Racing from one Hollywood postproduction facility to the next in the wee hours one night in early June, director Michael Mann and his colleagues wrangled the last major chore related to the theatrical release of Mann''s new gangster picture, Public Enemiesthe story of John Dillinger''s rise and fall. That chore involved taking the painstakingly crafted digital images Mann created for the movie and translating them to film space in order to strike film-release prints that would meet his expectations, closely emulating the stylized video look of the movie.
Briefly slowing down long enough to chat with millimeter about his adventure making the movie before embarking on yet another round of color tests and tweaks, Mann concedes that this last bit is the most difficult, and least enjoyable, part of a process he is otherwise immensely proud of. The director says he yearns for the era of omnipresent digital cinema to arrive and take him away from the world of film prints altogether.
“I''m really looking forward to digital cinema,” he says. “The variety of looks attainable on video are vast. It''s really exciting to design something that is unique to the expression of a certain story and place and mood that [doesn''t look like any established film aesthetic]. It''s frustrating to try and corral that, sometimes, into the domain of the photochemical [for release prints]. So I''m really looking forward to digital cinema becoming ubiquitous, because a whole other range of experiences are possible. Right now, getting this movie onto film is the hardest part.”
That task might have been easier had Mann stuck with his original plan for Public Enemiesa return to film acquisition after spending years on the bleeding edge of digital acquisition for Collateral (2004) and then Miami Vice (2006), both major studio pictures shot using Grass Valley Viper FilmStream camera systems recording to Sony HDCAM SR tape. As development on Public Enemies accelerated, Hollywood filmmakers such as the Wachowski brothers and David Fincher turned to Sony''s F23 CineAlta digital imaging system for major effects-oriented work on such movies as Speed Racer and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (the latter of which was mainly shot with the Grass Valley Viper FilmStream), but a period drama not geared toward visual effects was something else entirely.
Over the last couple of years, however, Mann and his producer/friend Bryan Carroll, DP Dante Spinotti, and video controller/digital imaging technician Dave Canninglongtime collaborators with Mannall had been working together in various combinations on commercials that eventually got around to incorporating the F23 to varying degrees. Those experiences, combined with Mann''s admitted compulsion to test every possibility, eventually led Public Enemies into the digital realm and into a specific aesthetic designed to move far away from film, despite its time period and corresponding costumes, sets, and art direction.
Following experiments on Nike and Sprint commercials, including the use of the F23 to capture NASCAR racing vehicles in action, Mann decided to enlist Spinotti''s help to do side-by-side film/F23 tests for Public Enemies in late 2007.
“We did tests down in the parking lot [of Mann''s offices], set up with some posters from 1933 and cars and lights,” Spinotti says. “We did side-by-side tests with a film camera next to the F23, shooting daytime and going into twilight and then night. We also did various lighting tests. Company 3 [Santa Monica, Calif.,] did the transfer for both, scanning the film and then bringing the digital files into a digital negative and then printing, and then we compared film prints. The results were interesting: The F23 was extremely sharp, probably a bit sharper than film itself. The tonal range wasn''t the same as filmwe all know the tonal range of film holding onto the highlights is extraordinary and digital hasn''t quite met that yet. But nevertheless, the way that digital dealt with shadows, really reading into shadows and darkness and doing it with extreme sharpness, convinced Michael, and I agreed: The way to go was digital. The other consideration was the agility and elasticity of working with those cameras and how Michael could work his preferred way. All this would let him go into an area that is almost hyperreal.”
The word “hyperreal” ended up being important in the decision-making process. After seeing imagery from both media, Mann decided he didn''t want a nostalgic look at 1933, but instead, preferred to bring viewers into 1933. Thus, an ultrasharp, hyperreal view of the characters and their clothes, environment, guns, and textures was Mann''s desire, and he decided digital acquisition was the best way to get there.
“When Dante and I did those tests and worked on it with [Company 3 colorist] Stefan Sonnenfeld and I looked at it, the film kind of looked like it had a period patina to itlike we were making a period motion picture,” Mann says. “The video, on the other hand, and the way we set the F23 and modified some of the settings, increasing the black saturation and building up some of the spectrum highlightsthe whitesfelt like you were actually there [in 1933], rather than looking at it through some kind of nostalgic lens. That was the relationship I wanted audiences to have with the storyto see it as detailed and specific and textured as reality they see right now. The near focus, the extreme depth of fieldthose things all gave it the hyper¬real sense of things.”
That decision meant that Carroll and Canning had to design a workflow for recording, monitoring, and manipulating the imagery on set, as well as moving it into the postproduction chain. Some of their workflow issues included what video format to record in; what monitors to use; how to move camera signals around; how to record—to tape or hard drive; and what additional cameras to bring in for shots that the F23 could not capture (inside tight spaces or ultraslow-motion).
The biggest decision was also the most straightforward: Mann and his team wanted to shoot in Rec. 709 HD video color space from the get-go, as they had using Viper cameras on his last two movies, even though the prevailing wisdom in many quarters is that this commitment makes it particularly difficult to translate the aesthetic seamlessly onto a film print. Mann saved that headache for the end of the process, and his team says he overcame it with painstaking post manipulations that continued unabated until the 11th hour. It was worth that headache for Mann and his colleagues, Carroll says, because it allowed Mann to commit the movie to his exact vision long before HDCAM SR tapes ever left the set.
“Michael has the whole movie in his head and knows exactly what he wants it to look like,” Carroll says. “He feels Rec. 709 is a creative decision—what he sees [on set] is what he''ll get. We set the whole thing up so that what he sees on his [24in. Cine-tal] monitor on the movie set is the same he''ll see on his dailies screen with a 2K projector, which is the same he''ll see at Company 3 as he color-times the picture, which is the same he''ll see at preview screenings on a digital projector or through a [look-up table] on film. It allows him to create passes on set that are bulletproof, painting on the fly, and hot-rodding the cameras and the image. If he wants to add some red or desaturate it, he does it right there while they are shooting the picture [by manipulating settings on the F23 and using color-correction software, with help from Canning and digital imaging technician Ted Viola]. It''s like a painter seeing what is going up on his canvas, rather than shooting in [raw mode] and waiting to see it weeks or months later. He feels he has complete control of the camera and can use the settings to reach into depths of contrast, tint, color, and so on.”
Mann''s team also rejected the option of recording to hard drives because at the time the project went into development, the state of that technology was not as robust as it is today for feature work, even though Fincher''s approach made it work. The way Mann prefers to operate, however, simply precluded the option at the time.
“We used the F23 as it was designed, with the [Sony SRW-1 portable digital recorder] onboard, capturing to [HDCAM SR] tape,” Carroll says. “It made us more mobile, which is important for the way Michael works, and let us do multiple speeds and ramping more easily than if [the camera were] tethered. Hard drives, at the time we started, didn''t have a mobile system to stay on the camera that we were comfortable with, and we would have had to be strapped down with umbilical cords. Now, with a year or two of advancements, it would be a more viable option.”
“We had times when even the Steadicam operator flew the F23 as a one-piece on his rig,” Canning says. “[On another project recently], we used the Codex field recorder, and I''m sure that is in [Mann''s] future. But at the time we started this project, that field recorder wasn''t ready, plus we had so little time to test the cameras before we had to start shooting the movie.”
Accurate image monitoring, of course, is central to working Mann''s preferred way. Canning arranged two monitoring systems to allow maximum collaboration on set. First, Mann was set up with a personal 24in. Cine-tal LCD monitor, and then a Sony BVM-D24E1WE CRT monitor was positioned in a tent for the full team to view.
“The Cine-tal is difficult to share—only one person can consume it at a time,” Canning says. “Your head has to be right in the middle of it because it''s LCD and can''t be off-axis. But in a tent, the grip, gaffer, DP, [digital imaging technician], and others also needed to see the images, and for those situations, there is no better monitor than a [high-end] CRT. ... Having [the two monitors] together was the best way to do it. We had a monitor that was real stable for light output and color temperature, including through temperature swings, and then, next to it, a monitor that everyone in the tent could see at the same time.”
Mann says he had more on-set control this time around than he has ever had over digitally acquired imagery for a feature film. “With that high-def monitor, if I think something is too red, I''ll ask Dave Canning to pull back on it, or I might make a determination that I like a certain flatness, but we are picking up a bit of noise, so I might tell him to push it,” he says. “Or it might be low-contrast and I''ll want to add some noise or add some reds in, particularly between the blacks and the low mid-range. During shooting, if I decide such things, we can rough it in and take real advantage of it.”
Canning says his engineering department maintained great control over monitoring, manipulating, and painting images live on set because of their use of a 16x16 NVision switcher, an Evertz HD-SDI router, and a For-A DCC-70HS HD color correctora system that let them monitor and manipulate images from three or four cameras on one chain, on one display, simultaneously. “The router itself was the heart of the distribution system and allowed us flexible assignment [of images] in [1RU],” Canning says. “Feeds for video assist, as well as sound, were sent from that router.”
But Canning says the biggest engineering improvement on this shoot over Mann''s earlier work was that the project gave him, for the first time, complete remote control over camera settingsmaking seamless adjustments as Mann called for them.
That was made possible via an Ethernet-based camera-control system, thanks to the incorporation of Sony''s MSU-900 master setup unit, which allows the video team to adjust settings on multiple cameras through an Ethernet interface with an Ethernet hub. Use of such a system on a major, digitally acquired feature film, according to Canning, is a major step, because it allowed him to use standard Cat-5 cabling and a network switch to form the camera-control system, rather than relying on special control cables and sophisticated camera-control hardware.
“I''m pretty sure this is the first time it was done on a [major] motion picture,” Canning says. “It lets you run Cat-5 cable to the camera, which is real simple to terminate, and then, when the cameras are adrift, they naturally pop up in the right position in the MSU unit. The MSU now has an Ethernet port on it, and you can use a simple, off-shelf router with it, and then just plug Cat-5 in to control your camera. It was very powerful to do it that way.
“On this movie, I had full remote control of the camera. I had four remote-controlled cameras and I could turn off the blue channel, for instance, myself [while they were shooting]. That let [the camera people] focus on framing and not having to worry about turning a bunch of knobs.”
Despite the production''s pleasure with the F23, there were situations in which the F23 wouldn''t work to capture particular shots. Several shots inside extremely tight spaces, such as 1930s-style auto¬mobiles, required a more compact approach. For those sequences, Mann''s team opted for Sony''s PMW-EX1 camcorder, reconfigured to record to the Sony SRW-1 recording deck via a single cable instead of using the camera''s flash-memory system.
“That worked well for tight insert shots in cars,” Carroll says. “We also carried a T-camera [a Sony HDC-F950 broken out of its camera housing] with a little package for very tight things inside cars and planes, and then we used a film camera for one slow-motion sequence.”
That sequence comes in the movie''s climax: the shooting death of Dillinger at the hands of FBI agents outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago. The scene was shot at the exact site of the real Dillinger shooting, and Mann wanted to greatly ramp speeds to stylize Dillinger''s fall. After testing various digital slo-mo options, he and Spinotti opted to shoot film for the sequence.
“We tested [the Phantom camera from Vision Research], but for as much slow-motion as we wanted to do, at 160fps, we decided it made more sense to use film,” Carroll says. “You have to keep in mind how Michael Mann wants to work. We must have done 50 to 60 takes from multiple different angles [of Dillinger''s death] during the shoot, and the workflow of those other cameras, to download from the cache, takes many minutes, and asking Michael to repeatedly wait just wasn''t the best way to work.”
The result of this approach, Mann and his colleagues insist, was the hyperrealism Mann envisioneda stylized clarity that allows viewers to see 1933 environments and textures in detail.
“These aren''t classic, iconic images that are period-related, sepia tones and all that,” Spinotti says. “But they do have this sense of immediacy and realism thatwhen you combine them with the fact that we accurately reconstructed the story in terms of locations, costumes, scenarios, and carswe could only do that shooting it this way. We recorded those period images with a very modern camera that creates the sense of a modern image. That was the most challenging part of the whole operation.”
Among the biggest of those challenges was the creation and digital capture of period light, since lighting instruments of that era created far different illumination than those of today. Cars and streetlamps were routinely rigged to emulate 1933 light, and periodically, those lights were the only source of illumination in particular scenes.
“We noticed in period photographs that street lighting was very spottythat was before sodium vapor,” Mann says. “There was a certain diffusion of light that was different than what we have today. If there was a streetlight in front of a building on the cityscape, where the light did not hit, it fell off to darkness rapidly, rather than lighting everything around [the main lit area]. So we used recessed lights and low wattage and yellow incandescent lights.”
The most effective and stylized use of period light involves scenes in which news photographers race to photograph Dillinger when he is being transferred to prison and later, after he is shot to death at night. Filmmakers say their research helped them figure out how that era''s equivalent of the paparazzi managed to instantly produce enough light to take photographs on location, with no access to electricity.
“Our prop master [Kris Peck] noticed it, looking at some period footage and newsreels,” Spinotti says. “In the corner of one of the frames, he realized they were lighting up those news scenes with powerful flares. He showed it to me and Michael, and we thought it was a brilliant way to light a scene. So we did tests at night and the result was beautiful, and the light was on the mood and dramatic, as smoke [from the flares] drifted by.”
“[The scene near the Biograph Theater after Dillinger was shot was] a wild news scene with hundreds of spectators, and when you see the still photographs, it seems like the light is coming from carbon arcs,” Mann says. “But that would have been impracticalthere is no way that Movietone News could have shown up in a half-hour with carbon arcs. When we found that other image that showed the street and the light source as actual flares, we realized we could replicate that look.”
Mann could hardly build a believable 1933 ambiance without visual-effects help, which was spearheaded by supervisor Robert Stadd (see The Art of Tiling in Public Enemies). The 400-plus digital effects shots in the movie were created by eight facilities: Illusion Arts, Visual Effects Collective, Invisible Effects, Pixel Playground, Wildfire VFX, Hammerhead Productions, Pacific Title, and CafeFX. Those shots largely revolved around set and location extensions and element combinationsall designed to be as invisible as possible.
The DI process, performed by Sonnenfeld at Company 3, was fairly straight¬forward in the sense that so much of the look was finalized in-camera, with heavy lifting involving Sonnenfeld done at the front end of the process. Transferring that look to film, however, was more complex and involved significant, additional testing right up until the 11th hour, according to filmmakers. The eventual success of that process revolved around the application of various look-up tables developed for the production at EFilm before the eventual print was struck at Technicolor. Still, Carroll says digital projection is, ideally, the way Mann wants audiences to see the movie.
“Once digital cinema is everywhere, that process will be simpler,” Carroll says. “But, for now, it''s just a combination of having these great [color scientists] building LUTs for us, then tweaking them and twisting them in new ways to find areas we can go into on the film negative to help us accomplish the look Michael had originally envisioned. But if you have the opportunity to see this movie in a local movie theater projected digitally, you will be in for a real treat.”