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Four top flight cinematographers tell Filmmaker the process of deciding what format to shoot on for their latest films.

We like to imagine that the choices made by directors and cinematographers when lensing their features are unrestricted ones, and that the images on the screen are all the result of precisely made decisions. But, in the real world, budgetary, production and technical factors intrude, and sometimes in conflicting ways. A format that may produce an optimum image in production may cause complications in post. Or, more happily, budgeting a digital intermediate may allow for faster on-set decisions. Below, we talked to four d.p.‘s — Andrij Parekh, Tim Orr, Sean Kirby and Ellen Kuras to learn about the decisions they are in the midst of their current shoots.

ANDRIJ PAREKH. PHOTO BY: MACALL B. POLAY

New York, I Love You follows up last year‘s Paris, je t‘aime in its urban revisiting of the classic portmanteau film. Twelve directors each helm shorts all set in and dealing with the Big Apple. Directors include art-film superstars like Fatih Akin and Mira Nair, actors-turned directors such as Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman, and studio-based directors like Allen Hughes and Brett Ratner. From the New York City indie world comes Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace), who teams with Half Nelson d.p. Andrij Parekh in a short entitled Coney Island set in Brighton Beach about an old, bickering couple (played by Cloris Leachman and Eli Wallach) out for a walk on their 63rd wedding anniversary. As you can read below, Marston and Parekh‘s choice of format was largely dictated by circumstances beyond their control: the production‘s desire to shoot all the shorts on a single format.

What format are you shooting your new project and what was the process you embarked upon to arrive at this choice? We are shooting with the Panavision Genesis. The production determined quite early on that most of the shorts in the film would be shooting with the Genesis. A few of the shorts have requested to shoot on film for a number of reasons, but after doing some very basic tests and then color correcting them in a DI suite and printing them to film at Technicolor NY, Josh and I agreed that we would embrace the format.

Were there formats you were interested in shooting but that you discarded? If so, what were the reasons? Our choice was between shooting Panavision 35mm or Panavison Genesis. Both formats use the same lenses and camera support. One is emulsion-based and the other digital. Our main concern regarding format is that we are shooting day exteriors at Brighton Beach with a number of wide shots which I won‘t be able to control or significantly manipulate. And day exteriors are where video is aesthetically and technically challenged as a format — both highlight and shadow detail need to be protected. After seeing our exterior day tests, there were still some lingering concerns, but we decided to go with the Genesis anyway. One of the reasons that allowed us to embrace shooting HD was that Josh‘s script calls for a number of long takes involving heavy dialogue, and we wanted to reduce the pressure on both the actors and ourselves to get the performances in as few takes as possible.

What specific elements of the script and story influenced your decision to shoot this particular format? What was your creative process working with the director to come up with or support this choice? Josh had a number of long tracking shots in mind — some on a dolly and some on a crane — and we will be shooting a number of sequences in one shot (with a possible second shot to provide coverage in the editing room). Given the fact that we will be shooting long dialogue sequences, it seemed that shooting HD made sense.

How will your format choice affect the physical production in terms of making it easier or, depending on your choice, more challenging? Are there budgetary ramifications? I find that shooting video actually takes more time, not less, than shooting on film. One has to be extremely particular regarding lighting. The main problem is that what you are looking at on the monitor is what you are going to get, and that seems to create an obsessive perfectionist attitude in both the d.p. and the director, as well as anyone else who is standing by the monitor. I find that shooting video leads to more tweaking and less shooting, so by the end of a 12-hour day, you probably have done almost the same amount of work (in terms of numbers of takes) as you would have done by shooting film. There is the idea that one can roll and roll and roll, but it never seems to happen.  Sure, you don‘t have to cut, but then you just bombard the editor with a ton of material. It‘s tricky. There is something about letting go and trusting the medium of film, which doesn‘t really occur in video. And when shooting video you rarely allow for the “mistakes” like lens flare, etc. to happen, and these kind of mistakes can lead to images far more beautiful and enchanting than anything you had originally planned. You also need to be in a black box to look at the monitor (to judge exposure, etc.), so instead of being at the camera, operating, with the director next to me, close to the actors, I will be in a black tent! It‘s a bit alienating; process is important for me.  

What advances have occurred recently in technology or postproduction lab practices that are affecting — again, for the positive or negative — your cinematography on this film?  We are shooting on video, and will be going through the DI process. It‘s the endless oils or acrylics debate....  

TIM ORR. PHOTO BY: VEN REDIN

Having lensed such films as George Washington, Raising Victor Vargas, All the Real Girls and the upcoming Choke, d.p. Tim Orr is capable of an unusually varied range of styles, from painterly widescreen compositions to handheld vérité looks. His most recent feature is Sean Anders‘s Untitled Teen Road Movie, which tells the story of a group of teens accompanying their buddy on a trip where he‘ll lose his virginity.

What format are you shooting your new project and what was the process you embarked upon to arrive at this choice? We‘re shooting 3-perf Super 35 1.85. When I started the project the producers told me they were budgeted for 3-perf and a DI, so the 3-perf decision was already made for us. There is no difference in image quality between 3-perf and 4-perf, and shooting 3-perf locks you into the DI.

Were there formats you were interested in shooting but that you discarded? If so, what were the reasons? The director, Sean Anders, was interested in shooting widescreen, so we talked about those options. Anamorphic was discarded early on. I felt it would be a bit too cumbersome for our needs. The genre, production schedule and logistics did not support what comes along with that format: limited depth of field, a deeper stop for night work and larger/heavier lenses. Also, it would have put us back into 4-perf, which would have become a greater burden on the budget. We then discussed Super 35 2.35, but in considering all the elements of the production, and the fact that a significant amount of the story takes place in a car, 1.85 felt like a more appropriate format.

What specific elements of the script and story influenced your decision to shoot this particular format? What was your creative process working with the director to come up with or support this choice? There were two main things to consider in choosing 1.85 over 2.35. One related to story and the other to location. The story is about three friends who take a road trip from Chicago to Tennessee so that one of them can lose their virginity to a girl he met on the Internet. The film is about character and friendship, so 1.85 felt a bit more intimate and appropriate. The other consideration hinged upon shooting south Florida for the Midwest. This presented certain challenges in framing the landscape to match the part of the country that the story is set in, and limiting the expanse of the terrain was a bit easier in 1.85.

How will your format choice affect the physical production in terms of making it easier or, depending on your choice, more challenging? Are there budgetary ramifications? Other formats like HD and Super 16 were never considerations for this project, and once anamorphic was taken off the table, the choice of format came down to aspect ratio and 3-perf vs. 4-perf. Shooting 3-perf saves 25 percent in film stock and lab processing. When budgeted for a DI, there is no budgetary difference between shooting Super 35 2.35 or 1.85. The only budgetary ramification with 3-perf Super 1.85 is that there is a greater chance of a “hair in the gate.” This format uses virtually all of the negative area from perf to perf, and there is very little room at the top and bottom of the frame. This can incur an additional time on set if you need to do another take because of a bad gate, and it can incur additional “dust busting” expense in post.

What advances have occurred recently in technology or postproduction lab practices that are affecting — again, for the positive or negative — your cinematography on this film? Knowing that we would be doing a DI certainly affected the way I exposed the film and how I worked on the set. If I know that a film will be finished photochemically, then I will typically build in a certain amount of overexposure to insure a thicker negative. This allows me to get a richer print and limit the amount of grain. If I know that I will be color correcting the film via the DI, then I build in little to no overexposure. In my experience too much overexposure in day exteriors can produce noise in the DI, and the thicker negative, in general, is not as necessary. That said, I feel that you still need to be careful with exposure and contrast ratios. I can also save some time on set when I know what tools I can use in the digital intermediate. Instead of taking the time to hang a teaser or set a flag to cut excessive light on walls, you can use a power window in the DI suite. Having the ability to vary the levels of saturation and contrast in the DI can eliminate the need to use special processing and the use of filters, which can reduce sharpness. Having this technology is a wonderful tool, but it is important to keep in mind its limitations and not to lean too heavily upon it.

SEAN KIRBY

For the shooting of Lovely, Still, a holiday fable that tells the story of an elderly man discovering love for the first time, director Nik Fackler turned to d.p. Sean Kirby, best known for his cinematography of Rob Devor‘s Police Beat and Zoo. The film stars Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn and was produced by Dana Altman, Lars Knudsen and Jay Van Hoy.

When I signed on to Lovely, Still it had already been decided that 35mm was the preferred format by the producers and director. I think the decision for 35mm was initiated by the idea that director Nik Fackler‘s visual approach to the story was to create the illusion of a fable as it‘s about a man, Robert Malone (Martin Landau), who falls in love for the first time. Nik was interested in a very visual film and 35mm made the most sense. Almost immediately the producers and I began to explore 3-perf 35mm as opposed to 4-perf 35mm for the cost savings. 3-perf would essentially allow us to use the large format but with a quarter less in cost of film stock and processing.

But when we went to hunt down a camera package, we realized that we weren‘t the only ones with the bright idea of using 3-perf. There are now a lot of television shows and more and more films using the 3-perf format. We had a hard time finding a package and when we did, it was significantly more expensive than 4-perf in upfront camera rental costs. Finally we got a good bid from Oppenheimer Camera in Seattle, who had supplied camera packages on a number of my previous features, including Zoo and Police Beat.

For the most part, choosing 3-perf is an easy decision once you find the right package. It does not change much in the shooting process, save for reloading less often.

It does, however, commit you to a Digital Intermediate for finishing rather than cutting negative and printing. This has its benefits and complications. Using 3-perf allowed me to use a Super 1.85 aspect ratio because with the DI, we no longer needed to leave room for the soundtrack. This was great because we were gaining about 18 percent in the size of the negative. This means less grain. However it also meant that we would not get to see the film until the final print. We originally wanted to print some 3-perf dailies to watch the raw work but it was nearly impossible to find a 3-perf projector, so I was able only to watch DVcam dailies during production. This makes it tough to really judge the subtitles of exposure and color, as there is a colorist in between the negative and the dailies. Also the transfer was being done as a “flat transfer” so it was with little contrast and saturation. Because DI transfers at this point are not standardized in many ways, I had relied a lot on my experience of previous DIs to extrapolate the sense of color and exposure from the dailies.

Lovely, Still takes place in a fictitious town called Cedar Heights near Omaha, Nebraska. Although the film takes place in the present day, Nik wanted there to be a timeless, almost slightly period feeling to the film. While I had initially thought of using the more modern Cooke S4 lenses on the film, the cost of the 3-perf camera package made them too expensive. As I began to think about it, the older Zeiss Super Speeds seemed to be a better approach to a timeless period feel.

The film takes place around Christmastime, so we worked in elements of Christmas lighting as much as we could. The gaffer, Dave Palm, and I also designed a bunch of new lights for this project to add to the mood of the picture and help the feeling of a fable. We had a number of homemade lights to create the illusion of a Christmas glow by weaving this idea into almost every frame. Even if the scene did not have Christmas lights, we “bounced” the effect in so that even if we didn‘t see them, we felt their presence.

ELLEN KURAS.

The untitled project currently in production from director Sam Mendes is a cross-country road movie written by novelist Dave Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida. It tells the story of a couple, trying to have their first child, who travel throughout America looking at the ways in which children are being raised today. To shoot the film, Mendes turned to Ellen Kuras, the acclaimed cinematographer whose credits include Be Kind, Rewind, Personal Velocity, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Coffee and Cigarettes and Shine a Light.

What format are you shooting your new project, and what was the process you embarked upon to arrive at this choice? I am shooting spherical Super 35mm for blow up to widescreen 2:40.

Originally I had thought to shoot anamorphic because of the lenses‘painterly quality, but opted to go with the Panavision Ultra Speeds because getting an anamorphic set is virtually impossible with all of the films in production currently shooting in New York City and Connecticut. Interestingly, in this time when shooting digital is becoming more common, there are as many if not more films being shot in anamorphic. For Sam‘s film, I was looking for a slightly retro feel, and so looking into the older lenses made sense to me. What I ended up discovering is that these particular spherical lenses are better suited to this film; I was looking for lenses that flatten out the image and reduce some of the inherent contrast like that found in the Primo sets because part of the look of this film involves landscapes that are almost depicted as murals.

Were there formats you were interested in shooting that you discarded? If so, what were the reasons? I was interested in the anamorphics (we knew we wanted to shoot for 2:40) but soon realized that the sphericals were more appropriate for this film. As I said, we needed an almost picture postcard feeling — a flatness to the image which inherently lives in these older lenses.

What specific elements of the script and story influenced your decision to shoot this particular format? What was your creative process working with the director to come up with or support this choice? The director spoke about wanting to capture wide shots of landscape and to posit the characters and action within that landscape. In talking about traveling — the characters traveling to other cities to find a home and the idea of traveling literally through the beautiful, long, lithe composition of the 2:40 frame — the format affords us with wonderful composition possibilities.

How will your format choice affect the physical production in terms of making it easier or, depending on your choice, more challenging? It is more challenging because of the deliverables, although having to deliver the 4:3 version is becoming less of a necessity. It‘s still being required of films that will sell to the airlines, etc. Being able to also make a 1:85 letterbox version is becoming more the norm. Again, no matter what, the 2:40 frame ends up being compromised because of the various aspect ratios in use in the States. Trying to extract a 4:3 square box with common head and common bottom out of a widescreen 2:40 is a travesty of justice! It totally changes the original composition. Many people talk about how widescreen is more expensive, more difficult, etc. because the camera sees more. Hmm...I‘m of two minds about that one. Production designers are usually very thorough anyway and they manage to present enough dressed area to shoot. Lights usually can‘t be so close to the action as one may want, but these are the trade-offs.

Are there budgetary ramifications? Yes, in that if I was shooting anamorphic, I might need larger or more lights to give a better T stop. The anamorphic lenses can be mushy at low stops like 2.8 and the depth of field drops off dramatically, making focus difficult. Shooting at deeper stops means more lights which means more money. The Ultra Speeds that I am using are fantastic, though, in that they are T1.9 and T1.3.

What advances have occurred recently in technology or postproduction lab practices that are affecting, again, for the positive or negative, your cinematography on this film? The most obvious development has been the DI — the digital intermediate.

That means that the negative is scanned into data at 2K or 4K, for example, and then color-corrected in a DI suite, then filmed out onto film again. Many studios are budgeting for DIs now because it‘s in their favor to do so. Once there is a digital version of the film, all of the different versions for deliverables are much easier and cheaper to do. Making the 4:3, the 1:85 pan and scan, etc. is much easier because the entire negative is available for reformatting.

Studios are also pushing to shoot 3-perf when going to a DI — they know that there is a big savings in stock costs. 3-perf mags last minutes longer than when in 4-perf. Therein lies other restrictions, though, because it‘s rare that a lab would have a 3-perf projector, and the best way to see 3-perf dailies is on a loc-pro [a location projector].



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