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The Morris Microscope


Shooting S.O.P.

Conforming S.O.P.

Errol Morris, pictured in the video monitor, interviews former soldier Sabrina Harman for his documentary Standard Operating Procedure using what he calls the “Interrotron” technique. Morris invented the technique based on the teleprompter concept. Morris and the person he is interviewing each sit in front of a camera and view the other”s face displayed on a video monitor while they converse. Photo: Nubar Alexanian. All photos: ©2007 Max Ave Productions. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.

In 1997, millimeter Senior Contributing Editor D. W. Leitner respectfully accused director Errol Morris of “transgressing the canons of documentary dogma” while writing about Morris” then-new documentary Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. Ten years later, the Oscar-winning filmmaker (for 2003”s The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara) is at it again, toying with the whole concept of what exactly a documentary is or isn”t as part of his newest work: Standard Operating Procedure (S.O.P.) from Sony Pictures Classics.

The film — like Morris” famous The Thin Blue Line (1988) — features what may loosely be called re-enactments of events surrounding the infamous Abu Ghraib prison scandal that the main players in the drama describe, but as with The Thin Blue Line, those re-enactments do not necessarily reflect the exact specifics of the situation — nor are they intended to. Robert Richardson, ASC — the co-cinematographer on the film, along with Robert Chappell — says the re-enactments should be more properly defied as “creative translations.” The film also features visual effects and other dramatic touches, such as ghostly images of characters who have come and gone from the story and much more that might lead viewers to conclude the movie is hardly a standard documentary.

“There is obviously a very strong documentary element in this movie. When you see [former Abu Ghraib warden] Janet Karpinsky or [private] Lindy England [a key player in the scandal] talking, they are not actors playing these roles — they are real people,” Morris says. “The interviews are not scripted or rehearsed. They are investigative in nature. I”m talking to these people to find out something about them.

“But I am playing with the idea that this is clearly more than a documentary. To me, the whole idea of drama versus documentary — considering that every documentary has elements that are controlled and every dramatic film has elements that are uncontrolled — is [hard to delineate]. The central intuition about documentaries is that there is something spontaneous, unrehearsed, unscripted about it. That”s the essence of the cinéma vérité idea — things unfold before the camera; [they are] not orchestrated for the camera. Drama is the other way around — the whole auteur theory is that the director controls everything. But when you think about it, both documentaries and dramas have pieces of both genres involved. You can”t say nothing is scripted or controlled through editing and framing and 1,000 other devices in a documentary, just as you can”t say everything is controlled in drama. These are the things that give film its power.”

However one describes the film, Morris” primary goal throughout was to examine not so much the Abu Ghraib scandal itself but rather the famous photographs taken by some of the soldiers involved — photos that brought the infamous event to the world”s attention.

The concept hit Morris while working on a series of lengthy essays for his The New York Times blog ( in which he analyzed the context and meaning of some vintage photographs from the Crimean War taken by famed British war photographer Roger Fenton. His general conclusions in those essays were the notion that photographs are rarely fully understood by those showing or viewing them and that the meaning of such imagery is — by definition — altered, limited, or changed by the use of captions and other text to describe them as well as by placement and other factors.

Therefore, Morris says he began to wonder about the specifics behind the Abu Ghraib photographs during the exact moments when the camera shutter closed and each of those photos were launched into the world. The movie thus features interviews with the people who took the photos, many of the people pictured in the photos, the people whose lives were changed by the photos, and even the technical specifications of the photos — what cameras were used, what time they were taken, what angle they were photographed from, and what other photos of the same events existed that were taken with other cameras.

“The movie came out of an odd set of concerns. I had been thinking about photographs [since writing the essays for the The New York Times],” Morris says. “I got to thinking about the infamous [Abu Ghraib] photographs from the fall of 2003. I”m really interested in the whole question of what a photograph means — how the context in which a photo appears can … determine how we see the photograph. It occurred to me — and this is the intuition behind the movie — that no one had bothered to contextualize these photos. Everyone had opinions and strong feelings about them, and they quickly became politicized in the U.S. and in the Arab world. But the question came up, how much do we know about the circumstances in which they were taken? So what I produced, essentially, is a movie about photographs and the people who took those photos. The great mystery we try to get to is what goes on inside of people”s heads. That is the mystery of any of these photographs when you stop and realize that someone, presumably like ourselves, was looking through the viewfinder taking the picture. I would say the mystery of what, exactly, was going through their minds remains at the end of this movie, but I also think that it is important to examine them. I believe they will be the iconic photos of the Iraq War.”

It”s all heady stuff, and from a technical point of view, that mission made the project an incredibly complicated affair. Morris estimates that his team sorted through more than 150 hours of interviews and millions of words worth of transcripts. The team also found ways to incorporate imagery from dozens of different formats — ranging from 16mm, 35mm, HD material, standard-def video, and even cell phone-originated photographs and video.

Morris readily credits his veteran team with figuring out ways for him to sort through it all — from his longtime producer Julie Ahlberg to Richardson and Chappell to editor Andy Grieve to veteran visual effects supervisor Robert Legato. Legato, along with producer Ron Ames, created a workflow infrastructure for the project to allow Legato and his team to conform the picture before it went to Company 3, Santa Monica, Calif., for colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld to do the final DI color correction work.

During his chat with millimeter, Morris had much to say about the technical challenges behind S.O.P., the art of documentary filmmaking, and the impact digital technology is having on how he makes movies. Following are further highlights from that conversation.

A single, elaborate set was constructed to film surrealistic sequences for the documentary that show detainees interacting with American interrogators in Standard Operating Procedure. Photo: Nubar Alexanian

Morris on process

millimeter: Did you use your famous Interrotron technique to interview the subjects in this film? How have your interview techniques evolved with technology over the years? (“Interrotron” refers to an interviewing process Morris invented based on the teleprompter concept, in which Morris and the person he is interviewing each sit in front of a camera viewing the other”s face displayed on a video monitor while they converse.)

Morris: Interviewing has changed, certainly. The whole nature of how I interview people has changed. But the interviews I do with the Interrotron — I”ve been doing that since 1992, for about 15 years, since I first used it for my interview with Fred Leuchter in [2000”s Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. That film came out after Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, but the Leuchter interview was conducted before that film was made]. And of course, it was at the heart of Fog of War. The Interrotron [concept] remains the same. It”s based on two teleprompters, two video images. We cross-connect cameras and video taps so myself [and the interview subject] are looking at each other live — into the lens of the camera.

But that said, now we are able to shoot the interviews themselves in HD. In the pre-digital days, interviews were put together in hunks of 11 minutes because that was the length of a film magazine. Every few minutes, we had to stop and change mags and re-slate. That is how all my films were done until recently. Then, all of a sudden, you have high-end digital cameras — the Sony [HDW-F950] in this case — and I could start shooting interviews in high def. There was no need to stop after 11 minutes, or even 110 minutes. The cassettes are larger, and you can just pop another one in a matter of seconds without re-slating. So you never have to stop. These interviews are real long. The interview I did with Janet Karpinksy was shot over two days and was approximately a little over 17 hours. I had never done that kind of thing before. If I were shooting 35mm film, it would be hard to justify that.

How has the way you cut your films evolved in recent years?

I did a little film for the opening of the Academy Awards [telecast] this year, and one of the people I interviewed was [director] Alfonso Cuarón, and I asked him, “How come you gave yourself an editing credit?” His answer was completely appropriate: because he did a lot of the editing. I”m also in the editing room all the time, and it is perfectly legitimate for a director to give himself an editing credit for doing that, but I just don”t do that. I do sit in front of the Avid all the time, though — that digital salt mine where you work away interminably.

For this project, it was voluminous. That was something I had to come to terms with. It made the editorial process something that was very drawn out. My movies are made — not entirely, but to a large degree — in postproduction and editing. It”s just not something you can slap together as a script [and then follow that script]. You are actually writing the script while editing. The movie becomes emergent from all that. The one thing I have learned is that much [of the material] has to be discarded. What remains is the small residue of what you started with.

The whole editing thing has really changed. I think as much about this as anyone. It”s the theory of interviews on film — or better, digital media — meaning the question of eye contact, the idea of first person versus third person, and the whole idea of interviewing people at length. When you have lengthy interviews like these and have no idea what might come out of an interview, unendingly interesting kinds of things occur, and then you have to [fit it all together].

For this particular movie, I”ve had a fairly good cut of it for probably five months now, but I continued to work on it, and it always gets better. There is the question of when do you stop. There are lots of ways to know that, I suppose: when they tell you they won”t distribute your movie unless you stop, for instance. If you don”t stop, you”ll lose all your money. Those ways always work, but there is a certain point where you can”t make the movie better — you can only make it worse. The last few months [at press time], the movie got consistently better. Fog of War, though, was never finished. I didn”t even have a film print when we got it to Cannes. We had to digitally project it. Interestingly, it looked gorgeous, and that experience made me realize something that is increasingly obvious to people working in this business: Digital projection is the way to go. It is not a compromise. It is the preferred alternative. I can”t imagine film prints being around that much longer. They get damaged and dirty and cumbersome and heavy.

How would you prefer this film be projected and seen by the masses?

I wish I didn”t have to make a film print, to tell you the truth, because this is my first film in cinemascope with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1, and then I have to go and make an anamorphic print for [film] projection. I”d rather see it projected digitally. The amazing thing about a [cinemascope] frame is that you do not have to fill it in. You can direct attention to different areas of the frame. It is extraordinarily beautiful for interviews and, I think, very powerful.

What is your view on shooting entirely with digital technology? Is that something we”ll see in your future?

I never really seriously entertained [shooting all of S.O.P. in HD] as an option. I suppose I should qualify that in some way. Bob Richardson uses the full latitude of the [film] emulsion, and he”s very fond of creating, on one hand, rich, dense blacks and then blowing out or highlighting other parts of the image. The question is, is it even possible to achieve that kind of look without film?

But one of the cameras I used on this shoot was the Phantom v9 [high-speed digital camera from Vision Research]. That is a camera I first used on commercials. I did a whole campaign for Full Tilt Poker, which was shot on 35mm and using the Phantom, and I fell in love with the camera. It”s a really interesting device, because you can shoot really high speed and look at it practically in realtime — not quite in realtime, but very soon after it is shot. And you can get 2K resolution at speeds of about 1000fps. But very early on, Richardson said he refused to light for video when we used it. And that was the proper way to look at it — let video follow me, rather than the other way around.

Still, my reasons for not wanting to shoot [entirely] in video might change now that the [Red Digital Cinema] Red One camera is coming out. I”m very excited about Red. I”m a person who thinks that film works as much from what it hides as what it shows. I like limited depth of field and the idea of planes of focus. Even in interviews, there is something exciting about an interview shot where the entire face is not focused — maybe not the ears or eyes — giving you a sense of shape because of the limited depth of field. Until very recently, all of the digital cameras — even the high-end digital cameras — had chips that were more the size of Super 8 or 16mm than that of 35mm. Red is going to change that. I”ve always said that the minute you have digital cameras with a chip the size of a 35mm or Super 35 frame and you can slap 35mm lenses onto the camera — the lenses that I use all the time, whether it is Panavision or Cooke lenses or Zeiss high-speed lenses or whatever — the minute you can start doing that and create planes of focus the same way that you do in 35mm, then it will become less of an issue — film versus digital media. It”s all going to change — we all know it. It is changing, and I”d like to think I”m part of it.

What else is different about how you made this movie, from a technical point of view, compared to your past work?

I used material from cell phones. [The soldiers at Abu Ghraib] didn”t only take digital snapshots. They also took motion-picture images using their cell phones and, in some cases, their still cameras. I used some of these little digital movies in Standard Operating Procedure. What”s particularly interesting about that is what is the aspect ratio of video shot with a cell phone? They are ridiculous. Instead of 4×3, they are 3×4. Little more than tiny vertical strips that have a tiny image in them surrounded by a huge black frame. If this makes any sense at all, what we did was — if you have a little cell phone and you are panning left and right with it — we panned the image in black left-right also, so you get the feeling you are looking in a little slot that gives you a view of a little piece of the world. You have to see it to really understand. It”s all about finding new ways to use imagery, to incorporate that imagery into a film.

Robert Richardson, ASC, (left, pictured with Errol Morris) was one of two cinematographers on Standard Operating Procedure. His job was to create the re-enactment sequences of the film using various combinations of 35mm and 16mm film and high-speed digital imagery captured with a Vision Research Phantom v9 camera.
Photo: Mark Lipson.

Shooting S.O.P.

Errol Morris split photography duties on Standard Operating Procedure between two past collaborators: Robert Chappell and Robert Richardson, ASC. Chappell shot all the first-person interviews seen in the film using a Sony HDW-F950 digital camera system, while Richardson used a Vision Research Phantom v9 camera to capture a combination of 35mm, 16mm, and high-speed digital imagery at 1000fps or more for the re-enactment sequences.

During production, Richardson — who has previously shot both commercials and documentary sequences for Morris that date back to Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control in 1997 — was segueing between S.O.P. and Martin Scorsese”s Shine a Light. He says Morris — although a fundamentally different kind of filmmaker than Scorsese and who requires “a distinctly different portion” of his brain — shares “a creative madness” with Scorsese that first lured Richardson in during Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control and hasn”t let go since.

“Would any person of sane mind refuse subject matter that combined mole rats, a lion tamer, and an eccentric topiary gardener atop of the brilliant mind of a robotic designer?” Richardson asks. (Watch Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control if you want to know what, exactly, Richardson is talking about.) “[For S.O.P.], the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib stand on their own as one visual element. [For the re-enactments], at no time did we attempt to replicate the quality or composition of those images — subject matter, yes, but style, no. The contrast of style between interviews, photographs, graphics, and the supplemental imagery we produced provide a textural heartbeat that amplified the words spoken.”

Richardson says this mission required him to shoot various combinations of 35mm with an Arriflex camera and Angenieux zoom and Cooke prime lenses, 16mm with an Arri camera outfitted with Canon zooms, and the Phantom for a large number of specialized shots because Morris “wished to stretch the visual palette of the film.”

Iconic imagery and close-ups were periodically shot at such ultra-fast speeds as 1200fps, using a Vision Research Phantom v9 camera in order to create what Errol Morris calls “the closest thing to a still photograph without being actual still photography” as part of the aesthetic Morris designed for the movie. Photo: Nubar Alexanian

“There were few limitations beyond the obvious budget and time,” he says. “Reality was not strictly sought [for the re-enactments]. Strong contrast in the lighting, ultra-slow motion, whether via film or video, 16mm black and white, 35mm color, and so on. It was a creative mantra that was constructed by weaving the various formats into a textural representation of the primary issues and emotions within the film. The approach toward combinations of these distinct textural components was entirely the design of Errol — his brain is well suited toward manipulation. Errol has an innate capability to juxtapose captured mediums.”

For example, close-ups of dripping blood, a blasting shower head, a barking military dog, and an unexploded mortar falling to the ground were captured with the Phantom camera at speeds as high as 1200fps in order to create what Errol Morris calls “the closest thing possible to a still photograph without being actual still photography.”

Richardson says that the speed and clarity of the movement of those particular frames simply gave filmmakers, conceptually, a better way to maintain a basic aesthetic Morris has attempted to paint in other ways in previous films.

“This paradigm has been established in previous films by Errol. From as early as The Thin Blue Line [1988], pivotal images or symbols are created and, by their placement, come to represent a far larger context,” Richardson says.

Likewise, for specific emotional reactions to particular images, Richardson used 16mm Arri cameras to create the “Bob TV” technique that he and Morris first tried on Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. “That means I take the dailies and a 16mm camera and rephoto-graph them off a television screen,” Richardson says. “We also used the 16mm camera for black-and-white photography on set.”

The colorist known as “Sparkle” color-timed digital dailies at Complete Post, Hollywood. After Morris and editor Andy Grieve cut the movie, Rob Legato”s editing team conformed it (see p. 22), and then Stefan Sonnenfeld color timed it at Company 3 in Santa Monica, Calif.

“Errol, with Stefan, made corrections to the original [color], from minute to grand,” Richardson says. “But that said, overall, I consider the digital intermediate process as a clarification and refinement on that which has been established in dailies. That is why dailies are increasingly important. The days of one-light dailies are coming to an end.”
— M.G.

Robert Legato”s boutique visual-effects team also handled the movie”s conform. They used various techniques to bring multiformat material and cut lists into Apple Final Cut Pro 6.0. They output to HDCAM SR tape, and they did final color correction at Company 3. Photo: Nubar Alexanian

Conforming S.O.P.

Cinematographer Robert Richardson, ASC, brought visual-effects wizard Robert Legato into the world of Standard Operating Procedure after having worked with Legato on several projects, including a simultaneous collaboration on both S.O.P. and Martin Scorsese”s Shine a Light. The initial plan called for Legato, his producer Ron Ames, and his visual effects editor Adam Gerstel to help filmmakers produce close to 300 visual-effects shots — largely invisible effects, such as repositioning elements and morphing shots, as well as about 15 shots involving CG. After joining the team, Legato and Ames concocted a plan to do the conform portion of the DI before it went over to Company 3, Santa Monica, Calif., for color correction.

Legato was already in the midst of performing a similar conform job for Scorsese”s documentary, and he says the idea was to help both filmmakers develop workflows to affordably assemble the two movies using a boutique pipeline he had built in his Pasadena, Calif., home in recent years for commercial work and other movies. There, Legato, Ames, and Gerstel built visual effects and shot inserts and did assembly work on both films.

“[S.O.P.] had material shot with a cell phone, Photoshopped illustrations, digital stills, multiformat video, HD, 35mm and 16mm film, and Phantom [high-speed HD] material,” Legato says. “With all this disparate mixed media, we thought we could help
Errol put it all together in a similar fashion to what we set up for [Scorsese”s multi-format movie]. It ultimately saved Errol money and some time by having us put it all together and fix any last-minute creative adjustments, visual effects, and added graphics, and then bring the newly updated conform to Company 3 [for final color work].”

For the conform, the first challenge for Legato”s team was to convert the offline Avid 30fps project to an HD-compatible 23.98fps project for the final conform on HDCAM SR tape. This was accomplished using Avid Media Composer 2.7 to create cut lists and organizational elements, and then bringing that material into Apple Final Cut Pro 6.0 for the HDCAM SR conform.

“This was harder than most DIs because there was so much mixed media, and it all had to be reformatted into one uniform medium,” Legato says. “We initially had to spend some time converting it to a 23.98 Avid project to make a direct correlation between what [the editor] was doing and what we are doing. But once we did that, we would share bins and instantly see what he did [from a creative point of view]. Sometimes, [the editor] created complicated repositions, speed ramps — other effects that ordinarily, in the conform, would have to have been thrown out and started over in another program [to replicate the original effect]. In our workflow, we are able to move it all to the Avid in uncompressed HD, and then simply relink up to the original Avid effect. The effect scales up perfectly and looks exactly as it did in SD — except now at the highest, uncompressed, HD resolution. That speeds things up in the end and makes sure the director”s vision is there — exactly as he created it, rather than risking some interpretive conversions in another package.”

Given the reams of material and multiple formats involved, there were dozens of technical details to tend to. Those details included organizing material into the Avid, capturing shots from different media to HD, and organizing scanned film elements, while also finalizing visual effects shots so that Morris and his editorial team could lock the cut before the conform could begin.

Key to the whole process was the eventual movement of the files from Avid to Final Cut Pro for the final conform work. That job took place in the closing weeks of the project and went smoothly — thanks to a few workaround techniques, according to Gerstel.
“I captured clips into Final Cut Pro from [edit decision lists (EDLs)] made from the Avid,” Gerstel says.

“[Final Cut Pro] recently added the ability to relink on QuickTime files, because the software can calculate the timecode offsets of a particular clip when linking it into a sequence brought in from an EDL — even if the clips are shorter than they were when originally captured. So when we get to the next and most important step of relinking the sequences themselves, we can simply connect to media that has already been captured. Essentially, we issue an EDL from Avid and Final Cut Pro that can reconnect to the clips it had captured from the select tapes originally. The best way to picture it is that we throw a whole bunch of media into a bag and pour it into Final Cut Pro. Then, we give it the actual cut, and it can sift through that bag and find the pieces that make up the edit. The trick to it is in the file name. Final Cut does not know which clip is the one that has the proper timecode unless the name is the same. The way we got around this little challenge was to use the Avid to always refer to the new master clips we made, and add [the file extension .mov] on the end of the clip for Final Cut Pro to relink to.”

Beyond the conform, much of visual effects work done by Legato”s group involved repositioning of interview subjects, as well as the creation of the endless hallway shots. These shots graphically illustrate the description of Abu Ghraib by those who were there as a place populated by an endless stream of ghosts — nameless, faceless intelligence and/or military personnel who would appear at the facility one day and disappear the next.

“Errol photographed all interviews head-on, and then when he wanted to cut out some pauses or off-topic comments, he would normally have to resort to a jumpcut or a dissolve,” Legato says. “Instead, Errol had us reposition material so it looks like it was shot from a different camera, eliminating that feeling of a jump. If you photograph someone talking and cut to a couple of sentences later, they are probably in the same spot, so if you reframe the camera shot left or right or raise the frame, then it looks like it was shot with another camera. There were about 100 or so shots where Errol used that technique to great effect. The repositions all needed to be rotoscoped — stabilized with new repositioned backgrounds created for every shot.

“The endless, ghosted hallway was created with a motion-control move on the one constructed set to make it look like 50 to 60 rooms, creating the illusion of a transition in time as you pull back. We superimposed the people in and out — mainly representing the CIA, other intelligence agencies, and U.S. military interrogators. We made the hallway look like it goes on forever as part of the story of the endless parade of military factions passing through the prison. We shot a linear motion-control move and placed the end of one take with the beginning of the next. In CG, the plates were then reduced in size, depending on the degree of magnification needed for that portion of the hallway.”
— M.G.