Although “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” represents Claudio Miranda’s first gig as d.p. on a David Fincher-directed feature, Miranda had a great deal of experience inside Fincher’s digital filmmaking pipeline when he took on the project.
He had previously shot commercials for Fincher as the director developed his workflow using Thomson/Grass Valley digital Viper cameras in his quest to abandon not only film but videotape as well for his 2007 release, “Zodiac.” That film was shot by Harris Savides, with Miranda assisting on a handful of reshoots.
As with “Zodiac,” “Benjamin Button” relied primarily on the Viper, recording directly to hard drives. But this time, the image capture was applied to a much bigger movie that leans heavily on visual effects, naturalistic light and a wide range of disparate locations. Despite the project’s all-digital infrastructure, however, Fincher wanted Miranda to shoot simply and naturally as the production traveled extensively all over Louisiana.
“David wanted the most naturalistic look possible for each place,” Miranda explains. “I spent lots of time inside (the house used to represent Button’s home) with a digital still camera, shooting natural light to see what it would feel like to re-create that light (with actors). You can’t always rely on natural light in such scenes, of course, since a shoot can last for hours while the sun is moving around, but I wanted to emulate it as much as I could.
“We tried to keep it simple, and a lot of times, that meant using only (standard) light bulbs. For instance, in the tent sequence — there are no film lights at all, just practical bulbs. For an important shot where we show Benjamin’s face and you see the aging process — I basically had one bulb and a fill card on (Brad Pitt). It used to be an HD no-no to put a bulb in a frame to light, but with the Viper camera, it really holds up.”
Still, Miranda also used Sony’s F23 digital camera system for hospital sequences that serve essentially as bookends to the story’s main action, largely because the Viper’s cooling fan was too loud to record soft dialogue in that location. He also used film cameras for a handful of pickup shots captured overseas by Fincher’s friend, director Tarsem Singh, and also for some slow-motion work.
But Miranda says the true visual goal of “Benjamin Button” was to achieve Fincher’s naturalistic aesthetic within the context of a clearly digital image, and to achieve that using fairly straightforward lighting. This even applied to the capture of extensive visual effects plates that helped Digital Domain age Pitt’s character backward.
“The whole idea was for us to operate as though the visual effects guys were not even there on set,” says Miranda. “Most of the time, I lit faces like I would for any regular scene, and almost never protected for (the blue-colored hoods worn by so-called ‘Benjamin body’ actors) even though they would be (digitally) replacing the faces.”
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Camera: Thomson/Grass Valley Viper (4:4:4 FilmStream mode), recording to S.two D.Mag digital film magazines.
Secret weapon: Bare light bulbs, frequently used as sole lighting sources to illuminate actors.
Aesthetic: Striving always for naturalistic light on location.