Steve Mason Shoots "Harsh Times"

Fate intervened when David Ayer met Wesley Strick while working on a crew remodeling the screenwriter's home. Strick became his mentor. Training Day was Ayer's seventh script and the first one he sold, but there were no buyers for Harsh Times.

Ayer put his dream on the shelf and scripted a series of studio features, including S.W.A.T., The Fast and the Furious and U-571. In the wake of those successes, a major studio offered to ante up $11 million in 2004 to produce Harsh Times. The hitch was that studio executives had ideas for the story and casting that didn't jibe with Ayer's vision. Ayer decided instead to raise funds himself and co-produce the film.

Harsh Times revolves around Jim Davis, who returns to his South Central neighborhood after serving in Kuwait during the Gulf War. Most of his boyhood friends are cops, crooks or dead. He hangs out with one of his old pals, Mike Alonzo, committing petty crimes, boozing and smoking pot while cruising the neighborhood looking for trouble.

The storyline changes directions when Davis is recruited by the Drug Enforcement Agency for an undercover mission in South America. He and Alonzo drive to a small village in Mexico, where Davis plans to say goodbye to his pregnant girlfriend.

Ayer's script and enthusiasm attracted a formidable cast, including Christian Bale as Davis, Freddy Rodriguez as Alonzo and Eva Longoria, who plays Mike's love interest, Sylvia. Ayer recruited veteran editor Conrad Buff IV, ACE, and cinematographer Steve Mason, ASC, ACS.

As a first-time director, Ayer was open to advice offered by Mason, who suggested that the Super 16 format was a financially viable alternative for creating the visceral, down-and-dirty look they envisioned. Mason noted that they would be shooting complex dialogue scenes that lasted for as long as ten minutes. An 800-foot Super 16 film magazine runs for up to 24 minutes.

He tested a bleach bypass at a film lab, but the process didn't render the look the team envisioned. As an alternative, Mason experimented with digital intermediate (DI) tests at different facilities. LaserPacific in Los Angeles was chosen to provide both front-end lab work and DI services. The test footage was scanned at 2K resolution. After some experimentation, Mason settled on desaturating colors by 10 percent and lifting the gain and contrast in the DI. Ayer embraced that look as the visual language for his story.

Mason also used the Kodak Look Manager System (KLMS) as a tool for experimenting with looks and communicating his intentions to both the dailies timer and DI colorist. He took digital stills of scenes and loaded them into the system, which was calibrated to emulate the imaging characteristics of the negative and how it would be exposed and developed.

The film's action was generally covered with two ARRIFLEX 16 SR3 cameras placed to provide different perspectives. The combination of Zeiss T1.3 lenses and the latitude of the Kodak Vision2 500T 7218 film gave him the freedom to reach deep into shadows while also recording subtle details, including drifting cigarette smoke and pigeons dotting a distant sky.

"The small cameras were perfect because we shot in a lot of tight spaces, including inside cars, where we used wonderful little LED panel lights on faces," Mason says. "I underexposed the film by up to two and a half stops at night [the equivalent of an exposure index of 3,000]. It got a little grainy, but that was the look we wanted in those situations. We lit night exteriors by putting a few sodium and mercury vapor lamps on telephone poles and aiming them in the right direction. We got phenomenal skin tones with the mixture of green and orange light."

Mason says the team usually operated the cameras handheld, though sometimes he used a Steadicam for wide angle, running, walking or master shots.

"We covered whole scenes with one camera on a master shot and the other one on a close-up," he says. "That setup allowed the actors to be braver and try more things because they knew we were going to do three or four close-ups within the structure of the scene. There are handheld shots that lock in on actors, often in wider close-ups, that add a dimension of depth to their characters, which isn't the same on a longer lens."

At the end of each day, Mason manipulated the digital stills with a personal computer. The original and manipulated images were recorded on a CD that was sent to the dailies timer to augment Mason's voice messages. The images also served as a visual reference for the DI.

The team took a several-day sojourn to a village outside of Ensenada, Mexico, to shoot sequences in which the main characters visit Davis' girlfriend. Emotionally charged scenes were filmed in a 12-by-12-foot room lit with just a few sodium vapor lights filtered through diffusion. Ayer notes that the ability to work with a small lighting package paid dividends because the weather was hot and muggy. Additionally, he notes, the dirty, grimy walls had a patina that would have been hard to duplicate on sets with their limited budget.

There were no storyboards. Ayer gave the actors, Mason and himself the freedom to improvise. The cinematographer made intuitive decisions about lighting based on staging, environments and the performances. He notes that there were times when it was important for the audience to see the faces and times it was important for him to conceal them.

"You have to ask yourself what the scene is about before you decide how to light and cover it," he says. "I thought about every shot just like it was a line of dialogue. A lot of information is conveyed by faces and expressions. I was watching a rehearsal for a scene where I planned to put an orange light in the background and decided not to flick the switch on until after we shot a few feet of film. We did it by eye, judging sheens, shadows and highlights."

Ayer likened their coverage to playing improvisational guitar. Mason suggested shooting a sequence in which Davis is confused and struggling to understand his situation with a hand-cranked 35mm ARRI 2-C camera to suggest his inner conflict.

"You can feel the heat that is engrained in those liquid, fluidly abstract images," Ayer says. "[Editor] Conrad [Buff] has a really good eye. He was able to find very specific moments that are poetic and tell the story in a believable way."

After Buff completed the offline edit, the conformed negative was scanned at 2K resolution with a Spirit DataCine. Timing was completed in a theatrical environment where the images were projected on a cinema-sized screen. DI timing was an interactive and intuitive process that took about two weeks.

Mason makes this analogy: "David is a writer who is used to refining drafts of his scripts. That's what we did with the images in the DI. We made little refinements to fine-tune the look, but you have to understand you can't alter what isn't on the negative."

Cinematographers have been timing television shows and movies in telecine suites for decades, but it was a new experience for Ayer, who reflects on the collaborative experience with Mason: "We timed the scene filmed with the hand-cranked camera really warm and made it hot when the character gets angry. It was a subjective decision. We experimented with finding the right balance so it doesn't feel like a gimmick. Also, there was a lie detector scene that had a monochromatic palette with a lot of blues and grays. We decided to make it really black and white in DI.

"DI also gave us a big advantage in night scenes, where we wanted the city lights visible from the car interior. The images were on the film-we just needed to tell the colorist what to emphasize and how much. There are backgrounds within backgrounds. The audience won't consciously realize the craft involved, but they can feel the energy."

An ARRILASER recorder was used to transfer the timed digital files onto 35mm color intermediate film at 2K resolution. Prints were made by Deluxe in Los Angeles.

Ayer concludes, "The big question we had in the beginning was whether we could afford to do a DI. The answer is that it was absolutely worth it. I believe a lot of independent movies are going to be made with Super 16 film and DI finishes."