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Night and the City: “21 Bridges” With Sony’s VENICE (the Why and the How)

“This was now going beyond the step of just emulating film or trying to get as good as film to where I actually now have a camera system that is better than film.”

In 21 Bridges, Chadwick Boseman is a NYPD Detective on the trail of two cop killers, who are on the run in Manhattan. The police close all of the bridges onto the island to box in their suspects. The film was shot primarily in Philadelphia, doubling for New York, with four days in the NYC for establishing shots.

Chadwick Boseman stars in “21 Bridges”

Cinematographer Paul Cameron’s (ASC) camera and lens choices were dictated by the fast-paced and mostly nighttime shoot. Just before 21 Bridges, Cameron had shot a short directed by his wife, Laura Stabilini, with a Sony VENICE. “I had a chance to use the VENICE and the [ZEISS] Supremes and got amazing results with both. It was quite simple for me. It was the full frame sensor and full frame lenses that upped the ante for digital capture,” said Cameron in an interview for SonyCine. “I think digital cinematography has been on this path of trying to become as good as film for the better part of the last 10, 12 years. And when the VENICE came out I felt, ‘Okay, here’s a full frame sensor, a larger sensor, but with a newer color space than the previous digital capture systems from Sony.’ That combination put me over the edge.”

“I tested the VENICE specifically for Westworld, …what I saw was great color rendition at 500, where it was holding the subtleties of the color of eyes, for example, so I gravitated immediately toward the VENICE on 21 Bridges. …Everything made sense about that camera – the internal filters, the 2500 base. I thought, ‘Okay, this is a great new tool that needs exploration.’”

Director Brian Kirk originally wanted to shoot on film, but the production company, STXfilms, nixed his choice. Cameron suggested shooting with the VENICE, but Kirk had worked with ARRI’s ALEXA. The director would have to be convinced.

For 21 Bridges, Cameron tested the VENICE in Philadelphia. “I don’t test in a studio against gray,” he explained. “I take the camera out at night. I put police lights in front of it. I move the camera fast. Or I put it on a car rig to test motion blur and take it through the kind of visceral paces that the camera’s going to go through. That process was fantastic because I beat on the cameras as hard as I could and felt this system’s going to really hold up well.”

J.K. Simmons, Chadwick Boseman and Sienna Miller star in “21 Bridges”
Image Courtesy of STXfilms

Cameron shot identical footage on the VENICE and an ALEXA Mini to show the director. Kirk, having work extensively with the ALEXA, continued to push for it. 

Describing the VENICE test, the DP said, “When you look at footage in a 4K DI suite and you’re looking at one shot at 2500 and you split screen with another shot at 500 and there’s no apparent gain in noise, I thought, ‘Okay, wow, this is pretty amazing.’”

Cameron took his footage and his director to see Tom Poole, the DI colorist at Company 3 in New York. Cameron described Poole’s response to the VENICE footage, “[Poole] said, ‘There’s just no question how much smoother the VENICE color space is. I can bend it here and chop this there. And we can do this like this,’ …he gravitated toward the VENICE immediately, and that was it.”

The director relented, “Okay, you guys win.”

Because there was going to be a large amount of Steadicam work, Cameron had some concern about Kirk’s determination to use anamorphic lenses. “I was looking for the right optics but I also wanted something smaller, lightweight and faster in speed,” Cameron said in a recent Film and Digital Times interview. “I wanted to be able to shoot nights at 2500 ISO and T2.2 or T2.8.”

Sienna Miller stars in “21 Bridges”
Courtesy of STXfilms

Brad Wilson at Keslow Camera suggested that Cameron try out Servicevision’s Scorpio Lenses for his test shoot. “[T]he Scorpio lens Full Frame Anamorphic 2x attracted me,” said the DP. “The Scorpio FFAs are incredibly clean. They have very little distortion and they’re Full Frame anamorphics. They emulate Full Frame lenses to me more than they emulate anamorphic lenses. So you don’t have the distortion and you don’t have the curvature top and bottom. …Suddenly we had these beautifully clean, geometrically correct, fast lenses to get big landscapes at night. That was empowering.”

Cameron continued to praise how the Scorpios performed, “Another thing I can say about these anamorphic lenses is the way they halate. They hold up very well and don’t wash out like some anamorphics do when there’s an extreme flare or something like a police light. They don’t blow out or wash out. The Scorpio lenses were shooting into police lights and halating, but they added an inherent reality—the way you would see the scene in real life.”

To facilitate his need to be  manoeuvrable, nimble, and able to get in and out tight spaces, Cameron stripped down the VENICE to bare bones and made use of Sony’s Rialto Camera Extension System. The Rialto enables a DP to remove the sensor block from the camera and then tether it, up to 18’, back to the camera body. “We built up the camera for Steadicam, but I knew there would be rigging where we would be jamming cameras in cars,” explained the DP to SonyCine.

“I like a lighter-weight, faster system. I like the VENICE when it’s stripped down. I don’t like all the handles and bars and monitors. I’ve streamlined all that so there are no unnecessary bits and pieces. Also with the VENICE I end up using the Rialto quite a bit and that’s been very successful. We actually shot a lot of night photography in Singapore on the VENICE with the Rialto, Master Wheels and the Ronin S and it was incredible.”

Though Kirk did not get to shoot on film, as he originally wanted, he was able to capture some that more living, organic film look using LiveGrain, a hardware and software tool for real-time texture mapping. “[W]e designed this movie to have a little bit of a grittier, New York night feel to it,” said Cameron, “I added a product called LiveGrain to the final DI. LiveGrain emulates the texture of film grain beautifully. It’s interactive and you can see the changes as you do the DI.”

Taylor Kitsch and Stephan James star in “21 Bridges”

“It’s a new landscape in a way,” said Cameron, summing up his experience, “and the amazing thing for me about the Sony VENICE was not only the color space, but also a more natural look than any other digital camera I have shot with. The skintone rendering and certain colors in the spectrum come through on the Sony sensor so beautifully. …So with the combination of the VENICE and Live Grain, this was now going beyond the step of just emulating film or trying to get as good as film to where I actually now have a camera system that is better than film.”

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