The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents January 2007 Return to Table of Contents
Pan's Labyrinth
Allen Daviau, ASC
Little Children
DVD Playback
Production Slate
Post Focus
Death of a President
HPA Awards
Christies Projector
Short Takes
ASC Close-Up
A Counterfeit Documentary

Death of a President, directed by Gabriel Range and shot by Graham Smith, is a fictionalized documentary set two years in the future, after an assassin has felled President George W. Bush during a chaotic protest. The controversial film, which has sparked heated media debates over its subject matter, combines re-enactments, archival material and faux interviews to paint an eerily credible portrait of a whodunit and its aftermath.

Donall McCusker, the film’s head of production, outlines the variety of formats used to lend the movie its mixed-media texture: “The interviews and re-created material were shot primarily in 1080/25p HDCam on a Sony F750 supplied by Fletcher Chicago. Two to three F750s were used to cover some of the bigger scenes. We also used a 16mm camera owned by Graham Smith for general views and aerials. We had a DigiBeta camera mounted on a helicopter. We supplemented this with a PAL Sony PD-150. We also used a digital still camera, mobile-phone cameras, a small consumer Sony HD camera, and lipstick cameras.

“For our re-creation scenes, we didn’t always want the pro look, so sometimes we gave the prosumer cameras to the actors,” he continues. “The goal was to create a tapestry of different looks and multiple strands of material.”

Archival footage further increased the variety of formats, bringing mostly Beta and VHS NTSC material into the mix. The filmmakers also managed to grab original shots of Bush when he visited Chicago on two separate occasions.

The mock interviews were shot on HDCam in a special mirrored set, using a technique pioneered on Range and Smith’s previous project, The Day Britain Stopped. “The interviews were done on a soundstage,” says McCusker. “We ended up with the camera shooting from the studio’s doorway, with a large mirror reflecting the set back 80 to 90 feet from the camera. The set is effectively a palette of colors. Each character is supposed to be in a separate location, but we wanted the interviews to have a degree of visual continuity.”

Central to the film’s verisimilitude was the final grade, carried out by colorist Ross Baker at M2 in London. Range selected Baker after sending him some footage from the film for a test run. “Gabriel sent me a seven-minute sequence to play with,” recalls Baker. “I told him I wouldn’t be able to make the archive footage look much better, but I’d work a lot harder on the HD material. I made that look more convincing and more like the archival footage. I graded the interviews to look as much like 35mm as possible, with isolated, punchy contrast and smooth, crisp color.”

The film was posted over a six-month period on an Avid Media Composer and the director’s Avid Xpress Pro system from nearly 200 hours of raw footage and conformed on an Avid DS Nitris. Baker then utilized Digital Vision’s Nucoda Film Master system to combine archival footage with the newly shot material to achieve aesthetic consistency. Death of a President was Baker’s first major assignment with the Nucoda, and he was impressed with its capabilities. “I’ve primarily used da Vinci and [Pandora] Pogle for color correction, but this new system is fantastic,” he says. “It’s a little like using Adobe Photoshop, because you’ve got unlimited layers and you can just build and build on them. It can create isolation windows, draw bezier shapes, pretty much anything you want. You can draw a box and track what you want to [correct] automatically in real time. It’s all quite new for us [colorists]. We’re accustomed to frame-by-frame keying.

“With the Nucoda,” he continues, “there’s background rendering as well as foreground. You don’t have to wait for rendering, especially at HD resolution. You can always play in real time without rendering. It can also do a 2:1 proxy render when you are working at 2K resolution. The more layers you add, the slower the project will run. Because this movie was HD resolution and we didn’t have that many layers going on, relatively speaking, it always ran in real time without any proxies.”

The project’s level of complexity and compressed post schedule put the Nucoda’s real-time capabilities and speed to the test, as Baker sometimes found that the re-created material didn’t quickly mix with the archival footage. “Even though the acting and angles were matching, the new footage didn’t feel real the way the archive footage did,” notes Baker. “The archival material came from a variety of standard-definition sources, so the only way to make it work was to downconvert some of our HD material to DigiBeta. That gave it the right motion characteristics and image definition.”

Given the film’s premise, the number of visual-effects shots required was surprisingly small. These were handled by Lola Post Production in London. “There are about 13 true visual-effects shots, but I hope the CG isn’t noticed at all,” says McCusker. “We used it to put our actors into archival shots or shots we got of Bush in Chicago. The goal was to establish a clear relationship between our actors and Bush. We had a double for him in some shots, but the match wasn’t perfect, so we did little things like shift his collar up to make the look more convincing. In one instance, we gave him a little more hair, and we did a face replacement in one shot. There were also crowd-extension shots and vehicle removals. The rest of the illusion is [accomplished with] very clever editing.”

Baker credits the Nucoda system with helping the filmmakers meet their deadline for the Toronto Film Festival, where Death of a President had its premiere. “We graded for a week and a half, and some days were quite intense,” he recalls. “With the real-time nature of the Nucoda, I could jump through the film very fast, because everything is nonlinear. Once we’d settled on the look of a scene, I could apply those changes to all the other [excerpts from] that scene elsewhere in the film.” McCusker adds, “Ross was working day and night to get the work done. The visual-effects elements were coming in last. We’d online, grade with Ross on the Nucoda, go back into online for our captions, then finally print back to tape.” When the grading was complete, the film was conformed and finished in HDCam.

Death of a President was screened digitally in Toronto from the HDCam master at 1080/25p. The film’s success there led to a theatrical-distribution deal, and the U.S. distributor, Newmarket Films, wanted to release the picture on 35mm just a few weeks later. “When Newmarket bought the film, suddenly we had a delivery date, and we had about 10 days to get everything done,” recalls McCusker. “Deluxe/EFilm in Hollywood did our filmouts, and they were able to provide us with five Arrilasers, so we effectively burned it out in one night. Deluxe Toronto did the release prints, and they had our HD master for reference. They sent us a 35mm check print that looked great, and then we were off to the theaters.”

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