High-tech films seek right mix of photography, CGI

Cinematography is no stranger to technology. From its origins over a century ago, the art of capturing moving images has gone hand in hand with advances in cameras, lenses, lighting, and film stocks — and, in the past 15 years, the advent of sophisticated digital tools.

The latest gamechanger is the integration of computer graphics with traditional cinematography that is revolutionizing the way films are shot. “For directors of photography, we are really entering the next stage in technology and where it’s going to go no one knows,” says Dan Mindel, the d.p. on “Star Trek.” Cinematographers are not only adapting, but also finding creative ways to go with the flow.

On “Star Trek,” a widescreen reboot of the original TV series, CGI accounts for about 60% of the movie and is used primarily in the numerous interplanetary spaceship battles. The remainder was shot on location or on sets to satisfy director J.J. Abrams’ desire to make the film look as realistic as possible. “There’s nothing worse than watching a movie where the CGI stands out so much that it looks artificial,” says Mindel.

One set piece, for example, was shot in the refrigeration unit of an Anheuser-Busch brewery in Southern California where lighting had to be kept to a minimum so the fermenting beer stayed chilled at a precise low temperature.

Our other challenge was to make all the pipes and valves and storage containers look like they belonged at the bottom of the Enterprise,” notes Mindel. Digital work by ILM, which did the vfx on the film, perfected the look.

Mindel constantly coordinated with Roger Guyett, ILM’s vfx supervisor. “We had a symbiotic relationship that enabled me to give him exactly what he needed so he could give us back effects that were just right,” says the d.p.

Another example of the complex integration of live action and CGI in the film was the dramatic “jump” sequence where the Narada ship is drilling into the core of Vulcan to destroy it, and three crew members plummet from an Enterprise shuttle toward the disintegrating planet.

Shooting of the scene began on a set built in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, and then moved to the Paramount backlot. There, stuntmen were rigged on wires and photographed to give the illusion they were falling into the molten planet rendered in CGI.

On summer sci-fi hit “District 9,” director of photography Trent Opaloch employed a kinetic, pseudo-verite style akin to that of a news cameraman.

The cinematography documents the tale of a horde of insect-like extraterrestrials that have descended from a space ship hovering over Johannesburg and stayed on as unwelcome squatters, crowding the city’s revolted residents.

The “prawns,” as they are called, are largely CGI creations, inserted after the filming.

The big issue for Opaloch was deciding where to aim the digital Red-One camera.

The solution was to utilize motion capture, technology that uses an actor with sensors attached to serve as a proxy for the creature. Jason Cope, who played most of the aliens, was in a mo-cap suit studded with black targets on white tracking balls.

While filming took place in South Africa, Vancouver-based vfx house Image Engine designed and rotoscoped in the creatures that would become the 3-D aliens seen by moviegoers.

The biggest thing is the coordination so everyone is on the same page,” says Opaloch. Director Neill Blomkamp, with an extensive background in special effects, played a key role.

There was surprisingly little greenscreen used in “District 9,” and, curiously, the major scene employing the technique ended up on the cutting-room floor. “It’s when you actually ascend and go into the interior of the mothership,” says Opaloch. “Somehow it didn’t make it in, but I’m sure it will be on the DVD.”

Award-winning Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe lensed both “The Road” and “The Twilight Saga: New Moon.” Each employs CGI and greenscreen but in different degrees.

For “The Road,” a story of a father and son trying to survive in a ravaged, post-apocalyptic future, the d.p. and director John Hillcoat agreed to keep visual effects to a minimum.

On the other hand, for vampire love story “New Moon,” the smash sequel to “Twilight,” which Aguirresarobe also lensed, a lot of VFX is used.

There is fantastic digital compositing work in ‘The Road,’ but only in very specific situations,” says Aguirresarobe.

These effects include the insertion of the cannibal house seen at the end of a forbidding road, and the view of two lines of destroyed houses that are from a plate that was shot in an area of New Orleans especially hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina.

On the other hand, “New Moon” sports an abundance of scenes dependent on CGI and green screen, such as the battles between fierce werewolves and forest vampires.

Our main challenge was to get continuity in the light, texture and contrast in these scenes so it would fit with the CGI,” says the lenser.

“I have always thought that d.p.’s are at the service of the story, and are there to explain visually the director’s idea,” says Aguirresarobe. “If we need vfx to tell a story in a better way, then why not do it? But it’s another thing to be seduced totally by the visual effects.”

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