Rockin' with Arri

Category: RockNRolla News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: October 1, 2007 | Publication: Showreel | Author: Editors
Publication/Article Link:Showreel

The decision was made to shoot RocknRolla digitally from the outset. Guy had just shot a TV pilot in the States on the Panavision Genesis, and everyone felt that being able to see real-time quality images on set would really help the production process. We looked at the Genesis and the Arri D-20, but I have prior experience with the D-20 – I shot a short film with it and did some tests on it for the BBC. I’ve always liked its look, the quality of the images; they are very filmic. You can achieve similar results with the Genesis, but the D-20 does have advantages, such as the optical viewfinder.

All of these systems are in a sense bespoke. It’s very difficult to draw an absolute comparison list and say, “this one’s better than that one” – it depends on the project. RocknRolla is a very ‘day interior, day exterior’ project, which I thought suited the D-20 quite well. But the big thing that swung me slightly in its favor was the fact that Arri has recently carried out a software upgrade, which softened the contrast out rather a lot. In the past it’s been quite heavy in the blacks.

The D-20 has been designed to make the film cameraman feel at ease. Apart from the optical viewfinder, it has a 35mm-sized sensor and revolving shutter as a starting point. You do have a mechanical shutter, as well as an electronic shutter, which is great because you can set up the camera looking through the lens, without it being powered up. This is obviously a difficulty with other digital cameras, which only have electronic viewfinders. It’s a definite bonus, as is being able to see objects off the frame, such as a boom coming into shot.

Arri has an approach of stripping down to basics. You have the traditional shutter controls that you’d have on an Arri film camera, and you can change the shutter angle too. There are a couple of neat tricks you can do – for instance, if you need an extra half or two-thirds of a stop, you can lock the shutter open, so you’re using purely an electronic shutter. But obviously, you no longer have an optical look-through.

The electronics are at the back of the camera. You have two HD-SDI outputs, and these are independent of each other. You also have standard definition outputs, which the menu system operates on, because obviously you need to monitor in standard definition and HD. One thing you have to be careful of is that you can be monitoring off one card and recording with the other, but they can be set up independently if you’re not careful. So if the recording motherboard crashes, you wouldn’t know, because the monitor might still be playing out OK. You access the menu system using a large button on the back, but it’s quite easy to knock, so we’ve put a makeshift cover over it to make sure it doesn’t get pressed.

Shooting in log

In April I went out to NAB in Las Vegas, investigating ways of monitoring HD. I looked at the Cinetal monitor and, in my discussions with Arri, managed to work out a way I could use the Cinetal monitor with a look-up table (LUT) and shoot in log. This is the first time someone has shot with the D-20 using a log workflow, and I think the people at Arri have been a little bit surprised at how well it worked. Being able to shoot log has given me a lot of latitude for post.

We shot using log C in 4:4:4 RGB extended. You need to make sure those parameters don’t change – and they shouldn’t; we’re fairly locked into them. By shooting log, we don’t use the menu system much at all. The ASA rating is set to 160 – you can’t change it, as you can when you shoot linear. 160 is quite low for a digital camera, but with this script it’s been all right. If I were doing all night exteriors, then things might have been different. But this is one of the reasons I chose the camera, because I thought I could make it work with this script. And although I’m shooting 160, I know that in the DI I can push it another stop. But obviously, on the waveform it doesn’t look too clever. You wouldn’t want to push it more than a stop. If you shoot linear you can go up to 320, but all you’re doing is processing it electronically inside the camera. So I’m taking that processing out of the camera and doing it at the DI stage.

The reason we’re shooting log C is that we’re doing a film-out. I worked with Soho Images in prep, testing the camera, and the results out of log C are brilliant. It’s better for film-out than shooting linear because log captures far more information than can be shown on a conventional monitor. It’s a bit like the way film has a huge dynamic range; the D-20 doesn’t have the same dynamic range, but you are emulating the way film works and, for grading purposes, it gives you a huge amount of flexibility – much more than shooting linear. If you’re shooting linear, that coding is done in the camera, and we’ve sort of taken it away from the camera. When you’re shooting log you’re essentially replicating what they do when they’re scanning film for DI, and you’re trying to have the data in that kind of domain, so you have the flexibility in post.

The one problem with shooting log as opposed to linear is monitoring, because with log you’re essentially looking at a very flat image, which no-one likes to look at. But working with the Cinetal and Soho Images, I was able to set up a series of LUTs that I could run on the Cinetal, which gave me the look I wanted for the film, and I could use that as my benchmark. It also gave Guy something to look at that was closer to the look of the final film. And then, when we do the transfers for the Avid, the footage also runs through on the same LUT. Nobody actually graded the dailies, but using the Cinetal I have been able to deliver incredibly consistent dailies, because nobody else has been manipulating them. We’d all like a bit of help, but I have been able to consistently grade them on set, which has been great.

The short film I shot in September last year on the D-20 was using linear mode with version 1 of the software. But the software was upgraded in April this year, before we started filming. So if people have used the D-20 over the past couple of years, they’ll find it now has a different look, and I think a better look. The engineers in Munich have obviously done a bit more homework, and have come up with an image that’s not so heavily compressed, and thus too dark in the shadows. This has been an issue with the D-20 before – it has been very black.

Venom flashpacks

There are three recording options with the D-20. You can go to HDCAM SR tape, record to a data recorder, or use flash memory, such as the Venom flashpacks. Originally, we were going to record straight to SR, with just a BNC cable loom. Arri has a fiber channel in development, but that’s not up and running yet. We’ve seen it, but it’s only at the prototype stage. The advantage of the fiber to the SR deck is that you can run 60 frames.

We had three Venom flashpacks with us, essentially for shooting Steadicam, and we’ve adapted the Steadicam to take those. As this job had a lot of locations and a lot of moving around, cabling up didn’t work that well. So we bit the bullet and ended up with six flashpacks. We still have two SR recorders, but they stay on the camera trucks. As they’re used, the flashpacks are downloaded onto the SR deck and checked to make sure everything tallies up. Once they’re checked we can reuse the mags.

One of the things you have to watch for is somebody missing the record button so that the shot doesn’t record. It’s great having the Venoms, they’re wonderful, but when you’re recording, there’s no way looking through the optical viewfinder that you know you’re recording. There’s one little red light that comes on, but it’s not in an obvious position to see it. So you have to build in a lot of double checks to make sure you’re recording.

There are a number of FX in the film – there’s quite a lot of in-car CGI, and so on – but with the 3D LUTs we’re using, shooting 4:4:4 definitely gives us more than 4:2:2, and I think when you’re going for a film-out it’s a must. People have got away with shooting 4:2:2 and have still made great films, but 4:4:4 leaves your options open, and when you’re capturing digitally, you very much want to do that. We have of course ended up compressing the data by recording it on to SR, but following the tests we carried out, everybody in the post chain said it’s fine and doesn’t make any difference.

Shooting 4:4:4

On 4:4:4, we get 10 minutes on the Venom, but there are little gotchas you have to be careful of. For instance, if one of the cables goes down, you can be recording 4:2:2, and the only way you know you’re recording 4:2:2 is that the time on the flashpack goes up, and suddenly you get 15 minutes of storage. That did happen once, but we spotted it before we actually recorded.

With the D-20 you also have the option of shooting in standard range or extended range RGB. When we were doing our tests down at Soho Images, extended RGB seemed by far the best way of handling the data; it seemed to give us far more flexibility in post. Interestingly, one of the things I did when I started the job was buy an 8-core Mac with an Aja Kona card, and when I was doing the tests, I was able to capture the image straight onto the Mac – not 4:4:4, but 4:2:2 – and play around with the new program Color. That’s one of the big advantages of shooting HD – the ability to experiment before you start filming, to play with different looks and see how far you want to go. I think Color is a very interesting program to use. It’s quite complex, and you need to know how it works – I wouldn’t say you’re suddenly going to be able to sit at home and start grading feature films on it, but as a DP it gives you the ability to play around in your own time, which is unusual, as being able to experiment and do lots of tests is something that is rarely budgeted for.

The whole system uses a lot of power when you have to power both the camera and the Venom. We’ve probably got four times the number of batteries compared with a 35mm shoot. Whenever you change the battery, you’re effectively rebooting the camera. And when we first started working with it, we found that the voltage warning was too low. You’d get 10 seconds of warning and then the camera would just stop. So with Arri we changed that so that the warning came a little bit earlier. If the battery dies and the camera crashes, it’s just like pulling the plug on the computer – it often won’t reboot that happily. So you want to power down before you change the batteries. And when you change, you’re basically rebooting it all back up, so you have to make sure you’re getting the full 4:4:4 signal.

The look

The look for the film developed very quickly because we had a very short preproduction period. I only had a couple of days to test before putting the footage up on the big screen, projecting both digitally and on a film-out. Lawrence at Soho Images came up with a LUT that we tweaked a bit and everybody liked, and that LUT has stuck with the film through night shots and all kinds of environments. Of course, we don’t actually record the LUT – the camera is still recording a flat log image; it’s just metadata. So when we go back and grade it, we can change it to something different if we want. But often you find when you apply a LUT and keep a certain look through the editing process, people get very used to seeing the film that way. And that can limit your ability to change things at a later date, because suddenly you see a very different kind of film. That happens with film as well; if you have a grader who’s been very bland in the rushes and then suddenly goes and applies a very aggressive grade, that can upset a few people – or at least surprise people. The same applies with music – you have a temporary music track and people get to like it. That’s what happened with 2001: a lot of that music was temp, and then everybody loved it – well, Stanley Kubrick liked it – and it stayed.

Now that principal photography is over, I think Guy has enjoyed shooting HD. He’s enjoyed being able to have a very qualified image on the set. Looking at the Cinetal monitor, we can both discuss how it’s looking and the way we want to go with the image. It’s the first time I’ve worked with Guy, and it has helped that process, being able to talk things through with him. As he himself said, what ends up in the cutting room is what he’s seen already on the set. So that does help. For the first few days, we had to shoot four or five pages a day, in different locations, and the D-20 has enabled us to move very quickly. It’s just been great.

Additional cameras

We’ve also used some 35mm and even 16mm on this film, because the one thing that’s difficult with the D-20 is picking it up and running with it. It is a heavy camera. It’s about twice the weight of a 35mm camera. Difficulties arise when you want multiple cameras, so we’ve sometimes used film – because the cost of bringing in an extra D-20 body is prohibitive. So on some of the stunt sequences I’ve had HD lipstick cameras, Super 16 and Arri 435s.

But the really good thing about the D-20, and the same with the Genesis, is that it’s got 35mm depth of field. And we’ve been able to use Master Primes and Ultra Primes on this, and doing big wide shots, they do look good. There’s definitely a special feel about them.

What I like about the D-20 is that it has a very filmic look coming out of the can. Obviously, there are other cameras, such as the Panavision Genesis and so on, that can do that, but the way the D-20 automatically burns out the highlights does give it a very filmic feel, which I enjoyed enormously. In terms of lighting, it’s meant I’ve not really changed the way I light at all compared with how I’d light for film. This is a 32/33-day feature, and we’ve had to shoot very quickly over a lot of locations.

The difficulty with a lot of HD systems is that they’re not as quick to use as film – you can pick up and shoot with a film camera very quickly. Using the D-20, Venoms and SR, this is gear that does need a lot of support, and it does need more testing and more prepping than film. We had two weeks’ prep in the camera test room, and we needed all of that, because you’re often beta testing ways of working. But I think it really does look good.

David Higgs is the cinematographer on RocknRolla. His TV credits include mini series Island at War and Nature Boy, as well as Cambridge Spies, In The Red, The Government Inspector, The Canterville Ghost and The Best Man, as well as episodes of Dalziel and Pascoe, The Inspector Lynely Mysteries and Poirot.