Film and Digital Workflow on "Numb3rs"
Who says higher math doesn't have real-world applications? On the crime series Numb3rs, FBI Agent Don Eppes (Rob Morrow) and his mathematical genius brother Charlie (David Krumholtz) use the latter's numerical talents to catch criminals. The crime-busting unit also relies on the input of a behavioral specialist, a military veteran and David Sinclair (Alimi Ballard), who offers perspective and the survival skills he learned growing up in the Bronx. Stories also involve Alan Eppes (Judd Hirsch), father of the agent/mathematician brothers, and the brilliant physicist Dr. Larry Fleinhardt (Peter MacNicol). But underlying every case on Numb3rs, which is inspired by real events, is the idea that mathematics is involved in much more of our lives and our decision-making than most people realize.
Cinematographer Ron Garcia, ASC, who alternates now with Bing Sokolsky, ASC, admits to being something of a numbers geek himself. Before embarking on his cinematography career in the 1970s, Garcia designed circuit boards for the aerospace industry, and he continues to follow with great interest the constantly evolving technology available to cinematographers. For Numb3rs, he was an early adopter of Eastman Kodak's Vision2 HD Color Scan Film (5299/7299)-an emulsion designed exclusively for telecine-and he makes extensive use of Panasonic's AG-HVX200 camera for additional camera work when a second or third film camera isn't available. The HVX200 records to Panasonic P2 cards.
Garcia, who shot the pilot episode of the series Joan of Arcadia with the Sony HDC-F950 CineAlta, says he liked the F950 a lot but did not think high definition was the way to go for Numb3rs. "The co-executive producer said, 'Why don't you think about high def?'" he recalls from an early discussion. "'We could save $35,000 an episode on film and processing.' I love high def, especially for interiors where you can control the light, but it's not right for a show like this, where we have to run-and-gun a lot outside. Some people who shoot high-def shows get to spend the time it takes to light for video, but on the shows I get, that doesn't happen. I said, 'You should ask the line producer on Joan how much he's spending on overtime. I think you'll find they're not saving $35,000 an episode."
If Numb3rs (which involves FBI raids and a lot of other action that takes place outside) had been designed initially to incorporate high def's famous difficulty holding definition in highlight areas, then Garcia would have been all for it. "If you want to use video as a medium and let the highlights go to white and burn out, as Tony Scott [and Cinematographer Daniel Mindel] did in parts of Domino, that can be a great look. But the producers and the network have got to be ready to accept that kind of look. On Numb3rs, the stars wanted to look good all the time, and I said that it would be very hard to be doing these FBI attacks with harsh sunlight on the actors' faces."
The producers agreed that 35mm film (3-perf) was the way to go. Garcia remains a fan of Fujifilm stocks, but when Kodak showed him some of their so-called High-Definition stock in its 16mm form, he was fascinated. The 16mm 7299 was Kodak's attempt to retain the benefits of its short-lived Primetime stock (Kodak Primetime 640T Teleproduction Film) while adding characteristics that would appeal to cinematographers working in the digital age. This Vision2 HD Color Scan Film stock is designed to maximize the film/telecine combination; unlike the early Primetime stock, it renders images that genuinely impressed Garcia.
The Kodak Vision2 HD System consists of the negative film and the Kodak Vision2 HD Digital Processor used by the colorist. The cinematographer can choose an exposure index on the digital processor between 320 and 1,250 depending on the lighting environment during shooting. The digital processor, which is subsequently patched directly into the telecine session, compensates for different EI ratings, under- and overexposure and variations in color temperature. Since the film look is created using digital image processing applied at the time of transfer, the imaging characteristics of different Kodak color negative stocks, including both current and discontinued emulsions, can be generated from this one stock. The 7299 film stock is not a printable film. It is used strictly for scanning with a characterized telecine and viewing on a characterized monitor. It must be used with the Vision2 HD Digital Processor.
Garcia loved the idea of having a single stock whose characteristics and speed he could dial in depending on what he happened to be shooting that day. He told the Kodak reps just weeks before shooting commenced for the series that if they could get him the stock in 35mm, he would use it for Numb3rs. With only days to spare, the film arrived in the wider gauge (5299), and Garcia started using it right away.
The cinematographer notes that using the Kodak telecine box along with the 99 emulsion requires the investment of some time and effort. But the stock is so versatile that he is able to shoot his exteriors without worrying about clipping bright backgrounds, skies or, most importantly, skin tones. "The information is all on the film," he says.
Garcia ultimately incorporated Fujifilm stocks into his palette as well. The company's Eterna 400T gives him the kind of flesh tones he likes, especially for women. "It's so soft," he says. "I don't need any diffusion." Garcia found the Eterna to be less overpowered by reddish hues than the Kodak stock on one recurring set that is bathed in red tones from rich wood and antique lighting fixtures.
But it would be incorrect to say that Numb3rs is entirely a film show. Garcia has made rather extensive use of Panasonic's HVX200 camera, which records 4:2:2 DVCPRO50 in 16:9 1080i. "I use [the HVX200] for some wide shots, stunts, car scenes and even some actual dialogue scenes now," he says. "It's so easy to get it inside a small area or if the director wants to look down on the action from a corner of the set, where I couldn't fit a 35mm camera. I use a C-stand to stick the Panasonic camera up in the corner of the room. It's fast and it lets us get an extra camera in there and get the shot the director wants.
"I use it on the stars of the show for close-ups sometimes, and it cuts in with the film just fine," he adds. "It's great for car dialogue shots. We used it recently for a shot of Diane Farr and Peter MacNicol together in a park at night looking up at the stars. The director wanted a shot that starts up high and cranes down to a two-shot. We're budget-oriented on our show and a crane shot is a luxury we can't always afford, so I said, 'Why don't I put the Panasonic camera on the Jimmy Jib and do the crane shot that way.' The producer asked if I thought that would work, and I said, 'Haven't you been seeing shots from this camera in the show all season?' So we did it. We also did a dolly shot with the 35mm camera as a backup in case the network didn't like the shot we did with the Panasonic. But the shot stayed in the episode."
Garcia generally trusts the HVX200 on autofocus. "The autofocus is part of the joy of this thing," he says. "It can be up on a crane and the autofocus mechanism scans the whole image and does a very good job of holding focus. When we use it in a car, I can determine where I want the focus and lock the focus in place." He adds that he would not use the camera for a shot that required tight follow focus.
He uses a small amount of diffusion-usually Black Pro-Mist or Classic Soft-on the lens to soften some of the overly sharp "video look." Also, synthetic film grain is added to HVX200 shots in post to help them match the surrounding film images.
He sets exposure manually using the small video screen that comes attached to the camera. Garcia explains, "Depending on the scene, I'll see where the hot highlight area is to determine where I want the exposure to be. Usually I'll set the zebra pattern to show up at 90 percent and close down until the zebras on the highlights disappear, then click it back up to a point where only half the highlights form the zebra pattern. The stuff looks great."
Garcia also likes the camera's ability to record variable speeds from 12 to 60fps. "I've been shooting explosions and gunfights and other action with it a lot," notes Garcia, who feels 48fps is the best setting for catching explosions and action shots with the HVX200. "The camera is always in the camera truck, and when we can't afford a third camera, I'll say, 'Bring out the P2.'"
The cinematographer stresses, however, that if the show were to drop film entirely and go all-digital, the HVX200 would not be his choice for the main camera system. "Right now I'm very interested in the ARRIFLEX D-20 digital camera. The size of the chip is the same as 35mm film, so you can use the same lenses and get the same look as you can with film. That also means that you can have assistants working the follow focus for critical shots. Cameras like the HVX200 that we use are not designed for the same kind of critical focusing that a real film camera is set up for. And for the operators, the D-20 is much better because it has an optical viewfinder. It's a real film camera with a digital back instead of something that started out as an ENG camera that's being adapted for film-style shooting."