Freshly minted Academy Award winner Claudio Miranda, ASC, followed up his stunning work on Ang Lee’s Life of Pi by re-teaming with director Joseph Kosinski, his collaborator on 2010’s TRON: Legacy. Their new creation is Oblivion, a sci-fi tale based on a graphic novel written by Kosinski that reportedly nods to science-fiction classics from the 1970s. The cast is led by Tom Cruise and includes Melissa Leo, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko and Zoë Bell.
The plot line follows an ex-Marine who is stationed on an airborne town above the surface of Earth, which was nearly destroyed in an alien invasion some decades prior. He rescues a female stranger, and what he learns makes him question everything he knows about the society that employs him.
Tom Cruise as Jack Harper in
. Photo by David James/Universal Pictures
As is his custom, Miranda performed extensive tests to determine the right camera and lenses for the look he and Kosinski envisioned. On The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which brought him his first Oscar nomination, he used the Thomson Grass Valley Viper FilmStream camera, along with 35mm film. On TRON: Legacy, he shot with a Sony CineAlta F35. For Life of Pi, he used a 3D rig made up of two ARRI Alexa cameras. This time around, Miranda chose the Sony CineAlta F65, a camera that captures images at 4K resolution on a chip that is roughly the size of a Super 35 format film frame. The filmmakers used RED EPICs for scenes that required a compact, nimble camera.
“Joe liked the way the Sony camera looked on TRON,” says Miranda. “He was after the 4K resolution. In the end, I think the F65 did really well. In the right hands, the data can be handled amazingly well. Some of the post houses we took it to brought the most out of it. It’s clean and sharp. It’s a good camera.”
Miranda eschews on-set color correction, preferring to tweak later, under ideal conditions, when the clock is not ticking on the set. “I like the film model,” he says. “I feel like people can get a little crazy on set. I just want to know that I got it, and move on. In some ways, I think digital can be faster than exposing film. You’re doing it all from a screen point of view, from a single calibration point, which I like. More than one or two LUTs can get too complicated.”
The camera was configured to capture 4K raw format. The aspect ratio was 2.35:1, extracted from the F65’s 1.9:1 sensor. “There’s complete latitude to do whatever you want,” says Miranda. “We shot 4K because we imagined that there might be a 4K release, but there never was. But I think 4K is better for visual effects. We could always down-res. I’m of the mindset that 4K is too sharp anyway. Skyfall [shot on ARRI Alexa at roughly 2K] looks great. Why do you need more?”
The production was mounted on locations and sets in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., and travelled to Iceland and Hawaii for bits and pieces. Some shots were staged in New York City and others in rural California. The budget was reportedly in the neighborhood of $140 million.
Miranda points out that Kosinski brings an architectural background to his work as a director, and that this predilection results in some interesting filmic language, not to mention structures and sets. On Oblivion, one example was the Sky Tower, the lead character’s home base high above the Earth’s surface. “I thought it was the most stunning, beautiful set,” says Miranda.
To shoot the extensive scenes that take place in the Sky Tower, Miranda passed on the usual blue or greenscreen backdrop, choosing instead to use projected moving-image backgrounds. He sent a crew to a Hawaii mountaintop to shoot 15K sky plates with drifting clouds. Back on the set, 20 projectors threw the moving images onto a 45-foot-tall surround screen that was 500 feet in circumference. The setup took ten technicians weeks to install and tune.
The actors much preferred the more realistic environment, as did Miranda. “Tom came on the set and said, ‘I love being here,’” Miranda says. “Plus, it gave me tons of light, naturally. Normally, with bluescreen, you’d have to make all the surfaces of the set less shiny to avoid blue spill. Here, we could make all the textures exactly the way we wanted. All the skin reflections and refractions were present, so skin looks so much better and realistic. We thought initially that it would only work for long and medium shots, but we ended up doing wide shots all in-camera as well. It’s ironic—we went from projection to bluescreen years ago, and this was going back to projection. But it looks great. And in editorial, you’re editing in-camera shots instead of terrible looking pre-composite bluescreen shots.”
The camera’s ability to shoot at 800 ASA helped make the projected-background approach work. Miranda worked at a 1.4/2 split. “We actually needed work lights on our set—that’s how dark it was,” he says. “We had LED practicals running at 2 percent. Ten percent would have been like a flare.”
The lenses were ARRI/Zeiss Master Primes. “The Leicas are amazing, and they’re probably the sharpest lenses out there,” he says. “But as an emotional thing, for a cinematic quality, maybe a little softness is good. The Master Primes have that little bit of softness.”
Miranda is currently overseeing the final color timing on Oblivion. Looking back, he says, “I love Joe and his aesthetic, and when he comes up with a story, you just want to be part of it. Darren Gilford is the production designer, and the whole team does interesting work together.”
Miranda is also shooting tests for a new Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Ratatouille) project. The tests include a wide variety of formats including 15-perf and 8-perf 65mm film and a range of frame rates. “I don’t wave the flag for any particular camera,” Miranda continues. “I judge a camera by whether it fits the job at hand. Sometimes people are fans of a certain camera, and sometimes fans are a little blind. All these companies are doing a good job with their cameras. They do certain things well. But I liked what the F65 did on Oblivion.”