The second edition of Combat Cameraman talks about the most important weapon in Jason Beckwith’s arsenal, the Red One Digital Cinema Camera.
You shot Project Arbiter on a very impressive Red One Digital Camera. Could you tell us about your setup?
Project Arbiter was shot with my Red One camera with a Mysterium sensor. Her name is ‘Celeste’, after a character in a script that I may, or may not ever finish writing. Mike and I work for Design Reactor and I originally bought the camera for it’s high resolution capture technology. Our company has done a lot with multiple screen arrays, and I wanted a camera that I wouldn’t have to uprez to stretch the footage across multi-screen digital signage. The fact that I own quite a bit of kit really helped to keep the costs down on this production.
Mike likes to shoot hand-held a lot, and the camera was configured to be light, but functional. We tried some different lenses, on test shoots, but I kept coming back to the look that my Nikon’s were giving us. At one point, we tried some Red Pro Prime lenses, which are really great lenses, but they were just too sharp. It sounds funny to say that, but they just felt wrong for this film. We researched a lot of color WWII photography, and I watched a ton of archival footage before deciding that the Nikon lenses would be fast, light and provide us with a similar look to the 1940s era cameras that were really in the war. While we are finishing the film in 2k, we shot in 4.5k resolution with a 2.33:1 aspect ratio. This helps to give Project Arbiter it’s cinematic feel, makes for some very interesting framing choices. One of the other choices that we made through trial and error on our test shoots, was the shutter speed. We decided to shoot all of the exterior action scenes with a faster shutter. This creates less motion blur, and gives a little bit of a stroby look to the action, especially with all of the hand held that we did. We didn’t take it quite as far as ‘Saving Private Ryan’, but it definitely pushes the look in that direction.
What was your strategy to maximize the Red’s capabilities?
The Red One is a great camera. First on everyone’s lips is always the resolution that it shoots. It was really built to be a digital cinema camera, rather than just a video camera. When I first began shooting with it, I was consistently over-exposing my shots. I think this happened to a lot of people familiar with video, early on. I was so used to having such a limited amount of dynamic range that I kept exposing the skin tones as I would on another camera, at the expense of whatever hi-lights were in the scene. After shooting with it for awhile, it became apparent that you could expose for the highlights and take advantage of Red’s raw files to boost the mids in post. If you’ve ever shot a Raw file vs. a JPEG on a DSLR camera, then you know how much more control you have in post. One of the great things about the Red camera is that it shoots all footage in a raw format. Obviously, there are limits to how far you can push or pull that footage, and getting familiar with the camera on test shoots helped me to find where those limits were. Mike wanted a contrasty look to Project Arbiter, and I made the choice to avoid overly soft light and try to keep it a little harsher. I also knew that we would be moving very fast to make our days. While we would have had more control with a 12x or 20x silk overhead, and HMIs on our talent, we were able to move faster and achieve a very realistic look by using reflectors and natural light instead.
Before I had the Red One, I had done a number of shoots with 35mm PL-mount adapters for Sony F900 and other cameras. Those adapters always eat light, making much more lighting necessary for each shot. Freeing myself from those adapters made the Red One feel very sensitive to lower light levels. Now, the MX chip and the new Red Epic cameras are getting even better. I’m very interested in how we can spend more time lighting creatively in the future rather than just lighting for exposure.
There was one other Red One Camera during principle photography. How did you coordinate with Scott Miller (Second Camera) to get those additional shots?
As a fellow Red One owner/operator, I gave Scott the benefit of the doubt from the get go. I didn’t micro-manage his shooting, at all. Scott was a last minute replacement for another Red One owner/operator, and I hadn’t worked with him before Project Arbiter. He joined our crew at our second location, I assigned him ACs, helped him to set his initial exposure, and let him do his job. I had a lot of confidence in our ACs to help him out, and point him in the right direction, if need be. I gave him some direction with his camera placement and lens choice, and I would occasionally peep some playback as time allowed. I was very happy with what he was getting, and generally just let him do his thing.
Scott was also instrumental in picking up a lot of B-roll and insert shots while A-cam was off shooting other scenes. Second Unit Director, Jacob Rangel or Assistant Director, William Myers took out the B-Cam crew to gather a lot of footage that would have certainly slipped through the cracks, had we not had a second camera. At the end of each day, I’d take a look through the footage, and I didn’t really have to provide much feedback due to the quality of footage they were providing.
The relationship between the camera crew and the lighting crew is vitally important to any production. What approach did you take in prepping the shot before the cameras rolled?
Lighting is vitally important to the quality and feel of a picture. Light fascinates me. I’ve been doing this a long time, but I still feel that I have a ton to learn about light. I’ve lit everything from large scale studio sets, to the smallest high tech products and I still learn new tricks from people that I share sets with all of the time. For Project Arbiter, there were a lot of practical lights provided by the art depart for interior sets. Getting those dialed into levels of existing and artificial lights was handled well by our gaffer(s). The B-25 plane was a little bit of a challenge, since we were using tungsten in a small, closed metal environment on a hot day. We didn’t have a lot of room to begin with, then the sun started to cook the plane. I’m just glad I didn’t have to wear the Arbiter’s suit in there! Props to Lex Cassar for not complaining at all!
Hector and Ken were our gaffers on the show, and they did a great job setting up a neutral base of light in the interiors that we could augment quickly with smaller, more mobile lights on stands. For the test chamber sequence, the light had to be dark and moody. The combination of a wide angle lens and pools of light provide an illusion of depth and size that was not reflective of the real environment. I’m always looking for ways to get an epic look out of a set, regardless if it’s true size. Adding shadows and providing for more breaks in the light can really enhance the feeling of depth. The art department gave us some great practicals to motivate the lighting of that scene as well.
The office scene was a little tricky because of the windows around the room. On an early location scout, we made the decision not to blow out the windows, and make sure that we could expose for both the characters in the interior, and also get the great view across the valley. We ended up cutting rolls of ND and squeegeeing them to the glass to reduce the amount of light coming in through the windows. This allowed me to get a good exposure on the talent, while limiting the amount of mixed color temperature between the natural sunlight and the tungsten lights. Again, the set was lit for fill to bring up the exposure first, and we were able to quickly adjust with mobile lights with each set up.
-David Bettencourt, Co-Producer
Tags: American Cinematographer, Art Direction, Blain Brown, Bruce Block, Bruno Delbonnel, Cinefex, Conrad Hall, Cosplay, Darius Khondji, David Bettencourt, Erik Danford, film, German tank, Halo, Hans Beerbaum, HD Video Pro, James Jeffrey, Janusz Kaminski, Jason Beckwith, Jason Burton, Jeff Cronenweth, Jon Van Amburg, Master Chief, Mike Chance, Philadelphia Experiment, Philippe Rousselot, Photoshop, Project Arbiter, Red One Digital Camera, Robert Simons, Roger Deakins, Roger Pratt, Scott Miller, Star Wars, Tina Quach, Tusken Raider, Vicki de Mey, Wally Pfister, Wing Commander, WWII