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Shooting Enemies

Jul 8, 2009 12:01 PM, By Michael Goldman

Michael Mann on making a period piece digitally.


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Director Michael Mann lines up a shot on location through the viewfinder of one of the Sony F23 camera systems his team used to make Public Enemies. Mann initially planned to shoot the period piece on film, but after extensive testing with the F23, he picked it as his primary acquisition system.

Director Michael Mann lines up a shot on location through the viewfinder of one of the Sony F23 camera systems his team used to make Public Enemies. Mann initially planned to shoot the period piece on film, but after extensive testing with the F23, he picked it as his primary acquisition system.
Photo: Peter Mountain/Universal Pictures

Racing from one Hollywood postproduction facility to the next in the wee hours one night in early June, director Michael Mann and his colleagues wrangled the last major chore related to the theatrical release of Mann’s new gangster picture, Public Enemies—the story of John Dillinger’s rise and fall. That chore involved taking the painstakingly crafted digital images Mann created for the movie and translating them to film space in order to strike film-release prints that would meet his expectations, closely emulating the stylized video look of the movie.

Briefly slowing down long enough to chat with millimeter about his adventure making the movie before embarking on yet another round of color tests and tweaks, Mann concedes that this last bit is the most difficult, and least enjoyable, part of a process he is otherwise immensely proud of. The director says he yearns for the era of omnipresent digital cinema to arrive and take him away from the world of film prints altogether.

“I’m really looking forward to digital cinema,” he says. “The variety of looks attainable on video are vast. It’s really exciting to design something that is unique to the expression of a certain story and place and mood that [doesn’t look like any established film aesthetic]. It’s frustrating to try and corral that, sometimes, into the domain of the photochemical [for release prints]. So I’m really looking forward to digital cinema becoming ubiquitous, because a whole other range of experiences are possible. Right now, getting this movie onto film is the hardest part.”

Video Controller Dave Canning and Digital Imaging Technician Ted Viola configured primary viewing monitors on a video rack, including a 24in. Cine-tal monitor (top photo, on left) and a Sony BVM-D24E1WE CRT monitor.

Video Controller Dave Canning and Digital Imaging Technician Ted Viola configured primary viewing monitors on a video rack, including a 24in. Cine-tal monitor (top photo, on left) and a Sony BVM-D24E1WE CRT monitor.
Photo by Dave Canning

Why digital?

That task might have been easier had Mann stuck with his original plan for Public Enemies—a return to film acquisition after spending years on the bleeding edge of digital acquisition for Collateral (2004) and then Miami Vice (2006), both major studio pictures shot using Grass Valley Viper FilmStream camera systems recording to Sony HDCAM SR tape. As development on Public Enemies accelerated, Hollywood filmmakers such as the Wachowski brothers and David Fincher turned to Sony’s F23 CineAlta digital imaging system for major effects-oriented work on such movies as Speed Racer and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (the latter of which was mainly shot with the Grass Valley Viper FilmStream), but a period drama not geared toward visual effects was something else entirely.

Over the last couple of years, however, Mann and his producer/friend Bryan Carroll, DP Dante Spinotti, and video controller/digital imaging technician Dave Canning—longtime collaborators with Mann—all had been working together in various combinations on commercials that eventually got around to incorporating the F23 to varying degrees. Those experiences, combined with Mann’s admitted compulsion to test every possibility, eventually led Public Enemies into the digital realm and into a specific aesthetic designed to move far away from film, despite its time period and corresponding costumes, sets, and art direction.

The solution Canning and Viola came up with also included various configurations of the Sony F23 camera system, outfitted with Carl Zeiss lenses and Sony’s SRW-1 recording deck.

The solution Canning and Viola came up with also included various configurations of the Sony F23 camera system, outfitted with Carl Zeiss lenses and Sony’s SRW-1 recording deck.
Photo by Dave Canning

Following experiments on Nike and Sprint commercials, including the use of the F23 to capture NASCAR racing vehicles in action, Mann decided to enlist Spinotti’s help to do side-by-side film/F23 tests for Public Enemies in late 2007.

“We did tests down in the parking lot [of Mann’s offices], set up with some posters from 1933 and cars and lights,” Spinotti says. “We did side-by-side tests with a film camera next to the F23, shooting daytime and going into twilight and then night. We also did various lighting tests. Company 3 [Santa Monica, Calif.,] did the transfer for both, scanning the film and then bringing the digital files into a digital negative and then printing, and then we compared film prints. The results were interesting: The F23 was extremely sharp, probably a bit sharper than film itself. The tonal range wasn’t the same as film—we all know the tonal range of film holding onto the highlights is extraordinary and digital hasn’t quite met that yet. But nevertheless, the way that digital dealt with shadows, really reading into shadows and darkness and doing it with extreme sharpness, convinced Michael, and I agreed: The way to go was digital. The other consideration was the agility and elasticity of working with those cameras and how Michael could work his preferred way. All this would let him go into an area that is almost hyperreal.”

Various configurations of the Sony F23

Photo by Dave Canning

The word “hyperreal” ended up being important in the decision-making process. After seeing imagery from both media, Mann decided he didn’t want a nostalgic look at 1933, but instead, preferred to bring viewers into 1933. Thus, an ultrasharp, hyperreal view of the characters and their clothes, environment, guns, and textures was Mann’s desire, and he decided digital acquisition was the best way to get there.

“When Dante and I did those tests and worked on it with [Company 3 colorist] Stefan Sonnenfeld and I looked at it, the film kind of looked like it had a period patina to it—like we were making a period motion picture,” Mann says. “The video, on the other hand, and the way we set the F23 and modified some of the settings, increasing the black saturation and building up some of the spectrum highlights—the whites—felt like you were actually there [in 1933], rather than looking at it through some kind of nostalgic lens. That was the relationship I wanted audiences to have with the story—to see it as detailed and specific and textured as reality they see right now. The near focus, the extreme depth of field—those things all gave it the hyper¬real sense of things.”

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