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‘Skyfall:’ Double Agents, Data Recording, Roger Deakins

Cinematographer and nine-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, became a high-profile convert to digital capture methods on 2011’s In Time, a stylish, dystopian sci-fi action flick directed by Andrew Niccol. Deakins is best known for his work with the Coen Brothers on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Barton Fink, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski and True Grit. His astonishing list of credits also includes Mountains of the Moon, Sid and Nancy, The Shawshank Redemption, Dead Man Walking, A Beautiful Mind and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall. Skyfall photos by Francois Duhamel

Now Deakins has reunited with director Sam Mendes for Skyfall, the (roughly) 25th installment in the James Bond franchise, depending on how one counts. Deakins and Mendes had previously worked together on Jarhead (2005) and Revolutionary Road (2008), which were both shot on 35mm film. For Skyfall, Deakins used prototypes of the latest iteration of the ARRI Alexa, the Studio model.

“Sam and I talked about the script and the look, and what the story would involve,” says Deakins about the choice of format. “It seemed like there would be a lot of low-light photography and situations where I’d want to work with practical lighting. I suggested he look at the tests I had done and some of what I had shot on In Time. He was quite impressed and we decided that that would be the way to go.”

Even more than in a standard Bond adventure, Skyfall presented a wide variety of situations, from very hot, bright day exteriors to very dark, underground, cavernous settings. The production traveled to Istanbul and Shanghai, as well as filming numerous scenes at the Albert R. Broccoli 007 stage at Pinewood Studios in the UK, named for the legendary producer of the Bond series of films. Daniel Craig makes his third appearance as 007 in Skyfall and Javier Bardem plays the villain. The estimable Judi Dench plays M, Bond’s commanding officer. The plot involves questions about M’s management of the Secret Service and about 007’s loyalty to her.

Judi Dench and director Sam Mendes on the set.

Deakins says that the image quality that the ARRI Alexa delivers is more than adequate, noting that his preference for the camera’s images is a matter of sensibility, as opposed to some empirical measure of quality. “I’m very impressed by the image quality the Alexa gives,” he says. “You do have to get it right. You can’t be cavalier and overexpose willy-nilly. You can’t just point and shoot and not care about where your exposure is and what you’re shooting. That’s just as if you had been shooting film. And with greater and greater resolution, there comes a point where everything starts looking, frankly, anemic and kind of synthetic and has no life to it.”

A widescreen 2.40:1 aspect ratio frames the images, which were shot “flat” and extracted from the Alexa’s 16:9 sensor. The lenses were ARRI Master Primes, usually focal lengths in the mid-range like 27, 32, 35 and 40mm. Codex recorders were used with all cameras, up to about 10. Codex Datapacks were backed up on set and then sent for dailies processing.

Roger Deakins

The ARRI Alexa Studio model incorporates an optical viewfinder, a crucial upgrade for a cinematographer like Deakins who prefers to operate the camera himself. “I think that over time, you get quite a lot of eyestrain off the electronic viewfinder,” he says. “But apart from that, I like to be able to look through the camera without anything interfering. I’ve always lit through the viewfinder, and nothing’s changed that. I do look at the monitor from time to time, but I still basically work the same was as if I were shooting film.”

Deakins has said that the on-set monitor can enhance creativity, since he and the director can discuss the image more specifically, allowing him to take the image further than he otherwise might. Skyfall was no exception. “Sometimes Sam would be watching another monitor and he would make a comment,” Deakins says. “I’d take him over to the DIT’s station and say, ‘That is what the camera is seeing, and I can change it here or in post.’ I think that was very advantageous, and also I think it was nice for Sam—he enjoyed the ability to see exactly what the camera was seeing. Sam is very much an actor’s director, and he likes the ability to run that camera longer than the length of a [film] magazine. It’s a real advantage, as is not having to wait for the dailies and the lab. The whole process of going through to the edit suite was much smoother, really.

“Frankly, I like the quality of the widescreen done flat,” he adds. “I don’t know that I want much higher quality than that. The only hesitation I had was when I found out they needed to release the film in IMAX. I quickly did some tests to see if the resolution and everything would hold up. I was a little nervous, but I’ve seen enough now to realize that the quality in IMAX is quite stunning. I saw the DMR [IMAX’s proprietary Digital Media Remastering process] and I didn’t like it, and I stopped them doing it, actually. We did our own transfer, and frankly I think it looks much better. Maybe if you shot film you’d need to enhance it, but you don’t need to enhance with images from the Alexa.”

Regarding his conversion to digital, Deakins says he has no regrets. “I don’t think Skyfall would have been any better on film,” he says. “I’m not quite sure what ‘better’ is, anyway. I like the image better than if I’d shot it on film, put it that way.”

After the Shoot
The “post” and “production” facets of Skyfall were overseen from a facility standpoint by Deluxe’s new EC3 division, which combines the talent and technology of sister companies EFILM and Company 3.

Mitch Paulson (pictured) of EFILM, the lead colorist on the film, collaborated during the DI process with Adam Glasman of Company 3 in London

First, DIT Josh Gollish, who worked with Deakins on In Time, utilized an EFILM Colorstream system to set looks with the cinematographer that could be seen on set. This color information traveled with the ARRIRAW files in the form of metadata to EC3 temporary “digital labs” the company had set up near the UK and Turkey locations, where dailies colorist Marc Lulkin used Colorfront’s OSD grading system to refine the on-set looks for dailies based on Deakins’ direction. This color information was then archived with the corresponding raw files for the final DI process.

EC3 also provided an array of services to the production, editorial and VFX departments to ensure that everyone working with the images prior to the final grade was seeing them on perfectly calibrated monitors and in the correct color space (or were viewing material through compensating LUTs). “Skyfall was among the most elaborate productions we’ve overseen this way,” says Joachim Zell, EFILM’s vice president of imaging science/technical director. “Filmmakers are really discovering how valuable it can be when we get involved early in production and then hand off the work to either of our sister companies.”

In the case of Skyfall, this process involved colorists Adam Glasman (from Company 3 in the UK) and Mitch Paulson (of EFILM in Hollywood).

The IMAX version, which hits theaters a day prior to the main theatrical release on November 9, was generated without IMAX’s proprietary DMR processing. Deakins recently shocked audiences at IBC by saying that the ARRI Alexa’s 2.8K ARRIRAW images look great simply up-resed to 4K and projected on IMAX screens.