Spielberg Goes Retro

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Industry in Transition: Spielberg's POV
Digital Caution

Director Returns to Traditional Form

DP Janusz Kaminski shot Catch Me If You Can using low-contrast stock and romantic lighting, as seen in the film’s several airport scenes (above) and in the James Bond scene (below).

Steven Spielberg decided to direct Catch Me If You Can because the script landed on his desk and, he says, “I loved it.” At that time, it was well into development at DreamWorks. Still, to hear Spielberg talk, it sounds like the project came along right at a point when the director wanted to exit, at least for now, the world of high-end visual effects and dark, futuristic stories of great complexity.

The film tells the story of a teenage con man (Leonardo DiCaprio) trying to outwit an FBI agent (Tom Hanks). It's based on the real-life adventures of Frank Abagnale, a scam artist who befuddled authorities in the early 1960s while posing as a doctor, airline pilot, and lawyer passing
bad checks while living the high life.

Spielberg hints that the project was particularly enticing because it came on the heels of his back-to-back examinations of bleak futures in A.I. and Minority Report. These films, of course, followed two painstaking efforts — Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Amistad (1997) — to portray the distant past in precise detail. Catch Me, by contrast, is a romantic film about a lovable scoundrel from the recent past. It returns Spielberg to the realm of “traditional filmmaking,” which is where he says his heart belonged all along. In fact, the director calls himself an old-fashioned filmmaker, and not just because “I'm probably the only guy left in town who edits on a flatbed.”

Catch Me was a grueling shoot, especially coming on the heels of Minority Report. We shot the whole thing in 55 days at over 100 locations around L.A., New York, and Canada,” Spielberg told Millimeter. “I've gone that quick before, but never with so many locations. But on the other hand, it was a great break from those big effects movies. About 60% of each of my last two films was done digitally. It was wonderful, this time, to do things the old-fashioned way, which was, basically, once the camera shutter opens, what you capture is what goes on the screen. It was fun.”

Going Retro

To be completely accurate, the film contains a few invisible effects shots — most notably, altered logos on airplanes and backgrounds seen through the window of an airplane — done by Asylum, Santa Monica. But, according to Spielberg, “over 90% of the film was created in-camera.”

Like all his movies, Catch Me was then edited on a flatbed by Spielberg's collaborator Michael Kahn. No HD cameras, no digital intermediates or color-grading sessions, and minimal visual effects. According to Spielberg's longtime DP Janusz Kaminski, even the film's romantic, 1960s color scheme was largely an in-camera affair, built around a palette of colors conceived by costume designer Mary Zophres (known for her work on recent Coen brothers films).

While Spielberg has long been on the record as not interested in shooting movies digitally, with such a short schedule for production, why not consider speeding things up with some standard digital manipulations in post? Or why not, at least, edit on an Avid?

“I know, I know,” he chuckles. “I'm the last guy making pictures this way. I'm kind of proud of that, actually. It's not like I don't understand the usefulness of this technology. People forget I was actually there at the beginning of the digital age executive producing Young Sherlock Holmes [directed by Barry Levinson in 1985], for which we had ILM create one of the first digital shots for a feature film. In my capacity as a producer at DreamWorks, I'm always viewing dailies out of the Avid. Everything else we do at DreamWorks, except my movies, are edited digitally. I have a tremendous appreciation for the artistry that goes into making movies like Attack of the Clones or Shrek, but I feel I work best in the conventional realm. I just like the purity of actually being able to touch film and see it on a screen after threading it through a projector. I like cutting my finger occasionally on a strip of film. I like the craft of it. To me, and this is just a personal preference, the difference between cutting on the Avid and a Moviola is like the difference between making something on the potter's wheel with your hands, or designing a pot in a computer and pressing a button and having a machine at a factory make it for you. It's just not the same thing. Just say I like to get my hands dirty.”

But Catch Me gave Spielberg other opportunities, aside from its editing method, to go retro. For one thing, the film's condensed schedule, while taxing, gave Spielberg the chance to recreate aspects of old-style studio filmmaking, not to mention an opportunity to show his colleagues at DreamWorks that a major feature can be produced in a short amount of time.

“The compact schedule was a budget issue,” he says. “It was the only way to make the picture for the figure I had in mind. Most folks I talked to when we were budgeting wanted to add at least 15 days to the schedule, so that we would not have to move setups twice in one day from one location to another. But I said no, I thought we could do it. I had a crew that had done seven films with me in 10 years. We know each other well, and we work efficiently and creatively and safely. It wasn't easy, I'll admit, and we sometimes had to move three times in a single day. It was often move, set up, shoot, move or travel, set up, shoot, travel, and so on. It was exhausting. But in the end, I thought we could pull it off, and we did.

“The only way to do that, of course, is to use the same team, to keep a group of trusted colleagues intact. It's a lot like the way movies used to be made 50 or 60 years ago. A schedule like ours is an anomaly today, but 60 years ago, it might have been considered generous. In those days, studios had a machine in place, giving directors a ready-to-go crew that worked on one film after another. Some directors routinely made two or even four films a year back then. In that sense, I've been fortunate to be able to fashion my own miniature golden-age production team in the last decade, and that is what allowed us to put this film together so quickly. Plus, I preach to the people at DreamWorks all the time about efficiency. Everyone has their own style and needs, so I'm not saying we'll have other filmmakers work this kind of schedule. But I do preach to them that there is something to be said for the way films used to be made. I can't preach that unless I practice what I preach. So, making Catch Me in 55 days was a way of proving it can be done.”

Romantic Approach

Kaminski, of course, is a key player on Spielberg's golden-age production team, having shot the director's last seven movies. He is also in agreement with Spielberg when it comes to doing things the traditional way, and he's not a big fan, to say the least, of all-digital movies.

“Frankly, all-digital productions, in my view, look like crap,” says Kaminski. “Shooting negative and digitizing it and doing all the post color-correction is another matter — digital intermediate has tremendous possibilities. But an all-digital movie, shot HD and so on, in my opinion would not be the way to go. But for this movie, there was no need to consider even digital color-correction and all the control it gives you. We did most of it in-camera, which for this material, was the best approach.”

Kaminski also says that while Catch Me was a very hard film in terms of the schedule, it was also refreshing to work on a project where real-world color and light are captured in-camera and remain in the finished product. The DP suggests that Spielberg's creative desires for this film specifically, and their long collaboration generally, have “liberated me from the rules. I'm free to experiment as much as I want to get Steven what he is looking for.”

“This is meant, mostly, to be a friendly, fun, bubbly movie,” says Kaminski. “It's also a location movie — not shot on stages. Shooting on location is different than on a stage, but at times I was free to use theatrical light to support the story on location, if the situation called for it. We wanted full colors, romanticized lighting. The story reflects periods of ambiguity, fear, and sadness in this character's life, so the lighting basically follows that. We used angles and light that made the character feel small at the beginning, before he has confidence, like when he enters a huge bank to pass a bad check for the first time. Then, the composition and light change somewhat as his confidence grows. Because most of the crew had just worked together previously on Minority Report, we didn't have to relearn our language or start from scratch. But we didn't want it to look like A.I. or Minority Report. Instead, we took a romantic, stylized approach. Everybody was on the same page, and the plan worked great.”

"Once the camera shutter opens, what you capture is what goes on the screen," Spielberg says about Catch Me.

For the first time on a major feature, Kaminski chose low-contrast emulsion for his film stock. “I wanted to stay far away from the heavy contrast of Minority Report [where he used Kodak Vision 800T in combination with Kodak 5293, and bleach bypass techniques to achieve a high-grain look], so I went with Kodak 5277 stock at 320 ASA for the first time,” he explains. “Basically, I shot the entire movie with this emulsion because this was far different from our last couple of projects — more romantic, softer, with a finer grain.”

Spielberg says all of this was part of his plan to give the Catch Me story “a romantic, rather than psychedelic, view of the 1960s,” based largely on his own memories of the era and news and fashion photography from those years.

“I've done lots of movies about the past or the future, and rarely anything about the present day,” he says. “This was the first time I tried something about the recent past — a time in history that I actually lived through. I wasn't part of the drug or psychedelic thing, so I was more interested in the unique, romantic, innocent look of the '60s — bright colors, strange hairdos, pillbox hats. A lot of it came from news and fashion magazines that we studied. I had lengthy talks with Janusz about how to create the look of the '60s, and for once, we were not inventing a world like we did with A.I. and Minority Report, both of which required extensive R&D work to figure out what the future might look like. Here, we were re-creating a world in order to tell a romantic story.”


Industry in Transition: Spielberg's POV

LIKE MANY FILMMAKERS, Steven Spielberg is concerned about the entertainment industry's proper role in a post-9/11 world and a war-time environment. He cites simpler days when the industry routinely “came to the rescue when America was bleeding” by producing, as it did during World War II, both entertainment and propaganda to aid the war effort and boost morale.

“I don't know that the creative community should be in the business of making propaganda, per se, but in terms of entertaining people, giving them a chance to escape — that's something we always have done, and should continue to do now,” says Spielberg.

“Creative people are part of the larger community that is suffering now, so we all suffer together,” he says. “Therefore, it is logical that our work would, at least in some ways, reflect how we feel about the world around us and what is happening in it. Sometimes, that might be a powerful statement or a controversial statement, but other times, it should just be about getting people to laugh again. That's the primary contribution I would like to see Hollywood make right now.”

While Spielberg thinks it “might well have been prudent” for studios to hold back violent themes or films eerily similar to the events of Sept. 11 in the immediate aftermath, and sees nothing wrong, in that context, with staying away from work “that might demoralize people,” he cautions against avoiding controversial or painful subjects in the long run.

“If a picture is relevant to the times, even if painful to watch, and useful as entertainment, or to enhancing an ongoing dialogue, then I would hate to see our industry walk away from it,” he says. “If people are trying to simply exploit a world tragedy, I'm not in favor of that, but I do think in these complicated times, it is a good time to offer some perspective on events and give people different points of view. And besides, there is never a bad time for a good picture.”
Michael Goldman

Digital Caution

ON THE SUBJECT OF digital filmmaking, Spielberg is, himself, a dichotomy. On one hand, the director calls himself old-fashioned and doubts he will ever shoot HD or any digital format. On the other hand, he's the guy who brought the world lifelike digital dinosaurs, produced several pioneering films that advanced the art of digital visual effects, and is co-owner of a studio — DreamWorks — that routinely uses state-of-the-art technology.

Spielberg also recently supervised the digital remastering of E.T. — an effort that included some subtle digital changes to the film, including the removal of guns from the hands of police officers. Yet, despite that experience, the filmmaker has concerns about the potential of digital technology to “interfere in storytelling” or alter the work of filmmakers without their participation.

While this is hardly a new threat, he points to recent advancements in digital mastering technology that now make it easier, quicker, and less expensive than ever before to alter pre-existing material. He says this should make creative people cautious, and he hints that industry dialogue about the creative consequences of digital wizardry has not kept up with the technology's rapid deployment.

“I've learned that we can do just about anything under the sun with computers,” Spielberg says. “So the question becomes, should we? Or, should we remind ourselves, as filmmakers, to be careful, and remember that there is nothing more important than how a story is told? If storytelling becomes a byproduct of the digital revolution, then the medium itself is corrupted. On the other hand, if digital tools are simply a way to enhance a conventional story, then in that case, they can make telling that story easier. It's easier and more practical to show 20,000 soldiers in the Crimean War using computers, obviously. So, that's fine. But now, we have technology that can replace actors, or an entire performance in an already existing movie. We could cut out Humphrey Bogart and replace him with Vin Diesel, if somebody wanted. Who would want to? Well, there might be people who would. That's why we have to be careful.

“Movies reflect our cultural heritage from the period in time in which they were made. Therefore, altering them can destroy that historical perspective. That's disrespectful of history, which is a big issue for me. The situation is like walking a tightrope — we have to move forward, but we have to be careful.”
Michael Goldman



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