Clint Goes Digital
Clint Eastwood's reputation for economical, straightforward filmmaking is a bit out of date — at least in the opinion of Clint Eastwood. During a recent chat with millimeter, the director pointed to his twin World War II movies, Flags of Our Fathers and the upcoming Japanese-language, English-subtitled Letters from Iwo Jima, as proof of this assertion (at presstime, both were among The National Board of Review's Top Ten Films for 2006, with Letters winning Best Film). Both films were shot back-to-back at faraway locations under grueling conditions, both involved experimentation by Eastwood's team with digital cameras, both required far more extensive visual effects than Eastwood normally deals with, and both brought the filmmaker into the digital intermediate process for the first time.
“Everybody says that — ‘I hear you do everything in one take,’” Eastwood says. “If I did everything in one take, you might not [like what you see]. … Let's just say I do what it takes to get the material right. When it seems right, I move on and don't stay around beyond when the job is done. But that reputation — I sometimes joke about it. I'm willing to do whatever is required, and [these two films] required a lot.
“It's true that I'm old-school in the sense that I have worked with a lot of people who are not afraid to print and move on if they like something. I do like that decisiveness, and the fact that you can make up your mind. I understand that John Ford was like that, and he is certainly an idol of most directors. But I'll experiment when the situation calls for it. I know people who still won't [edit on] Avids, but I've become very comfortable with the Avid. So I'm not at the point where I [should be considered] a traditionalist. I have to keep investigating and keep up with the times.”
Still, the entire two-film project evolved into something far more complex than Eastwood's usual gritty, urban, dramatic fare — largely on a whim. As he was preparing Flags of our Fathers — an examination of the personal toll of the Iwo Jima battle, the famous flag-raising scene, and the resulting political machinations in support of the war effort on the three surviving soldiers captured in the famous photograph showing them raising the flag — Eastwood became curious about what he calls the “mirror image” of those American soldiers. That mirror image: the Japanese fighters who spent most of the battle burrowed into caves, largely invisible to the American invading force.
“[Letters from Iwo Jima] kind of came about as a curiosity when we were preparing Flags of our Fathers,” he explains. “I kept going over story points, and how the defense of the island worked, and I finally got interested in General [Tadamichi] Kuribayashi [commander of the Japanese forces on the island]. I became curious about the story. So I told [screenwriter] Paul Haggis I didn't have any dough, but that I had this crazy idea, and I asked if he had any students or anyone he could mentor along. He got [writer Iris Yamashita] to do some research, and she came up with the idea of following the general through the eyes of a young conscript.
“I said, ‘Go ahead and write a script,’ and then I forgot about it, and we went and prepared Flags. One day, she came with a script, and it was quite good. I realized I was heading to Iceland and Iwo Jima, and that I could pick up a few shots for both films, so that is how it all came about. Everybody asked me why am I doing [two films]? I said, ‘It just seemed like the thing to do.’ We were in the mode, so why not?”
That decision launched Eastwood's team into consecutive shoots in Iceland for Flags; limited shooting [due to Japanese government restrictions] on the island of Iwo Jima for both films; and inside caves in the Mojave Desert; among other locations, for Letters. As editor Joel Cox and his team started cutting Flags, Eastwood and DP Tom Stern started shooting Letters.
Simultaneously, Digital Domain was churning out hundreds of shots for both films, including 470 effects shots for Flags — many revolving around the digital creation of the massive 880-ship American armada that brought the invasion to the island — and another 240 shots for Letters. As Flags entered the digital intermediate phase with colorist Jill Bogdanowicz at Technicolor Digital Intermediates (TDI), Burbank, Calif., Cox and one of his assistants, Gary Roach (assistant editor on Flags and co-editor on Letters), cut Letters together and then pushed that film toward a second DI.
Naturally, managing all this was far more complicated than the workflow Eastwood's team followed on recent dramas such as Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. But, in typical Eastwood fashion, the director says, “I set my mind for it. … We moved right along and paced things out.” Indeed, his collaborators all emphasize that, even as Eastwood engaged in what for him were new digital techniques and practices, he relied on his standard managerial style to get it all done. He gave his vision and then let department heads manage things until the final approval phase.
“As he does with everything, Clint gave me a lot of leeway during the DI, for instance,” Stern says. “He does his utmost to indicate what he's thinking and where he is going, and then he lets us all operate in different quadrants, and we all head in the direction he envisioned. He's no micro-manager, but he does have an amazing cognizance of all details. So, it's not that he isn't involved in details like many people seem to think. It's more that he communicates in a way that we can handle those details according to his wishes. So, for these films, I mainly had perfunctory conversations with him about how the films were looking [heading into the DI process], and then he went away and told me to call him when I was happy with it. That's what I do, and then we go over it together at that point.
“He's no gearhead, and his work is not about technology, but he wants to get it all right. That's why he agreed to do digital intermediates for the first time. With the level of visual effects and different looks we had to deal with, it simply made the most sense.”
“I had to be talked into [doing a DI], at least a little bit,” Eastwood admits. “I had always resisted doing digital intermediates in the past, and had talked to a lot of people about it [for a long time]. But I just decided the time had come, especially for this project, because I wanted so many different looks and you can correct the looks as you go. Instead of having a whole run on the film, and then going ahead and [color correcting it] and then going back and having to say, ‘Change this, change that,’ you can just change it right there. You can go right through the film — boom, boom, boom — and get everything timed exactly the way you want it, and then go and film it out. I felt it was the best way to get the look and see it exactly as you are doing it.”
According to Eastwood and Stern, the DI ended up playing a central role in crafting the visuals for both movies, largely because the director had a specific plan for presenting the extensive battle footage of both films in as desaturated a way as possible. The notion there, Eastwood says, was partly to serve his general affinity for deep-black imagery, and for this project specifically, to push beyond that preference as befits the subject matter and the physical location of both stories — Iwo Jima.
“There is something about Iwo Jima and the black sand on the island that is very effective,” Eastwood says. “The sand is so black, but then, when you saturate it a certain amount, and then desaturate it in some other areas, you come up with something even darker. I did not want the war to be pretty. This is not one of those movies where you want the violence to be humorous or funny. It was a sad time, and a tough battle. Then, in modern day and other stateside scenes [in Flags], I'd come back to different stages with the color. So I think the digital intermediate expedited all this. We might have gotten it [photochemically], but it would have taken more doing, so the digital intermediate worked for us there.”
In particular, the extreme look of the battle scenes required Eastwood's team to move in a familiar direction — toward the typically desatured and high-contrast ENR process they have used so effectively over the years in a traditional film laboratory. This time, however, Eastwood wanted to go further.
Stern says that desire led the team to what he calls “the digital equivalent of ENR,” executed during the DI. Bogdanowicz used a Da Vinci 2K Plus color corrector for the work after TDI editors Mark Sahagen and Ron Barr conformed each movie in an Autodesk Fire system. (TDI used a Grass Valley Specter Virtual DataCine to play back the imagery at 2K resolution in realtime on a NEC iS8-2K digital projector during the DI process.)
“It was pretty crazy,” Stern says. “Basically, Technicolor built us a special LUT that let us get a strong ENR look onto Vision Premier stock. Vision Premier historically is a bit more chromatic, and if you use ENR to desaturate it in the lab, as we often do, then you can undo all your work if you go to Vision Premier, which has deeper blacks. But, in this case, we offset that chromacity with this special LUT digitally, and then used Vision Premier. From an economic point of view, it also helped — we saved a certain amount of money by not having to ENR every print. As Dis become more mainline, that could turn into a significant savings for this kind of work.”
“In our tests, by printing on Vision Premier stock, we established we could match the [photochemical] ENR process as Clint asked,” Bogdanowicz says. “Then, he asked, ‘Can we go further?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ since he was looking for higher contrast and less saturation. So, in the battle sequences for Flags, we took it to the furthest level — it's almost black-and-white, very high contrast. We retained oranges in explosions and reds in blood, and kept some of the olive color on the soldier uniforms — but it went beyond the normal ENR look. Then, on Letters from Iwo Jima, there are fewer colorful scenes than Flags, which bounces around from the island to other places and times — it's even more desaturated overall. Most of the movie takes place on the island, and much of it is at night, or in caves, so we were able to push the look a little further — very black blacks and higher-contrast areas.”
“[The photochemical ENR look was] a good starting point and communication tool for what Clint wanted us to do,” Bogdanowicz says. “But, overall, we modified it and were able to use it more selectively in the battle scenes, so it was a very effective device that could only be accomplished in a DI suite.”
Throughout both films, Eastwood's trademark “blacks and shadows,” as editor Joel Cox describes them, are prevalent, with blood, fire, explosions, and colors in both the American and Japanese flags strategically manipulated to stand out from that darkness. “That is a very specific thing to do with a DI,” Bogdanowicz says. “These movies would look different if we didn't do it this way.”
The subtleties of the DI process were effectively used in a variety of other ways on both movies, leading Eastwood to declare definitively, “I'm real bullish right now on digital intermediates.”
Rob Lorenz, one of the producers of both movies, explains a tweak Eastwood made during the DI process. “In the final stages of color timing on Flags, Clint played with it quite a bit,” he says. “For instance, the scene near the end of the film, where the elderly John Bradley dies in his hospital bed. Clint had Jill make the actor's skin tone subtly more pale as he inched nearer to death, so he really looked like he was about to die,” Lorenz explains. “Little things like that we weren't able to do before. That was Clint's idea, and to me, that indicated that he clearly grasped and embraced the usefulness of this technology and this process.”
Those weren't the only areas of experimentation for Eastwood on the two films. He entered the project seriously interested in shooting both movies in HD for the first time in his career. Although he eventually chose to stay with film acquisition, he did add POV-style shots, acquired with small HDV cameras, during the battle sequences in both movies — a far cry from his usual methods.
“I looked at all the [available] digital cameras, and tested them against film to see if the digital age was here completely,” Eastwood says. “I know, some day, that will be it. But for this project, I felt HD did not hold up quite enough compared to film for the way I wanted it to look. It obviously had some advantages, but I just felt I couldn't control atmospheres as well — I couldn't get quite as deep into the blacks as I wanted. So I decided to shoot film. It was almost like they needed to go another millimeter before HD gets to where I want it to be. I'm sure [manufacturers] will get there before long the way things are progressing. They are already so close. But for me, anyway, the main advantage I'm looking for is portability — small cameras. Some of the systems we tested were really big. I'm looking for the day they can be as small as [a digital audio recorder] and still look great on the screen. That's kind of what I was thinking about when I had the idea of using HD cameras [to capture frenetic battle footage].”
What Eastwood asked his colleagues to do was come up with a methodology of allowing him to capture what Stern calls the “accidental subjectivity” that flows from the chaos resulting when filming American soldiers storming the beaches of Iwo Jima in a hail of maddening gunfire, or Japanese soldiers fleeing as American bombs descend on their heads. And he wanted that footage captured with long-running cameras that would not interfere with his streamlined shooting style on location, while still being of good enough quality to be processed and seamlessly combined with 35mm material.
His team came up with something Eastwood calls “trashcan shots.” Basically, they settled on HDV cameras as the only viable option to meet his requirements. They sealed and stabilized a series of Sony HVR-Z1U HDV cameras inside prop 50-caliber machine-gun ammunition cases, operated them with out-of-the-box remote controls that come with those cameras, and gave the machine-gun cases to several extras acting in particular battle scenes. They captured wild footage that editor Joel Cox eventually mixed into certain sequences.
“We cut the front out [of the ammunition boxes], put these digital cameras in there [inside soft, waterproof housings and wrapped in bubble-wrap and foam], shooting 25fps, and I gave them to some extras,” Eastwood says. “I just told them to carry the boxes, and not to pay any attention to them. If an explosion went off, they could drop them. I even had them make them waterproof, so they could just drop them in the water. But I didn't tell the extras why we wanted them to carry the boxes. I didn't want them to start thinking about it, because that would ruin what we were trying to capture. We eventually filmed out those shots, and they came out real nice.”
Liz Radley, an HD camera operator and consultant who helped Stern's team devise the system, which she dubbed “CrashCams,” says the production tested a variety of SD, HD, and HDV cameras before settling on the HVR-Z1U units for this specific application. At the time, she points out, she was hoping for a system with fewer compression artifacts for feature film use, but says higher-end HD cameras were too large, standard-def cameras simply did not have sufficient resolution, and only the Sony HDV system was set up to meet their shooting requirements at the time.
“We are interested in [Panasonic's] HVX200 with the P2 cards and the FireStore [recording] system, but it wasn't available when we were shooting Flags,” she says. “We could get those cameras by the time we got into Letters, but even with 8GB P2 cards, the run time was not sufficient for the way Clint was shooting, and the FireStore was not yet available. So we stayed with the Sony cameras for both movies. HDV is obviously not comparable to 35mm film and anamorphic lenses, but with the process we used, followed by the digital intermediate, the footage mixed great with the rest of the movie.”
After shooting, Radley and HD coordinator Alexander Nicksay digitized selects into their Apple PowerBooks. Later, they exported the selects as still frames, and then used a proprietary software system to de-interlace them and minimize MPEG-2 compression and color artifacts. After Eastwood picked shots he liked and Cox added them to the evolving cut of each movie, the shots were then touched up at Digital Domain. The footage was later color corrected and touched up further at TDI during the DI.
Radley adds that each frame was transferred 1:1, ignoring a 3 percent speed change between the 25fps original footage and the 24fps running speed of the movie. “As these action shots didn't need lip sync, the difference is essentially invisible,” she explains.
Except for those HDV shots, Stern shot both movies using his usual combination of Panavision cameras and Arriflex 435 Xtremes and 235s for handheld work. He used Kodak Vision 250D 5246 stock for exteriors and Vision 500T 5279 for interiors and night shooting. Two sets of Panavision C series anamorphic lenses were Stern's primary lens choice on the project.
Stern calls the use of 5246 “kind of retro” because Kodak no longer manufactures the stock, but he says he strongly preferred it for this project because of how it represents blacks. Therefore, he made an arrangement with Kodak to collect existing 5246 and make it available to the production.
Overall, Flags was the more complicated shoot in the sense that the production had to travel to Iceland and shoot action scenes with hundreds of extras, complex special effects sequences, and hundreds of visual effects plates, rarely using bluescreen or greenscreen, relying largely on natural lighting. That, of course, created a humungous, but unavoidable, rotoscoping job for artists at Digital Domain under supervision from visual effects supervisor and second-unit director, Michael Owens.
On the other hand, the Letters shoot inside caves throughout the Mojave Desert posed a different set of problems — how to light and handle logistics deep inside caves. Stern compares the two movies to, of all things, bellybuttons, explaining that Flags is the “outie” and Letters the “innie,” given the subterranean nature of the action in the second film compared to the first.
“Shooting in caves is pretty hard — you just have to solve problems one at a time,” Stern says. “Most of them are normal hassles, except that when you get in a bind, you have a million tons of rock behind your problem before you get to a solution. So you use your wits a lot more. We had to send guys down to pre-light everything, but then again, we don't tend to overlight stuff too much anyway. I kidded Clint about it — I told him I'm glad we went down there, but I don't ever want to go back.”
In other respects, both movies proceeded much like typical Eastwood productions. Given the remote locations and the volume of visual effects shots coming in, Eastwood moved things along at a brisk pace, confident of his imagery whether or not dailies were easily attainable on location. Instead, he relied on editor Joel Cox and his assistants to alert him to any issues with footage once material was processed in the lab at Technicolor.
“It was a relatively routine workflow for how we work, especially because, throughout the shooting process on Flags, we still had not made a decision about whether we were going to do a DI or not,” says producer Rob Lorenz.
“Selects were scanned in, and we still print a work picture for Clint, syncing together a 35mm one-light print from the lab with a 35mm single stripe negative with the soundtrack on it,” explains assistant editor Gary Roach. “We sync them up on a daily basis, and then that gets transferred to Beta-SP tape and goes into the Avid for cutting purposes. Basically, we were done with cutting most of Flags, waiting to add visual effects from Digital Domain, when we moved into assembling dailies for Letters and starting on that cut.
“What was different, from an editing point of view from how we normally work, was just the scale. In addition to myself and [fellow assistant] Michael Cipriano, we added a third assistant for this project — Blu Murray, who did a great job tracking all the visual effects shots. And then we split up work more. I was cutting visual effects for Flags while Joel was editing Letters, and then, on weekends, he and Clint gave me the opportunity to edit several scenes from Letters.”
Filmmakers also added a third Avid Media Composer system to their editorial infrastructure at Eastwood's Malpaso Productions' office, relying on about 2TB of Avid Meridian storage for both projects, according to Roach.
From a creative point of view, Joel Cox had his hands full editing both pictures. For Flags, he had to make sense out of a nonlinear story approach that cuts back and forth between the battle on Iwo Jima to events stateside immediately after the battle, a few years later, and modern day. For Letters, he had to cut the movie without understanding most of the dialogue, because it was in Japanese, and then labor through the process of adding subtitles.
In both cases, Cox says, “I developed a rhythm, as I always do working with Clint.”
“The script for Flags actually had more back and forth,” Cox says. “When we cut the film that way, we realized it could be confusing to people. So we did it in a more linear mode, but adding that first flashback to set what would happen in the film and let the viewer be aware there would be flashbacks. Then, we got into the story and tried to keep it more linear. The big difficulty with it was the fact that there were so many digital sets, and we had to cut shots with open spaces, where Michael Owens and his people would later be adding things.
“For Letters, Clint told me before I started editing that I wouldn't need an interpreter to cut it, since I had the scene written in English in the script. He told me to just watch [the actors] speak, and said, ‘They speak in sentences, just like us.’ He promised I'd get the hang of it, and I did. That's how editing is — it's about rhythm. Even if you can't understand something, you can sort of sense it, feel it. Later, we brought in an interpreter and went over everything before putting in the subtitles, and I don't think we had more than four or five words to fix — we got it pretty close. For previews, we just put the subtitles in ourselves off the script, and since it's a Cinemascope movie and we were working 4×3 [for dailies], we just put the subtitles in the black area under the film. That was complicated, but then, every film is a big challenge in its own way. Editing is just like playing golf, really: You have to find the sweet spot and go for it.”
Complicated as the overall project was compared to his usual fare, Eastwood certainly appears confident he found his own sweet spot for presenting the two stories. In particular, Eastwood says he has a greater appreciation for the complexities involved with creating historically accurate battle footage for the bigscreen and the help digital filmmaking techniques can provide in crafting such footage.
“Our main influences were combat photos and movie footage, and I saw some really good combat footage over the years,” Eastwood says. “But [as a filmmaker], you say that is great, but because they are in combat, it's obviously not possible for them to turn around and shoot back at the people shooting at them. You can't exactly get complete coverage in a real combat situation. What we tried to do was get the kind of coverage I'm sure a combat photographer would have liked to shoot. For us, of course, we have the advantage of getting different perspectives, and we try to capture as many perspectives as we possibly can. We used a bit of a different style than [Steven Spielberg] on Saving Private Ryan, but the idea was to present it as it really was.
“Doing some of it digitally was the only way to accomplish this. I'm sure I'll eventually shoot digitally too. I can't say the next picture, but some day.”