The American Society of Cinematographers

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Public Enemies
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The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
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Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC captures period action digitally for Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.

Unit photography by Peter mountain
Projects such as Miami Vice (AC Aug. ’06), Collateral (AC Aug. ’04) and television’s Robbery Homicide Division have cemented Michael Mann’s reputation as an advocate for digital capture, but when he began discussing his latest picture, Public Enemies, with cinematographer Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC, the director was inclined to shoot 35mm. “In our early discussions, Michael mentioned several times that he was thinking of going back to film,” recalls Spinotti. “He was considering it, I think, because he initially envisioned classical, more set-in-stone kind of imagery. We spent a lot of time discussing the pros and cons.” 

Spinotti had recently used high-definition video (via the Panavision Genesis) on the features Deception (AC May ’08) and Flash of Genius, but his previous feature collaborations with Mann — The Insider (AC June ’00), Heat (AC Jan. ’96), The Last of the Mohicans (AC Dec. ’92) and Manhunter — were all 35mm productions. Just prior to Public Enemies, Spinotti and Mann shot a commercial on HD using Sony’s CineAlta F23, a 2/3" 3-CCD 1920x1080 camera that records 4:4:4 RGB or 4:2:2 Y/Cb/Cr to HDCam-SR tape. (The camera has a 2/3" bayonet lens mount, and the SRW-1 deck can be mounted directly to the camera, like a film magazine.) “Michael likes images to be sharp, and he likes shooting with smaller chips because he likes the deep depth of field, so we became fans of the F23 on that commercial,” says Spinotti. 

For Public Enemies, Spinotti decided to shoot side-by-side comparison tests of HD and Super 35mm, using an F23 for the digital work and Kodak Vision3 500T 5219 in the film camera. He set the two cameras up in the parking lot behind Mann’s office and started shooting in the early afternoon, using stand-ins attired in period wardrobe and several period cars; the testing continued through twilight into night. The digital and film footage were taken all the way through post, with Stefan Sonnenfeld handling the color-correction at Company 3. The 35mm material was scanned at 2K, color-corrected and recorded back out to film; the filmmakers dialed in look-up tables to match the final filmout to what they were seeing on the monitor. 

They decided to compose the film in 2.40:1, which meant the F23’s 1920x1080 resolution had to be cropped to 1920x800, costing a little over 25 percent of the vertical image information. Despite that slight loss of resolution, “the footage from the F23 was very, very sharp,” says Spinotti. “It didn’t have the full tonal range of film, but its response to the night material was very interesting. Digital cameras read into the shadows very differently; there’s an incredible elasticity there that you don’t have with film — you can adjust gamma curves and gain and really gain incredible control over the image.” In the end, the F23’s rendering of night scenes sealed the deal. “This movie has a lot of night action, including a lot of gunfights on city streets, so the digital camera’s higher sensitivity and ability to see into shadows was a major benefit,” says Spinotti. “Also, we believed digital would facilitate a more dynamic use of film grammar while giving us a hyper-realistic look.” (Ed. Note: Some visual-effects work, supervised by Robert Stadd, was shot on 35mm.) 

Set in the 1930s, Public Enemies follows charismatic bank robber John Herbert Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his gang as they rob banks all over the Midwest and try to evade the authorities, who are led by federal agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). “We wanted the look of Public Enemies to have a high level of realism, not an overt period feel,” notes Spinotti. “Among the historical aspects are a lot of action, romance and drama, and Michael and I talked about achieving an immediate feel. 

“One thing you can do with a digital camera that you can’t do with film is shoot with a 360-degree, or no, shutter,” he adds. “We tested that with gun-muzzle flashes from the machine guns and some flares that we planned to use to light a few scenes, and the 360-degree shutter had a really great look in those situations.” 

The filmmakers also found that shooting digitally enabled them to make the most of zoom lenses, which they used for most of the picture. “There are a number of zoom lenses for digital cameras that are around a T2 but also compact enough for handheld camerawork,” says Spinotti. The production’s camera package, rented at Fletcher Camera in Chicago, included two sets of Zeiss DigiPrime lenses, but Spinotti was so impressed with the capabilities of the Fujinon HAe10x10 10:1 (T1.8) zoom that it became his main lens. “Its sharpness was unbelievable,” he attests. “I’ve found that when shooting digitally, I rarely have to go to primes because the digital zoom lenses are so sharp, fast and compact. We had some very complicated handheld moments where we’d be following the gang in an action sequence, and the operators would have to jump on the sideboard of a car and drive away with them. These cameras and lenses were great for that. 

“We shot most of the picture using three F23s, but we also had a Sony F950, which we used with the T950 adapter, and a Sony EX1; we used those as D cameras for action pieces and in tight spaces — the EX1 was especially great for car interiors,” he continues. “In terms of image quality, the cameras were very, very close. There was a little difference in dynamic range, but we could easily smooth that out in post. Once the images were colored, the exposure was enhanced, the grain was minimized, and the details were enhanced, the images were indistinguishable from each other, and the footage intercut perfectly.” (The project’s final DI workflow, carried out at 2K, comprised the scanning of 35mm material at LaserPacific, a digital grade at Company 3, and a filmout at EFilm. Release prints were made at Technicolor.) 

Mann chose to stay in the Rec 709 (ITU-R BT.709) color space as opposed to shooting in a film rec. “We prefer shooting in video color space because we can always see on set exactly what we’re going to get,” says Public Enemies co-producer Bryan H. Carroll, a longtime collaborator of Mann’s. “The monitor shows us the final image, and that allows us to bulletproof the system more easily. Being able to see the final image on set means you can push the medium further than you would otherwise, because you can see exactly when certain image characteristics start to become undesirable.” 

The filmmakers decided to establish the story’s period primarily through the use of practical locations. “In addition to period wardrobe, vehicles and props, practical locations add heavily to the atmosphere,” says Spinotti. “By shooting digitally, we were able to work with the existing lighting at many locations and maintain a level of realism that is very hard to achieve with movie lighting. Very few things suggest an atmosphere better than a real location; the way things are painted, the relationship between interior and exterior, and all of the other physical details tend to establish visual truth in a very tangible way. Shooting digitally, you see locations in a different way. When you walk into a location and know you’re going to shoot film, you have to set little rules — for example, you’ll need to get an exposure here that’s at least T2.8 at 500 ISO — but not so with digital.” 

The production traveled to many of the actual sites where Dillinger and his gang had their exploits, including the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin, where they hid out for a period of time. Purvis planned to ambush the gang at the lodge but lost the element of surprise when some of his agents opened fire prematurely. A brief but fierce gun battle broke out, and the outlaws managed to escape.

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