Revving up digital cinematography
By Carolyn Giardina
|Pictured: Director Michael Mann with the Viper FilmStream digital camera on the set of "Collateral"|
Leave it to Michael Mann to shake up the system. The Oscar-nominated director famous for gritty yet visually dazzling depictions of urban life and an uncompromising attitude toward his craft is now ushering digital filmmaking from the extreme reaches of science fiction and low-budget indie into the realm of high-profile studio thriller. The director has elected to use Thomson Grass Valley's Viper FilmStream camera for his upcoming "Collateral," the Tom Cruise-starrer financed by DreamWorks and Paramount, scheduled for an Aug. 6 release.
As the first director to road-test the Viper -- much anticipated as the first cinema camera capable of storing images as data, directly to a hard drive -- Mann's choices are worth noting in a creative community coming to grips with the practicalities and pitfalls of digital imaging.
The Viper isn't the only camera Mann is using to shoot the movie, which he describes as a "multimedia" effort. He's using the Sony CineAlta high-definition camera, as well as shooting film, but of the roughly 80% of the finished film Mann estimates he's captured digitally, about 80% originated from the Viper.
Mann says his choice was driven by the film's creative needs. The story -- of a veteran hit man (Cruise) who hijacks a cab and forces the driver (Jamie Foxx) to traverse the streets of Los Angeles, transporting him from job to job until the LAPD and the FBI begin to pursue the vehicle -- seems well-suited to electronic cameras.
"Everything is pretty much driven by story, and this whole picture takes place at night," the director says. "I wanted to see into the night. I wanted the night to be alive so that it becomes very three-dimensional. That's what I was trying to get," says Mann, kicking back at the Santa Monica offices that house his production company, Forward Pass.
"There was a quality to the Viper cam that I responded to," says Mann, who is no stranger to digital cameras, having employed high-definition video for the opening sequences of his 2001 biopic "Ali." In particular, he says, the Viper's color imaging worked well for this particular film. "It had to do with the sensitivity of reds and yellows and oranges. This was not only seeing deeply into the night, seeing what you see with the naked eye and something more than you can see with the naked eye, but also the color information. It had an aesthetic that I wanted."
The Viper operates in several modes. At the high end is FilmStream, which captures unprocessed imagery -- no color correction, no compression -- in the 4:4:4 RGB color space, the full color range of an electronic image signal. (While analog film still offers significantly greater color sensitivity than any electronic medium, 4:4:4 RGB is the highest level currently offered in the electronic realm. Film scanned into the digital domain for effects manipulation or what have you is scanned at 4:4:4 RGB. By way of comparison, broadcast HD operates in a 4:2:2 YUV environment, subsampling in blue and red. The Viper also offers 4:2:2 options.)
Though other high-end digital cameras, including the CineAlta, also shoot in 4:4:4 RGB, Thomson vp strategic marketing and business development Jeff Rosica says that what sets the Viper apart is the proprietary CCDs that capture the image as well as the way the data, once acquired, is distributed. The CCDs capture 12-bit linear image, which is then transmitted and stored at 10-bit log space. "Because it's logarithmic, it actually emulates the most important properties of a 12-bit linear signal," says Rosica. The signal is then transferred to a recording device via a dual-link serial HD connection.
Mann and his team began an extensive testing phase by recording material in FilmStream onto a DVS digital disk recorder. "The total capacity was 55 minutes, and it took 35 hours to download (to videotape for dailies)," Mann says. "So obviously that wasn't ready for feature film production."
Next, they tested S.two digital mags to store the uncompressed raw data. "So our storage went down to something that was physically manageable in a much more compact hard drive," Mann says. "But what it posed upon us was a long-term storage capacity of 330 terabytes, which is economically unfeasible with the current limits of the drive technology." (A terabyte of storage costs about $50,000.)
Mann then decided "to see what would happen if we put a mild compression on (the images)" and switched to Viper's VideoStream mode, which offers a 10-bit 4:4:4 RGB video, as opposed to data, signal and provides light image processing allowing for truer color reproduction in the field. "With FilmStream you're getting raw data. VideoStream functions more like a normal high-def camera, which allowed him to control the ASA," says "Collateral" associate producer Bryan Carroll.
Both modes lens in 2.37:1 widescreen without any loss of vertical resolution.
"We took it all the way to the equivalent of a release print, so it's not like we were looking at something on a monitor and taking it on faith," Mann says.
While employing the latest in digital imaging technologies, Mann took care to note that his storytelling fundamentals are essentially unchanged. "In our system, we impose on everybody the grammar and syntax that we are shooting film. All the disciplines apply, and that's very important on the floor during production. We are mixing a digital culture with a film culture, and it has to be film grammar."
That approach drove the design of a massive workflow system that brought together the material from the film camera, Viper, and the other camera system Mann employed, Sony's CineAlta F900 HD. The HDCAM footage essentially had to be handled as camera negative. Everything that was shot -- film and digital -- was digitized into Avids for postproduction, during which a digital color grading session will take place.
Mann cites Carroll as well as Thomson's Mark Chiolis, Laser Pacific's Leon Silverman and Terry Brown and Panavision's Nolan Murdock as integral to working out the bugs in the system.
Prior to filming, a team including Mann and A-camera operator Gary Jay, (who has worked with Mann since 1992's "The Last of the Mohicans") guided modifications to the Viper.
"The camera body itself wasn't ergonomic for use on a production," Mann says. "We wanted weights added to the rear of the camera to increase the mass and balance back there. We needed rods for the matte box and focus-bracket system because we do a lot of hand-holding. The control buttons needed covers because you could unbalance the camera and not know you did it. This is small stuff, but it's major when you just got done having a take that's brilliant, or you think that the actors were brilliant and it looks perfect, and you find out you switched it to FilmStream."
With his arsenal of camera technology, production began and Mann focused his attention on directing. Dion Beebe ("Chicago") came on board as director of photography.
As 27 pages of the "Collateral" screenplay take place in a car, mobility was a priority. There were some limitations as the Viper was cabled to its recording deck. Mann says that when he wanted complete mobility for handheld work, the crew used the CineAlta F900 (which is configured more like a camcorder, recording to either standard Sony HDCAM or SW tapes).
"The benefit is that there is a 55-minute tape, so in that sense there are fewer interruptions," Mann says. "(With film) if you are hand holding and you have a 400-foot mag in there, every three minutes and 45 seconds you are having to stop." (There are third-party developers working on Viper recording options, including a portable drive to enable cinematographers to work untethered.)
Creatively, he says, "there's no silver bullet in all of this. ... You have to know what you want, more so than film. In film, you can rely on certain conventional looks, almost like a perceptual preset about what you're used to having. Not so in video, it's a much broader spectrum so you have to know what you want.
"What I like about the Viper is it sees colors, it sees things, in a different way," Mann says. "People are reaching for more expressive ways to visualize and have emotional impact. That's what it all comes down to, the emotional impact to tell a story."