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Monster Movie

What if the only surviving witness to a monumental emergency situation was a consumer video camera? This basic concept serves as the storytelling approach to Director Matt Reeves’

Cloverfield

, the smartly marketed Paramount monster movie that was recently unleashed in theaters. And the filmmakers involved used some very high-tech gear, including the Thomson Grass Valley Viper and the Sony F23, to intentionally achieve the picture’s low-tech, “prosumer video” look.

The story begins as though we are watching a tape made by a character who has his camcorder in hand to capture a party with friends, but he instead ends up documenting a skyscraper-smashing assault the city by a monstrous enemy (whose attributes Paramount did not care to share at press time).

Keeping with this conceit, much of

Cloverfield

was in fact shot with a prosumer Panasonic HVX 200, but for the significant chunk of the picture that involves CGI and compositing–including the mysterious monster, defending military machines and resulting destruction–the signal from the HVX simply wasn’t up to the task. For these scenes, Director of Photography Michael Bonvillain (

Felicity

,

Alias

,

Lost

) made due with the Viper in its highest bit rate-pseudo-log FilmStream mode–and the Sony F23 in its equivalent Sony-branded S-Log format.

This mixture of cameras was the result of a compromise. “Matt Reeves really wanted to try to do as much as possible with the HVX 200,” Bonvillain explains. “But it was already a bit bigger and heavier than he would have liked. His concern was that there is a feel about images from a tiny camcorder that is different from the look you get with heavier, more solid equipment. A consumer camcorder is so light, and when you pan it, there’s a different feel than when you pan these bigger cameras.”

First-Person Creature Feature

Initially, Bonvillain recalls, some

Cloverfield

producers were worried about relying even on the HVX’s image quality for a major feature. “They talked about shooting the whole thing with one of the high-end cameras and then ‘degrading’ the image in post,” the cinematographer describes. “There was talk of shooting with Steadicam rather than handheld and adding ‘shake’ afterwards. We listened to their concerns and did do some tests and eventually it became clear to everybody that it just wouldn’t be believable. Everyone’s got a video camera; everyone watches YouTube and home videos. We all know what Steadicam looks like. Take a Steadicam shot out of any movie and shake it up [in post] however you like and tell me if it looks like it was really shot on a camcorder. By using the HVX200, [actor] P.J. Miller could hold it himself a lot of the time so the eyeline was always correct and we didn’t have to have a camera operator crouching between actors to make it look like he was holding it. If he moves the camera, you get this quick, sort of jittery, feeling instead of this heavy massive sense of, ‘Now the camera’s tilting.'”

But, Bonvillain adds, visual effects supervisor Kevin Banks had another very important concern. The HVX 200-shot images could look as genuine as everybody hoped, but if they weren’t robust enough to hold up to the heavy digital effects work required in post, all the realism gained would be lost. Oscar-winning character animation expert Phil Tippett’s company would be creating the CGI monster and Double Negative would create significant set extensions and backgrounds. And Banks wanted to give them the purest, cleanest images possible to start with and let them match the look of their completed shots to the lower-end footage after completing the composites. Footage from the Viper or F23, laid down to HDCam SR tape, would ensure the most flexibility possible in post and yield the most believable composites. On this point Reeves and Bonvillain agreed.

The cinematographer and Digital Imaging Supervisor Nick Theodorakis were very curious about using the F23 but none were available as production commenced. Theodorakis had worked with the Viper previously. “It can give you beautiful pictures,” he says. “In FilmStream mode, it should be a little green and it’s not always easy to get that out of the blacks, but we could work with it. But I was curious to see the F23. It’s been three years since the Viper came out and that’s a long time. I wanted to see where the technology had come. I thought it would be interesting to see how the F23’s 14-bit A to D converter would affect the images.”

Wild in the Streets

The Viper came from Panavision’s Plus 8 Digital, as did the Zeiss DigiPrimes and Canon zooms-the optics that would be subsequently used on the F23 as well. And the project’s intentionally “haphazard” shooting approach for these high-end cameras required experienced camera operators, including Bonvillain himself, Bobby Altman, Chris Hanes and Wally Sweeter. “They spent a lot of time running through crowds,” the cinematographer says, explaining that they were generally cabled to another person with the SR deck who was in turn cabled to someone with an HD monitor and batteries. “We had about 12 feet of cable between each. If the cable was too long, it could be a problem for actors and extras; too little and if someone has to stop short it could end up damaging the equipment. We could run and turn 360 degrees if we had to. There was no video village or anything.”

“Technically, you can use a mile of [fibre optic] cable,” says Theodorakis, who alternated between fibre and BNC systems depending on the length of the run. “But, after about a block, everyone would be stepping on it.” Theodorakis credits Digital Imaging Utility Oliver Mancebo, along with the operators, for helping to deal with the daunting logistics of these long, handheld takes and tethered cameras. “We called him ‘Miracle Mancebo.’ We’d have these elaborate 360-degree shots and there was such an immense amount of cable wrangling to do. It was like having another DIT on set. It seemed like Oliver was always running!”

Theodorakis also wanted to ensure that director Reeves did not have to look at the green cast of the Viper images, especially right out of the camera, so he employed what is essentially a LUT system that could deliver a color-corrected image to the on-set monitors and encode some rough color correction information in the form of DPX files that would accompany the tapes when they went to Colorist Steffan Sonnenfeld at Santa Monica-based Company 3. “I was able to get Iradas Speedgrade Onset in a beta version,” he explains. “I ran that off my MacBook Pro and hooked that into a CineTel monitor. I used the system like a LuTher box and it allowed me to steal realtime images from video, ‘color time’ them on my MacBook and then export the DPX files with 3D LUT tables to accompany the tapes.”

Tech Tricks

Bonvillain notes that he did resort to some tricks to bring an “amateur” feel to these high-grade images, but within limits. For example, he would keep in mind the telltale auto iris and auto gain that kicks in on so many home videos as the scene goes from a light to a darker area. “We did some exposure changes on set,” he says, “but not many. If we go in a shot from cool white fluorescent lighting inside to sodium vapor outside, you would probably see the auto white balance working. We added some effects like that in the DI but we didn’t want to overdo it. The film works right out of the box and we didn’t want to get too artsy-fartsy about things like that.”

During production, Sony F23s (sold through BandPro Film & Digital) became available at Pace Technologies, which had created a rig for handholding the camera and accommodating a handheld battery. When Bonvillain finally tested the F23, he decided he wanted it, especially for night exteriors.

“We were amazed by the F23,” the cinematographer recalls. “We went to a dark corner on a street in New York City with just a put-put generator and no lights and shot tests under sodium-vapor light. I felt the Viper was equivalent to a 320 ASA and the F23 more like 500. And the sharpness was amazing. We used a tiny amount of sharpness on the camera and it was too sharp. We knew that this was the camera for all the shots we would do outside at night with primarily just sodium-vapor lighting.”

The Manhattan-set

Cloverfield

shot on location in New York City for just 12 days. Theodorakis, who had worked as a cinematographer prior to becoming a DIT, got to use the F23 to shoot numerous plates for compositing with foreground work to be later photographed at a shopping mall in Arcadia, at the Downey Studios stages and on other locations in Southern California. Bonvillain and Chief Lighting Technician Rick West also set up a city block in downtown L.A. to double as New York, which was later redressed by Double Negative with CGI set extensions to really sell it as the Big Apple.

To simulate the look of Manhattan’s distinctive sodium-vapor streetlights, Bonvillain simply used real sodium-vapor fixtures, not not traditional movie lights with gel packs. However, he explains, real sodium-vapor light not only has a look that is difficult to duplicate with gels, but it also created a serious technical issue for Banks’ visual effects department.

“When you do a fast pan with the Viper or the F23 under sodium-vapor lighting, you get a triple image,” the cinematographer notes. “You get the image itself and then two trails. Kevin Banks was freaking out: ‘How do we cut people out of stuff when we’ve got three of them?’ ‘If we animate something to composite into the shot, we’ve got to duplicate the two trails!’ Matt [Reeves] and I said, ‘You gotta do it, man. We’re shooting on the streets and we can’t turn off the streetlights.’ They did manage to do it, though, and they did a great job.”

Bonvillain is very pleased with the way different production techniques come together on

Cloverfield

to sell the concept that we are seeing the story play out as captured on an amateur handicam, and found the challenges involved a refreshing change from the more traditional production approach he uses for his television assignments. “TV work can be crushing sometimes,” he observes. “There’s no standard coverage in

Cloverfield

. And we’d sometimes not start rolling until two hours after lunch, but then shoot for three or four hours straight. The whole process rejuvenated me.”

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