We were on set shooting a commercial in London when director Joseph Kahn first mentioned the idea of doing a “fun little short film” in our supposed downtime between jobs. Having worked with Joseph for over 20 years, I knew “fun” and “little” were definitely open to interpretation, but I also knew that if he was itching to flex some creative muscles independent of any ad agency or studio, it would be exciting indeed. And when he sent me his script to Power/Rangers, I was hooked.
Joseph’s take on the children’s television series from the 1990s not only modernized it, making it darker and more mature, but also turned those often cliché and corporatized tropes on their heads by amping up “dark and gritty” to the nth power. The original Saban-produced TV series was a tongue-in-cheek teen superhero show that utilized existing fight footage from a Japanese program (featuring acrobatic martial artists clad in colored action-figure-type suits and face-covering helmets) and added new dialogue scenes with American actors around those action sequences. The show was a massive hit with young audiences. For Power/Rangers, Joseph chose to honor some of the original characters and storylines from the show’s first few seasons and effectively “catch up” with those characters decades later; their hopes and dreams have been shattered, the troop has been disbanded, and they are all being systematically hunted down.
Joseph and I have a constantly evolving discussion on the process and craft of filmmaking, so going into this project, I knew we wouldn’t be attempting to make a light-hearted frolic. We would be pushing forward all our ideas about story and technique and molding them to fit into the action/superhero milieu. It would be an opportunity to make something very unique in a popular genre. That was an intriguing idea.
The first question to address was what the look of this short film should be. This question, of course, encompassed: What aspect ratio? What tonal quality? What camera movement? Joseph and I agreed that an anamorphic frame would suit the subject matter, but we didn’t necessarily want lens flares incessantly pinging the lenses for no apparent reason. I had keenly followed news about Arri/Zeiss Master Anamorphic lenses when my camera-rental house of choice, CamTec in Burbank, Calif., received one of the first sets to hit the United States. However, I must admit I had slight misgivings about the lenses at first, as they were so perfect I feared Arri/Zeiss might have engineered out all the artifacts that many cinematographers love about anamorphic lenses. But when Joseph and I went to Camtec to compare the Master Anamorphics to the new Cookes, as well as older sets of Hawks and Kowas, we felt the straighter lines, complete lack of breathing and blindingly fast apertures of T1.9 across the entire set of Master Anamorphics made sense for our project. We could embrace the best of what anamorphic lenses afford — namely, the longer-lens compression for the same relative field of view, and the oval bokeh in the out-of-focus regions of the frame — and also have the performance of, say, a spherical Master Prime.
Once we began scouting the locations and designing the sets and sequences, the visual tone of Power/Rangers fell into place very quickly. Even though we were funding this project out of pocket and had very little budget to work with, I knew there were certain tools and crew we had to have in order to deliver the film as we envisaged it. For starters, Joseph and I understood immediately that we would be shooting with Red Epic Dragon cameras. We have been using Red cameras since the very first year the Red One was introduced to the market, and we’ve watched and adapted as Red’s camera systems have improved and evolved. (See AC Feb. ’10 for my account of my experiences with the original Red One M.) Over time, a camera choice that was initially a budgetary necessity has become our emphatic preference. Jarred Land and Brent Carter from Red Digital Cinema must be singled out for their assistance on Power/Rangers, and for their unwavering support of all our projects.
Next, I relied heavily on my regular commercial crewmembers to lend a hand on this passion project. My entire grip department, under the supervision of my longstanding key grip, Eric Budlong, rose to the challenge and covered me across the seven shooting days for the 14-minute short. My regular dolly grip, Johnny Segal, also pulled double duty, pushing dolly and keying for me for a few of the days when Eric had other commitments. The rest of the grip department were all trusted collaborators, including Kaiyoti Pesante, Chris Updegrave, Randy Vega, CJ Moriarty and Mike Rodriquez.
The electrical department featured many members of my gaffer Nizar Najm’s crew, including Spencer Scranton, who stepped into the gaffer’s role with me for the first time after Nizar got called out of town for work. Assisting Spencer were Anthony Najem, Ruth West and Joel Gill. And for the last two days of the shoot, my old gaffer Russell Griffith, who now works mainly as a cinematographer himself, came in to help with a lengthy pre-rig of a warehouse space we used as stages for a North Korean military compound.
In the camera department, we were fortunate to have 1st ACs Darrin Nim, Kevin Hughes and Rob Royds, who stepped up and pulled some amazing focus wide open at T1.9. They were aided by 2nd AC John Mandish and DIT Tyson Smith.
Produced by Adi Shankar and Jil Hardin, Power/Rangers opens with a series of quick, staccato point-of-view shots from a ranger caught up in a giant-robot battle in the desert. The sequence was shot with a small splinter crew in the Alabama Hills rocks near Lone Pine, Calif. For this sequence, Joseph wanted to experience the events entirely from the point of view of the Pink Ranger (Katee Sackhoff), whom we soon learn is the pivotal character in the short.
We selected several areas around the rock formations to stage different bits of action, and I planned our day to keep the sun backlighting the characters as much as possible. Chief among my concerns for this location wasn’t dragging out 18Ks to try to overpower the natural lighting; rather, I was concerned about trying to introduce practical smoke, spot fires and flying debris in the form of black cork being thrown into the air to rain down on the battling rangers. Occasional use of bounce boards and negative fill was more than enough to achieve the look we wanted. Joseph and I agreed going in that our budget wouldn’t allow for practical explosions or mortar blasts; those effects would be added in post by visual-effects house Ingenuity Engine. (This work was supervised by Chris Watts, Dave Lebensfeld and Grant Miller.)
After we see the Pink Ranger’s helmet knocked to the ground amid smoldering debris, we cut to a futuristic interrogation chamber where the Pink Ranger is being grilled by Rocky (James Van Der Beek). We mulled over how to go about creating a “futuristic” interrogation space in the location, the marble lobby of an old Art Deco bank in downtown Los Angeles. We decided to place a glass “cube” in the center of the large marble room and make the walls of this cube touch-screen graphic computer displays with which characters could interact in order to reveal critical plot information and help sell the futuristic setting. We briefly considered bringing in large sheets of Plexiglas, but ultimately tossed that idea aside because of budgetary constraints, and because we reasoned that any physical material might give us unwanted reflections that would have to be painted out in post so they wouldn’t interfere with the CG text that would be added. Ultimately, we settled on creating four 1-inch-square metal posts to represent the four corners of the glass cube; this would help the visual-effects team track where the glass walls would be and give us some visual markers to aid in framing up our shots.