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Spielberg Goes Retro

Sidebars
Industry in Transition: Spielberg’s POV
Digital Caution

Director Returns to Traditional Form

DP Janusz Kaminski shot Catch Me If You Can using
low-contrast stock and romantic lighting, as seen in the film’s
several airport scenes (above) and in the
James Bond scene
(below).

Steven Spielberg decided to direct Catch Me If You Can
because the script landed on his desk and, he says, “I loved
it.” At that time, it was well into development at DreamWorks.
Still, to hear Spielberg talk, it sounds like the project came along
right at a point when the director wanted to exit, at least for now,
the world of high-end visual effects and dark, futuristic stories of
great complexity.

The film tells the story of a teenage con man (Leonardo DiCaprio)
trying to outwit an FBI agent (Tom Hanks). It’s based on the real-life
adventures of Frank Abagnale, a scam artist who befuddled authorities
in the early 1960s while posing as a doctor, airline pilot, and lawyer
passing
bad checks while living the high life.

Spielberg hints that the project was particularly enticing because
it came on the heels of his back-to-back examinations of bleak futures
in A.I. and Minority Report. These films, of course,
followed two painstaking efforts — Saving Private Ryan
(1998) and Amistad (1997) — to portray the distant past in
precise detail. Catch Me, by contrast, is a romantic film about
a lovable scoundrel from the recent past. It returns Spielberg to the
realm of “traditional filmmaking,” which is where he says
his heart belonged all along. In fact, the director calls himself an
old-fashioned filmmaker, and not just because “I’m probably the
only guy left in town who edits on a flatbed.”

Catch Me was a grueling shoot, especially coming on
the heels of Minority Report. We shot the whole thing in 55 days
at over 100 locations around L.A., New York, and Canada,”
Spielberg told Millimeter. “I’ve gone that quick before,
but never with so many locations. But on the other hand, it was a great
break from those big effects movies. About 60% of each of my last two
films was done digitally. It was wonderful, this time, to do things the
old-fashioned way, which was, basically, once the camera shutter opens,
what you capture is what goes on the screen. It was fun.”

Going Retro

To be completely accurate, the film contains a few invisible effects
shots — most notably, altered logos on airplanes and backgrounds
seen through the window of an airplane — done by Asylum, Santa
Monica. But, according to Spielberg, “over 90% of the film was
created in-camera.”

Like all his movies, Catch Me was then edited on a flatbed by
Spielberg’s collaborator Michael Kahn. No HD cameras, no digital
intermediates or color-grading sessions, and minimal visual effects.
According to Spielberg’s longtime DP Janusz Kaminski, even the film’s
romantic, 1960s color scheme was largely an in-camera affair, built
around a palette of colors conceived by costume designer Mary Zophres
(known for her work on recent Coen brothers films).

While Spielberg has long been on the record as not interested in
shooting movies digitally, with such a short schedule for production,
why not consider speeding things up with some standard digital
manipulations in post? Or why not, at least, edit on an Avid?

“I know, I know,” he chuckles. “I’m the last guy
making pictures this way. I’m kind of proud of that, actually. It’s not
like I don’t understand the usefulness of this technology. People
forget I was actually there at the beginning of the digital age
executive producing Young Sherlock Holmes [directed by Barry
Levinson in 1985], for which we had ILM create one of the first digital
shots for a feature film. In my capacity as a producer at DreamWorks,
I’m always viewing dailies out of the Avid. Everything else we do at
DreamWorks, except my movies, are edited digitally. I have a tremendous
appreciation for the artistry that goes into making movies like
Attack of the Clones or Shrek, but I feel I work best in the
conventional realm. I just like the purity of actually being able to
touch film and see it on a screen after threading it through a
projector. I like cutting my finger occasionally on a strip of film. I
like the craft of it. To me, and this is just a personal preference,
the difference between cutting on the Avid and a Moviola is like the
difference between making something on the potter’s wheel with your
hands, or designing a pot in a computer and pressing a button and
having a machine at a factory make it for you. It’s just not the same
thing. Just say I like to get my hands dirty.”

But Catch Me gave Spielberg other opportunities, aside from
its editing method, to go retro. For one thing, the film’s condensed
schedule, while taxing, gave Spielberg the chance to recreate aspects
of old-style studio filmmaking, not to mention an opportunity to show
his colleagues at DreamWorks that a major feature can be produced in a
short amount of time.

“The compact schedule was a budget issue,” he says.
“It was the only way to make the picture for the figure I had in
mind. Most folks I talked to when we were budgeting wanted to add at
least 15 days to the schedule, so that we would not have to move setups
twice in one day from one location to another. But I said no, I thought
we could do it. I had a crew that had done seven films with me in 10
years. We know each other well, and we work efficiently and creatively
and safely. It wasn’t easy, I’ll admit, and we sometimes had to move
three times in a single day. It was often move, set up, shoot, move or
travel, set up, shoot, travel, and so on. It was exhausting. But in the
end, I thought we could pull it off, and we did.

“The only way to do that, of course, is to use the same team,
to keep a group of trusted colleagues intact. It’s a lot like the way
movies used to be made 50 or 60 years ago. A schedule like ours is an
anomaly today, but 60 years ago, it might have been considered
generous. In those days, studios had a machine in place, giving
directors a ready-to-go crew that worked on one film after another.
Some directors routinely made two or even four films a year back then.
In that sense, I’ve been fortunate to be able to fashion my own
miniature golden-age production team in the last decade, and that is
what allowed us to put this film together so quickly. Plus, I preach to
the people at DreamWorks all the time about efficiency. Everyone has
their own style and needs, so I’m not saying we’ll have other
filmmakers work this kind of schedule. But I do preach to them that
there is something to be said for the way films used to be made. I
can’t preach that unless I practice what I preach. So, making Catch
Me
in 55 days was a way of proving it can be done.”

Romantic Approach

Kaminski, of course, is a key player on Spielberg’s golden-age
production team, having shot the director’s last seven movies. He is
also in agreement with Spielberg when it comes to doing things the
traditional way, and he’s not a big fan, to say the least, of
all-digital movies.

“Frankly, all-digital productions, in my view, look like
crap,” says Kaminski. “Shooting negative and digitizing it
and doing all the post color-correction is another matter —
digital intermediate has tremendous possibilities. But an all-digital
movie, shot HD and so on, in my opinion would not be the way to go. But
for this movie, there was no need to consider even digital
color-correction and all the control it gives you. We did most of it
in-camera, which for this material, was the best approach.”

Kaminski also says that while Catch Me was a very hard film
in terms of the schedule, it was also refreshing to work on a project
where real-world color and light are captured in-camera and remain in
the finished product. The DP suggests that Spielberg’s creative desires
for this film specifically, and their long collaboration generally,
have “liberated me from the rules. I’m free to experiment as much
as I want to get Steven what he is looking for.”

“This is meant, mostly, to be a friendly, fun, bubbly
movie,” says Kaminski. “It’s also a location movie —
not shot on stages. Shooting on location is different than on a stage,
but at times I was free to use theatrical light to support the story on
location, if the situation called for it. We wanted full colors,
romanticized lighting. The story reflects periods of ambiguity, fear,
and sadness in this character’s life, so the lighting basically follows
that. We used angles and light that made the character feel small at
the beginning, before he has confidence, like when he enters a huge
bank to pass a bad check for the first time. Then, the composition and
light change somewhat as his confidence grows. Because most of the crew
had just worked together previously on Minority Report, we
didn’t have to relearn our language or start from scratch. But we
didn’t want it to look like A.I. or Minority Report.
Instead, we took a romantic, stylized approach. Everybody was on the
same page, and the plan worked great.”

“Once the camera shutter opens, what you capture is what goes on the
screen,” Spielberg says about
Catch Me.

For the first time on a major feature, Kaminski chose low-contrast
emulsion for his film stock. “I wanted to stay far away from the
heavy contrast of Minority Report [where he used Kodak Vision
800T in combination with Kodak 5293, and bleach bypass techniques to
achieve a high-grain look], so I went with Kodak 5277 stock at 320 ASA
for the first time,” he explains. “Basically, I shot the
entire movie with this emulsion because this was far different from our
last couple of projects — more romantic, softer, with a finer
grain.”

Spielberg says all of this was part of his plan to give the Catch
Me
story “a romantic, rather than psychedelic, view of the
1960s,” based largely on his own memories of the era and news and
fashion photography from those years.

“I’ve done lots of movies about the past or the future, and
rarely anything about the present day,” he says. “This was
the first time I tried something about the recent past — a time
in history that I actually lived through. I wasn’t part of the drug or
psychedelic thing, so I was more interested in the unique, romantic,
innocent look of the ’60s — bright colors, strange hairdos,
pillbox hats. A lot of it came from news and fashion magazines that we
studied. I had lengthy talks with Janusz about how to create the look
of the ’60s, and for once, we were not inventing a world like we did
with A.I. and Minority Report, both of which required
extensive R&D work to figure out what the future might look like.
Here, we were re-creating a world in order to tell a romantic
story.”

Sidebars

Industry in Transition: Spielberg’s POV

LIKE MANY FILMMAKERS, Steven Spielberg is concerned about the
entertainment industry’s proper role in a post-9/11 world and a
war-time environment. He cites simpler days when the industry routinely
“came to the rescue when America was bleeding” by
producing, as it did during World War II, both entertainment and
propaganda to aid the war effort and boost morale.

“I don’t know that the creative community should be in the
business of making propaganda, per se, but in terms of entertaining
people, giving them a chance to escape — that’s something we
always have done, and should continue to do now,” says
Spielberg.

“Creative people are part of the larger community that is
suffering now, so we all suffer together,” he says.
“Therefore, it is logical that our work would, at least in some
ways, reflect how we feel about the world around us and what is
happening in it. Sometimes, that might be a powerful statement or a
controversial statement, but other times, it should just be about
getting people to laugh again. That’s the primary contribution I would
like to see Hollywood make right now.”

While Spielberg thinks it “might well have been prudent”
for studios to hold back violent themes or films eerily similar to the
events of Sept. 11 in the immediate aftermath, and sees nothing wrong,
in that context, with staying away from work “that might
demoralize people,” he cautions against avoiding controversial or
painful subjects in the long run.

“If a picture is relevant to the times, even if painful to
watch, and useful as entertainment, or to enhancing an ongoing
dialogue, then I would hate to see our industry walk away from
it,” he says. “If people are trying to simply exploit a
world tragedy, I’m not in favor of that, but I do think in these
complicated times, it is a good time to offer some perspective on
events and give people different points of view. And besides, there is
never a bad time for a good picture.”
Michael Goldman

Digital
Caution

ON THE SUBJECT OF digital filmmaking, Spielberg is, himself,
a dichotomy. On one hand, the director calls himself old-fashioned and
doubts he will ever shoot HD or any digital format. On the other hand,
he’s the guy who brought the world lifelike digital dinosaurs, produced
several pioneering films that advanced the art of digital visual
effects, and is co-owner of a studio — DreamWorks — that
routinely uses state-of-the-art technology.

Spielberg also recently supervised the digital remastering of
E.T. — an effort that included some subtle digital changes
to the film, including the removal of guns from the hands of police
officers. Yet, despite that experience, the filmmaker has concerns
about the potential of digital technology to “interfere in
storytelling” or alter the work of filmmakers without their
participation.

While this is hardly a new threat, he points to recent advancements
in digital mastering technology that now make it easier, quicker, and
less expensive than ever before to alter pre-existing material. He says
this should make creative people cautious, and he hints that industry
dialogue about the creative consequences of digital wizardry has not
kept up with the technology’s rapid deployment.

“I’ve learned that we can do just about anything under the sun
with computers,” Spielberg says. “So the question becomes,
should we? Or, should we remind ourselves, as filmmakers, to be
careful, and remember that there is nothing more important than how a
story is told? If storytelling becomes a byproduct of the digital
revolution, then the medium itself is corrupted. On the other hand, if
digital tools are simply a way to enhance a conventional story, then in
that case, they can make telling that story easier. It’s easier and
more practical to show 20,000 soldiers in the Crimean War using
computers, obviously. So, that’s fine. But now, we have technology that
can replace actors, or an entire performance in an already existing
movie. We could cut out Humphrey Bogart and replace him with Vin
Diesel, if somebody wanted. Who would want to? Well, there might be
people who would. That’s why we have to be careful.

“Movies reflect our cultural heritage from the period in time
in which they were made. Therefore, altering them can destroy that
historical perspective. That’s disrespectful of history, which is a big
issue for me. The situation is like walking a tightrope — we have
to move forward, but we have to be careful.”
Michael Goldman

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