The American Society of Cinematographers

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Hardcore Henry

First-Person Mayhem: Creating a unique POV perspective for the action-thriller Hardcore Henry.

Images courtesy of STX Entertainment

The feature Hardcore Henry is depicted entirely from the first-person perspective of its title character, who wakes up with amnesia and must frantically run, jump and shoot his way through Moscow. Henry fights to rescue his wife, Estelle (Haley Bennett), from warlord Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) while receiving assistance from sardonic sidekick Jimmy (Sharlto Copley).

Russian director Ilya Naishuller is both a filmmaker and leader of the punk band Biting Elbows. After directing first-person point-of-view music videos for his band’s songs “The Stampede” and “Bad Motherf---er,” Naishuller wanted to apply a similar visual perspective to a feature film. Acclaimed director-producer Timur Bekmambetov offered to produce the film, after which Naishuller acquired further investments — and then secured finishing funds via crowdfunding through Indiegogo. The project was completed after a year and a half of sporadic shooting. Hardcore premiered at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and promptly set off a bidding war, ultimately resulting in U.S. distribution via STX Entertainment.

Naishuller drew stylistic influences from both first-person video games and features, including Kathryn Bigelow’s sci-fi movie Strange Days (AC Nov. ’95) — shot by Matthew F. Leonetti, ASC — which depicts a commoditized virtual-reality technology. “My primary inspiration had to be film, as I love movies more than video games,” notes Naishuller. “I’ve seen every first-person POV film, but my favorite was always Strange Days. It captured the feeling I was aiming for, where I’m really there as the robber or I really feel that fatal jump.”

Naishuller shot Hardcore on location in Moscow over three distinct periods from July 2013 through the end of 2014. Due to scheduling conflicts, each portion was photographed by a different cinematographer: Vsevolod Kaptur, Fedor Lyass and Pasha Kapinos. The majority of the film was shot with off-the-shelf GoPro Hero3 Black Edition cameras.

“This was Ilya’s first feature, it was going to be technically very complicated, and he knew that I could take care of the kind of difficulties we would be going up against,” recalls Kaptur, who shot Hardcore’s first segment and had previously collaborated with Naishuller on music videos. “I wasn’t put off by shooting a theatrical feature on a tiny consumer camera, but we knew we’d need GoPro’s tech support. Gregg DiLeo from their [marketing] department facilitated our contact with engineer David Newman, who gave us some [prototype] exposure software, which has since been incorporated into later generations of GoPro cameras.”

The production team captured Hardcore with a custom, magnetically stabilized helmet mount fitted with two GoPros for redundancy and multiple levels of exposure on certain longer takes. “We put a lot of effort into stabilizing the mount,” says Naishuller. “We did that to make sure that the audience could watch without getting dizzy, because even I get motion sickness very easily.”

Kaptur adds, “We hired an engineer friend of mine, Vladimir Kotihov, who was an American football player, so he knew about helmets. The first one looked like a medieval torture device before we got it to where we needed it.

“I then did the first shooting block — a little over half the film — in the summer of 2013,” Kaptur continues. “I had to leave due to a prior commitment, so I passed the baton to Fedor Lyass. He shot the interiors for the finale and the intro scenes. When Kapinos agreed to take the third part of production, I met with him [as well].”

Lyass notes, “The most important device developed for this project was the special mask with a magnetic stabilization system. The goal was to stabilize the motion of Henry’s footsteps while reducing the vertical shaking when the actor walks, runs or jumps. The final rig included Russian military technology, Japanese bearings, and a 3D-printed head mount to snuggly fit the actor-stuntman’s head. We also crafted a GoPro-based viewfinder for the director. It was a pretty unique feeling to shoot with such a tiny camera on a complicated feature like this.”

The GoPros recorded at 48 fps directly to onboard MicroSD memory cards, capturing raw files in 1920x1440 resolution with the cameras’ Protune setting. The crew monitored live takes wirelessly with a Teradek Cube 255 HDMI video transmitter at 1280x720 resolution. “One GoPro had an onboard viewfinder so the operator could sort of see the frame,” Naishuller explains. “The other was connected to the Teradek wireless transmitter. When we did a big exposure change mid-shot, the second GoPro would often be set at a different exposure. That way we could seamlessly switch from one camera to the other when we went to a different exposure level.”

“If the scene required fighting or a specific stunt skill set, we’d get a stuntman who could do it and rehearse with him and the rig until we made it work,” says Lyass. “There were three main ‘Henrys’ and about a dozen other operators for specific shots. The thing that wasn’t really clear until we started shooting was whether an actor needed to see what he was shooting. We learned that after a while he would begin to naturally feel the frame without peeking into it. The only thing he had to focus on was his actual action, and [if there was] a failed take or two, Ilya and I would correct him to get what the film needed.”

Kaptur estimates that three-quarters of the film was operated by Sergey Valyaev and Andrei Dementiev; the latter also played one of the villain’s henchmen. “The rest was operated by Ilya himself for the dialogue scenes, and then by specific stuntmen for the various specialized and extra-dangerous stunts, such as motorcycle driving and jumping with a parachute,” Kaptur explains. “Funny enough, I did not do any filming with the helmet.”

Given the GoPros’ wide-angle view and the extended takes, lighting also proved to be a significant challenge. “When shooting 360 degrees, the first thing we had to think about was built-in practical lighting,” says Lyass. “All the lighting sources were DMX-controlled, and they took a lot of time to program. We wound up doing a lot of prep the day before each shoot day.”

“As an example,” says Kaptur, “in the semi-darkness of the brothel sequence, I used LEDs, neon tubes and concert lighting. I attached a small Kino Flo onto Ilya’s chest while he was operating as Henry, and we rehearsed his hand movements to avoid unnecessary shadows.

“For exteriors,” Kaptur continues, “we used bounce cards and planned carefully to shoot at the perfect times of day.”

Kapinos carried the torch for the final leg of production, shooting certain exteriors, interiors, a studio sequence and the opening titles. “It was complicated to accomplish a shot in the final scene of the movie when we see the reflection of Henry for the first time in a broken mirror on a roof,” Kapinos says. “We reshot it twice, and it had to be incorporated into footage not shot by me.

“There were also tough shots inside a T-90 combat tank, which could barely fit a person inside,” Kapinos continues. “The scene where Henry fights the tank was hard to shoot due to safety concerns. But I think the most complex part of the work fell onto the shoulders of our Henry actors, who were running and jumping around with the GoPros on their faces.”


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