Miami Vice in HD

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Oscar-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe admits his return to digital cinematography for director Michael Mann''s upcoming feature, Miami Vice, was a long, grueling affair (the globe-hopping production was stopped several times by multiple tropical storms and hurricanes, for instance). But as he prepared to enter the digital intermediate phase on the project, Beebe insisted he was extremely pleased with both the look of the movie, and how his team was able to improve its methodology for using Thomson Viper FilmStream camera systems from its initial approach on Mann''s Collateral in 2004.

As with Collateral, filmmakers incorporated multiple acquisition formats on Miami Vice—capturing most of the movie with Viper cameras, recording to Sony SRW-1 VTRs, but also using 35mm film cameras and different flavors of Sony HD cameras for particular shots.

For Collateral, however, the well-documented, specific look manufactured using HD technology involved crafting a unique exterior look for Los Angeles at nighttime. This time around, according to Beebe, there was a significant emphasis on capturing and presenting sun-drenched, day exteriors in HD in a way that would achieve Mann''s vision for the imagery when it ends up being exhibited to audiences on film later this year. As much as possible, the production and the cameras were geared toward achieving this look in-camera. Filmmakers viewed dailies on set, projected on a small movie screen through a 2k projector and what filmmakers are calling “a LUT box” system that permitted them to scroll through different color palette choices to select a final look during principal photography.

“Michael wanted a unique visual style for the movie, and we spent about four months of testing trying to identify that look,” Beebe says. “We knew through experience on Collateral that Viper could create a night exterior look that was very unique, but this movie is not Collateral. Michael had no intention of making this ‘Collateral in Miami.'' We wanted it more contrasty, and we were taking the digital medium into daytime, which we did not do on Collateral. We did a lot of experimenting, keeping in the back of our mind that we did not want to try and mimic a film look. This was about exploiting what was unique about these cameras and what they are capable of doing. One thing we learned during this process was to take advantage of enormous depth of field in combination with day exteriors. A lot of cinematographers try to work against the incredible depth of field that these cameras have, since it does not resemble what you would expect from film. In our case, though, we emphasized that look and got this fantastic, deep focus effect, which Michael really loved.”

“We also captured blue skies, white clouds, whitecaps on the ocean, and things like that,” adds Bryan Carroll, the movie''s associate producer and post-production supervisor for Mann on the project. “People worry that stuff can start to clip on video, but where it did clip, there was an art to it, a sort of silver lining to the clouds. That became all about knowing the format and where it would clip, and why, and then using that to your advantage. In my view, it is some of the most stunning daytime photography I have ever seen, but we had to push the system to its limit to get it.”

Beebe emphasizes such images were never meant to look like film, and they were difficult to achieve, but he says there was a sense of adventure in designing and capturing such imagery that was a lot of fun, despite the grueling nature of the shoot and Mann's well-known, demanding nature.

“Balancing these [Viper] cameras to shoot day exteriors is tricky, that''s true,” he says. “You have a very low threshold, and you have to ride highlights carefully. If you really blow something out, there is no going back. But that''s why you have to define your look in advance, and find exposure latitude you like, and really work within those parameters.

“But it was so exciting to explore and test all of that—exciting and tough. We have a lot of shots looking outside from an interior location through glass ceilings, windows, and walls, and we really had to protect highlights. But you can make it work and come up with something pretty amazing if you really test and explore, and figure out what your parameters are, and don''t try to treat it like a film negative. It''s all about making the right choices in advance, which I think we did.”

(An upcoming issue of Millimeter will have a more detailed examination of Miami Vice''s production workflow techniques.)

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