The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents September 2009 Return to Table of Contents
The Baader Meinhof Complex
Presidents Desk
Production Slate
North Face
District 9
CAS Part 2
ASC Close-Up
DVD Playback
Aliens in South Africa

In the winter cold and swirling dust of Johannesburg, South Africa, military teams mobilize quickly to round up a group of illegal immigrants and return them to District 9, their slum in Soweto. There, like so many of South Africa’s poor, these lost and confused souls survive in corrugated steel shanties. But the inhabitants of District 9 aren’t human. In fact, they aren’t even from this planet.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp, District 9 (based on Blomkamp’s short film Alive in Joburg) follows a race of extraterrestrials that have inadvertently landed on Earth and are subsequently sequestered by the government. The project is the first feature for Blomkamp, a visual-effects artist, and cinematographer Trent Opaloch, who has collaborated with Blomkamp on commercials and music videos in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Blomkamp, a native of Johannesburg, was keen to shoot all eight weeks of principal photography on location in South Africa because he knew the conditions and textures of the real Soweto could not be effectively re-created anywhere else. “The studio [Sony Pictures] talked about shooting some of the movie in New Zealand, but we just couldn’t re-create Johannesburg on a backlot or stage,” says Opaloch. “The textures there are really amazing. In the end, we shot about 95 percent of the movie in Johannesburg, with a little bit of splinter work in Wellington, New Zealand, and some motion-capture work in Vancouver.

“A number of large-scale productions have been shot in the area, and there is good support for [filmmaking],” he continues. “Our keys were from New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada and South Africa, but we hired the majority of our crew locally in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Those guys were really amazing. They work on commercials and features all the time, and I had a great experience with them.”

One of the key reasons for shooting on location was the quality of Johannesburg’s winter air. “Winter there is hardcore,” says Opaloch, “and in the townships, people burn whatever they can to provide warmth. We’d drive to the location in the morning and see people burning tires to cook their breakfast on. It’s certainly not a healthy environment, and the layers of atmosphere this dust and smoke puts on the horizon is unbelievable — it looks and feels like a war zone. We scheduled the photography in the harsh winter months specifically to get that look.

“It’s amazing how different the summer looks,” he continues. “We had to do some pickups in December, South Africa’s summer, and it was clean and green and lush! We had to be very selective about our framing to try and match the winter photography.”

The winter shoot had a visible effect on the gear, which included six Red One cameras owned by Peter Jackson, the film’s producer, and two Sony PMW-EX1s. “My first assistant, Houston Hadden, would take me into the camera truck and show me the dirt and grime he was pulling out of the camera every night, and it looked like an ashtray had been poured out of the camera!” recalls Opaloch. Despite the conditions, however, the cameras remained in working order throughout the shoot.

The One’s 4K image serves as the movie’s main perspective, whereas the 1920x1080 HD image from the EX1 represents footage shot by journalists embedded in the alien township. “We briefly considered shooting Super 16, and we talked a bit about shooting with the Sony F23, but the Red offered us more of the look and functionality we wanted,” says Opaloch. “If Sony’s F35 had been out at the time, we certainly would have considered it, too.

“I like the Red system, and we got a lot of support from the company,” he continues. Working in Redcode 36, “we were shooting onto 8-gig CF cards, which started to feel a bit like a film shoot because we were limited to the shooting time, about 4½ minutes per card. Also, the accessories for the Red were all what we’re used to using [with film cameras]. The great benefit to shooting digitally was the ability to run to the digital-imaging technician’s truck and see the footage right away.” On the truck, Red camera supervisor Jonathan Smiles had two 30" HD monitors. Smiles would receive the CF cards from the set, open the footage in Red Cine, and then he and Opaloch would apply either a preset or custom curve to the raw footage for viewing the selected shots.

“We were shooting in a lot of high-contrast lighting, and I was mostly concerned with how highlights were being represented in the Red footage,” says Opaloch. “I was careful to make sure the highlights didn’t blow out, and that meant using a lot more fill than I would normally use.” He used a combination of 18K and 4K HMIs to help shape and fill in the harsh sunlight. The production also carried a 20'x30' silk that could be flown from a crane to diffuse the sunlight from above or used on the ground to soften the HMIs. “For the journalists’ material, shot with EX1s, we just let the highlights go,” he adds. “We also let the focus go on those cameras to make it feel more immediate, real and rough around the edges. When you embed visual effects into that footage, it grounds the effects in a kind of reality that’s really unique.

“The most helpful thing to me was the built-in light meter in the Red,” continues Opaloch, who was working with Build 15 of the camera. “I had heard bad things about the built-in meter, but [the problems] were all ironed out by the time I got to work with the camera. With the combination of my light meter, the built-in meter and the ability to run into the truck and check the shots, I had absolute confidence in how we were shooting.”

Opaloch rated the One at 320 ISO. One of the oft-discussed concerns about the Red system is its infrared sensitivity and the resultant color anomalies that can arise while employing ND filters in high-contrast situations with high IR light — in other words, the conditions encountered by the District 9 crew. “I certainly noticed IR pop-off,” says Opaloch. “We ended up shipping in some IR NDs and front-surface mirrors from London, but it was difficult to integrate them in handheld situations, especially when we were trying to backlight action as much as possible. With the stack of filters and backlight, there was always the risk of getting reflections on the filters and ghosts in the image. Whenever possible, we strove to fix the problem by being careful about what we shot; we’d adjust wardrobe when it was a problem and allow a little
IR spill into the shadows when we couldn’t control it, knowing that we could time it out later. Tiffen has since introduced Red IR-ND filters that take care of this issue.”

Actor Jason Cope portrayed the aliens in the movie, donning a trackball suit so the visual-effects team, comprising artists from Embassy Image Engine and Weta Digital, could replace his human form with various alien ones. “A big directive for us was to eliminate as much rotoscoping as possible,” says Opaloch. “Because we would be replacing Jason completely with CG characters, we knew that the cleaner the background was, the easier the replacement would be. If we had a shot where Jason was going to enter the frame against some dense foliage that would require heavy rotoscoping, we moved over two feet to avoid that background. We also knew that any given shot could become a visual-effects shot — we might add the mothership to a sky shot, for example — so we always made an effort to keep simple, trackable geometry in the frame. If we could give the visual-effects artists a little piece of background that would make tracking easier, we tried to do it all the time.

District 9 was a really amazing experience,” he concludes. “I love doing things that are exciting and interesting, and it was great to contribute to a film that’s so different.”

4K Digital Capture and
High-Definition Video
Red One; Sony PMW-EX1;
Vision Research Phantom HD
Cooke and Angenieux lenses
Digital Intermediate
Printed on Kodak Vision 2383


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