'The Bay:' Combining Files and Formats for the 'Found Footage' Thriller

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Director Barry Levinson is best known for big-budget features including Diner, Rain Man and Bugsy, but his latest endeavor, The Bay, released this month through various streaming and VOD options, was made for $2 million and shot in 18 days primarily on low-cost consumer cameras, iPhones and webcams. The feature, which he described to the Los Angeles Times as an “eco-thriller/horror film,” is part of the “found footage” genre. (It shares producers with the Paranormal Activity franchise.) The story follows the progress of a bizarre outbreak that starts in the bay adjoining a small Maryland town using the points of view of multiple characters, their home movies and web chats.

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On July 4, 2009, a deadly menace swept through the quaint seaside town of Claridge, Maryland. The authorities believed they had buried the truth about the tragedy that claimed over 700 human lives. Now, three years later, a reporter has emerged with footage revealing the cover-up. Told from the perspective of those who were there and saw what happened, The Bay unfolds over 24 hours though people’s iPhones, Androids, 911 calls, web cams, and whatever else could be used to document the nightmare in Claridge. Photos by Stan Flint

Cinematographer John Nussbaum, whose background prior to The Bay was primarily in documentaries and commercials, was delighted by the opportunity to shoot his first feature with the illustrious director. He performed extensive testing to determine how best to capture the sense of realism Levinson was after in the film’s “found footage” without compromising the material so much that it distracted audiences or obscured key story information in the frame.

The first approach the team tested involved shooting high-quality footage with a professional camera and subsequently downgrading the material in post; this method would allow them to “dial in” as much or as little “amateurishness” as they desired from shot to shot.

However, “We were disappointed in the result of shooting on a RED ONE and shaking it all up later,” Nussbaum recalls. Although they did use some sophisticated technology to take the professional looking original material and add erratic camera movement, NTSC artifacts and downgraded resolution and contrast, the material ultimately felt to both director and cinematographer like just that: professional images purposely “muddied.”

Nussbaum then moved on and tested more than 40 low-end cameras that could conceivably have been used by the characters in the film on this fateful July 4, 2009.

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“We were surprised that when we went into a screening room and looked at a lot of the material on a big screen, it could still look quite nice,” Nussbaum notes. “Even some cameras with resolutions as low as 640 x 480 worked very well. I think if you’re caught up in the story, your brain will make up for the look. And in the horror genre it can actually be helpful if the image quality isn’t perfect. It makes the audience very curious about what they can’t quite see.”

While the bulk of the effects in The Bay are practical and prosthetic, there are a number of shots that required extensive animation and compositing; for those, Nussbaum used Sony EX1 and EX3 cameras, with their HD-SDI signals recorded via AJA Ki Pro. Otherwise, all the cameras were fastened to a rig built by Nussbaum’s crew comprising a wooden Aaton handgrip, an Anton/Bauer battery and wireless transmitter. “It weighed about 5 to 7 lb. so we could operate it more like a [professional] camera,” Nussbaum says.

He was the primary operator, sometimes standing snug next to the actor (or even perched on the actor’s shoulders!) to simulate the idea of the character shooting the material. “Sometimes the actors would actually be shooting for real if we see their reflection in a mirror or something. In those cases, of course, we used that camera without the rig. But we tried to do that as infrequently as possible.”

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The production set up a workstation on set where material (in every format and on all types of media imaginable) was imported in its native form and immediately transcoded to the production’s mezzanine codec, ProRes 422—the format in which all the images would remain through post.

Nussbaum explains that while these cameras were designed for amateur use in available light, it often required quite a bit of lighting gear and crew to yield images that could actually work to tell a story. A significant portion of the story is conveyed through web chats captured with real webcams. “Those were probably the hardest cameras to light for,” Nussbaum notes. “The image is extremely contrasty. You’re talking about maybe four or five stops of latitude. A tenth of a stop was the difference between seeing an actor’s face and having part of their skin tone totally blow out and be just white. And these are very performance-heavy moments. You have to see what’s going on in these people’s faces.”

Nussbaum made use of inexpensive LED light strips he purchased in New York’s Chinatown. “We could control color temperature and the amount of light with dimmers,” he elaborates. “They were just LED diodes on a piece of tape. We’d cut them to length and place them on the [computer] screen facing the actor on camera. It took some time to light and dial in the exposure perfectly. It wasn’t as simple as it might seem.”

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Lighting night shoots for these sensors proved even more complicated. “Across the board, none of the cameras except the Canon EOS 5D Mk II responded well to low light at all,” the cinematographer says. “And even when we could use that camera, we had to control the contrast. So for a lot of the night work we had some big HMI and tungsten units up on Condors. There was always this moment right before Barry yelled ‘Action!’ when we’d be standing there—this big crew and all these lights and a $200 camera—and it all seemed a little absurd.” 

How to Shoot Badly
It was important to director Barry Levinson and cinematographer John Nussbaum that all the “found footage” in The Bay looked like it was shot by the characters and not by experienced camera operators. To that end, Nussbaum had to unlearn more than a decade’s worth of experience composing shots and moving a camera through a scene. “Barry and I talked about this a lot,” Nussbaum recalls. “The idea of the film is that what we’re seeing was assembled from material that many different people were shooting, for all different reasons, throughout this July 4th holiday. None of the characters knows that what they’re recording will be part of this timeline. In fact, none of the actors saw the whole script. They didn’t know how it was going to come together until it was finished.”

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Besides using the actual cameras the characters would have, it was important that the material the team captured also looked like the real thing—neither too professional nor deliberately awful. “Barry would always ask, ‘How can we earn this perspective? Whose eyes are we seeing this through?” the cinematographer adds. “And we’d work out these things: How does camerawork look when you’re nervous? Does the camera shake or do you just pan around aimlessly? Or does the camera sort of lock in one position and stay there for too long? Why do amateurs so often shoot too much headroom?”

Nussbaum looked at a great deal of amateur footage—people’s home movies, YouTube videos—and started to develop a personality for the camerawork of each character, just as an actor would build a character.

“When you’re serving the story this way, you have to sometimes let go of your ego and let it look bad,” he says. “You can’t think in terms of finding the best composition. You compose like the character would.

“On a project like this, the law of thirds just goes straight out the window on day one.”

Camera Kit

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Cinematographer John Nussbaum says of the production’s camera kit, “We had at least two of each of these cameras, with unique card and battery systems. This took up to five assistants at a time to manage and keep up video village.”

•    Apple iPhone 4
•    Apple Photo Booth (webcam app)
•    Canon EOS 5D and 7D (underwater and police squad car cams)
•    Canon PowerShot SX210 IS
•    Canon VIXIA HV40 (HDV/Mini DV)
•    Electrophysics AstroScope night vision assembly
•    EvoCam (webcam app)
•    Goggle Cameras
•    Olympus X915
•    Panasonic AG-DVX100B (public access and surveillance footage)
•    Panasonic AG-HVX200 (surveillance footage)
•    Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1
•    Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 (surveillance)
•    Samsung HZ35W
•    Skype (webcam app)
•    Sony DSC-TX5 (underwater)
•    Sony Hi8 (night vision)
•    Sony PMW-EX1 (surveillance footage)
•    Sony PMW-EX3 (news reporter)