Latest tools play key role in cutting-edge films

While each of this year’s Oscar-nominated cinematographers used standard 35mm cameras to spectacular results, Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), Claudio Miranda (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and Wally Pfister (“The Dark Knight”) incorporated new technologies into the equation that resulted in novel motion picture imagery.

Mantle tackled the difficulties of filming in the crowded slums of Mumbai by customizing a digital camera, which allowed him freedom of movement and flexibility; Miranda broke new ground by primarily using digital technology to shoot the effects-driven drama; and Pfister took on the cumbersome Imax camera — weighing in at 75 pounds and boasting a 55mm lens — to shoot high-pace action sequences.

‘THE DARK KNIGHT’ Wally Pfister

Tools: Panavision, Millennium XL cameras and Imax MSM cameras

The Cutting Edge: Pfister shot 36 minutes of “The Dark Knight” with an Imax camera, including action sequences, which has helped resurrect that format in dramatic features. “What (director) Chris (Nolan) and I sort of invented was its use in the action format and using (the Imax) for putting large setpiece action sequences on the screen,” says Pfister. “That is what I think I am most proud of. Chris and I were basically the first ones to do it.”

Drawbacks: Besides weighing 75 pounds, making it practically impossible to do any handheld shots (Pfister managed to do one), the Imax presented a few other difficulties, such as the need to hide light sources due to the camera’s wide frame line; shallower depth of field; difficulty recording sound due to the level of noise that the camera produces; and the pricetag — Imax is roughly triple the cost of shooting 35mm film.

Results: Despite a few difficulties, Pfister was able to shoot most of the action sequences on Imax with the help of his key grip, who built rigs that were strong and flexible enough to use the camera on the side of trucks and hostess trays as well as on steady cams. “I have never stopped being amazed at how gorgeous that image is on the screen,” Pfister says. “There is virtually no film grain. It is so wonderfully vivid in color and contrast. It’s hands-down the highest image capture system that exists. There is nothing else that comes anywhere close to it.” The impressive results onscreen and at the box office has convinced a few studios to take the financial plunge. “I’ve had telephone calls from the ‘Transformers 2′ cinematographer asking about it as well as (people from) other projects, so I think that the success of ‘The Dark Knight’ will definitely lead to the use of more Imax cameras on (dramatic features).”

‘THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON’ Claudio Miranda

Tools: Thomson/Grass Valley Viper (4:4:4 FilmStream mode), recording to S.two D.MAG digital film magazines in combination with the Sony F23 HD cameras, Arriflex 435

The Cutting Edge: The advanced visual effects needed for much of “Benjamin Button” required an all-digital pipeline, and director David Fincher had worked with the Viper before. But it was still urgent that the camera not act up and delay production, as the film’s budget was already high for a drama. “Out of 150-plus days of shooting, I can’t think of a single frame that we shot that ever had a problem,” Miranda says. “David never had any reshoots because of anything technical, unlike some films I have worked on with him in the past.”

Drawbacks: The Viper’s “really loud cooling fans” caused Miranda to switch to Sony’s F23 digital camera system for the bookend hospital sequences where recording soft dialogue was necessary.

Also, the ever-evolving nature of digital cameras makes it hard to stay current with the latest innovations. “There are better cameras coming out every year, which is really hard for the film industry,” Miranda says, in contrast to film cameras, where change comes in the forms of incremental improvements in lenses and negative stocks. “A 1960s (35mm) camera with the same lens is going to look just as good as a 2005 camera with the same lens. That technology has lasted over 60 years. The problem with digital is everything is constantly changing.”

Results: Fincher was able to see takes instantly and delete unwanted ones on the fly. As a result, there were no happy accidents, as sometimes happen when film comes back from the lab, but no “miserable surprises” at editing time either, says Miranda.

Miranda’s ability to achieve Fincher’s naturalistic aesthetic using fairly straightforward lighting has led fellow cinematographers to approach Miranda. “They’ll say, ‘Damn, now I have to consider digital as an option,'” Miranda laughs. “That’s kind of a backhanded compliment from people who realize that, wow, digital can also look great.”

‘SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE’ Anthony Dod Mantle

Tools: Custom-made digital using a Silicon Imaging 2K digital cinema camera; Arriflex 35mm cameras; and Canon EOS-1D Mark III (CanonCam)

The Cutting Edge: Besides using the “CanonCam,” a Canon stills camera to record 12 frames per second for short bursts of live action, Mantle customized the digital SI-2K by separating the camera block from the recording block. He transferred images by setting up a cable system that went into a computer fitted into a backpack. To counteract any shaking, Mantle attached a gyro underneath the camera, bracketed together with pole and grip attachments on the top of the rig that allowed him to attach various other necessities, such as onboard remote focus and transmitters.

Drawbacks: Despite testing the SI-2K in saunas, Mantle says that overheating was a challenge when it came time to shoot. Dry ice was used to cool down the computer processing systems, but “we had crashes inevitably shooting in the way we did,” he says. “You have to learn to cope, and we did by the skin of our teeth.”

Results: With a camera in hand and a hard drive on his back, “Anthony looked like a rather cumbersome tourist from Denmark who was wandering around the slums,” director Danny Boyle remembers. But the camera gave Mantle the flexibility and freedom to move around in crowded conditions, resulting in magical-realistic footage that upended the original intention to use film for 75% of the shoot, and instead resulting in a 60% digital and 40% film stock ratio.

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