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War & Peace: The Digital Imaging Mission for “Home of the Brave”

An Army doctor adjusting to family life. A female soldier missing a hand and traumatized by seeing combat up close. Another, a hero in Iraq, who can’t find a job above “clerk” level. Unbeknownst to most of us, these are the issues that American soldiers returning from Iraq face on a daily basis. “Unfortunately, not enough of us care about these veterans coming back from the war,” filmmaker Irwin Winkler says.

But Winkler’s recent film, Home of the Brave, fills in the blanks on what our soldiers experience in service and then how they re-adjust to civilian life. A modern-day The Best Years of Our Lives, Home of the Brave stars Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Presley, Jessica Biel and 50 Cent. Released briefly in December and again in May, Home of the Brave will see DVD release this fall from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

“We took a different tack from Best Years of Our Lives, because we start with the war and the experience of the war,” Winkler says. “[Director William] Wyler’s film is one of my favorite movies of all time. Emotionally, it’s such a moving masterpiece.”

When it came time to film his own story, Winkler found himself with a talented cast but a limited budget, causing the gears to turn regarding capture format. Without a budget for film capture, the producers initially considered shooting with Sony CineAlta HDW-F900s and HDC-F950s for combat sequences, to be filmed in Morocco, and with Thomson Viper FilmStream cameras for the “home” sequences, to be filmed in Spokane, Wash. These were the likely camera choices when Director of Photography Tony Pierce-Roberts was brought on board.

“I had a number of concerns about whether an HD system would be able to function very well in the conditions we would have in Morocco,” Pierce-Roberts says. “So my recommendation was to shoot Super 35 in Morocco and use the Vipers in Spokane.”

With just two weeks of prep time before going to Morocco in March 2006, Pierce-Roberts shot a series of tests at Plus 8 Digital’s Burbank facility. The tests compared footage shot with the Sony HDW-F900, Thomson Grass Valley Viper and a film camera.

“I was really more interested in flesh tones than anything else.” He was concerned that his footage properly render the skin tones of both Caucasian and African American actors, who often appeared in the same shots—and those shots were often captured in less-than-optimal low-light conditions. “I knew that I probably wouldn’t have a chance to use any fill light on them because it was all handheld and running around, so I made sure to lift the shadow detail to make sure that I had plenty to show with the darker flesh tones.”

A first pass at color grading with a digital intermediate process proved unsatisfactory, to the point that Winkler and Pierce-Roberts almost abandoned digital capture altogether. A second pass, undertaken in Hollywood by Technicolor, produced more satisfactory results. “We gave it one last try, and we were a little bit more satisfied,” Winkler says. “We thought, ‘Well, maybe we’ll just have to switch to film after a couple of days,’ but, as it turned out, I liked what I saw a great deal.”

The testing took a sizable bite out of the prep time. “We had been prepping that second week for F900s,” explains Digital Imaging Technician Joshua Gollish. “That Friday morning, they looked at the Viper and the F900 footage, and they were so in love with the Viper footage that they said, ‘Well, we’re going Viper.’ [1st AC] Peter Green had prepped for the F900; we got that information on Friday morning, and we had to have it out on Saturday afternoon. It was really tight.”

The tests revealed another flaw in the original plan. “One thing that turned me against the Sonys was their size. I knew we would have lots of shots inside Humvees and inside trucks; with a zoom lens and the other gear on the back, it was just physically too long and unwieldy. With the Vipers, you can strip the camera down—just put a little prime lens on it, put the recorder in the back of the truck, and you’ve got a relatively compact camera.” Shooting film would also prove a more costly option with production taking place in Morocco, so the production team decided to simply shoot with the Vipers in both locales.

Pierce-Roberts brought three Viper systems, along with an ARRI 435 film camera for shooting some elements of action sequences. “When we did our initial testing, we tried to do a bit of high speed using the Vipers, going up to about 60fps. Nobody liked the way it looked. So we took the ARRI to cover explosions and some overcranking,” he explains.

Winkler shot two-camera for most of the project. “I can save a lot of time getting coverage while I’m getting a wider shot,” the director explains. “And Tony is very flexible that way. Some cameramen won’t do it, telling you, ‘Oh, no, then I’ve got to relight it.’ But, again, when you’re shooting digitally, where your light level is so low, you can get away with it without having to redo the setup every time you want to move the camera.”

The cameras recorded to Sony SRW-1 digital video recorders, Pierce-Roberts having deemed S.two hard disk recorders too large for assistants to tag along for running/moving action shots while tethered to the camera by a fiber optic cable. The cinematographer opted for Zeiss DigiPrimes (5mm to 70mm), Zeiss DigiZoom 6-24mm zoom lenses and two Fujinon HAe10x10 and HA42x9.7BERD U48 zoom lenses.

Desert Adventure

Filming began with a 10-day shoot in Ouarzazate, Morocco, where many movies, such as Lawrence of Arabia and Babel, have been filmed over the years. While Pierce-Roberts brought his key crew from America, the majority were locals from the region, including grips and electric. “I’ve never met a more enthusiastic bunch of people who really, really want to work and work very hard,” the DP says. “I have to say, I’d work there any time.”

While keeping the camera equipment dust-free kept the assistants busy, another environmental element—heat—didn’t turn out to be as much of a problem as expected. “In a sense, it actually helped us,” Pierce-Roberts says. “With systems like the Viper, you’re typically having to check back focus. But in a hot climate it’s actually less of a problem than in a climate where there’s a big temperature range because once the sun’s up and it’s warm, it’s pretty consistent.”

A large number of the sequences Winkler filmed in Morocco were action sequences, most depicting the street fighting and explosions that maim or injure the lead characters. Nearly all of the footage was shot handheld, though that wasn’t necessarily the intention.

“My main camera operator in Morocco was a guy called George Richmond. He had also been on Children of Men, which was shot all handheld,” the cinematographer recalls. “George had brought his Steadicam, but the airline lost it on the way out there. He got in at midnight, without his Steadicam, and then had to get up at 5 a.m. to begin work.”

The first shot was of actor Brian Presley firing a machine gun. “There was a grip next to [Richmond] holding a plastic shield to protect his face from the blast. Well, the grip became so panicked by the machine gun that he jumped away, taking the shield with him, and poor old George got hit by a charge right in the face. Between that, losing his Steadicam and having his fleece jacket stolen, I was amazed that he didn’t go straight back to the airport!”

The team did without a Steadicam rig, and, as it turned out, Winkler fell in love with the footage, so the sequences were all shot handheld. The director explains, “What I was trying to get was that whole sense of uneasiness as you’re going through a town, not knowing what’s going to happen next,” an experience the film portrays well.

Some of the action sequences involved capturing the experiences of the soldiers in their truck cabs as they are being attacked; it was during these shots that the Viper’s diminutive size proved its worth. Some shots were filmed with practical backgrounds, while others, particularly those involving dangerous explosion effects, were shot against greenscreen.

On occasion, managing exposure in shots featuring both dark-skinned and light-skinned actors (such as a scene in which Samuel L. Jackson and Brendan Wayne, grandson of John Wayne, are attacked) was problematic. When the levels of one of these shots was brought up in post to highlight the shadows of one actor, noise would occasionally become a problem. Pierce-Roberts allows the possibility that this discrepancy was the result of his own inexperience with the equipment and the inadequate prep time to adjust the Vipers before leaving America. “We never were able to figure out what caused that,” he notes. More typically, he says, the DI process of placing windows on one actor and making exposure adjustments took care of most such cases. “You can deal with that far better with a DI than you ever could on the set with flags and nets.”

Viewing On Set

On-set viewing was handled with two monitors in a setup designed by DIT Joshua Gollish. The main reference monitor was a 23-inch Cine-tal Cinemáge LCD monitor, a favorite because of its ability to display both 4:4:4 and 4:2:2 images. “The Cine-tal, my only piece of 4:4:4 equipment, offered me the ability to check the work path,” he explains. “My scopes, my switchers and all the other monitors were 4:2:2.” Gollish could hook up a cable directly to the monitor to assess where a problem might lie.

Though he did create lookup tables (LUTs) for the Cine-tal, Gollish wished to use the monitor mainly for reference, viewing the raw Viper image, complete with its inherent green bias. Winkler and Pierce-Roberts, however, needed to be able to view corrected images. “We needed to be able to see the film that we were making,” the director notes.

To that end, Gollish assembled a system that allowed Winkler to use a 20-inch Sony BVM-A20F1U CRT monitor for on-set viewing, switching between the A and B camera. The signal was drawn off of outputs from the pair of Sony SRW-1 recorders (one for each camera) and then fed through a switcher and distribution amplifier before being corrected and sent to the monitor. Gollish also took advantage of the Sony monitor’s ability to squeeze the Viper’s anamorphic raster image vertically into a viewable image for Winkler.

The image was corrected with a Thomson Grass Valley LUTher color space converter, making use of a basic one-light LUT created by Gollish and Pierce-Roberts based on one provided by Technicolor. “Our LUT essentially just demodulated the green bias and made our blacks a little less milky,” Gollish explains. “With our shooting schedule, we just didn’t have the time to develop additional LUTs. In some cases the LUT would look a little bit cooler, and in other cases it would look a little warmer. Ideally, you’d be creating a few LUTs in prep that work well and then modifying them with Assimilate Scratch. But in this case, we used the LUTher just for on-set, just for Tony to light to.”

Pierce-Roberts notes, “Many video assists aren’t very good, and you can’t really trust them. That’s why everybody goes to see dailies. But this system worked quite well.”

In this case, with Winkler and Pierce-Roberts able to view playback right on the set, dailies were unnecessary. “There are no labs in Morocco,” says Winkler. “If we were shooting film, we would have had to send it out and wait three days for a lab report and probably a week to see the film. If anything goes wrong, there’s very little you can do. With a digital system, that whole process is eliminated. Plus, it’s a lot easier on a director to not have to sit through two hours of dailies after a long, grueling day of shooting.”

Adds Gollish, “That’s what’s great about the HD system. If you’ve got a great looking image there, and you’re confident that that’s what you’re recording, why do you need to see it again?”

Bring It on Home

During the 10-day Morocco shoot, footage still needed to be shipped to editorial in Spokane, Wash., so that Clayton Halsey could begin the editing process. To accomplish this, Gollish passed the 4:4:4 HDCAM SR output from the SRW-1 deck through the LUTher, thereby applying the aforementioned lookup table. The LUTher’s output was then recorded to tape with a Sony HDW-F500 4:2:2 HDCAM VTR, and the tapes were shipped to Spokane and imported into Halsey’s Avid. [The original 4:4:4 HDCAM SR tapes were later brought back to Washington and cloned.]

The production itself then shifted to Spokane, where Winkler filmed the story of how the returning soldiers try to adapt to life after the war. Jeff Schultz took over as principal camera operator. All shooting took place at various practical locations in Washington; there was no studio work there.

Winkler and Pierce-Roberts continued to take advantage of the Viper’s abilities in low-light situations. “One thing about the Viper that really, really impresses me—and I suspect this is probably true of the Genesis as well—is its capacity for night work,” the cinematographer says. “They’re absolutely brilliant, to such an extent that if I were doing a film for which the decision had been made to shoot Super 35, I would be very tempted, if there were any night work, to push to have the Vipers, just for the night work. The sensitivity to dark flesh tones, even in a dark setting, is quite impressive.”

In a sequence in which Tommy (Brian Presley) drives around town in his pickup truck at night, the actor was lit naturally by existing streetlights, which sets the shot apart from the typical overlit-from-the-dash car interior shot. “We did that with only existing streetlights,” Winkler says. “We didn’t have the money to go out and light the street, so we just scouted it and found streets where the lights were pretty bright by themselves.” Adds Pierce-Roberts, “I did tuck in a very small light, a Mini-Flo, which was on only about 50 percent.”

The same approach was employed for a scene in which Vanessa (Jessica Biel) is seen tucking in her young child at night, again, lit apparently naturally with just the room practicals (notably a fish tank light). “Once again, I think I had a little Mini-Flo taped up to the side of the tank, just to give the look of a small amount of spill light coming from the tank. The Viper is just brilliant for this type of low-key work because you’re shooting at practically the equivalent of 800 to 900 ISO, but you’ve still got a reasonable amount of depth of field. So the focus puller has got a bit of a chance to follow the actor.”

One low-light shot revealed an aberration that Winkler and Pierce-Roberts took full advantage of. Tommy has parked his truck at the top of a ridge and looks out at the variety of colored lights in the city below; the lights appear surrounded by glowing halos. “A potential disadvantage of the Viper—and it depends on your point of view—is that, though you get a lot more depth of field, you’ve got a smaller sensor than the 35mm frame,” the DP explains. “You get a lot of depth of field, so if you’re not careful, both the foreground and the background will all seem sharp.

“To get around this problem, we’d shoot as wide open as we possibly could and also use longer lenses than I might otherwise. We shot with the equivalent of a 200mm lens to get that shot of Tommy with the lights in the background. The light interacts with the iris of the wide-open lens and you get those circles. But it looked nice. I liked the effect.”

DIT Gollish brought the completed 4:4:4 HDCAM SR tapes directly to Postproduction Supervisor Ian Kennedy at Spokane-based North by Northwest Productions. Kennedy cloned the tapes and produced the 4:2:2 HDCAM reels for editing after applying color correction.

Gollish found it important to follow a particular set of steps in processing the footage to avoid unwanted noise. “First, we took the master and downconverted it to HDCAM, so it was in a 4:2:2 world, which they could correct. It’s important to apply the gamma correction first and then eliminate the green bias, because otherwise you’re going to get noise. The Viper FilmStream image is a logarithmic image, not a linear image, so you’re applying a Hurter and Driffield [H&D] S-curve, as opposed to linear image gamma unity, as you would for a TV camera. If you start color timing it prior to applying the gamma correction, it starts getting noisy because you’ve dropped the blacks down first. You’re otherwise applying the curve to corrected data. So it’s important to do it in the correct sequence.”

Final color timing was done by Technicolor colorist Jeff Smithwick, who applied some basic looks to the film before bringing the entire project on drives to a Technicolor facility in London, where Pierce-Roberts was based. “So there’s no need to ship Tony back to L.A.; he can do it from the comfort of London,” Gollish explains. “Tony loved it because it means that you can be, in the true fashion of this film, worldwide.”

Pierce-Roberts found the experience of his first HD feature a fulfilling one. “I was pleased at how simple it was to make the transition from film, actually. I thought it was going to be much more complicated with all of the additional technology involved, but once you start using it, it’s perfectly straightforward.”

Winkler agrees. “I’m going to do all my films digitally from now on. I just think it’s incredibly flexible. It’s great for the actors because you don’t have to stop and reload and go through the whole process of film in a camera. The whole process is faster and easier. And I defy anybody to know the difference between film and the numbers in a digital format.