Director Brian De Palma is best known for creating big set pieces that declare themselves as movie trickery in films such as
, which is one reason why his stark Iraq War drama
(which he also wrote) is such a dramatic and effective departure.
Told via video diaries, surveillance camera footage, clips from a documentary for French television, Web chats, images captured for both Western and Middle Eastern television and other disparate sources,
leads the viewer through a story of the brutal murder of a family of Iraqi civilians by rogue American troops and a subsequent cover-up. Though the essential story is quite similar to that of the director’s earlier Vietnam-era drama,
Casualties of War
with Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox,
benefits in emotional power from its presentation in the mundane form of news footage and YouTube clips that we see every day rather than the meticulously crafted shots of the earlier film that serve as a constant reminder that “this is only a movie.” From the way the drama unfolds and the way the images look–right down to Editor Bill Pankow’s clever use of cheesy video transitions in portions–the action often feels genuine and immediate.
Made for entrepreneur/HD guru Marc Cuban’s HDNet Films and released theatrically by subsidiary Magnolia Pictures,
was entirely written and staged–though the opening titles suggest the story is based on actual events. Canadian cinematographer Jonathon Cliff had worked as a still photographer for a number of years, shooting portraits that appeared in magazines such as
The New Yorker
. He made the transition to moving pictures several years ago with some commercials, shorts and some very indie features, but when he found out the producers had recommended him to such a high-profile director as De Palma, he was obviously thrilled. “He had me come to New York and shoot some casting sessions,” Cliff recalls. “He gave me some direction, and he must have liked what I did.”
shot for 20 days in Jordan with a mixed crew from Jordan, Lebanon, Canada and the United States. The grip and much of the grip equipment was from Lebanon, and the minimal lighting package was from Jordan. Though Cliff’s job was to avoid any sense that the film was lit, he did rely on a few 18K and 4K HMI PARs, especially to bring the sense of intense sunlight through the barracks windows, and he was surprised to find most of his lights were brand new. “There is a nascent film industry in Jordan,” he observes, “and so most of this equipment hasn’t been used. Some of our HMIs had never been burned.”
Though the story is told ostensibly using many different cameras–including consumer-grade Mini DV camcorders, a monochrome surveillance camera, night vision gear and the high-end HD of a glossy French documentary–the majority of the film was actually shot with a Sony HDW-F900R. In order to represent footage of lesser resolution and quality as though recorded by these disparate imaging devices, the CineAlta footage was degraded accordingly in post.
“I might have liked to use a lot of different cameras,” Cliff says, noting that it took some lobbying on his part to be able to use the Panasonic AG-HVX200 for the video diary and the Sony HDR-HC7 for its pseudo night vision feature. “Ultimately, the primary camera had to be the F900R,” he adds. “After all, we weren’t doing this for a company called SDNet!”
Cliff’s unit carried a 17-inch HD Sony CRT monitor–“I really hate LCDs,” he declares–and a vectorscope, both of which were used only to check on questionable exposure/contrast situations. Otherwise, Cliff operated untethered using the eyepiece and zebras to prevent clipping. “I didn’t clip anything in the whole shoot,” he says. “We did a lot of clipping in post when we wanted to degrade the image, but I had all the detail on the tape.”
Unsure quite how a digital imaging technician (DIT) might have been of use, Cliff explains that he set up the cameras based primarily on recommended settings for holding maximum detail, and he credits 1st AC Alex Gomez for contributing to his technical knowledge of the cameras’ capabilities. Having shot a lot of film both in his still photography work and on commercials, Cliff doesn’t see the need for a technician to interpret and augment what he’s doing. “With film, you can’t rely on all kinds of scopes and monitors. I think you either know your craft or you don’t.”
Operating the HVX (in its native 720p mode and recording to P2 cards) for soldier Angel Salazar’s video diary proved to be a significant challenge for Cliff, who had to think while moving and composing almost as an actor would about a playing a character. “I had to keep asking myself, ‘How would I shoot the scene and how would the character shoot the scene?’ [Salazar] was a film school reject. He had some style, but how much style did he really have? I tried to do it like I thought the character would do it.”
Certain scenes required the monochrome-greenish look of night vision equipment. For certain of these sequences he was able to get a genuine night vision attachment from Maryland-based Astro-Physics, whose equipment is used frequently by journalists and the military. Acquiring such an element for the F900R–the night vision portion sits between the lens and the sensor–was not terribly difficult; using it was a different story. Certain scenes, especially the pivotal rape and murder, took place in a location simply too tiny to accommodate the HD camera, so De Palma and the powers at HDNet agreed that a Mini DV camera could be used.
While similar night vision technology exists for some prosumer and consumer cameras, it proved impossible to get these products to the shooting location. “The U.S. State Department was very concerned,” the cinematographer notes. “There aren’t too many terrorists with F900s, but they do have access to smaller, cheaper cameras. It would have taken six months or more to get approval, so we had to figure out something else.”
The Sony HDR-HC7 offered a feature called “night vision.” “It’s not real night vision,” Cliff points out. “It’s a kind of hyper-gain monochromatic setting. But I shot some tests to see what it looked like and how it affected the actors’ faces and eyes. Brian and I liked what it did and so we used it. It’s HDV-capable, but we shot in Mini DV mode.”
is also laced with events told from the perspective of insurgents/terrorists in the form of crudely-produced video of soldiers being ambushed–the type of material that’s commonly used in their propaganda materials to inspire potential jihadis and for their own media PR packages. A particularly gruesome moment concerns a videotaped beheading of a kidnapped American soldier. Aside from the content, the images in this scene have a kind of low-res quality and a pallid color scheme that adds to the verisimilitude.
Though the scene was shot with the F900R and degraded in post, Cliff notes that he “made the scene particularly ugly by using the sodium vapor construction lights the construction crew had. They gave off a ghastly green color temperature. I white-balanced to normal 5,600K so it had this not-quite-green but completely not color-balanced look. It was an attempt to get to some other kind of reality,” Cliff explains. “If this scene were real, they might have been in a warehouse under lights like these. These insurgent organizations don’t use Kino Flos and HMIs to light their beheadings.”
After the 20-day shoot, all the HDCAM and Mini DV material was taken to Technicolor in Toronto, where conform and effects editor Rob Gyorgy used Autodesk Smoke software to enhance the different looks–lowering resolution, boosting contrast, adding NTSC scan lines, etc. Colorist Jim Flemming used Autodesk Lustre to do the final grading, push contrast to clip highlights as sub-HDCAM equipment would, and otherwise degrade the original. This work was mastered as TIFF files to create a digital projection version. The entire film was subsequently re-graded for film-out via ARRILASER, which was an education in itself for the cinematographer.
“When I saw the first film-out,” Cliff recalls, “I thought, ‘Wow! This is way too cinematic!’ The medium itself added an intermediate step between the footage and the viewer. We wanted to see the jagged edges and the harshness of the video, and just putting it on film softened that look, so we went back and re-graded it to make some of those more pronounced. I realized that grading for a film-out is a very different thing than grading for digital projection.”