Beebe continued overlighting the actors’ faces to 20 or 30 IRE, even though the background information barely registered on the waveform monitor. “Almost everything was off the scale of my meter,” recalls the cinematographer, who uses a Pentax digital spot meter.
By the time Beebe joined Collateral, the Viper accessories were ready, and the production switched from dual F900s to dual Vipers as the A and B cameras. However, whenever the camerawork was run-and-gun, they used the F900s to avoid the Viper’s tether system.
One benefit of the Viper system is the ability to do a native internal anamorphic squeeze. To achieve the 2.40:1 aspect ratio on the F900, the image has to be cropped from 1920x1080 to approximately 1920x764, which is later optically squeezed for the laser-out (much in the same way an anamorphic print is struck from a Super 35mm 2.35:1 negative). The Viper features an anamorphic setting that fills the full 1920x1080 pixel image area with a 2.37:1 squeezed image. “In terms of their sensitivity, the F900 and Viper are well matched,” notes Beebe. “They render colors slightly differently and have differences in how they handle highlights, but primarily it was the anamorphic squeeze that affected the film-out. The F900 had to be cropped, whereas the Viper used the camera’s full resolution; therefore, in this format, the Viper results were superior.”
The internal anamorphic squeeze created some difficulties for the camera operators, however. Although the camera can send an unsqueezed image to the viewfinder, there is a slight delay because of the image processing, and the time lapse proved to be unacceptable in most situations. In order to avoid the delay, the operators typically chose to work with a squeezed image in the viewfinder. “We also got a delay on the monitors when we went unsqueezed,” adds Beebe. “And because of that delay, the sound was always out of sync. I’m sure that Thomson has fixed a lot of these problems by now, but the cameras were literally being modified and rushed to the set while we were shooting, so we had to learn to deal with it. Michael loved the results we were getting, so we modified what we could and lived with what we couldn’t.”
One of the modifications the Vipers underwent during the shoot was the addition of covers for the controls on the camera, so that the buttons and switches could not be accidentally hit during shooting. “Because we were always shooting at night, we were like vampires, dreading the rising sun and scrambling to make the night before the break of day,” recalls Beebe. “One night, I was inside prepping a scene and Michael was outside shooting another. I ran outside and looked at the monitors and found one of the cameras to be horribly diffused. It looked like the back element of the lens had fogged over or been smudged, but because everyone was rushing, no one had noticed the change. Between takes, we quickly switched out the lens, checked the calibration and ran through a checklist of possible causes. In the end, it turned out someone had bumped the camera’s internal filter wheel and dialed in a diffusion filter. Those types of idiosyncrasies are totally new for a camera team that’s more familiar with film cameras.”
At the filmmakers’ request, Thomson also added weight to the back of the Viper to make it more balanced for handheld operation; the camera was initially very difficult to handhold without the added ballast of a magazine hanging off the back of the camera. “Our A-camera operator, Gary Jay, an amazing operator who has worked with Michael for many years, and our B-camera operator, Chris Haarhoff, were really able to work these cameras to their advantage,” says Beebe. “An odd byproduct of the HD world, especially with so much handheld operation, was that our focus pullers, John Grillo and Glen Brown, ended up working primarily via remote focus, sitting at the monitor. The HD monitors are so crisp and sharp that the best way to judge critical focus is simply to watch the monitor.
“One of the amazing things about hi-def is that to a degree, you’re seeing your final image on the monitor,” he continues. “There is also a lot of flexibility to alter that image on the set, and it’s important to make decisions about saturation and contrast early on because there’s an infinite amount of tweaking you can do. It’s easy to find yourself being seduced into tweaking colors and losing sight of the movie’s overall visual continuity. There was a real discipline to stick to the settings that Paul and Michael had settled on during prep. The only real adjustment we made was to selectively reduce saturation on a number of exteriors. L.A. has a lot of mixed color at night sodium vapors, mercury vapors, tungsten light, neon and fluorescents and when mixed together within a frame, they often created an image that Michael thought looked too ‘fruity’ and detracted from the mood of the scene. Adjusting these colors involved sitting with Michael and Dave Canning, our digital-imaging technician, at the monitors and setting the color levels we liked, being careful to stay within range of our pre-set levels of desaturation.”
Overall, Beebe was impressed with HD’s capabilities: “The format’s strong point is its incredible sensitivity to light. We were able to shoot Los Angeles at night and actually see silhouettes of palm trees against the night sky, which was very exciting.”
With regard to signal-to-noise ratio, Beebe discovered that the HD cameras could be pushed even further than +6dB in certain situations. “+12dB is really the threshold of where you’d ever want to go,” he remarks. “We ended up doing +12dB only on the F900. We pushed the Viper to +9dB, but that was the highest we ever went. The real key was to keep the actors’ faces in an acceptable range. As a viewer, your focus is always on the actor, and we found we could get away with a lot of noise in the background as long as we weren’t seeing noise on the actors’ faces.”
Throughout the shoot, Beebe and Mann viewed dailies via HD projection set up at Mann’s Forward Pass offices. The projector was carefully calibrated to emulate the look of the 35mm laser-out that was being done by Laser Pacific.