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Return to Table of Contents November 2011 Return to Table of Contents
In Time
Page 2
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC adopts digital capture on the sci-fi thriller In Time.


Photos by Stephen Vaughan, courtesy of 20th Century Fox

In Time presents a dystopian near future where everyone lives, quite literally, on borrowed time. Science has eliminated the aging gene, so no human ages past 25 years old. After 25, individuals must stave off death by earning time credits, rather than money, for their labor. Since the rich can afford all the credits they want, they live on and never grow old, while the middle class and poor must toil every day to earn enough credits to survive. Amid these desperate circumstances, working-class Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) discovers the true value of time after transforming himself into a futuristic Robin Hood who steals time from the rich and gives it to the poor.

This scenario paired director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, S1m0ne) with cinematographer Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, who has earned nine Academy Award nominations for his work on a long list of admired pictures, including The Shawshank Redemption (AC June ’95), The Man Who Wasn’t There (AC Oct. ’01), Fargo (AC March ’96), No Country for Old Men (AC Oct. ’07) and True Grit. “Over the years, Andrew and I had talked a number of times about collaborating on a picture, but our schedules never worked out,” Deakins reveals. “He first approached me about In Time while I was shooting True Grit, and I loved the idea.”

Although the cinematographer had never shot a feature with digital cameras, he kept close tabs on the evolving technology, and after vetting the Arri Alexa, he decided he had found a digital camera that suited his creative and technical needs. “When Andrew and I first started talking about In Time, he asked me, ‘You still shoot film, right?’ And I replied, ‘Yes, of course.’ But after doing a pretty comprehensive series of tests with the Alexa, I thought it was the right tool to achieve the look we wanted. I called Andrew and said, ‘I’m not pressuring you either way, but I think you should see these tests.’ He came out, saw what I had done with the Alexa, and said, ‘Yeah. Why don’t we do it that way?’”

Deakins confesses that he was initially “a little nervous about working with a digital camera,” but found the Alexa to be “a very intuitive, film-based system — it really feels like a film camera. The great thing about digital is that you can see the results on set while you’re shooting, which makes it easier to sleep at night. We established the base look on set, and that tracked through dailies, editing and final color timing. It’s great for the director to really see what you’re shooting, because that makes your collaboration and conversations easier and more refined; you don’t have to try to explain how the image will look later.

“The Alexa is a game-changer,” Deakins maintains. “This moment has been coming for a long time, really, but with the Alexa I believe digital has finally surpassed film in terms of quality. What is quality? It’s really in the eye of the viewer, but to me, the Alexa’s tonal range, color space and latitude exceed the capabilities of film. This is not to say that I don’t still love film — I do. I love its texture and grain, but in terms of speed, resolution and clarity of image, there is no question in my mind that the Alexa produces a better image. There is a beautiful roll-off between highlights and shadows [on the Alexa] that I haven’t seen before. There’s a subtlety in color rendition that is fantastic. I tested it in candlelight, and it was beautiful how the camera picked up variations in skin tones and texture. If you shot that same scene with film, you’d get a very monochromatic feel — just a color wash — but the Alexa can read subtleties that film cannot.

“Sometimes I get annoyed with the garbage I hear about film vs. digital,” the cinematographer continues. “Most of it is simply nostalgia and silly thinking. I love film, sure, but this camera has brought us to a point where digital is simply better. In my opinion, there are now more advantages than disadvantages to digital cinematography.”

The Alexa features a 3,392x2,200-pixel, Bayer-pattern CMOS sensor with an active imaging area of 2,880x1,620 pixels (23.76mm x 13.37mm). In late 2009 and early 2010, when Deakins began work on In Time, the camera was in its nascent stages. It was on Version 2 of its software and not yet capable of the ArriRaw mode (a “3K” option for 4:4:4 raw image capture), so the cinematographer captured in 1920x1080 4:4:4 10-bit uncompressed mode to Codex recorders.

The digital footage was further cropped to 1920x800 to fit within the desired 2.40:1 aspect ratio. “We shot widescreen, but not anamorphic,” Deakins explains. “You shoot on the width of the sensor and extract the image, cropping off the top and bottom, to get 2.40. You’re losing some of the image, of course, but frankly, [with digital capture] you can sometimes have an image that is too sharp.”

Deakins says his switch from film to digital technology did not significantly alter his working style. “I referred to the waveform monitor quite a bit in order to check my image, so that was new for me, but I was surprised at how quickly I took to it. I still used a light meter, of course, but mostly I would check the waveform to see that my highlights weren’t clipping too much. It’s really hard to blow out your highlights with the Alexa, though. There’s a lot of range.

“As I was operating, I didn’t spend much time at the monitor, so I relied on Joshua Gollish, our DIT, to make sure everything was falling in okay,” he continues. “I’d dive back to the monitor and watch the playback of a scene, or play with the color of the first shot of a scene, but after that I wouldn’t obsess about it at all. I just let the rest of the scene fall in where it should.”

With EFilm pre-selected for post services, Deakins worked with the company’s proprietary Colorstream system, which provided him with a custom-calibrated LCD screen and the ability to color-correct the uncompressed HD signal on set.

Gollish explains the project’s workflow: “Each Codex magazine we shot contained 21 minutes of footage [in RAID 0]. Once a mag was filled, we would take it to the camera truck, where we had a Codex lab in place — a 12-rack unit with a few different modules. Our loader, Jessica Ramos, would copy the magazine to the Codex lab drives, verify the data and then pack the drive to send to EFilm that night. Each day’s drives would be accompanied by a USB Flash drive containing the Colorstream metadata. Once EFilm got the magazine, copied the files and started their process, they would inform us that it was safe to delete that day’s footage from our Codex lab, and we would get the magazines back for recycling.”

In Time had a very fast shooting schedule of just 55 days, all on location in and around Los Angeles, with many days requiring a company move to a second location. Most of Deakins’ lighting approach sprang from the use of practical lights with a bit of augmentation.

Deakins typically shot at 800 ASA, but he also utilized 400 ASA for day exteriors to avoid the need for excessive ND filters. His lenses were Arri/Zeiss Master Primes, and his shooting stops were set to T1.4 or T2.5 for the majority of production.

He lauds the Master Primes as  “lightweight, compact and fast. When you’ve got such a small camera, you want primes and small lenses to take maximum advantage of the compact size.”

As the movie’s plot unfolds, Will is gifted with a century of extra time that’s added to the digital “clock” embedded in his arm. Intent on using his extended life for the greater good, he pledges to disrupt the world’s pitiless system so others can also live longer. To that end, Will manages to infiltrate a party thrown by Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser), a wealthy power broker with more than 10,000 years on his arm timer and at least a million more “banked.” At the party, Will meets Weis’ daughter, Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), who has been shielded from the public’s struggle to survive.

“The party location was a hard one,” Deakins says. “It was a very expensive mansion on Sunset Boulevard, and the owners didn’t want us to touch anything. I might have used a balloon [to light the interior], but the ceilings were very low and there was simply no room. Besides, balloons are great in certain circumstances, but they’re very broad sources that don’t create the kind of soft, selective wash I wanted.”

Chief lighting technician Chris Napolitano (who had previously worked with Deakins on No Country for Old Men and True Grit) helped the cinematographer employ one of his favorite lighting solutions for the sequence. “It’s a technique that Roger likes to incorporate quite often,” Napolitano says. “We put clear, 60-watt globes into large ring lights fitted with 40 to 60 standard, medium-base sockets, and then install those units up in the ceiling, around the existing chandeliers. The ring lights create a very soft pool of light around the existing fixtures. We often build the rings ourselves, but this time we had the art department build them out of metal. Our rigging key, Ray Garcia, found a way to work them into the ceilings by removing the existing fixtures and rigging our ring lights through the holes and into the ceiling supports. That way, we never had to drill into the ceiling or alter the structure at all.”

Deakins offers, “I knew I wanted to be able to shoot 360 degrees in that location. I wanted nothing on the floor at all — except when I had to light the occasional close-up — so the ring lights were the best solution. We used the same technique for a casino set that we shot downtown in the [historic] Los Angeles Theatre. We put these ring lights of standard bulbs up around the actual chandeliers to bring up the overall exposure and give us flexibility for the shooting.”

“Flexibility” became Deakins’ mantra on the show, which involved many nighttime exterior locations where the filmmakers lit primarily with warm, stark, sodium-vapor sources. “We wanted the night exteriors to have a very harsh, orange-sodium look, but we were careful not to make it feel like a concentration camp,” Deakins says. “We didn’t want a lot of wire fences or searchlights in the frame, but Andrew definitely wanted the night streets to have a harsh glare. We did a lot of shooting at night with existing lighting, mainly sodium vapors, which required us to find locations that suited our needs. We also augmented the existing lighting with our own sodium vapors. Or, if I needed a little more directionality, we’d use a tungsten fixture gelled to look like sodium.”

The production carried a complement of standard industrial sodium-vapor fixtures in 250- and 400-watt varieties. Napolitano notes, “We also had a 1,000-watt fixture, but it was so bright and covered so much area that we never used it.” When tungsten fixtures were required, the gaffer used a simple gel pack of Lee 013 Straw Tint and 1/4 or 1/2 CTO.

During his adventures, Will meets the enigmatic Henry Hamilton (Matthew Bomer), a time-wealthy aristocrat who is deeply depressed by the emotional burden of his unearned privilege. Henry decides to make the ultimate sacrifice by transferring his additional time to Will. Their meeting takes place in an old warehouse location that was lit entirely through the dirty windows with the sickly sodium-vapor look.

“The characters are lit only by the light coming through the big glass window on this large factory floor,” says Deakins. “I was very surprised by the subtleties of the skin tones that the Alexa captured in that scene. Even in this incredibly monochromatic and ugly light, the actors’ faces have incredible gradations of color and texture that I simply couldn’t have gotten with film. The Alexa handled that sequence superbly, producing an incredibly wonderful color separation.”

For other settings, the filmmakers created different looks that provide contrast to the sodium-vapor scenes. Will’s workplace, a factory in downtown Los Angeles, is lit with fluorescents that produce a cooler, industrial feel, and some of the road sequences, including a major car chase that was shot around the 6th Street Bridge, feature a cool LED look.

During the chase sequence, Will and Sylvia tear up the road in a 1970s Jaguar E-Type convertible. Intent on showing his stars amid the mayhem, Niccol wanted to avoid using stunt performers as much as possible. “We did a lot with the actors for real,” Deakins confirms, “and we shot the sequence without any lighting mounted to the car at all, something I couldn’t have done with film unless I really pushed a fast stock to its limit. We picked the 6th Street Bridge as our location because Andrew and I both liked the look of the LED streetlights in that area.”

“To my knowledge, the 6th Street Bridge is one of the first locations downtown to be converted to LED streetlamps,” notes Napolitano. “We added Litepanels 1x1 fixtures to the existing streetlights to boost their intensity a bit, and they gave us a nice line of extended light into the street. We shot the whole action sequence with just those 1x1s on the streetlamps — that was it.”

“I didn’t want to light up too much during that sequence,” Deakins explains. “There was a good amount of ambient light, and the situation only required us to add a little bit more to get what we needed. I shot the sequence pretty close to wide open at a T1.8 at 800 ISO, and the Alexa handled it amazingly well.”

The production utilized Allen Padelford’s Biscuit Jr. driveable process trailer to put the actors and the picture car in the middle of traffic. The Biscuit Jr. features a low-profile process trailer with a detachable driving pod that can attach to the trailer in various positions. “We used the Biscuit system with the Jaguar to really zig-zag through traffic and put the audience and the actors right in the middle of the action,” says Deakins. “With no external lighting and the actors behind the wheel, you really get a sense of the action. I’d never worked with that rig before, and it was great.”

Deakins is known for operating his own camera, and he continued that practice on In Time, which was almost completely a one-camera show. The cinematographer prefers to operate off of a remote head on a jib arm, typically a Power Pod Classic on an Aerocrane. “I like the fluidity you get working with that little jib arm,” he remarks. “It’s a really nice way to move the camera, and I tend to use that approach quite a lot. I’ve shot that way for 10 years or more, often on a dolly. When I’m shooting fast action work and the Aerocrane is mounted on a golf cart or an ATV, we use a Libra stabilizing head.”

Although he generally prefers to operate remotely, for tight shots of actors he moves closer and operates from the camera’s eyepiece. While doing this, he discovered one flaw in the Alexa: its electronic viewfinder. “For an electronic viewfinder, it’s a very good one,” Deakins allows, “but any electronic viewfinder isn’t as good as [an optical] one. Your eye gets very tired looking at the screen inside the eyepiece. I also can’t really judge lighting or the image through an electronic viewfinder like I can through an optical one.” (Ed. Note: Since In Time, Arri has announced the release of the Alexa Studio, a larger version of the camera that will feature a rotating mirror shutter and an optical viewfinder.)

For Deakins, tracking the image through postproduction and final color timing proved to be just as satisfying as the Alexa’s performance in the field. “It took me about half the time to color-time this movie as it would have taken if we had shot film,” he attests. “The Colorstream process is really, really precise. Between the on-set calibrated monitor and calibrated dailies, you always know the image you’re going to get. So several months later, in the color suite, you don’t have to go back to scratch. That saved us a lot of time.”

Summing up his first digital production, Deakins describes his experience as “much more positive than I’d imagined it could be. Mostly, I found shooting digital very freeing. If I were shooting film, I would always try to err on the side of safety when I was doing something risky, to make sure I didn’t lose my blacks or reveal something I didn’t want to see. With digital, because I could basically see the final image while I was shooting, I felt I could push myself a lot further creatively.

“Some cinematographers are threatened by digital technology, but that just doesn’t make sense to me,” Deakins concludes. “You do need to be a technician at a certain level; you need some knowledge of the hardware and how it performs. But when it comes to the really technical stuff, you can always find people who know more about it than you do. Joshua Gollish can blind me with his knowledge — I could never understand all of what he was talking about, but fortunately, I don’t have to! That’s not my strength, and that’s not why people hire me.

“Cinematographers are hired for their eyes, for their artistic ability as  visual storytellers, and for how they can run a set. Whether I’m shooting on film or digital, my job remains the same: to use the camera to tell the story the best way I can.”

 

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