The American Society of Cinematographers

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Die Hard 4
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John McClane is back for more action in Live Free or Die Hard, shot by Simon Duggan, ACS.

Unit still photography by Frank Masi, SMPSP and Peter “Hopper” Stone
In 1988, Die Hard rejuvenated the action-film genre and popularized everyman hero John McClane (Bruce Willis), a modern-day cowboy whose quick thinking and even quicker one-liners belied a troubled personal life. In that film, McClane overcame daunting odds to dispatch the bad guys and save the day in a Los Angeles high-rise office building, where McClane was attempting to reconcile with his estranged wife. Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth and perhaps final installment in the franchise, is set almost 20 years after the events of the first film, but McClane is no less troubled. Now a retired cop, he is divorced and a recovering alcoholic. Assigned by the Department of Homeland Security to transport hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) into custody, McClane must fend off attacks by a gang of cyber-terrorists led by Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), who believe the ethical hacker, or “white hat,” will be a threat to their ambitions. As the gang systematically shuts down the nation’s critical and financial infrastructure, McClane leaps into action in his usual inimitable style.  

“McClane is older and a bit wiser, but age certainly hasn’t wearied him,” confirms the film’s cinematographer, Simon Duggan, ACS. “Live Free or Die Hard is an incredibly kinetic movie; everyone and everything is always on the move.” To make the film, Duggan reteamed with director Len Wiseman, with whom he had previously collaborated on Underworld: Evolution. The duo’s goal was to make Live Free or Die Hard look as realistic as possible. “I know that sounds almost contradictory,” says Duggan, “but we both felt that although Die Hard was groundbreaking for its time, audiences now are incredibly discerning about the level of realism they expect from action films. McClane is very much an everyman character, and the film is set in a recognizable, real world, so even when the events are pushing the boundaries of reality, the audience doesn’t want to be taken out of the moment. Shooting a large part of the movie on location, the style of the stunt work, and the cinematography all came from a desire to create a sense of realism.”  

Duggan shot Live Free or Die Hard in Super 35mm using an Arri package supplied by Clairmont Cameras. “Our kit consisted of two lightweight Arricam LTs, a couple of 435s and the compact 235. The 235 is my personal favorite; it’s a great handheld camera and you can squeeze it into the tightest of spaces.” The cinematographer used Cooke S4 primes and Angenieux Optimo zooms. “I’ve used the Cookes a lot. They’re very sharp but not in an artificial way, and they have a certain roundness to them. I often used wider lenses. Between 21mm and 40mm, you feel more a part of the action and get a greater sense of the environment. The B and C cameras were by necessity on longer lenses, around 60mm to 75mm, depending on the shot.”  

At least two cameras were used for each setup; one was always on a Steadicam and the others were usually handheld. For dolly shots, Duggan had the operator place the camera on a Cinesaddle rather than a head. “It’s just a more kinetic way of shooting and gives you a different kind of movement in the frame,” he explains. As befits a story that involves cyberspace, the movie is littered with insert shots of fingers typing on computer keyboards, and Duggan decided to give many of these shots a dynamic feel by using a Revolution snorkel lens for wide-angle close-ups.  

The cinematographer shot the picture on two Kodak Vision2 stocks, 500T 5218 (often pushed 1 stop and rated at ISO 800) for studio and night work and 250D 5205 (rated at ISO 200) for day-exterior work. “I shot most of the film around f2.8 to f4, with the exteriors around the f5.6 mark because I prefer more depth outside,” says Duggan. “I also pushed the negative as I needed to. I often push stocks and feel very comfortable doing so when I know I’m going to a digital intermediate [DI], because contrast and color shifts are easy to correct.”  

For logistical and aesthetic reasons, much of Live Free or Die Hard was shot on location. “The sheer size of places like the Edison Power Plant at Redondo Beach could never have been built in a studio, but more importantly, the Die Hard films are very much about the environments where the action takes place — everyone remembers the Nakatomi Plaza from the first film,” notes Duggan. “For this movie, we made great use of roads, tunnels and a variety of industrial locations. Len and I believed shooting on actual locations whenever we could was the only way to go.”  

When asked if a location-heavy shoot might dilute the role of the production designer, Duggan disagrees. “Not at all. This is my third film in a row with Patrick [Tatopoulos], after I, Robot [see AC July ’04] and Underworld: Evolution, and my communication with him and his team on this movie was just as essential, if not more so. They built some amazing sets onstage that were important to the plot but impossible to shoot on location, including FBI headquarters, an elevator shaft that McClane crashes down inside his vehicle, and a massive cooling tower that features a dramatic fight sequence. On a larger scale, Patrick’s team built a 1,000-foot section of concrete freeway for a fighter-plane attack on McClane’s truck. We talked constantly about the angles Len and I wanted to shoot; Len likes to shoot from low angles into ceilings, so we were very seldom able to put rigging overhead. Patrick always considered how I planned to light a set and incorporate it into his designs.”  

The action in Live Free or Die Hard essentially starts in Washington, D.C., when McClane and Farrell, riding in a police car, are chased by members of Gabriel’s gang, who are in a helicopter. Duggan recalls, “We shot Baltimore for Washington in these opening sequences, and it was important to give them a warmer look that would contrast with the blue-green palette of the later night scenes. While I tried to work in the shadow of the tall buildings as much as possible, the pace of shooting meant we ran the gamut of lighting conditions — morning and afternoon shade, full sunlight, rain, and even night for day. Knowing we’d finish with a DI gave me the confidence to keep shooting late into the day.” (The DI was carried out at Company 3 with colorist Siggy Ferstl.)  

Knowing he would need to match footage shot under diverse conditions during the timing process, Duggan tested several looks for the scenes shot in Baltimore. “I found a slightly warm sepia tone that worked beautifully with the sandstone tones of the buildings and skin tones, and it also fit the mood of a warm summer day.” To previsualize looks, he took digital stills and tweaked the images in Photoshop. “Those images were then used as references by the telecine operator. I compared the screen on my laptop to his screen, we lined them up so we had the same visual reference, and that was it. It was a low-tech approach, and it worked perfectly.”  

In order to maximize shooting time, Duggan kept his day-exterior lighting concepts simple. “Maintaining a good pace on set benefits everyone, and Bruce is so familiar with his character by now that he was always eager to move ahead. There are so many logistical considerations involved in location shooting that simple is usually best. My approach was often to use HMI fixtures for harder backlight and directional soft bounce for fill.”  

The action quickly moves from daylight into darkness as McClane and Farrell’s police car is forced into an underground tunnel by the villains’ helicopter. The terrorists, who have gained control over the computerized traffic-control system, direct vehicles into the one-way tunnel from both ends, and sequentially turn out the lights, plunging the tunnel into almost complete darkness. “This is the first major sequence in the film, and it was very time-consuming to set up,” recalls Duggan. “The location was a working 1,000-foot-long service road, part of which was open to the ground level. To create the tunnel effect, we blacked out the rest of the road and then lit it with about 60 Lumapanels mounted along its length. Rigging gaffer D.J. Lootens and his crew had to lay miles of DMX cable, as every single tube in each panel was linked to a control desk. When the Lumapanels are turned off, the main source becomes the headlights of the cars, which we supplemented with tracking and panning Source Four Lekos through the shots, using them as back- and rimlight. For very low-level fill, and to create some color contrast, I used more Lumapanels as bounced sources, creating a shadow-less blue/green ambience, and then punctuated the scene with small red glows, justified by the taillights of the cars.”

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