Extending Escoffier’s Cinematography
Nicole Kidman’s character on a gloomy, rainy day. Scene illustratesdirector Robert Benton’s desire to use muted colors to create “intimateand personal portraits.”
Oscar-winning director Robert Benton was devastated at the death ofcinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier earlier this year from heartfailure shortly after the two had completed working together onBenton’s new film for Miramax, The Human Stain. This was thefirst time the pair had worked together, joining forces on shoots inQuebec and Massachusetts and then taking a “furtherjourney,” as Benton puts it, in working with artists atTechnicolor’s Burbank-based digital intermediate division Technique, onthe first digital intermediate for both men. By the end of thatjourney, Benton felt he had finally found a DP and creative partner toreplace Nestor Almendros (who passed away in 1992), with whom Bentonmade five films, including Kramer vs. Kramer, which Benton wonan Oscar for directing in 1979.
Therefore, Escoffier’s untimely death in April at age 52 sadlyforced Benton to search for another visual collaborator, one with whomhe could share the kind of communication he had come to rely on.
“I developed the same kind of shorthand with Jean-Yves that Ihad with Nestor,” Benton says. “During filming [of TheHuman Stain], I did not suggest lenses, and I did not position thecamera, and I only looked through the lens when Jean-Yves asked me to.That’s how much I trusted him. And when he suggested at the beginningof the project that we should perform a digital intermediate, I agreedto do it even though I had never worked digitally before and didn’tknow much about it. He influenced me in that decision andbeyond.”
Given his relationship with Escoffier, Benton was content to simplyarticulate his visual concept for the dark and complex story based on aPhilip Roth novel about a college professor in a small New England townwho has a secret. From that point forward, he let Escoffier dominateall technical issues, including the digital intermediate sessions atTechnique, in collaboration with colorist Stephen Nakamura.
“What I told Jean-Yves was that I wanted the film to look likea handwritten postcard sent to a friend — that intimate andpersonal,” says Benton. “The idea was for the images to bebeautiful, but not pretty. Not overdone. I did not want primary colors— I wanted the colors muted, for the most part. I wanted contrastbetween winter and spring, where winter is bleak and spring is brightand vivid. And I wanted the dramatic scenes at night to be dark andconfrontational. But I left it all up to Jean-Yves how to get there. Hetold me he wanted to do the digital intermediate, and that was goodenough for me. I was amazed by what they did during those sessions, andI’m a total convert now.”
Escoffier was well acquainted with the tools and techniques of thedigital color-timing process from his commercial work, but The HumanStain represented his first digital intermediate on a full-lengthmotion picture. Nevertheless, according to his collaborators Benton,Nakamura, and “A” camera operator Jim McConkey, the DP waswholly committed to the principal that the process should be used tomake “subtle changes to improve that five or ten percent of thefilm that would make the whole film better,” according toNakamura, who has color-timed several major features in the last year(Seabiscuit and Kill Bill most recently).
“His belief, which is something I totally agree with and thinkmore DPs and directors are beginning to understand, was that theprocess was not about ‘fixing it in post,’ though weobviously can and do fix things,” says Nakamura. “It’sabout extending the cinematography — continuing to work theimages the DP creates. I think he felt it gave him the opportunity tobe a better cinematographer because the process allowed us to adjustimages to keep with his original vision. It wasn’t about changing hiswork — it was about satisfying his vision.”
Kidman and co-star Anthony Hopkins. Given Kidman’s complexion,colorist Stephen Nakamura desaturated Hopkins’ skin tone slightlyduring the digital intermediate for scene involving both actors.
Tweaking that “five or ten percent” under Escoffier’swatchful eye is what, primarily, The Human Stain digitalintermediate was all about. The DP shot the film mainly using Kodak5274 200 ASA stock, with some 5279 (500 ASA) mixed in for nightsequences. Technique scanned the movie at 2K resolution on a GrassValley Spirit DataCine, and then used a Grass Valley Spectre VirtualDataCine system to manage and play the data during the DI process.Nakamura color corrected the film on a da Vinci 2K system loaded withmulti-channel power tiers, a frequently used defocus board, and severaladd-on tools such as Grass Valley Scream software, which helped withgrain reduction. He painted to images projected by a Barco D-CinePremiere DP50 projector, and filtered through a Walker Box attachment,built exclusively for Technique by engineer Dave Walker and programmedwith Technique’s proprietary look-up table (LUT) to mimic the eventualfilm look of the piece. The movie was later recorded back out to filmusing Arri Laser recorders.
According to Benton, several scenes in the film benefited fromslight changes made at Technique during the digital intermediate“to invisibly impact the film,” as Benton describes it. Thedirector feels this capability of the digital intermediate process“enriched the specificity of the locations, bringing out the bestin the shots.”
“We have a scene, for instance, in which one of the characters[played by Ed Harris] comes to a farm late at night to confront[Anthony Hopkins’ and Nicole Kidman’s characters],” says Benton.“It’s a dark scene, lit only with lights from a pickup truck.When we shot that, there was a piece of farm equipment and some lightin the background, which Jean-Yves had them carefully take down in thedigital intermediate, and then we enhanced the back-lighting in thescene [from the pickup truck’s overhead lights]. Those changes insuredthat there was nothing visible in the shot that might detract from thecharacters. I learned through this process that there were lots ofthings we could do like that that the viewer would never think about,but which enhances the intent of what Jean-Yves was trying to do onlocation.”
DP Jean-Yves Escoffier (left) and director Robert Benton duringproduction of The Human Stain
. Benton says Escoffier, who died earlier this year, was a “truecollaborator” who convinced him to try a digital intermediate.
According to Nakamura, Escoffier worried about the confrontationscene because of his concern that blacks would be crushed too much asattempts were made to highlight the character’s faces.
“Jean-Yves wanted that scene to be very dark,” Nakamurarecalls. “At times, you can only see portions of Anthony Hopkins’face, for instance. Jean-Yves was worried there would be pools ofblack, crushed down, losing detail if we weren’t careful. But we wereable to hold the black detail by stretching just certain portions ofthe gamma curve in the shots, and that way, you can see the mid-toneshe wanted to see. We used lots of Power Windows in that sequence tokeep detail of the truck and some detail of their faces, while keepingeverything else dark.
“That’s the beauty of the digital intermediate process, asopposed to a photochemical process. With this technology, if you knowwhat you are doing, you can change portions of an image rather thanhaving to alter the entire image. That [farm equipment] off to the sideof the shot, for example — there was some spill light hitting it,so we just pulled that portion of the frame down and made itblack,” he says.
Nakamura adds that extensive work was done to brighten up the pickuptruck’s overhead lights to match the kind of lighting hitting the facesof Hopkins and Kidman in the scene.
“We have Power Windows on all those lights,” he says.“Brightening them up and adding more contrast. The truck’s actuallight was not that bright, so we just punched it all up to make thelight hitting the actors seem more natural.”
And so it went throughout the process. During a visit with him atTechnique, Nakamura excitedly detailed several scenes, explaining whatwas done and why, to help satisfy Escoffier’s critical eye.
Robert Benton (left) and Jean-Yves Escoffier discuess a shot. Bentonsays he did not suggest lenses or position the camera. “I only lookedthrough the lens when Jean-Yves asked me to.”
Take the movie’s opening sequence, for example, a portion of whichreplays later in the film. In the sequence, Hopkins and Kidman drivedown a snow- and ice-covered country road next to a lake. “Wewanted the bleak, deadness of winter both to contrast that scene withthe next one, which takes place in spring at a New England college, andwe also wanted the sequence bleak because it leads to an importantdeath in the film,” Benton explains.
The big debate, however, which wasn’t settled until late in thedigital intermediate process, was the time of day that the sequencetakes place. “They got some shots that were real bright like amid-afternoon and others that were darker and looked more like anearly, winter morning,” Nakamura says. “Robert andJean-Yves debated that for quite a while, and we went back and forth onit. At one point, we had it pretty bright, but we backed off on thatand went dark blue and gray all the way to the end, more like earlymorning. That sequence took a lot of work.”
A crucial flashback sequence was also creatively impacted by thetechnique. The sequence shows a young Coleman Silk (played by WentworthMiller) involved in a boxing match while in college. Since the filmlargely revolves around Silk’s feelings about race, there was a need toemphasize the difference in Miller’s appearance and that of his blackopponent. So Nakamura, under Escoffier’s direction, took pains tosubtly alter the environment without changing skin tone.
“Basically, we desaturated almost everything around him,outside of blood in the scene and the boxing gloves,” saysNakamura. “We made it all a chalky kind of look around them. Theidea was to give the viewer the feeling that this is an old-time boxingmatch. If you watch black-and-white film of old boxing matches from the’20s and ’30s, all you see is the two guys in the ring, maybe somespectators in the first row, and the ring lights above them. So,generally, we left skin tone alone, but desaturated almost everythingelse. It’s a muted, older kind of a feeling. Jean-Yves wanted this kindof look from the beginning, but he knew if he shot and lit it a certainway, we could do the rest to achieve that vision once the digitalintermediate came around.”
Filmmakers experimented with the look of the opening scene duringthe digital intermediate, debating what time of day the car drives downthe snowy road. They finally settled on dark, gloomy earlymorning.
Ironically, the most radical change that the digital intermediatecould have accomplished was never considered. In the story, Hopkins,who is Caucasian, plays a light-skinned black man who has spent hislife denying his racial heritage. Benton says there was never anydiscussion of enhancing Hopkins’ skin digitally to back up the racialpremise. (The actor did wear green contacts to change his eye color inorder to match the color of Miller’s eyes.) In fact, Nakamura saysHopkins’ skin tone had to be dialed down when he played scenes oppositeKidman. “Hopkins actually has lots of skin tone,” saysNakamura. “When he’s next to Nicole, who is very pale, there werelots of shots where we actually had to desaturate his skin. When youfilm someone who has a tan or lots of skin tone, and you put them inreally dark lighting as we have in this movie, then they get a lotredder. So for many shots, I actually pulled skin tone out ofhim.”
Nakamura, of course, is highly experienced in the nuances of thedigital intermediate, but he admits that working with Escoffier helpedhim refine his art as well. Escoffier’s consistent theme, the coloristsays, was to take whatever action necessary to make sure nothinginterfered with maintaining the viewer’s eye on the central object ofhis camera’s attention in each frame.
“He had a very clear vision about what he wanted and how thescenes should be, even before we started,” says Nakamura.“Any shot with Nicole in it, he said to make sure the eye goesthere, make sure we are paying attention to her. So if a light orsomething else interfered with that, we worked to rectify that. Wheredoes your eye go when you shoot photography? That’s what he was allabout. At the dinner scene, if your eye wanders from the main characterto the table, that’s not a good thing. So that was the maingoal.”
While meeting these creative goals was the primary role of TheHuman Stain digital intermediate, it is fair to say there wereoccasional fixes during the process, particularly in a couple ofinvisible effects shots and one key scene where the original negativeappeared damaged.
Gary Senise during a scene shot with a Steadicam at a pond nearMontreal.
According to Nakamura, the negative for a key flashback scene thattakes place in a library inexplicably turned green. “It wouldhave been extremely difficult to make that scene look normalphotochemically, but with the digital intermediate, we were able to putfocus back onto the actress’ face, as well as fix the colors and thingslike that,” he says.
Nakamura also suggests that Escoffier’s untimely death during theearly phase of the creation of the film’s DVD version could haveinterfered with translating the DP’s exact vision to the home versionof the movie — except for the fact that a digital intermediatehad already been completed on the theatrical version. This, hesuggests, is part of the digital intermediate revolution: Futureversions of films can all stem from the same source, thus reflectingthe DP’s and the director’s original vision whether they are present ornot during the remastering process. Further, the remastering process nolonger needs to be quite so time consuming and complex.
“For this DVD, we already had all the files color corrected,with Power Windows applied, defocus applied, all that stuff. A fewyears ago, the DVD had to be an entirely new version,” saysNakamura. “Now, Jean-Yves is gone, but the DVD will still reflecthis vision of how the images should be treated because we are using thesame files. The only real difference is putting it through a differentlook-up table to get it to video space and a few tweaks. But overall,all his defocus is there, his pans, his zooms, his reframing, and thesame guy who worked with him — me — is color correcting it.His case is special because he passed away. But, really, for anyfilmmaker, now they can just move on after the digital intermediate isdone. They don’t have to spend weeks in yet another bay directing a newversion.”
This, suggests Nakamura and others, is a huge evolution, takingplace at an unprecedented rate in the feature film industry.“Remember, we at Technique only performed our first digitalintermediate less than two years ago, in January of 2002 for PanicRoom,” he says. “Since then, we’ve done several DIs,and between our facility and a few others, several major blockbustersin the past year were done with digital intermediate. Now the cost iscoming down, and even independent movies like Thirteen areutilizing the process. It’s becoming faster, and you can save money inshooting, not only with speed and lighting, but with film. You canshoot three-perf, if you want, and it doesn’t matter to us because wecan scan in three- or four-perf. That money you save, you can put intopost, do a DI. You’ll have a better product in the end.”
Robert Benton directs Nicole Kidman in another scene featuring”modest” lighting.
Benton, for his part, is convinced that he already has a bettervisual product, and he insists that is mainly because of Escoffier’sin-camera contribution and his firm guidance of the digitalintermediate process. But another contribution involved convincing agrizzled industry veteran, as Benton laughingly calls himself, thatdigital intermediate was the way to go.
“I’m definitely a believer in this process, and I woulddefinitely like to do it again as long as my DP agreed,” thedirector says. “You might think if your cameraman is so talented,what can a digital process bring to the project? But the truth is, theprocess gives the cinematographer more control, more ability to refinehis imagery. This movie is 90 percent what Jean-Yves capturedin-camera, and about 10 percent what he and the guys at Technique didto improve things. But that’s a valuable 10 percent. I just hope I canfind that kind of DP again. Jean-Yves was a great DP and a greatcompanion. I miss him terribly.”
The Human Stain was Jim McConkey’s third film serving as“A” camera/Steadicam operator under the direction ofJean-Yves Escoffier, following Cradle Will Rock and 15Minutes. Just as The Human Stain director Robert Benton wasmourning his loss of a director/DP partnership with Escoffier’s death,McConkey was mourning the loss of his DP/operator relationship with aman he respectfully calls a perfectionist.
“On Cradle Will Rock, it took me about half theproduction to understand that while he was a perfectionist, it was alsoa communication thing. It just took him a while to trust that you hadhis vision at heart when you first started working with him. Once heunderstood that you understood what he wanted, he was easier to workwith,” recalls McConkey. “His death was particularlydevastating for me because it did take a long time to establish a closerelationship with him. But once I did, working with him was veryfulfilling. It’s sad to lose him as a person, but also that workingrelationship. He was a very talented cinematographer.”
McConkey says Escoffier tended to light “verynaturalistically, mainly trying to augment what was already there. Itwas always minimal, low, beautiful light.” He adds that Escoffierwas in charge of his plan for the upcoming digital intermediate, evenduring the earliest days of the shoot.
“He had a plan for the whole concept,” says McConkey.“He was well aware what he could and couldn’t do. And when we hadcertain problems, he was keenly aware what things he might have tore-shoot, and what things could be adjusted during the digitalintermediate.”
One example is a key scene shot early in the production in whichGary Sinise’s character confronts Ed Harris’ character while he’s icefishing on a frozen lake. The scene, shot at a pond near Montreal on aparticularly cold and windy day, was difficult for McConkey to filmwith his Steadicam due to the weather conditions.
“It was a long shot, following the actor as he walks down andacross the frozen ice,” explains McConkey. “It was cold andblustery, and I was using as much image stabilization as I possiblycould, from gyro augmentation to weights on the camera to help balanceit. But no matter what I tried, the winds were so strong that at times,I was really getting whacked, and the camera would shift and gooff-level. I felt pretty bad about it, but Jean-Yves came up to me andtold me not to worry about it because he could repair imagestabilization in the digital intermediate. I don’t even know what,exactly, they did to fix it, but he just put me completely at easeafter a difficult experience.”
— Michael Goldman