Genesis enabled me to keep going in there, even when it was overcast and very dark in the middle of the day. It also allowed me an extra hour or two of shooting at the end of the day. The electronic shutter can be set to 360 degrees, which gave me another stop of light and the equivalent of a 2,500 exposure index.”

Semler also cites the ability to keep the camera rolling for up to 50 minutes without stopping to reload. “That was a big plus for (director) Mel (Gibson),” he says.

A number of digitally shot features require the use of film for certain specialized applications. For example, Semler handed tiny Aaton A-Minima Super 16 film cameras to actors to grab dynamic running shots of themselves during chase sequences. Beebe shot 35 mm film for high frame rates and other shots on “Collateral” and “Miami Vice.”

Tony Pierce-Roberts (BSC) photographed explosions on 35mm film at 150 frames per second for Irwin Winkler’s “Home of the Brave.”

Pierce-Roberts, who has earned Oscar nominations for “A Room With a View” and “Howards End,” used Viper cameras to shoot the majority of “Brave,” which was filmed in Morocco and Spokane, Wash.

“The decision to shoot in HD had been made before I got on the film,” he says. “I think Irwin and the producers were attracted to the idea of a hefty shooting ratio without the attendant film-stock costs. In retrospect, I wish we had shot the Moroccan scenes on film. But I enjoyed working with the Viper, and we had no problems with the camera.

“I wanted to make sure there was detail in the dark skin tones of some of our cast, so I lifted the waveform a bit in order to have maximum flexibility later in post.

“If I were doing a film with a lot of action and stunts, a film where you wanted to use different speeds on any given setup, HD cameras would be inappropriate.

“But for ‘Home of the Brave,’ I liked the idea of trying something completely new.”

Daily Variety takes to 15 lensers about facing the challenges, aesthetics and problem-solving behind some of this year’s most visually compelling pix.

Barry Ackroyd, ‘United 93’

Jose Luis Alacaine, ‘Volver’

Michael Ballhaus, ‘The Departed’

Antonio Calvache, ‘Little Children’

Anthony Dod Mantle, ‘The Last King of Scotland’

Matthew Libatique, ‘The Fountain’

Emmanuel Lubezki, ‘Children of Men’

Seamus McGarvey, ‘World Trade Center’

Guillermo Navarro, ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’

Wally Pfister, ‘The Prestige’

Rodrigo Prieto, ‘Babel’

Robert Richardson, ‘The Good Shepherd’

Tobias A. Schliessler, ‘Dreamgirls’

Eduardo Serra, ‘Blood Diamond’

Tom Stern, ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letters From Iwo Jima’

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