Cinematographers on Filmmaking and the Movement to Digital

Cinematographers on Filmmaking and the Movement to Digital

from: James Thompson @

At last month’s Academy Awards, seven of the nine Best Picture nominees were shot on Kodak film. But as digital technology continues to advance, we should expect to see more nominees like Hugo and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as digital filmmaking becomes more prominent in Hollywood and across the world stage.

The action/adventure film Act of Valor is the latest release from the digital new wave. Directed by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh and shot by Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, ASC, the film follows an elite team of Navy SEALs on a mission to recover a kidnapped CIA agent. This unique production cast active-duty Navy SEALs and U.S. Navy Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen, as the directors thought it would be difficult for actors to perform combat missions with the Navy men’s expertise. They also felt that the look, physical condition and personalities of the actual SEALs would be well received by audiences.The film was shot in disparate locales across the globe, including Cambodia, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Ukraine, as well as in Florida, San Diego and the NASA John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. And the filmmakers received a great deal of government support and permission to film with military equipment on Navy training sites and onboard a submarine and aircraft carrier. When shooting the film’s international sequences, the production traveled with a light crew. “We needed at least two essential people that could work the package and make it all happen,” explains Hurlbut. “I operated the camera most of the time and we also had the directors operate the camera as well. Both of them were very savvy with operating a camera.” The crew grew to more than 60 while filming in Mississippi.

According to Hurlbut, the production was able to get incredible footage using Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera packages with Zeiss ZE and Panavision primo lenses. “We were able to fly with our Panavision primo primes and 5Ds,” recalls Hurlbut. “Everything except our sticks and support we put in our overhead bin space. We literally walked right through customs.” As the production followed the Navy SEALs on their planned training missions, Hurlbut mounted an 18mm Zeiss ZE on the men’s helmets to capture their point of view. He also had a truck drive over a 21mm Zeiss ZE stake cam and used a 25mm Zeiss ZE to capture natural light through windows.

Hurlbut worked with Panasonic Hollywood to develop rigs to support the smaller cameras. “We kept it simple,” says the DP. “We utilized the camera to its unique ability to being as small or as big as you want it.” For one scene in Cambodia, a Mercedes Benz is driven on the streets of Phnom Penh with an upside-down Canon 5D mounted on a C-stand arm with suction cups. But when the camera started vibrating, the crew had to improvise. “I went down to the local vendor, got a sponge, jammed it underneath [the camera], wrapped it down, and [the shot] was perfectly smooth,” recalls Hurlbut.Jeff Cronenweth, ASC is another accomplished DP who has embraced the industry’s movement to digital. His work on David Fincher’s digitally shot film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo recently received an American Society of Cinematographers Award nomination for Best Cinematography. He also worked with Fincher on The Social Network, another film that was shot digitally. “When I came on to do The Social Network, [Fincher] had decided that he was not going back to film,” recalls Cronenweth. “He wanted to do something in a digital medium but was open to any suggestions.” A friend of Fincher’s, Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, is an avid user of RED digital cameras, and, after some testing, Fincher and Cronenweth decided to use the RED on The Social Network with great success. They later used the same digital technology on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

An Academy Award-winner for Best Editing and nominated for Best Cinematography,The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo follows the reopened investigation of a girl’s mysterious disappearance after 40 years has passed. Since the story takes place over a year during different seasons, the crew had return to shoot the locations chosen in the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Sweden. Cronenweth notes that filmmaking has an international language, so the production had no problem securing its crew with some minor adjustments. When shooting in Europe, the crew used a British system that calls for electricians to handle everything related to lighting, including gels and diffusion, while the grips were mostly camera grips. When filming in London, Norway, Zurich and Sweden, most of the grips came from London and the electric department was a combination of Swedish, Danish, Icelanders and Finnish crewmembers.

“Certainly the world is much smaller than it used to be,” says Cronenweth, “And you can find quality people and crews with an enormous amount of experience wherever you go. When shooting in London, you have the luxury of a very established film community that offers you a lot of different choices that have an enormous amount of experience. When you get to Zurich and Oslo, it certainly gets a lot smaller because of their markets. Sweden has had a long history of filmmaking, but if there is a lot of filming going on then that is diffused quite a bit.”

Cronenweth and Hurlbut have both mastered digital filmmaking with spectacular results, and the next step may just be a foray into 3D. Cronenweth says that he’s already testing 3D applications but understands that filmmaking is all about storytelling — and if the story is best told in 3D, he will embrace that technology. Hurlbut shares that same point of view. “Story is king,” says Hurlbut. “Whatever tool is going to be used to best to tell that story then that is what I would use. For Act of Valor, the best way to tell the story was to be small, intimate, immersive and dismal — and that was the Canon 5D. Now that the digital arsenal is becoming so powerful and the capture of how they look and feel is becoming so amazing, I think it’s just expanding my creativity as a visual artist. I’m embracing everything from an iPhone all the way up to a Sony F65.” And as for digital filmmakers who are just starting out, Cronenweth offers some advice. “Watch a lot of movies and shoot as much as you possibly can,” says the DP. “That’s how you will learn. Trust your instincts and be bold.”

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