The American Society of Cinematographers

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King of Ping Pong
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Russell Carpenter, ASC doubles down and shoots digitally on the feature 21.

Unit photography by Peter Iovino
Since it originated in France in the 1700s, the game of Vingt-et-un, later Americanized as “Blackjack,” has been an obsession for millions of chance players the world over. The design of the game gives the house only a slight statistical advantage over the gambler. In the early 1990s, a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) mathematics students melded the art of card counting into an elaborate system of scouts and signals to beat the game and win big. Their experiences were chronicled by author Ben Mezrich in Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, and that book is the basis of the film 21, directed by Robert Luketic and shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter, ASC (Titanic; AC Dec. ’97).

21 follows Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a math student at MIT who is struggling to make ends meet. He catches the eye of one of his professors, statistical genius Mickey Rosa (Kevin Spacey), who tries to recruit him to be part of a card-counting team. Campbell is reluctant to join but is soon seduced by a comely fellow counter, Jill (Kate Bosworth).

“Our approach to the visuals was basically to establish a world of lines, predictability and subtle confinement in Boston and then counter it with the alien environment of the casinos, Vegas and money,” says Carpenter, who previously collaborated with Luketic on Monster-in-Law (AC June ’05). “I wanted Las Vegas to be about energy, wavelengths, bends and squiggles, a world in which color surrounds and engulfs its participants. Ben’s life at home and at school is modest and somewhat bland, and I wanted to show how the expansive universe that is Vegas might seduce him.”

In Boston, Carpenter worked to maintain linear angles and restricted the color palette to browns, yellows, blues and grays. Compositions often include two or three walls of a location to suggest Ben’s confinement. Once the counting crew moves to Las Vegas, the world opens up; shots feature larger spaces with fewer  straight lines and much richer colors. “It wasn’t a hard rule, and I wasn’t looking to beat it over the head,” says Carpenter, “but I tried to keep those looks in mind when differentiating the two worlds. In Boston, it would be rectangles, lots of practical lighting and no colors that you wouldn’t find naturally.

“I lit the lecture-hall scenes in an open, flat style, but when the card-counting group meets at night, I wanted to suggest something more clandestine, so I took pains to keep the light off the walls. I toplit those scenes with banks of 4-by-4 Kino Flos in a softbox and skirted the light carefully off the walls.

“For the Vegas portion, I did whatever I could to bring forth the unnatural and fabricated energy of the casinos, those colors you find nowhere else in the world, and record that energy as it exists.”

After scouting the Vegas locations, Carpenter decided to use Panavision’s hi-def Genesis camera to shoot the project. “I wanted to be true to those large, low-light locations rather than overpower them with film lighting, and I thought the Genesis would be a great tool to accomplish that,” he says. “Also, I knew I wanted to shoot with extremely long lenses and very wide apertures, and the ability to immediately see the image on a large HD screen and know I had the focus and the shot I needed was very appealing. I’ve done some work with other digital cameras, but I have a very strong relationship with Panavision, so we were inclined to go with the Genesis.”

Noting that he was a “digital virgin” before 21, Carpenter says the Genesis system integrated seamlessly with his usual methods. “It works so much like a film camera you hardly notice a difference,” he remarks.

“Although using the Genesis allowed me to get some great images with very little supplemental lighting, digital is not a free ride,” he observes. “You still have to do what you do on every job as a cinematographer: shape the light and create movement and compositions that serve the story and the director’s wishes. We shot with a lot of existing light in our Vegas casino interiors, but I always had a little something there to shape the light on the actors’ faces just right. Our goal was to capture the energy of Vegas as it really is and then augment just slightly.” He notes that key grip Phil Sloan was often busy taking away ambient lighting that did not “make sense” or serve the actors. “We also used a bit of negative fill,” he adds.

“At the Hard Rock Casino, there is very little light, but amazingly, we were able to shoot,” continues Carpenter. “I decided to shoot with a 360-degree shutter and added about half a stop of gain. I never went over that with the gain because it was too noisy for my taste. Overall, the Genesis was an invaluable tool for that environment.”

One feature of the Genesis is that the user can shut off the “shutter,” something that is impossible to do with a film camera without blurring the image. “Basically, it allows the CCD the maximum amount of time to collect light before it ‘dumps the charge’ and resets to capture the next frame of information,” explains Carpenter. In essence, you’re changing from a 1/48th-second exposure (24 fps at a 180-degree shutter) to a 1/24th-second exposure (24 fps at a 360-degree, or no, shutter). The longer exposure time allows approximately one additional stop of light but is also half the speed necessary to capture rapid movement, so motion blur or “trails” can appear around highlights. However, Carpenter attests that this was not a major problem on 21. “There are very minor motion artifacts that happen on the set with a 360-degree shutter, but they were not significant enough to be a problem. The only time the lack of shutter became a concern was at Planet Hollywood, where we had bright pillars of light in the architecture. When we were dollying quickly past the pillars in the foreground, we saw a trailing effect on the monitor.”

He notes, however, that the trail visible on the monitor did not translate to the recorded image. “As it turns out, the CRT monitors can’t react as fast as the CCD [chip], and we saw a pronounced trail on the CRT that was not being recorded to tape and will not be recorded out to film. Honestly, the motion artifacts were not the problem I thought they would be.”

Since the dawn of the digital revolution, the cinematographer’s mantra has been “protect your highlights,” because it’s a well-known axiom that digital imagery has the inverse characteristic curve of film, with a soft, sloping toe and a short shoulder. Once a highlight clips past 100 IRE, no detail can be recovered from that highlight ever again. Another axiom about digital is that it “sees deeper into the shadows.” On 21, Carpenter found these “truths” required modification. “I found the Genesis to be very, very good with highlights, but I also found I needed to protect my shadows more,” he says. “If you go with the popular wisdom and shoot for the highlights and then try to raise up the shadow detail in post, you might be surprised. Sure, there are details down there, but they won’t ‘come up’ in the subtle way we’re used to seeing on a film negative. When analyzing my frame in the raw mode on set, I definitely saw detail down in the ‘toe,’ but the one time I wanted to bring that ‘toe’ up in the digital timing, the information clumped up and didn’t rise in a subtle way. In the future, I might open up a third of a stop.

“I’ve heard that other digital cameras react to highlights and shadows the way everyone says they do, but I found the Genesis reacted more like a film stock than a digital CCD,” he adds. “I ended up using the Genesis the way I would [Kodak Vision2 500T] 5218 or something similar.”


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